Danny Elfman interview: Oz, Sam Raimi, Burton, Batman & more

We had the unique opportunity to talk to composer Danny Elfman about working with Sam Raimi on Oz, Tim Burton, Batman, and much more...

There was something strangely appropriate about conducting an interview with Danny Elfman at midnight. It came as no surprise to be told he was more of a night person, since his darkly romantic melodies are as intrinsically linked to the gothic as the visual style of his long-time collaborator, Tim Burton. Elfman has, of course, scored most of Burton’s films, creating some magnificently eclectic music in the process, from Beetlejuice to Mars Attacks!

His unique style has led to recurring working relationships over the years with Burton, but also Ang Lee, Gus Van Sant and Sam Raimi. It was great news to fans of both Raimi and Elfman to hear that they were reuniting for Oz, as their work together has resulted in some fantastic scores, including those for Darkman, Spider-Man and the mighty theme for Army Of Darkness.

Calling myself a fan of Danny Elfman’s work would be an understatement, as for decades now his work both on and off screen has been a constant presence in my life; the single Face To Face, which he composed with Siouxsie and the Banshees, was the first cassette single I bought, while his soundtracks and music with Oingo Boingo account for more than any other artist in my collection – I even marked my 30th birthday with a tattoo of said band.

He was incredibly generous with his time, and even spared a moment, when asked as an aside during the interview, about the inspiration for writing songs back in the Boingo days. He replied suitably for something that happened so long ago that, “I really don’t know. Back in those days when I wrote a song it was just a whim. I mean, it could’ve been as much of a whim as a line stuck in my head and I wrote a song around it. You know every now and then there would be something that would come from an article I was reading ,and I get a little sentence or line, and think ‘I’m going to write a song about that!’”

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So without further ado, Mr Danny Elfman…

What was it that drew you to Oz The Great And Powerful in particular?

Well, it’s not really what drew me, I mean the fact is that Sam and I, you know, we had a little period where there was a not working [together] moment, and then both of us decided, “Ah, forget about this”.  We got together and he said, “I really missed you on my last movie”, and I said, “I really missed you too!” [Chuckles] and he said well let’s do the next one together – at that point it was going to be another Spider-Man. So he asked if I wanted to do the next one, and it was great, because I love Sam and I’ve known him for a long time, and the next thing I know, as soon as I agree to do that, Sam’s off the picture and that was that! [Laughs]

So I thought ‘so be it’, but at least with Sam it didn’t take long, and soon I got a great project [with Oz]. He told me about it and I was like, “Really? Count me in!” I mean musically speaking, what’s not to like? It’s just sounded really interesting.

Because the 30s Wizard Of Oz has such an influence on pop culture, especially musically, was it difficult to fight that influence?

No, it really wasn’t. First off, this is my fourth time dealing with cultural, iconic features [Laughs] that I had to completely ignore, with everything from the first Batman – if anything that was the hardest, because there was this incredibly strong cultural reference that I grew up on, that was the TV show of Batman. So then there was really nothing to go on in terms of what I model this after, so it was a situation where, do we acknowledge that and that the fans are going to be expecting that? And there was the sense of, no, we don’t, we don’t acknowledge that, in fact we ignore it.

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In this situation, the movie The Wizard Of Oz was completely iconic, but Sam was like, “We’re working off the books here, not working off the movie”. He sent me the script and it I was like, cool, just go ahead and create a world and I’ll create music for the world, but there was never any sense that we were paying homage to The Wizard Of Oz the movie, other than there was one moment where, I thought it was a really funny idea, where the Munchkins start to sing a welcome song to Oz and well basically nobody can fight [and the army ask the Munchkins], “Well, can they fight?”, and they say, “No, but we can sing!” [Laughs]

And they start to sing the song and he goes, “STOP!” and shuts them up, so in fact they only do the first verse of the song. I think that’s maybe like the one thing that will make people go for a second “Oh my God, this could become a musical”, and then it’s like no, it’s not.

Other than that, regarding the picture’s cultural references to The Wizard Of Oz – the smart thing they did was that there’s no Dorothy, there’s no red slippers, no Lion, no Tin Man, no Scarecrow, I think they were wise to not even acknowledge that world, that world’s the future, far away from us, many years down the line. 

And with the prequel take, was there a particular character you enjoyed scoring for – is there often one element above another that you’re drawn to?

Well, I mean as a composer, we’re always drawn to the wicked side of the creatures, every movie where there’s a good and a bad guy, the bad guy, or bad woman, or the evil one, the wicked one gets the fun music [Chuckles]. It’s always that way, so yeah, definitely this kind of waltz that I wrote for Sam that became this kind of dark waltz and the theme of the wicked witch, I think that was probably the most fun.

But I really just enjoyed the whole thing, once I got loose on the landscape I just had a great time – oddly, because it’s one of the longest scores I’ve ever written, at 115 minutes of music, and yet I finished it three weeks ahead of schedule and for no reason other than I was having fun and just start writing really fluidly and easily and it was just… I can only say this – I wish they were all like this.

