Words by Amon Warmann
There are only a handful of composers working today who have been scoring films at the highest level for multiple decades. One of the most prominent names on that shortlist is Danny Elfman. Since making his debut with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, he’s amassed over 100 credits and composed numerous iconic themes that will continue to be hummed for years to come.
When we chatted with Elfman on the phone, we asked him about a few of those memorable motifs, reuniting with director Sam Raimi for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, how technology in film composing has progressed since the ’80s, and much more.
Do you remember how long it took you to feel comfortable doing film scores? Was it pretty instant or did it take you some time?
Oh, it definitely took some time. Actually, it's an interesting question, because it probably took almost 10 years before I started feeling like I was really grasping what film scoring really required, and building confidence in my abilities. But on the other hand, I was pretty unconcerned about what anybody thought of my work other than my director. I wasn't out to prove anything, except to myself which was more than hard enough.
It probably took almost 10 years before I started feeling like I was really grasping what film scoring really required.
I sometimes hear or read phrases like “full Elfman” or “vintage Elfman” that points to how some immediately recognise your style and your hand in the music. Do you take pride in that or does it make you want to really switch things up with future projects?
Anytime anybody starts to feel like they know what you're going to do next, it makes you want to not do that next. But on the other hand, I don't turn down projects like a big fantasy film just because I won't be surprising anybody with what I do. You know, the trick to do that is to find films that will allow you to do a genre that's fresh for you. So for example, in recent years, doing films like The Circle, Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot, The Girl on the Train, and about to be released A Woman in the Window. These all had primarily electronic or minimal ensemble scores which were great to work on. If I hear that someone watched a film and was surprised seeing my credit come on in the end…that’s my greatest pleasure.
The Batman theme is iconic. How challenging was it to come up with that?
That was my very first big production. And my first non-comedy. It was a huge challenge. I had some musical thoughts that I was jotting down, but then Tim flew me out to London halfway through the shoot – which is something he still frequently does – to go on the set and take a look at some footage and watch a scene or two being shot. You know, he likes to just get my brain working. And in this case, I flew off to London and got a tour of the Gotham set, and then he showed me about 20 minutes of footage that they had assembled. So it was a very early half-done rough cut but it was enough to get just the sense of it, and the music really started coming to me on the way home on a 747. And that was awkward.
You know, an idea can hit you anywhere, anytime. In this case, it hits me right when I'm flying home. The entire theme came bit by bit. I never went anywhere in that period of my life without a Sony cassette tape recorder. If I don't have a keyboard with me, I can't just grab a napkin and just start scribbling down notation. I now always travel with a tiny keyboard to use to jot down notes on my laptop but at that time it was just me and my tape player making weird elaborate voice notes. I was too shy to do that sitting next to someone so I kept running into the bathroom with my recorder. And every time I came out of the bathroom, more flight attendants were standing there looking at me and they're going “can we help you?” “Are you sick?” “Are you okay?” “Anything we can get you?” And five minutes later, I'd be in there again.
I got very used to always taking my tape recorder with me because I got so many thematic ideas whilst driving. The Simpsons was all in the car.
Clearly, this was before 9/11, obviously, but they thought they had some kind of lunatic, extreme drug addict, or crazy person on the flight. So they’re trying to figure out what's going on with this guy who keeps running in and out of the bathroom all excited which just made me seem even more suspicious. It was critical for me to get all my notes down as clearly as possible before we landed and I forgot everything, which I did
I went home thinking “I really hope this works!”, and at first it wasn't making sense because it was so noisy in that bathroom with the roar of the engine. I was worried it was gone forever. And then I just caught a trigger from something and it all came back, and I quickly recorded my first thematic multitrack for the piece.
I get a lot of my ideas when I'm driving around Los Angeles. I got very used to always taking my tape recorder with me because I got so many thematic ideas whilst driving. The Simpsons was all in the car. Now, thank God, it’s as simple as putting something in your voice memos. My phone is filled with musical voice memos. When I’m driving around, I’m just laying down musical note after note after note after note.
I've probably got like 150 voice memos that are of no purpose anymore because they're for a piece of music that is now finished. I really need to clear them out someday.
I wanted to ask very quickly about Shirley Walker. I'm such a big fan of hers. I know she helped conduct the Batman score…what are your memories of working with her?
I love the fact that when I brought her to England with me to conduct Batman, the orchestra was gobsmacked. They just had not seen a female conductor walk in, and I got great pleasure out of that. I know she probably did some of the orchestration too because I was doing rewrites on the spot. She was really clear and firm. Then I continued to use her because I just really liked her, and I helped set her up on the animated Batman TV show. They asked me to be involved and I said I can't do the weekly scores, but Shirley would do a great job. I was really happy to bring her into that episodic scoring. She did a fantastic job.
There was one big leap that changed everything. And that was really when MIDI evolved to the point where you could really get in there and block everything out accurately.
With both Batman and Spidey, you get the chance to really set the stage with the music, but opening credits are almost a thing of the past now.
When you can have the luxury of a big title sequence in the front, it's great that you can establish the tone right from the beginning. You can say, here's what you're going to get. Here's what we're offering. Here's a taste of what's to come. So I love doing that. The movie that inspired me into becoming a fan of film music was a movie called The Day the Earth Stood Still. I think of all the Alfred Hitchcock films – North by Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo – these movies would be incomplete without the titles that give you an exciting feeling of anticipation.
You’ve been scoring superhero movies since 1989. What’s your perspective on how the genre has evolved?
