Danny Elfman Is Always Eying the Next Thing

Jeff Kaliss on March 26, 2018
Danny Elfman | Credit: Brian Averill

On YouTube, you can still pull up the 30-year-old redheaded Danny Elfman flailing around in his trademark tank top, wailing the lead vocal on the title lyric from Oingo Boingo’s New Wave hit, “Nothing Bad Ever Happens to Me.” Thirty-five years later, there’s a lot more good happening to the perennial Angelino, who went on to win a Grammy for his soundtrack for the 1989 film Batman, and an Emmy for scoring the long-running TV series Desperate Housewives.

Continuing to compose for these media and touring internationally with a show compiling his collaborations with director Tim Burton, Elfman is now also writing regularly for the concert hall. He was at Stanford earlier this month, where the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and soloist Sandy Cameron presented his 2017 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The San Francisco Symphony will perform the score for 1989’s Batman, behind a live screening of the film at Davies Hall on April 4 and 5. Fifty Shades Freed, with an Elfman score, opened in theaters last month, and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a Gus Van Sant film scored by Elfman, will open in July. Elfman spent an energetic hour on the phone with SFCV, from the home he shares in L.A.’s oldest gated community with his wife, Bridget Fonda, and their son, Oliver.

Are there particular payoffs and challenges for you in having your score performed by an orchestra, while folks are watching the film again?

Actually, I put a lot of work into preparing that score to be playable. To translate from the studio to the concert stage means making orchestration adjustments.

Would you expand on this?

One really shocking moment for me was, when I heard [a live orchestra perform his score for] Peewee’s Big Adventure, I realized that the strings were sitting there doing almost nothing, because a lot of it was driven by acoustic and electric piano. So I had to write parts for the strings, when I wrote the suites for the Elfman-Burton tour. I listened to Batman the same way and heard that there were some areas that were not communicating well. Sometimes, for example, I had too many divisi going on in the strings, so I had to simplify that. In the studio, I can reach for things and when I’m writing a film score, I’m never thinking “How it will play on a concert stage?”

The S.F. Symphony performing the soundtrack for a screening of Batman

Should audiences expect that what they’ll hear at Davies will be different from what they’d hear at the AMC or the Cinemark?

It will be closer to what you heard in the movie theater than if you just took the exact original score and played it live, because when you do that, you miss things. Without being able to mix things up and down [as you can in a studio], you wouldn’t hear some things. By shifting, adjusting, and rebalancing, I’m bringing things out in different sections [of the orchestra] to make it sound more like it sounded in the theater.

 Sarah Hicks, who will conduct, said she admires in your scores their inherent pulse, and their full-spectrum use of the orchestra.

At the point [of composing for Batman], I had no idea of what I was doing. But I wasn’t going to let my own ignorance handicap me.

But you grew up loving film music.

I’d been a fan, but when I heard The Rite of Spring, it turned my head around. When I started out [writing for film], I was often asked, “Did you listen to Mahler, did you listen to Wagner?” And I go, no, I listened to [film composers] Franz Waxman and Erich Korngold and Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann, and these were the composers they grew up with. So I heard Mahler via Korngold, and Wagner via Steiner or Herrmann. I once told someone, when you listen to Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev, you can hear the basis of classical film composition, top to bottom: heavy, light, funny, frolicsome, romantic. Film music is narrative; you’re telling a story with music.

Danny Elfman and Tim Burton

How much did you have in the way of formal study of orchestration?

I never took a lesson. I’m self-taught. I learned early on that I had a good ear, and that if I listened and absorbed, I retained a lot of what I needed to use. I trained with the orchestras, as I went. I remember Tim Burton asking me, how are you able to write for four films between each one of mine, and you’re doing your own band [Oingo Boingo, with which Elfman continued to perform until its dissolution in 1995]. I go, if I didn’t do four films between each one of yours, I wouldn’t be able to do your next film, because each new score is demanding more from me.

What did Oingo Boingo do for you as a composer?

It didn’t do anything for me as a composer. But as a schizophrenic human being, it was just keeping me with … there’s always this other thing. Just the fact that I’m doing something intensely, and I know that there’s something completely different coming up, I find that kind of necessary.

That sounds mentally healthy.

It was like two sides that were in direct contrast: One was very physical, with sweat and audience, and the other was extremely disciplined solo work, with super-long hours. And whichever I was doing, I always longed to do the other one. And now I’m trying to find that balance between the film and the concert music.

Danny Elfman with Oingo Boingo

How does the difference between those activities work for you?

Realizing that I’ve got another concert piece coming up, and that when I get to that, I can really leave behind those frameworks that I’ve had to stay within [for film]. You can do a lot within the construct of a film, but there’s definitely a boundary that, if you’re crossing it, you’d be doing it for yourself and not for the film.

