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ScoreKeeper Interviews Danny Elfman!!!

Greetings! ScoreKeeper here with an achingly brief but oh-so-sweet interview with a composer whom I've wanted to speak with since I first started writing for Ain't It Cool News. I've conducted more than forty interviews throughout the last six years and I think I've gotten pretty good at it. They're usually barrels-of-fun and although I used to get nervous very early on, I can't remember the last time I got genuinely nervous for an interview (yes I can, it was Thomas Newman in 2008).

I have to admit that when I was offered fifteen minutes to chat with Danny Elfman the butterflies certainly awoke. He's one of my idols. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990) is the score that made me want to become a film composer. It changed my life in a profound way. What began as a healthy enthusiasm for movie music was transfigured by Elfman into a manic obsession of which I would devote the entirety of my future life. I certainly wouldn't be writing these words had I not discovered that blessed score more than twenty years ago.  

I knew that if I really wanted an interview with Elfman I probably could have arranged it myself. You know, deep down I think I was slightly fearful. When one is granted an opportunity to speak with somebody who has impacted their life in such a way it becomes an overwhelmingly daunting proposition. A tsunami of varying emotions wash over you. It's strange scribing them with words.

During the interview I was so focused on not making a complete ass out of myself (I was saving that for the end) that I couldn't remember some of the answers to the questions I asked him. It was only when I got the transcriptions back did I realize, "Wow, that was a pretty cool response. What a good interview."

We all travel through life having been influenced by various people who have directly governed the paths we take. Somewhere along my personal trail I was fortunate to spend a few minutes with one its blazers. While I felt obligated to ask questions promoting Elfman's latest projects while simultaneously piquing the curiosity of my readership, all I really wanted to do was say, "Thank you."

I think I was able to do a little bit of both.


ScoreKeeper:  This is ScoreKeeper from Ain’t It Cool News. Are you familiar with the site at all?

Danny Elfman: I am.

SK: Yeah? I started writing for them in 2006 and since that time you've been number one on my wish list of composers to interview. I'm very honored to have you here on the phone and I'm anxious to talk with you.

DE: Wow, I’m flattered. Thank you.

SK: How are you these days? You've got two big films hitting theaters soon. It sounds like you've already had a pretty busy year.

DE: It’s been a crazy year and it hasn't really stopped. I'm in the middle of FRANKENWEENIE (2012) right now and then I'm moving on to LEAFMEN (2013) and then OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013) with some other bits here and there.

SK: Did your two most recent projects, DARK SHADOWS (2012) and MEN IN BLACK III (2012) overlap at all? Were you ever working on those simultaneously?

DE: There was a little bit of overlap. I try really hard to keep things from overlapping. Sometimes movies are like icebergs and they are supposed to stay in one place but they actually end up floating several miles off course. Before you know it's like, "Oh, what happened?" It wasn't a problem. I actually was on yet another project as well that was starting to be more of a problem and then it wasn't. The two went down just fine.

The scoring was a little close but when I have a situation like that I start really early. I’m a stickler for not getting behind, you know?  I take these big charts with the number of days and the amount of minutes I have left so if it looks like it’s going to be a problem down the line I’ll try to solve it by starting maybe a month early for example.

When it gets to the point where there would have been a problem I’m actually ahead on one or both and then it’s not.

SK: DARK SHADOWS marks your fourteenth collaboration with director Tim Burton. I haven't seen the film yet but I've been listening to your music for several weeks now. Was there anything different about DARK SHADOWS compared to your previous experiences with Tim?

DE: It was different. Tim made it clear from the beginnings that this film was going to be different; however, finding what is different is never an easy thing. We don't always know what that is. Tim knew at least he wanted some of the score to be composed for a television-sized group. Finding what that was took some experimentation. Finally we honed in on it and it really became on homage to two or three classic styles all done with very few players. That's what was different for me about DARK SHADOWS.

SK: What specifically were some of these outside influences that inspired you?

DE: There were three or four different things. Primarily there was the TV music that Bob Cobert wrote for DARK SHADOWS (1966-1971) of which I did quote (and share credit with him) about a half dozen times in the score. There was a flute line he really liked and more specifically, I used his instrumentation of a small orchestra with vibes and a bass flute. That whole part of the score was really paying tribute to the DARK SHADOWS television music.

