ARTISTdirect has an exclusive interview with Danny Elfman. The composer talks about his earliest film music influences (especially Bernard Herrmann), stories behind making some of his most iconic music for Tim Burton’s films, some of his favorite Burton characters, and much more.
Here is the interview:
Is your music more inspired by a film’s characters or the script? What exerts a heavier influence on your musical choices?
Well, I only tried working off the script once with Beetlejuicebecause I had some extra time and I thought I’d get a head start. Not one note I’d written from the script survived into the movie so I learned, especially with Tim Burton’s films, never to anticipate what the movie’s actually going to be like. The script is always one part of what’s going to make a Tim Burton movie. I wait until I have a movie to look at, and I try to look at it with as blank of a mind as I possibly can—no expectations and no preconceived notions of what it’s going to be.
Do you feel like you get especially close to each character, whether it’s Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas orBatman?
Yeah, in the same manner that Tim clearly gets close to certain characters in his movies, I end up gravitating exactly the same way. There’s no way not to—whether it’s The Penguin or Catwoman. It doesn’t matter who it is! It could be The Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow. You just gravitate towards a certain thing, and you find that’s what pulling you along. Sometimes, you don’t know what it’s going to be. In Big Fish, clearly I was trying to follow the trajectory of the story and the main character but thematically I kept falling back to this mermaid character that we meet in this early fantasy that becomes a theme for Helena Bonham Carter’s character later. I don’t know why, but I just kept getting drawn to that as a common theme which carried me through. I never know where it’s going to come from. It just does what it does.
On the box set, there’s a fantastic piece called “Herrmann-esque Thing,” it’s a worktape from Batman. Is Bernard Herrmann someone you’ve always looked up to?
Well, he’s the reason that I got into film music. When I met Tim onPee-Wee’s Big Adventure, I was in a band. It never occurred to me to become a film composer, but I was a fan of film music since about age eleven. I owe that strictly to Bernard Herrmann. I loved his scores. I think I was about eleven-years-old when I heard the score toThe Day the Earth Stood Still, and it’s the first time I noticed film music and a name. I realized, “This isn’t just there. Somebody actually did it.” Herrmann was always my god in terms of my love of film music.
It’s interesting how everything culminated on his score for Taxi Driver.
More than interesting, it’s incredible. I’ll never be Herrmann in my life time, but he’s the model I would strive for just in terms of the use of being inventive, melody and emotional content.
Do you have particular memories about the Sleepy Hollow score?
Yeah, it was just really fun. I didn’t really know exactly what I was going to do with it. Once again, the main theme of “The Headless Horseman” wasn’t The Horseman’s first theme that I wrote. It became “Ichabod Crane’s Childhood Theme.” I ended up with this theme for him as a child and it started just following him. I just learned somewhere along the way never to argue with those impulses because they’re doesn’t have to be rhyme or reason. Nothing has to make sense. In fact, sometimes it’s better that it doesn’t. I’ll look back later and go, “Well, I could see psychologically how this would’ve fit with this.” At the time, I’m not thinking that way at all. It just kept coming back. I loved The Headless Horseman. I was incredibly proud of Tim because it’s the first time he did a villain that was really a villain. He had no redeeming qualities. Normally, we love Tim’s villains. They’re usually the characters we associate with. The Headless Horsemen just cut off heads. There was no sense like, “Oh the poor guy, look at him stumbling around his house knocking everything over because he can’t see anything while he’s trying to make his cereal in the morning.” [Laughs] He was a monster. When he killed that family and pulled up that little kid from under the planks, I was so proud of Tim [Laughs].
Music’s the perfect way to get close to those emotions. It’s the language of emotion.
Well, I guess! I’m never sure what I’m exactly tapping into when I’m doing it. I think that’s for other people to judge better than me. I just go with it. With Tim’s movies in particular, wherever he goes, I try to go.
How similar are orchestral music and rock ‘n’ roll?
They may complement each other, but not writing the music. They couldn’t be farther apart. The years I had being in the band, I had to unlearn everything I’d done with them and move backwards in time to when I used to be in this musical theater group. Your sense with a band is always verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus—like that. When you’re writing orchestral music, you have to get that out of your head really quick. There are so many places to go. You don’t really a verse and a chorus. You have themes. There are limitless ways to present those themes. It doesn’t really help. In a weird way, I think it’s almost detrimental. I was able to figure it out, mostly due to my early studying of film scores. Although I wasn’t actually studying, I was in my mind studying the scores of Herrmann, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and, of course, Nino Rota who was also a huge influence on me and really inspired the score to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
Is there a score that really sticks out for you?
It’s a hard to pick a favorite. Listening back to everything, which was a very weird experience, there were bits of different scores where I was like, “Oh, I really like that moment.” If I had to pick an overall score, it might be Edward Scissorhands. Probably, if nothing else, because it was following the intensity of Batman and we were totally left to our own in this weird world. I had no model, as I never seem to have, of what type of music will fit his films. It’s just a score that I still have very fond memories. It was a very simple experience working on that film with him.