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As a composer I’ve done over 80 films, and I can’t count half a dozen of them that I came out at the end of it going, “That was fun, let’s do it again!” Usually I feel ragged and exhausted and wanting to go hide on a desert island, or in cave for a while! [Laughs]

So the fact that such a big project would leave me invigorated and it came so easily, I just feel like it was one of those gifts of the moment that just happened.

People associate a lot of your work with Tim Burton, but you were there with Sam Raimi when his career was starting to take off into the mainstream with Darkman, how has that relationship evolved over the years?

Well like with Tim, it’s different but it’s really, really similar. Tim is definitely more tense in the process of creation of music and Sam is more fun and easy going, but they’re just different personalities. In the end, they’ve both given me some really great opportunities to create some wonderful worlds musically, so between Darkman and A Simple Plan and Spider-Man, these were really some fun extremes in a way. A Simple Plan, this little film he did, is still one of my favourites, especially in terms of the stuff I got to write, so it’s kinda like in a weird way nothing has changed, it’s hard to explain!

When I’m with Tim people always say, “Oh, you must have such shorthand, it must just be so easy to communicate telepathically”.  I go “Not at all” – it’s still a process, and Sam and Tim, I look at them and I guess they look older and I look older to them, but they’re still very much Sam and Tim, the same ones I’ve known for a quarter of a century. 

And they’re both very visual directors, so how much does that affect you and with Oz how much of the visual sense of the film did you have before you started work on it?

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Very little, it’s hard to explain, but it really wouldn’t matter to me how the visuals ended up. I mean, I knew they’d be wonderful, but when I’m scoring, I’m scoring the characters and the story and if the movie was made for the 30 million dollar, the 100 or the 200 million dollar version, I don’t know if I’d be writing the score any differently. Mainly what I’m scoring is about this character, if he’s got goodness inside of him, but he doesn’t know it and he gets into this crazy situation, but he’s got to find the inner strength – that’s what I’m scoring, stuff like that, it’s not the amazing things you’re looking at.

So it comes down to the character and the intimacy…

It comes down to character and I think there’s a few moments where maybe what I’m scoring is really just the awesomeness of a particular scene, but not that much of the score is really about what you’re seeing, it’s more about what the character is reacting to. And I think that’s not just me, that’s the way composers compose, whether it’s small scale, or big scale, but you know, you could have a big story and a small scale [budget], or vice versa, and you’re scoring that story and those characters more than the costumes, or the background, or the animation.

I’ve often been asked if I would score Tim’s animated movies differently to a live action movie, but having just finished two animations – a movie called Epic, which I finished weeks ago and Frankenweenie – if they were live action I wouldn’t have done anything any differently, because it’s a story and I forget that I’m watching the animation and it becomes unconscious for me. When I’m watching Oz at the beginning, yeah I know there’s a lot of blue screen and unfinished scenery and things that I can’t see, but I forget about that also, really quickly.

There was a point where Tim was going crazy on Alice [and was saying to me], “I don’t even know what to tell you, because there’s nothing on the screen to look at!” [Laughs] and I said, “No, no we’re fine! I’m following Mia on her journey”, and it actually isn’t a problem the fact that she’s in front of a blue screen with half-drawn in backgrounds. It’s not an impediment, I’m following her, she’s there. And it’s the same with Oz, having things still unfinished and rough, it’s almost like I just forgot about it. 

I know you’re a fan of Bernard Herrmann’s work, having done the music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Jar and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. With Hitchcock having just been released, did they approach you to do the score because of your previous associations?

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No, actually I really think it was more a desire in terms of… I like writing romantically – and I think from the beginning the director [Sacha Gervasi] wanted a very romantic score, dark but romantic – and so I think that was the part that we connected on.

We maybe spoke three words about Bernard Herrmann. I asked him right at the beginning, “If you want an homage to Bernard Herrmann, I’m not the guy for the job,” I said, “because I don’t want to that. I either do Bernard Herrmann, but I don’t want to try to almost be Bernard Herrmann, I just don’t feel good about that.” And the first thing he said was, “No, absolutely not, we’re not going to do any references, conscious references, except when we’re actually playing his music”. And I said “Great, then I’m really into it,” and the story was interesting and romantic and sweet and twisted all at the same time, and I liked all those elements.

So I don’t think my previous connection was relevant; all I did on Psycho was just produce the recording of Herrmann’s music, and I tried to be as absolutely pure as I could and yet do a stereo, contemporary recording, so I felt like I was nothing more than a producer on that.

Having spoken about your relationships with Tim Burton and Sam Raimi, would you mind me asking about Steve Bartek, as he’s been working with you longer than anyone…

Oh yeah!

As I’m a fan of your work back with him in Oingo Boingo, and he’s always worked with you as your lead orchestrator, and I wondered how that dynamic worked?

