Composer Danny Elfman sat down for an interview with the AV Club. Elfman discussed his long working relationship with Tim Burton and his career at large, including Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and his latest project, Dark Shadows:
The A.V. Club: Your collaboration with Tim Burton stretches back to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. How did the two of you first come to work together?
Danny Elfman: Well, it really was out of the blue on Pee-wee. I got a call from the manager of [Oingo Boingo] saying, “This young animator is doing a film,” and then he asked me if I knew who Pee-wee Herman was. I said, “Yeah, I used to go see Paul Reubens at the Groundlings.” So I already knew of him. He said, “Well, they’re doing a movie with Pee-wee.” I just assumed when I met with him that it was going to be about a song or songs, you know, because I was in a band, and when it became about a score, I was pretty shocked. I said, “Why me?” [Laughs.] But it was just one of those random pieces of luck. Tim seemed to think, “I think you can kind of do a score,” and I’m like, “Hmmm…I don’t know.” But I saw the movie, and I went home and conjured up the first piece of music that came to my head, and I did it on my eight-track player, a little funky demo, and put it on a cassette and sent it out to him and didn’t expect to hear back. And a week or two later, I got a call saying, “You got the job.” And I almost turned it down.
DE: Well, my reasoning to my manager was, “You know, that was fun doing the meeting, and it was fun doing the demo, but I’m just gonna fuck up their movie. I don’t know how to do a score. And they’re really nice guys.” But he says, “Yeah, you know what? You call ’em and tell ’em you’re not gonna do it, ’cause I’ve been working on this deal for two weeks!” [Laughs.] And he gave me a phone number, and I looked at it and looked at it and thought about it overnight… and I just never made the call.
AVC: You’d seen Paul Reubens when he was with the Groundlings, but did you actually know Tim Burton prior to that initial meeting?
DE: No, amazingly, though it’s possible we crossed paths. And it’s possible that Paul and I could’ve potentially crossed paths without knowing it—and John Lasseter, too—because we were all at Cal Arts at the same time.
AVC: So how did your name come into the mix, then? Were they just Oingo Boingo fans?
DE: Tim was an Oingo Boingo fan, and Paul knew me through the Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo, which came before Oingo Boingo and did a score for my brother’s cult film, Forbidden Zone. So Paul was a fan of Forbidden Zone and Tim was a fan of Oingo Boingo, so my name came up for both of them, but from two different incarnations.
AVC: Having done the score for Forbidden Zone, how did you approach doing the one for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure?
DE: Well, it was hard, because nothing had prepared me for that. Forbidden Zone was just a thing with the 12 pieces that I played with every day, just writing out some music for them, so writing an orchestral score… I didn’t really know how to begin. And I just tried to look to the music that I loved, and I said, “I’ll just do what I think would be fun to do.” And I really did expect it all to get thrown out, because it didn’t feel like the kind of stuff that goes into contemporary comedies. I didn’t expect any of it to survive.
AVC: And how much of it did?
DE: All of it. It was just one of those weird things, though, because even as I was writing it, I was thinking, “Yeah, Tim’s fun to work with, but the studio’s gonna hear it, and they’re gonna toss it and get a real composer.” [Laughs.]
AVC: When you’re composing the score to a film that’s based on an existing property, like Dark Shadows, do you go ever back and listen to the music from the original in search of inspiration?
DE: Well, interestingly, this is the first time we have done that. Because on Planet Of The Apes and Charlie [And The Chocolate Factory] and Batman, we made a conscious decision to make no references—ever—to the originals, that they should be their own thing and that we shouldn’t even listen to it. But here, this was different. Tim really did like the tone of the music to the TV show, and he got me listening to it. So half the score is kind of big, melodramatic orchestra, and… We didn’t really know how to approach it at first, but it finally kind of evolved into this clear design where, when we’re in the big part of the love story in the past and how Barnabas became a vampire and his battle with Angelique, we’re using the orchestra in a more or less traditional way. But whenever he’s with the family in the house, we’re going to use an ensemble that’s very much like the ensemble might have been in 1970. A very, very small orchestra, mostly just three solo instruments: a bass clarinet, bass flute, and vibes. And the vibes and the flute very much are taken and inspired from the original TV music. Furthermore, there were these riffs that they did that I really liked, so I did pull some music from the TV show into the score, and Bob Cobert, the writer for that, is credited in the cue sheets for those moments where it kind of becomes a co-composition. So it really was unique. The only time in 75 films or whatever that I’ve ever paid attention to the music of the past was Mission: Impossible, because I knew I was going to use Lalo Schifrin’s song, and Dark Shadows. And it wasn’t a specific piece. It was just a tone, a sound, that we both really liked. So that did make it kind of more fun and special in that way.