Another reference was a movie called THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) which had a very odd sound effect atmospheric kind of score. I actually spent probably a week of my preparation time programming sounds that were paying tribute to THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (music composed by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson).

There was also a little bit of influence from Wendy Carlos. I really wanted all of my synth work in this movie to sound very retro like it could have come from the 1970s.


SK: I can definitely hear that. I'm anxious to see it in the film and how it all comes together. Those are all great resources to draw inspiration from. It's probably hard to define when you're beginning a score but I do hear those characteristics which makes this score different.

DE: Yeah, it was fun. We have the big side of the score and that went down the way it always goes down but then we got to the small side of the score and that's where Tim really seemed to be enjoying himself. He loved hearing the solo flute with the vibes playing together with the bass clarinet. It was like this little group of three playing on top of my synthesizers. That's where Tim really came most alive with this score.

SK: The bass flute is one of my all-time favorite instruments. It's a hauntingly gorgeous instrument that is terribly under-utilized.

Every film has a unique entry point which the composer approaches the score. What was your entry point on DARK SHADOWS?

DE: With Tim there’s a similar thing with every film. He likes to bring me on the set at about the midway point when they are shooting so I can sit and watch them shooting for a day, walk through all of the sets and see them. If they have maybe fifteen minutes of footage already cut together I will see that as well. He likes to do that early just to get some seeds planted in my head. Then I don't really start again until they've got a rough cut and a first assembly so to speak.

SK: Do you remember the first piece of music that you wrote? What was its inspiration? Was it for a particular character? A scene? A narrative element?

DE: The first piece of music I wrote was for very light strings with an electric bass and some synths. It just established this minimally creepy sound with a sense that it had come from a John Carpenter or maybe an early Brian DePalma film. I don't know. It's hard to say what exactly I was thinking but that's where my head was at.

SK: Did the comedic elements create a unique challenge?

DE: No. Tim is always going to play the comedy straight with the music, except maybe with PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) or something like that. His attitude is to play it melodramatically, dramatically or play it straight but let the comedy just be itself. Don't try to help it. If you start playing the humor in the music, it will start pushing it over the top.

SK: When you approach a new Tim Burton film, what do you look forward to the most?

DE: What I look forward to is not having any idea what to expect. People seem to think that because we’ve worked together for so many years that we have a shorthand and we communicate mindlessly. That's not the case at all! (Laughs) I still have to work hard or harder than I do for other directors so it's not knowing where it's going to be or where he's going to be's that unpredictability. At the same time, I know it's going to be a really rich canvas to work on with there being a lot of fun things to dig into. There will be odd angles to catch. I don’t know where they are going to come from or what they are going to be, but I know that they will be there.

SK: I want to squeeze in a few questions regarding MEN IN BLACK III. It's been about fifteen years since you scored MEN IN BLACK (1997) and ten years since MEN IN BLACK 2 (2002). Was it a challenge for you to revisit these musical and narrative ideas?

DE: No, no it wasn’t. It was just fun. It's interesting, as soon as I have written something I let it go immediately. By the time I finish the soundtrack album and ship it out, I never listen to that score again. So it was fun this case to pull these things out and listen to the them again. Once I heard them I remembered right away and it really wasn't hard at all.

SK: How much time did it require to reacquaint yourself with the music?

DE: A day. (Laughs) It was really like “Oh yeah, that! I remember that.” It really didn’t take much time. It’s funny the way our memories work. I had the same weird sensation when I was doing the Burton-Elfman box set. This was the first time I had listened to this stuff in a while. Listening back to twenty-six years of music, every piece I put on I was thinking, "Oh, yeah. Okay, I remember that cue!" It was interesting how quickly I remembered those moments once I was listening to them back again. I just never do that.


SK: I have not yet seen MEN IN BLACK III nor have I heard your music. Can you give us a little verbal preview of what this score will be like. Does it rely heavily on previous material?

DE: Well, I’m not sure. It's definitely what you’re going to expect. It’s the MEN IN BLACK theme and all of that, but this time there’s electric guitars. That was the fun part for me, pulling out electric guitars and wah-wah pedals, because it does take place in 1969. Well, let me put it this way, about two-thirds of the film takes place in 1969 or half, I don’t know. Whatever, it was enough that that became the new fun part of the score for me.