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It was pure luck. I mean literally when Tim asked me to do Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Steve and I had already been in two ensembles together, The Mystic Knights – a musical theatrical troupe, and then when we started the band, Oingo Boingo, I was like, “Alright Steve, let’s start a band.” So then Tim asked me to do Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and I thought, “Really? Are you sure? I don’t know about this.” And I almost turned it down as I didn’t think I was capable, really, of doing the job, and then I decided, “What the fuck!” It was really that simple – what the fuck, it’s maybe the worst idea, but I’ll go for it.

So I realised I’m going to need an orchestrator, who do I ask? I don’t know anybody in this town, and I was with Steve and saying “Hey did you ever do any orchestration?” and he said, “I took a class!” [Laughs] and so I said, “That’s good enough, let’s do this.” So it was my first time composing, his first time orchestrating, and Tim’s first time directing a feature – there were a lot of first times going there. 

And all for the good as well!

Well, thank you! It ended up working out well! I’m glad I didn’t turn it down.

And so Steve just ended up staying with you throughout then?

Well yeah, I mean that just led to another picture and another picture, and he got better as I got better, and now we’ve together 27 years.

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I’ve also read that when you’ve finished a score you don’t tend to listen to it again…

If I can help it!

Why is that?

I don’t know… I don’t. It’s like once I’ve produced a soundtrack, I’ve put a lot of effort into the soundtracks and once I’ve mixed it and it’s sent off, I’ve no desire ever to hear it again – I don’t know, I’m weird about that.

That’s fair enough, but then does it make it strange to return to something like Men In Black 3, where there was a big gap between parts two and three, and you then have to revisit the Men In Black Theme and other recurring elements?

Yeah it was very weird. That was a first, because the only sequels I’ve done were obviously much closer together, like Spider-Man one and two and Batman one and two were only years apart, so Men In Black was really weird. Playing it back and listening to the originals and thinking, “Oh! Is that how I did that?” and even still I couldn’t get myself to ever go back and listen to the whole first score. I listened to individual cues and that’s all I needed to hear, just these two, these three, I don’t want to hear anymore.

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I mean the only time I’ve been forced to go backwards and listen for months, was putting together this Elfman/Burton boxset [to mark their 25th anniversary of working together] where I had to really sit through every score of his that I’d done, and that was really weird, and there wasn’t one single one of those scores I’d ever listened to since I recorded them, so I was going back 25 years in time and moving forward, and that was incredibly bizarre.

And while we’re on the subject, I was thrilled to see that at the Royal Albert Hall on October 7th, there’s going to be a live performance of your music from the Tim Burton films…

There will indeed! And once again I’ve gotta go back, that’s my job for the next couple months is I’ve got to sift through all those scores and create some suites, because I’ve got to figure out what we’re going to play.

This time I’m going to go even deeper, because on the records I just had to listen to everything and re-organise tracks and sometimes take a few mixes or something, but here I’m going to open up the original scores and go back and reconstruct pieces and/or elaborate on them. So it’s really going back! I’m going to be potentially creating suites for Pee Wee and Batman and Beetlejuice that probably don’t exist…

[At this point, I think it’s safe to say, I had an overwhelming wave of excitement hit me at the prospect of hearing the new arrangements] Oh wow! Well I look forward to that. What actually inspired the decision to do the live performance over here?

With most things like, this it occurs because it’s a brainstorm of my agent, who is always coming up with some crazy scheme and he asked me some time ago, “Would you be into doing a concert?” and I said [hesitantly] “I don’t know… sure… why not” as I was always afraid of that, because of the work involved. I’ve avoided doing concerts because I’ve worked for 27 years and it’s hard – you have to re-imagine stuff and put work into it, and me not liking to go backwards, I’ve just avoided it and avoided it, so I said, alright then, I guess maybe it’d be fun.

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Then at another my agent called me and said, “Would you be willing to possibly sing a song or two from Nightmare?” and at the point I was like, “Oh yeah, yeah, sure whatever.” Then the next time I heard from him he says, “Guess what, tickets went on sale and they all sold out”, and I’m like “What? When did that happen!? Really…” [Laughs] and then suddenly the reality of it [hit] and I asked him, “Did I say I was or wasn’t going to sing?” and he told me I was, so I figured, okay, I’m not going to go back on my word, but then suddenly it’s like, “Oh. What did I get myself into” but it’ll be good.

If I can get the music all sorted out – I went through it last week and realised, my god, there’s only 90 minutes [to perform], there’s 15 scores, that’s only six minutes a score – it was a little bit daunting last week when I began to look at it, but I’m sure I’ll sort it out.

I’m glad to hear you’re singing, as I was going to ask that, and now I know…

Yeah and it’s already been promised and I can’t go back now!

I’ll make sure to print that too…

Yeah, I don’t wanna go there and have all of London pointing their fingers and shouting, “Liar!”

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Well I’m looking forward to the concert either way!

Thank you, I’ll do the best I can!

Danny Elfman thank you so much!

Oz The Great And Powerful is in cinemas now. Danny Elfman will be performing Music From The Films of Tim Burton on the 7th October.

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