Q&A: Danny Elfman

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By any measure, Danny Eflman is having quite a year. After two characteristically playful, full-bodied orchestral scores for the back-to-back Universal summer releases "Wanted" and "Hellboy II," Elfman did a complete about-face, calling on his remarkable versatility to compose the somber, trenchant score for Errol Morris' unflinching Iraq documentary "Standard Operating Procedure."

Then came his first ballet, "Rabbit and Rogue," a collaboration with choreography icon Twyla Tharp that had its West Coast premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Aug. 6 after a successful run at the Met in June.

As if that weren't enough, after putting the finishing touches on the music for "Milk," his fourth collaboration with indie auteur Gus Van Sant, the 55-year-old composer will then immediately begin work on his first Broadway musical, "Houdini," with three-time Tony Award-winning director Jack O'Brien.

Not bad for a high school dropout who didn't even pick up his first instrument -- the violin no less -- until he was 16. ("I hung out with musicians in high school but I thought it was too late to learn an instrument," he says with typical modesty. "I figured my time had passed.")

Somehow, Elfman managed to find the time to sit down with The Hollywood Reporter's Kevin Cassidy to discuss the joys of collaboration, the need to keep pushing his own boundaries and finding motivation in the strangest places.

The Hollywood Reporter: You've had an extremely busy year, working with a tremendously diverse group of people. What was it like working on back-to-back projects with Timur Bekmambetov and Guillermo del Toro?

Danny Elfman: I've been extremely lucky to have so much diversity with so many wildly creative collaborators in a single year. That's what I thrive on, so hopefully this will keep me sane for a while.

I was very excited to work with Timur having seen his Russian film "Night Watch" (2004) and feeling that whoever made it had a great sense of vision and energy, as well as a wonderfully sarcastic sensibility. When I heard he was interested in me for "Wanted," I jumped at the chance. Timur is definitely the kind of director who takes a journey and loves to discover things, often by surprise. It can be very frustrating at times as that means going through a lot of ideas, but it was still a great experience and exciting for me. It took a while to figure out what he was responding to, but as I began to put ideas together that he liked, I would then throw things at him from left field and often he would run with that.

There was a big "pain" montage in the film, and I scored it with a theme and feel that I had used in several other places in the movie, wanting to give it continuity as I always do. But at the same time, I wrote a cue that I felt was like a driving Russian ballet. It was a crazy idea, the kind of stuff that I love to do given a chance. He listened to it and said very little. The next time he came by he asked to hear it again. Needless to say, it ended up in the movie, and he even used it several more times throughout the film. Although the process of working with Timur was really a "process," by the end I really loved him enough to sing a title song in Russian for the film's release in that country, and believe me, that was one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do!

THR: And del Toro?

Elfman: Guillermo is truly a force of nature. I actually think he has some hidden nuclear power source that keeps him going. He's the kind of person that really demands as much from you as he can possibly get. He's the kind of guy who will ask for the moon, but he's also the kind of guy who makes you want to really try and deliver it wrapped and with a bow. He's funny and constantly inventing, inventing, inventing ... and his energy is actually contagious. In our sessions together, we would cover a lot of ground.

For Guillermo, every piece of music really matters, the biggest and the smallest, and I would always finish them with a lot of clarity and drive. From the beginning, he wanted me to tap into the kind of stuff I listened to as a kid, into that Bernard Herrmann/Ray Harryhausen vibe which is something that I love to do.

The movie is, in fact, the kind of film that would have been a great favorite of mine as a kid, so I kind of approached it from the perspective of 12-year-old Danny Elfman writing a film score. What's more fun that that? And Guillermo, who indeed is a big kid himself in so may ways, encouraged that. The whole thing was kind of like, "Come on, let's play" -- and I did. Normally, I have a rule about never doing a sequel when I didn't do the first one, but for Guillermo, the rules get thrown away.

THR: Was it difficult to transition from comic book fare like "Wanted" and "Hellboy II" to an Errol Morris documentary?