Nobody could have anticipated what Marvel was going to do. I had no idea. I just thought it'd be the kind of thing where every now and then there'll be a superhero film, most of them will be pretty trashy, and occasionally one of them will be pretty good, and it would just be hit or miss. Then Marvel comes along with this incredible track record of successes and changes everything. And the brilliant way that they tied their characters together in storylines. I never would have guessed, and nobody I knew in the industry really had a sense that this was going to be the beginning of something so enormous.
I know you’re reuniting with Sam Raimi on Doctor Strange. It’s been 16 years since your last superhero project with him. In what way has your relationship with Sam evolved since then?
Sam doesn't do a lot of movies, because I think he's so into writing and producing. So I'm always happy when he pops out and says we're doing a movie. Our relationship hasn't really changed. He calls me up, he's all excited. Sam is just a very enthusiastic guy. It's unfortunate, because of COVID, but I can't wait to hang out on set with him.
There's this weird thought process in Hollywood every time you do something new that you’ve got to let the original musical themes go and start fresh.
Will you be using the theme established by Michael Giacchino in Doctor Strange or coming up with something totally new?
We’ll definitely refer to his original theme, and I’ll no doubt be coming up with new motifs for new situations and characters. I'm not going to ignore it. I don't believe in that. There's this weird thought process in Hollywood every time you do something new that you’ve got to let the original musical themes go and start fresh. I think that doesn't serve an audience well. So I like doing variations on a theme that I know for a character that an audience already associates with them. I think that's important. When I did Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was very careful to find places to play around with Alan Silvestri’s theme. And I enjoyed it.
You have a long and storied creative partnership with Tim Burton. What was something that was immediately apparent to you, and what was something that became clearer over time?
It was immediately apparent to me with Tim was that we were kind of cut from the same loaf of bread, so to speak. We grew up in the same city. We had the same influences, and we were both pretty weird. So it wasn't difficult for me to slip into his world.
The thing that I didn't see in the beginning was what great ideas he had and how his worlds were really going to expand into such a refined palette of styles that were uniquely his own. You know, it really took a while for that to develop between Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and then I think Edward Scissorhands really clarified what a unique vision he possessed.
You’ve been doing this since the ’80s. Film scoring has evolved somewhat since then, especially in its use of tech. How have the advancements in technology helped your creativity? At what point did you really start to use it as part of your process?
There was just one big leap that changed everything. And that was really when MIDI evolved to the point where you could really get in there and block everything out accurately. That just changed everything. And then the ability to take that midi and print out the notation from it... that alone knocked six hours off of every day for me. Before that, I was basically laboriously putting together a demo of the entire piece of music top to bottom, and then I’d have to write it all down. Now, in hindsight, I don't think that was a bad thing to do. I think it was a good learning experience and a good exercise. But I worked 16 hours every day which wasn’t sustainable. The digital world changed everything.
The second huge leap was going over to ProTools. Before ProTools really kicked in, I was reaching a point where we would take 3-5 tape machines and additional eight-tracks and things like that. And it was a nightmare because you were hoping it was going to all sync up before the orchestra kicks in. If they didn’t, you’d have to do the whole thing again. That style of recording was horrible. ProTools just made everything so seamless, especially with the ability to play along with the orchestra, get a problem, stop, roll back four bars, and pick it up. You didn’t have to go back to the top.
The third thing would be the level of synthetics and synthetic sounds, but that's actually been there from the beginning. It's just different types of technology that's creating synthetics. We've evolved into much more elaborate digital synthesizers. But what's funny is that a lot of the guys I know of that are really loving switching back now to analogue synthesizers. A friend of mine just turned me on to this piece of Russian gear, and it's as analogue as anything could ever possibly be. I love turning knobs and messing with stuff like that, and I love the fact that we're able to do so much digitally. So it's kind of like it goes forward and then shoots backwards at the same time, and it's that combination that makes the synthetic world so interesting.
In reality, the negative energy I received in my early years really helped me out. Gave me a lot of fire and motivation.
You’ve got such an impressive filmography. Everyone has their favourite Danny Elfman score. What’s a score you’ve done that you’re really proud of that doesn’t get mentioned as much that you’d like more people to check out?
Two documentaries I did for Errol Morris. One is called Standard Operating Procedure. And the other is called The Unknown Known. And both of those were scores that I really loved doing, and I was really proud of. But you know, they were small documentary films that are rarely seen. So those would be the two.
So many of your themes have stood the test of time, and people still listen to them. Do you remember the moment when you realised that these themes had really resonated with people?
All of the early Tim Burton films I did, between Pee Wee's Big Adventure and The Nightmare Before Christmas...it's essentially in those first 10 years of scoring that almost everybody in my film composing community hated my guts. I came from a rock band. I said in interviews I never went to music school, and that just wasn't acceptable. So everybody was looking for the smoking gun for 10 years. It was like who was really writing my music? Maybe it was Shirley Walker, Bill Ross, or Lenny Niehaus who also conducted for me? Steve Bartek, my orchesrator? It had to be one of them! When I realized I was making an impression, was hearing stuff that sounded like me in many other scores.
In reality, the negative energy I received in my early years really helped me out. Gave me a lot of fire and motivation. There was always a little voice in the back of my mind whispering…“show those mother-fuckers what you can do.”
And what drives you now?
Now, of course, I don't have anything to show anybody but myself. It's the reason why I started committing to doing concert music, which I do every year. I'm just constantly trying to trip myself up, keep myself off balance, and most importantly to find ways to move out of my comfort zone whenever I can.