This is not to suggest that you might give up film composing.

No, no, I love film composing! [chuckles] And I have a busy year coming up. It’s just that when I’m doing a film, at a certain point I might feel frustrated or constrained, and knowing that I’ve got something else, in three or six months, where I’m really going to let that Tourette’s stuff out of my system — I want to explode with notes, but I have to be patient, I know I’m going to get my moment to do that. I did a piece for the American Composers Orchestra about 13 years ago, it was called, Serenada Schizophrana.

Love it!

And then I did, about seven years ago, a ballet for Twyla Tharp, called Rabbit and Rogue. These were great opportunities for me, because I was going way out of my comfort zone. But I wrote things that weren’t designed to get back in the concert repertoire.

Elfman performing music from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas

They were one-offs?

Yeah. Then, about three years ago, we were doing the Elfman-Burton show in Prague, and I was approached with, “How would you like to write a violin concerto?” I immediately said yes, because I’d never done that and I have a strong appetite for that kind of thing. Since I started doing the Elfman-Burton concerts and taking them all over the world, I saw there was an audience there, with good energy, and they tended to be young. And I started thinking to myself, “How can I do something that will appeal to this audience, which doesn’t usually come into concert halls and doesn’t listen to classical music necessarily, as well as to the audience that does in fact go to concerts? And how do I find this kind of line where I’m writing challenging music for my audience but trying at the same time to keep enough of my own personality in it that it doesn’t sound like a total departure?” That’s been the mistake of some other film composers who’ve gone to classical work, and their audience just goes, “I don’t understand this;” it leaves them cold.

Bernstein is one of the few that managed to go effortlessly between popular culture and his own compositions. I’ve been trying to find this way into [the audience’s] psyche — that’s probably the film composer in me, that likes to connect — but to not write what sounds like film-music-with-a-violin. In researching it, I understood that a lot of my favorite composers worked very closely with violinists.

Who were some of those favorites?

Sandy Cameron

Well, specifically, Shostakovich and Prokofiev and Bernstein. I never would compare myself to Shostakovich, and, in fact, to start writing, I had to stop listening to him, because there’s a certain point where he’s so fucking amazing to me — like a god — that if I listen too much, I get paralyzed. But Shostakovich, Tchaikovksy, even Brahms, all worked very closely with violinists, so I worked very closely with [violinist] Sandy Cameron on the cadenzas. I’d written a Cirque du Soleil show, and Sandy was the violinist for that show, and she [later] played an extended cadenza for Edward Scissorhands on the Elfman-Burton tour.

There must have been something in your composition which appealed to Sandy.

And I think she was excited by the fact that with me she’d be in the position of Joseph Joachim, the [Hungarian] violinist who worked with Brahms. Early on, I met with one of the creative directors of the Royal Scottish Orchestra, who was interested in being an involved-as-possible partner, and he asked me what I was going to do. I asked him for the breakdown that Prokofiev or Shostakovich would have used for concertos, and I looked at it, and I said, “this is all doable, except for one problem: I am a child of the second half of the 20th century, and I love percussion.”

I was raised on that world of Lou Harrison and Terry Riley and Steve Reich and Harry Partch, and there was a point in my career when I thought I was actually going to be a percussion instrument builder and player. In the early days, before Oingo Boingo, I’d been a year in West Africa, came back with a lot of instruments. The only music I had ever studied had been gamelan, at Cal Arts for three years. So the first thing that excited me [about the concerto] was a cadenza that would involve four players across the stage playing this variety of instruments, and a violinist.

Will your concert music be challenging?

It demands a lot of rhythmic accuracy, and it involves concentration for the players. If their repertoire is mostly classical, some things will throw them a bit. I’m used to working with very high-level musicians.

The L.A. studio musicians?

The L.A. and London musicians are extraordinary. Look at it this way: how many concerts does any symphony orchestra play each year? If they’re lucky, half a dozen. But studio people are playing new music every day, and you do that for 15 years, you get some pretty insane talent.

Many studio musicians also perform in classical settings, but you’ve said the shift isn’t so easy for composers.

There’s a lot of pushback: “Oh, really? The guy who wrote The Simpsons and Batman wants to write a symphony? [with a sarcastic groan:] Great!” I get it, but why does it have to be that defined?

Another aspect Sarah Hicks and I and probably many listening closely to your scores appreciate is your working your motifs differently toward different purposes throughout the films’ story lines.

I don’t hear that enough in contemporary film music. There’s an attitude right now of pure orchestration, and I’m not carrying anything away with that. You should be able to carry something out of the theater. This is something I learned from Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, that if you give us a bit of a tune, you can do all kinds of things around it, because our ears know what they’re following. You can take things out quite a bit, if you give those ears something to hang on to.