AVC: Under more typical circumstances, what’s the composition process like for you? At least when you’re working with Tim, presumably you generally know well before filming begins that you’re going to be handling the score. Do you read the script and see where your mind takes you?
DE: Well, yeah, I read the script, but then I forget about it. Because wherever my mind takes me when I’m reading it is going to be the wrong direction with Tim. [Laughs.] I learned that years ago when I got started three weeks early on Beetlejuice and started writing all this music from the script, and then I saw the rough cut and realized that there wasn’t one note of what I’d written that had anything to do with the movie. So now when I go and I look at the footage with Tim for the first time, I try to actually do the opposite and blank out everything from my head. I want my brain to be pure static. But Tim brings me onto the set always about halfway into production, walks me around, and likes me to sit on the set, because he knows that I got the Batman theme actually from that first visit, and he’ll show me about 20 or 30 minutes of footage. So when I go home, now I’ve got a really good idea of what the movie actually is, and I will in fact start getting some early ideas from that and log them down. And then when I finally start the film usually a month or two or even three later, when the first rough cut of the film is together, it is what I’m expecting now. And then I just pick up where I left off.
AVC: How collaborative is your process with the filmmakers that you work with? Do you go track by track and say, “How’s this work for you?” Or do you wait until you’ve got a whole rough score together and submit it?
DE: Oh, no, no. It’s very collaborative, cue by cue. In fact, tomorrow morning we’re meeting and I have three more cues for Frankenweenie to play [for Burton]. Very often… I’ll drive him crazy. [Laughs.] It’s a little bit maddening, because early on, I go through lots of ideas, and I’m putting, like, “Here’s six things to listen to, here’s four ideas,” and he’ll go, “Oh my God, I can’t focus on that much.” And I go, “C’mon, c’mon, you can do it.” And going through all of those ideas, that’s how we’ll home in on what the score is. Because in the beginning, I really just tried all kinds of stuff. There’s never, ever a single clear idea that this is what it’s going to be.
AVC: Does that connection with him make it easier to work him versus other filmmakers?
DE: Well, it’s not necessarily easier or harder. Every filmmaker is their own unique kind of psychological entity, and some are just very, very picky or fussy and… They’re just more difficult than others. Others are a little bit more removed and just kind of, like, get the feel of it and move on. Tim is kind of neither extreme. He definitely doesn’t think things out. It’s visceral. He has to listen and respond. He won’t talk about music, and when we spot a movie, for example, Tim’s famous for the shortest spotting sessions. [A spotting session is when a director and composer decide where in a film music will occur, usually before the score is written. —ed.] I’ve been on movies where the spotting took two days. If his movie’s an hour-45, I’ll be surprised if our spotting will take more than two hours and 15 minutes. [Laughs.] He doesn’t want to talk about it. He’ll just say, “We’ll start music here, we’ll end music here. We’ll start here, it should end here.” And occasionally he’ll tell me how he feels about a scene. “The scene makes me feel this way or that way.”
So in that sense, it’s kind of perfect, because really, any more information is not really useful anyhow. So with Tim, it’s all about, “Don’t talk about it, don’t analyze it for sure, just do it,” and then he’ll see what he gets a visceral response to. And as he gets a visceral response, it’s my job to home in on that and try to fine-tune it and make it work for him. So it’s never easy. But it’s always exciting, and it’s always a challenge. There’s no coasting with Tim. Ever. Some people think that it’s like, “Oh, you know him so well you can write the score without even meeting with him.” That’s so not true. I actually spent more time on Big Fish than any film I’ve ever worked on with him. Finding what it is can be a real interesting and sometimes winding path before we actually arrive there. It’s a journey. And it’s an interesting journey, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a piece of cake.
AVC: Is there any particular score that you look back on and think, “I still can’t believe I got out of that alive”?