SK: I want to ask you a couple general questions. It’s interesting to me when I look over the span of your career going back to the earliest days of Oingo Boingo to today, I see arguably one of the most eclectic and prolific composers in America. You have staked a claim on practically every musical outlet I think one could possibly write for: film, ballet, concert halls, theatrical productions, etc. When you sit back and dream of what your next big endeavor is, what is it that you dream about?

DE: The thing I’ve been dying to do for the last year — but haven’t found the time — is chamber music.

SK: Nice.

DE: I have a beautiful collection of vintage percussion that I’ve been collecting over the last two years and a friend of mine who is an amazing pianist named Chris O’Riley actually loaned me a nine-foot Steinway to put in the middle of it all just to encourage me to write pieces for percussion and piano. That’s really the first thing on my list the first second I get.

SK: Very cool. That would be awesome. I know in the past you have flirted with writing and directing a film. Is that still a possibility?

DE: Oh, who knows? The problem is I just never seem to find the time to stick with it. It does pop up but like a submarine I come up and then I disappear for two years and then I come back and then disappear. That's not really the way to get projects made (Laughs). I don't know. It's hard for me to say considering I'm already booked until next February before I get my next break. I'm starting to take life one week at a time.

SK: Why do you do what you do?

DE: I don’t really have a choice.

SK: Sure you do.

DE: Yeah, I mean I could be a second-rate criminal.

SK: There has to be a reason why you do what you do.

DE: Well look...all I’ve ever done in my life other than perform or write music was be a waiter. Maybe I intentionally didn't leave myself any choices. I never went to college and never got an education. I think I must have purposely left my choices near a range to choose from. It was either waiting tables, crime, or music. When you look at those three choices it becomes easy to know which one is worth concentrating on especially because I really believe in my heart I would be a bad criminal. I'm really sloppy with details. I'd be the guy who thought that he had masterminded something amazing but left his cell phone at the crime scene. You'd see me in the Huffington Post, "World's Dumbest Criminal! — He got the diamonds but left his cell phone."

SK: That’s funny.

DE: That would be me. I wouldn’t get very far in my career.

SK: If you could change one thing about the entertainment industry, what would it be?

DE: Oh, if I could change one thing in the entertainment industry…I don’t know the answer to that question. I wish there was more smaller and medium budget movies made. They are, but only in spits and spurts. It just seems harder and harder to get little gems made.

SK: Are you saying this as a film composer or merely an audience member who would like to see smaller movies?

DE: Well yeah, I’d like to score more and I would like to see more done. I was reading about this recently and it does seem to go through a waxing and waning in part of the film culture with a lot more being made and then suddenly they disappear. I just hope that that side of our industry stays healthy and alive.

SK: That wraps up the questions that I had for you today. I know you’re on a tight schedule, but I was hoping you would offer me 30 seconds to embarrass myself a little bit. I just want to let you know what a profound effect you have had on my life personally. I’m as devoted to this craft as anybody you will meet and it was your score for EDWARD SCISSORHANDS that made me want to become a film composer. The opportunity to talk to one's idol is not something that happens every day so it's a huge privilege for me to talk to you today. In the future, I would love to do a little lengthier interview when you've got more free time on your hands.

DE: That would be great. I would love to. You obviously love your craft and you know what you’re talking about, so it’s always a pleasure talking to somebody who actually understands what it is that we are discussing.

SK: Thank you again for your time and all of your hard work. Again, I don’t think I would be here without you.

DE: I’m really flattered. My pleasure and we will do it again. That will be fun. Thanks a lot.

SK: All right take care. Bye.

DE: Bye.

On behalf Ain't It Cool News I would like to extend a warm round of thanks to Danny Elfman for taking the time out of his brimming schedule to speak with me. I'd also like to thank Beth Krakower of Cinemedia Promotions for arranging the interview and to Warner Bros. for making it happen.

I'd also like to extend a firm handshake to Mike McCutchen who utilized his lightning-fast transcription skills to get this done. I interviewed Elfman earlier this afternoon and it was published here the same day.

The DARK SHADOWS soundtrack will be released by WaterTower Music on May 8, 2012. The movie will be released in theaters on May 11, 2012.

The MEN IN BLACK III soundtrack will be released by Sony Masterworks on May 29, 2012. The movie will be released in theaters on May 20, 2012.

I hope everybody enjoyed the interview as much as I did.

Next time, it will be longer. I promise.



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