With Dark Shadows set to hit theaters this weekend, Warners hosted a small Q&A this past Tuesday to highlight what will be composer Danny Elfman and director Tim Burton’s fourteenth film together. I am notorious for getting lost on studio lots (I once accidentally wandered into a background shot during the filming of Private Practice while looking for a screening room), but I was pleased (and relieved) when I arrived and realized this event was being held outside making it easy to find (although the long line of Elfman fans flanking the venue was also a pretty clear indicator).
It was a nice change of pace to be outside on a warm afternoon and seemed to put everyone in a good mood. While the Q&A was moderated, the goal of the afternoon was primarily to open the floor up to the fans and have them ask the questions. This can be a precarious opportunity when the questions are unfiltered (and sometimes cringe worthy) as anyone who has attended a Q&A can attest to.
However this afternoon the questions (save for a few – no, Oingo Boingo will not be getting back together) were incredibly thoughtful and interesting. Elfman noted that doing events like this are something he gladly takes time to do as he loves interacting with fans and this was clear as he took every question seriously and gave each person his undivided attention when answering. The event was also to commemorate the release of Elfman and Burton’s 25th Anniversary Music Box so many of the questions revolved around Elfman’s long-time relationship with the director as well as his experiences in the industry.
1. While Elfman is a fan of horror, he was not a fan of the Dark Shadows television show growing up. At thirteen or fourteen years old, Elfman wanted blood and gore with his horror and Dark Shadows focused more on the romance – something Elfman noted he “could not have been less interested in at the time.”
2. While horror is one of Elfman’s preferred genres, he finds scoring for horror to be a bit boring. Since the music in horror films is mainly made up of long tension cues full of suspenseful chords, which Elfman “could do in his sleep,” that lack of a real challenge or creative outlet makes the genre a less appealing option (from a composer’s standpoint.) Elfman also made a point that one genre he would never tackle is romantic comedy saying, “I would have no idea how to approach that.”
3. Johnny Depp used to steal guitar picks from him. Depp’s band would rehearse in the same space as Oingo Boingo and Depp would steal Elfman’s guitar picks because his band was too broke to afford their own. Depp finally admitted to it much later.
4. Looking back on his work with Burton, he said the toughest project to score was Big Fish because they struggled to find the heart while Edward Scissorhands and Mars Attacks! were two of his easiest Burton projects.
5. Currently working on the score for Frankenweenie, Elfman did reveal that many of Young Victor’s (Charlie Tahan) classmates in the film are modeled after classic horror icons like Peter Lorre. Elfman also noted that his relationship with Burton is a lot like Lorre and Vincent Price – Lorre (i.e. Elfman) being the tortured while Price (Burton) was the master.
6. Elfman and Burton did have a “nuclear moment” and stopped talking for about a year. While Elfman has scored almost all of Burton’s films, he was notably not the composer on Ed Wood because of this falling out. But as Burton was beginning to work on Mars Attacks! Elfman’s manager asked if he would ever speak to Burton again and after meeting up for coffee (and agreeing to never speak of their year apart), the two struck their relationship back up again.
7. Elfman’s process of working with Burton has not changed much over their twenty-five years together. “If Tim is pulling his hair, that is a bad sign. If he is looking intently, good sign.”
8. Bernard Herrmann was the first composer Elfman became aware of and continues to influence his musical choices. Elfman remembered watching The Day the Earth Stood Still and that being the film where he suddenly became aware of the music. When Elfman scored the Psycho (1998) remake he tried not to do too much to change or update it since he respected Herrmann’s work so much. Plus he didn’t want to Herrmann’s ghost to come back and haunt him (since he heard rumors he was a bit cranky.)
9. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was the first wide release Elfman ever scored. He got the gig because Burton was a fan of Oingo Boingo and Paul Reubens (Pee Wee) was a fan of Elfman’s work on Forbidden Zone. Elfman was so concerned he was going to “fuck up their movie” he almost did not take the job. Elfman noted the only reason he even became a film composer was because he was too scared to make the call to Burton to quit.
10. When he began working on Pee Wee, Elfman realized he needed an orchestrator and asked Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek to do it because he “took a class once” about it. Bartek has been Elfman’s orchestrator ever since. Elfman explained that he will write out the orchestration, but it is Bartek who really balances the instruments and gets the score ready to be heard (and hopefully approved) by the director.
11. Elfman much prefers the process of composing to tracking. With composing he can write and create whereas with tracking it is an intense process that requires him to essentially listen intently for “weird shit” and make sure that does not make it into the final recording.
12. Elfman is not big on rituals before he starts composing. “Sometimes just a shower helps.”
13. The score he created for Freeway was some of the most fun he had on a project. Elfman said it helped that they had only three days to come up with it and no time to really second guess themselves. Plus the director (Matthew Bright) was Elfman’s best friend in high school which was one of the reasons he agreed to work on the film.
14. Elfman admits that he gets writer’s block every time he composes. The cure? “Deadlines.” Elfman joked that he would still be working on the score for Pee Wee if he did not eventually have to turn it in.
15. Elfman can never write to a script, he must always see visuals. The tone conveyed in a script can change based on the director, the cinematography and editing so he prefers to actually see the film before he begins composing noting that a script can read slow and then play fast thanks to editing choices.
16. Elfman is not in discussions to work with Pixar, yet. While he would certainly be open to the opportunity, he confirmed that Pixar has never approached him to do so. Elfman noted that he used to play in a Balinese music class at CalArts (even though he was not an official student there) and found out later that their practices used to drive John Lasseter (now the Chief Creative Officer at Pixar) crazy so he is not sure of the Pixar door will ever be open to him.
17. Creating the theme for The Simpsons was one of the easiest projects he has ever worked on. Elfman explained that it was one day of work and once Matt Groening said he could do something retro, he essentially wrote the entire thing on his drive home from the studio. Elfman did reveal that he thought the show would be canceled after three episodes so he really did not over think the theme which may have been the reason it was so easy to come up with.
18. There is no bad blood on not being able to compose The Green Lantern. It was simply a scheduling conflict as he was already committed to work on Cirque du Soleil’s Iris when Green Lantern was set to begin. Elfman said with Iris he composed a good amount of music beforehand and then revised and rewrote as needed once he saw the final choreography. Elfman said he tries to do at least one non-film project a year and Iris was a great opportunity to do that.
19. He is a big hip hop fan. He loves to listen to random DJ sets on Sirius radio because it is usually the total opposite of what he is working on and helps give his ears a break.
20. He doesn’t consider himself a musician. While he can certainly pick up almost any instrument and learn a few tunes, he is not proficient in any instrument. He learned early on that he has no problem writing music for sixteen hours, but he could never make himself sit down to practice any instrument for just an hour.
21. He does not miss performing live. He would get sick of his own songs after playing them a few times making his career as a rock star doomed from the start. He said he does not know how bands like The Rolling Stones and U2 continue to do it. He also noted that his years playing with Oingo Boingo damaged his hearing and he fears that if he ever got back on stage, he would ruin it completely.
22. Elfman explains that the role of a composer is to be both a psychiatrist and a magician. You want to sell your idea to the director (who inevitably makes the final decision) and in order to do so, you need to try and figure out what it is they want, sometimes before the directors themselves even knows.