DE: Well, the most difficult score of all my however many scores—I said 75 earlier, but I really don’t know exactly how many it is—was Batman. For sure. But that wasn’t because the score itself was so hard to write, even though I’d never written a drama, I’d never written anything serious or melodramatic or dramatic. I’d only written comedy. But mainly because the studio and the producer didn’t want me on the film. [Laughs.] So I was struggling, and Tim was struggling to keep me on. So there was, like, a strong movement and desire to not have me there, to have somebody more experienced, somebody who knew what they were doing, and so I really, really had to fight for that one. I felt like it was just uphill all the way, clinging on by my fingernails, until finally I crossed this threshold with [producer] Jon Peters. I played him this cue… I was with Tim, and he said, “Play him such and such,” and I played him a piece that ended up becoming the main titles. And that was just one of dozens. I didn’t know how to present stuff well at that point. And suddenly Jon leapt up out of his chair and he started conducting with his hands. [Laughs.] And Tim gave me a look, and it was, like, “That’s it. We’re in.”
AVC: Many of the cues you’ve written have resonated with listeners on an emotional level. Have you ever been in mid-composition and just gotten caught up in your own work, where you were, like, “Wow, if this is moving me, I must really be onto something here”?
DE: No. I mean, I’ll never get so impressed with a piece of music I’ve written that I’ll go, “Wow, that’s the shit!” [Laughs.] I’m just not wired that way. I’ll sometimes get emotional when I’m scoring a scene because the scene will get to me. But it’s not because I’ve written such a killer piece of music and I’m going, “I am so the motherfucker here.” One area that I think Tim and I are very similar is that the highest compliment I’ve ever heard him pay his own work is, “I think it came out interesting.” And that’s pretty much how I feel about my music: “I hope it’s okay. I think it came out interesting.” And maybe in a year or two I’ll actually think I did a good job.
AVC: In addition to your film work, you’ve also done several TV themes over the years, but the one that’s probably been heard by the most ears is The Simpsons.
DE: Well, it was a lucky break, you know? I’ve written, what, about 15 themes? And that one was the one that I thought nobody would ever hear. I wrote it in a day. It was one day’s work. I had it in my head in the car on the way home, and by the time I got home from meeting Matt Groening, I’d already written it, and I basically just walked in, made a demo, sent it out to him, and got a message back saying, “Great, fine.” [Laughs.] It was about as simple as it gets.
AVC: On a different TV-related topic, there’s a clip of The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo on The Gong Show that’s made the rounds on YouTube. What, if anything, do you remember about that experience?
DE: Well, we were literally passing the hat on the streets in those days, so I remember we got the gig, and we thought it’d be funny, but… We were trying to get gonged. And we didn’t. What you don’t realize was that my brother had the rocket ship with a fire extinguisher, and he was purposely ready to blast the judges. But we never got to do it! So not only did we not expect to win, we expected to get gonged and we were looking forward to it! [Laughs.] So it was kind of a disappointment when it was over.
AVC: You mentioned Forbidden Zone earlier, the Mystic Knights’ film. How was it to work on that, given your limited motion picture experience at that point?
DE: Well, at that point, I wasn’t trying to make the music sound like a motion-picture score. It was really kind of like doing what we did onstage, but doing it for pictures. So it actually was really easy and fun. It was just a minor adjustment, the fact that we weren’t doing it for a stage show but for pictures, but it was the same kind of music, the same type of thing, the songs were in the genre that we were doing. It was really just being the Mystic Knights.
AVC: What about the aspect of being in front of the camera?
DE: Well, it was like shooting a rock video. I’m only comfortable in front of the camera if I’m lip-synching. The few times I’ve had to speak lines in front of a camera were just the most miserable experiences of my life. If you’d asked me as a teenager what I wanted to do, I would’ve said film. And if you’d asked me what, I would’ve said, “Anything but acting and composing.” [Laughs.] I thought I was going to be involved in the visual side. It never occurred to me to do music, but I knew from the beginning that I never could be an actor.
AVC: So did anyone have to twist your arm to get you to provide the singing voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas? Not that you were onscreen, but it was still acting.
DE: No, you know, when I was doing Jack… I was doing all the demos. I was writing a song probably every three days. It was so quick. Tim would come over, he’d tell me part of the story, and so I did all the songs. I even had to do Sally’s song. So I did all the pieces, and then we went in the studio and did, like, more finished demos of everything. So I literally did virtually every voice… Except for Sally, where I did bring in a singer to help me out. [Laughs.] It was just a little too silly singing Sally in falsetto. So by the time we were way down the line, there was a certain point where there was a feeling that was like, “Oh my God, no one else can sing these songs, because they really are me. They’re my stories, almost.” I felt such a kinship to the character. His story was reflecting how I felt with my band and everything else with that period of time. I wanted to leave my band, but I couldn’t, and I wanted something else, but I didn’t know what. So Jack Skellington’s whole journey to Christmastown was really my journey out of Oingo Boingo. That was my Halloweenland, my wanting something else. I so related to him on so many levels.
