Wednesday, March 03, 2010

25 Years of Elfman and Burton: From "Pee-wee" to "Alice"

Tim Burton and Danny Elfman have worked together for 25 years, making one of the most memorable director-composer duos in film history. Wired spoke with the acclaimed composer, and discussed the connections and common influences Elfman and Burton share, Elfman's earliest (and traumatic) encounters with Alice in Wonderland, and the pair's long working relationship, working on thirteen feature films from Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1985 to Alice in Wonderland opening this weekend.

Danny Elfman recalled that his first encounters with Alice in Wonderland occurred at the tender age of three -- and left quite a dramatic effect on him.

"We had it on the bookshelf," Elfman recalls. "There was a picture of Alice with her neck distended very long. It scared me and actually began what became a lifelong obsession with physical anomalies. I had many nightmares about this girl with an incredibly long neck."

Many years later, Elfman was to compose the score for a cinematic adaptation of the bizarre Lewis Carroll stories. After watching a rough cut of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Elfman realized that the zany, off-the-wall characters and scenarios would be easy to write for -- it was Alice who came back to haunt him, as the most difficult part to score.

“My score was not going to be about the Mad Hatter or the Red Queen,” Elfman says. “The ‘falling down a hole’ music is going to be wild, crazy falling-down-a-hole music. Two armies meeting — I can almost write that automatically. That’s the easy part. The hard part is Alice’s trajectory. I needed the music to tie it all together as she goes from this kind of confused child to a bewildered young lady to becoming Alice as a hero who finds herself in the center of this big story where she has a huge part to play.”

Although they've been working together for 25 years, Elfman still finds presenting new themes to his director Tim Burton "nerve-wracking." Luckily, they have a lot of similar aesthetic sensibilities and tastes, having connected back in the 1980s, after Burton saw Elfman perform in his wacky avant-rock band Oingo Boingo.

“When we met we had a lot in common because we both grew up on the same kinds of movies,” Elfman says. “We’re both huge fans of Roger Corman and ‘Hammer Horror.’ My idol was Peter Lorre, Tim’s idol was Vincent Price. We were both kind of odd kids who gravitated toward certain subcultural films and imagery.”

At an early age, Danny Elfman found a fondness in spectacular, fantastical film scores. Some of his favorite composers include Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and his idol, Bernard Herrmann. It was the striking musical compositions of Herrmann mixed with the fantastic stop-motion wizardy of acclaimed animator Ray Harryhausen that made Elfman fascinated by the cinema, in such films as Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

“The magic combination for me was Herrmann and Harryhausen,” Elfman says. “If a movie had those two names on it, it was going to be my favorite film of the year.”

A scene from Jason and the Argonauts -- a mutual favorite of both Elfman and Burton.

Even in his comfortable Malibu, California home with his wife Bridget Fonda, Danny Elfman still retains his appreciation of the off-beat and macabre.

“In the foyer of my home I have a painting by Mark Ryden of this little girl with blood pouring out of her eyes, and there are two stuffed baboon heads from the 19th century used as paperweights,” Elfman says. “That’s just my way of saying, ‘If this bothers you, please don’t step further in.’”

After Alice in Wonderland, Elfman's upcoming film scores include The Green Hornet (directed by Michel Gondry and starring Seth Rogen) and Forbidden Zone 2: The Forbidden Galaxy.

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