AVC: It’s strange to think that there’s an entire generation—more than one, probably, at this point—that has no idea that this guy who does the music for Tim Burton’s movies even used to be in a band.
DE: [Laughs.] Yeah, probably.
AVC: Do you ever miss the days of being in Oingo Boingo?
DE: No. You know, when I stopped doing The Mystic Knights—because you’ve got to remember that I did The Mystic Knights for eight years before Oingo Boingo. So when I started the band, I never missed doing The Mystic Knights, and when I started doing composing, I did both for 10 years, and that was hard. But I wanted to move on. And I think I was, weirdly, always more comfortable as a writer than a performer. Although I admit that I did love getting up there, especially when we were in the clubs. I found it more stressful when we started moving into the bigger arenas. And I don’t know if I was ever as much of a natural. I don’t think I was cut out to be that. I don’t know how bands stay together for all those years and keep doing the same songs. It would drive me insane. And I couldn’t tour more than three months, because even six weeks would drive me insane. I’d reached a point where I was like, “If I have to do this song one more time, I’m gonna blow my brains out.”
I think there is kind of a wiring you have to have, both to be in a band or to be in theater, where you’re gonna do the same show every single night. And in a band, even though you’re going to do new material, you’ve still got to perform the old stuff that they want to hear, and I would just quickly reach this point where I was like, “I can’t bear it. I just can’t bear it any longer.” I can’t do a concert without doing any older material, but I can’t stand going up there and doing songs that I know.
I think people who do that love it. There’s a reason why U2 and The Rolling Stones and these bands can get up there and keep doing it. They must love doing those songs regardless of how many times they’ve done them, in the same way that someone goes up and does a stage play or Broadway every night. I don’t know how they do it. I could never do it. So I just think it’s kind of an internal wiring, and I think I just wasn’t meant to have my career in that. The fact that I lasted so many years was more than enough than I needed for a lifetime. Sometimes I miss just using my voice more, the singing, but I don’t miss the pressure of going onstage and having to learn a shitload of songs.
AVC: Is there a definitive Oingo Boingo album to your mind? Is there any one that captures the band’s sound perfectly?
DE: No, I don’t think we ever caught the sound perfectly. I don’t know. If you asked the fans, most of them would probably go with Dead Man’s Party, but for me, I was never happy with the sound on any of the albums, and every album I did, I always wanted to figure out, “Why doesn’t that sound the way I wanted it to sound, or the way I thought it would sound?” I never was able to get that part of it together. I was never able to get that sound that was in my head.
AVC: How do you look back on your solo album from that era, So-Lo?
DE: I don’t. I had extra tunes, and I just kind of wanted to try that. And I did it, and I said, “All right, that was that.”
By the way, I don’t mean to cast disparaging remarks when I say I don’t miss being in Oingo Boingo, because that could be taken the wrong way by Oingo Boingo fans. I did enjoy doing those shows, but I just don’t think it was my destiny to be a stage performer forever. I was happier writing and recording songs than I was in recording them, except in those few moments when it was just really fantastic. You know, there were these great moments at the Universal Amphitheater and at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater that will always be really precious to me.
AVC: Did you feel that the band lost anything when it shifted from being The Mystic Knights to just being Oingo Boingo?
DE: Well, no, because we became a different thing. The Mystic Knights was totally non-electric. It was all acoustic and brass. I played trombone, acoustic guitar, and percussion. In Oingo Boingo, I picked up an electric guitar. We just stole the name, really. [Laughs.] It was really nothing else that we took from The Mystic Knights. The whole idea was to do something that had no sets, no costumes, no makeup, none of the stuff we were burdened by for all those years, that we could just plug in amps and do a show.
AVC: So less an evolution than a brand-new entity.
DE: Oh yeah. It was just like, “That’s it, Mystic Knights are gone, let’s start something new.” I literally woke up one morning, I heard a ska tune from The Specials, then I got into Madness, The Specials, The Selecter, and that was it. It was all over. I just wanted to be in a ska band. So that’s what I did. End of one story, beginning of another story. Now, the next 16 years were pretty convoluted as far as where that ska band went and trying to figure out what we were. [Laughs.] And I definitely had some great, great moments that I treasure. But I think my destiny was to be someone who scribbles in dark rooms, not somebody who goes out there performing their material every night.