Elfman: ("Standard Operating Procedure") was a big contrast with those last two films but something I really loved working on. I've been a huge fan of Errol's for years, really since "Gates of Heaven" (1978), which might be amongst his first. I'm a big documentary fan, and his always stood out. We share a mutual love of eccentrics. The chance to work with him was then, as you can imagine, a big thrill for me. Unlike what I'm used to, Errol didn't want me to "score" the film in a traditional way -- that is scene by scene, frame by frame. He wanted me to watch the movie and then sit and write my impressions freely by memory. In this way, my mind really got to wander and I enjoyed myself more then I had in ages. It's certainly not a new technique, but it's something I had never done before.

I was also very aware that Philip Glass had done several scores for him with great success, and that I was stepping into giant shoes as he's a composer that I idolize. But I tried to not let that paralyze me. When I finally started writing, the music really poured out. After I had finished writing a lot of music, he would cut it in as he saw fit throughout the film and then show me. There were many surprises. However, in some of the scenes I asked him if I could re-adapt the cue so it was suited to the length of the scene better than what he had cut with his editor, which he was fine with. We always ended up in sync. I'm very proud of this score, and I think the movie is really amazing and I hope more people get to see it when it's out on DVD.

THR: Next up is Gus Van Sant's "Milk." Is it refreshing to return to a director with whom you've collaborated in the past?

Elfman: I'm just finishing the score as we speak. This is my fourth film with Gus, including "Good Will Hunting" (1997), and he's always a pleasure, not to mention I think of him as a friend. He's very easygoing and has very few preset rules of what kind of music should go where. He moves effortlessly between films that are more experimental and films that are more commercial and always seems to keep a sense of wanting to be surprised by the music, which is really a pleasure for a composer. It's not that he doesn't know what he likes and doesn't like -- because he does -- but I think he comes into the scoring process with very little preconceived notion of what might work and is amazingly open-minded about trying out any idea that might be interesting.

"Milk" is a very simple, moving story -- and I'm trying to keep the score simple as well -- but there are still some interesting things I am getting to try with the music. Also, having done "Hellboy II" and "Wanted" back-to-back, it was a big relief doing a small, quiet film that had no battle sequences.

THR: How did you come to work with Twyla Tharp on your first ballet, "Rabbit and Rogue"?

Elfman: I had done my first non-film orchestral commission several years ago for the American Composers Orchestra in New York for a concert at Carnegie Hall. For it I wrote a 45-minute work called "Serenada Schizophrana." I enjoyed the freedom of unrestrained writing so much that I began looking for other outlets, and when I heard that American Ballet Theatre was interested, I went right over and met with them. When they asked me whom I was interested in collaborating with, Twyla's name popped right out. They didn't think she'd be interested at that point but apparently, after listening to "Serenada," she was.

We hit it off very quickly and decided to go forward with a ballet, which was again a commission for a 45-minute work. I consider it one of the easiest collaborations I've ever had. I had complete trust in her and she was really respectful of the music. Writing the piece was not easy, of course. It never is. But working with Twyla was. She encouraged me to stretch out musically and not be concerned about what rules to follow, but just to let the music take its own course and see what happened. In the end, as I presented the different ideas I had, she'd guide me as to what should go where for her choreography. Watching her work with the dancers as she was creating her ideas was incredible. She's very disciplined and her process is very intense. Finally, after so much work, sitting in on the first complete rehearsal will always be a life-long highlight for me. Nothing was what I expected, but everything worked and was filled with a hundred surprises that caught me off guard. And I must say, that opening night at the Met was as close as I'd like to come to a heart attack. Needless to say, our creation is a very challenging piece to play, and I haven't felt such tension ever, even after having spent years onstage with my band. Nothing was like this.

THR: Now you're taking on the entirely new challenge of Broadway with "Houdini." Is that a daunting prospect?

Elfman: As I am still in the first stages of this collaboration, I won't say too much about it, other than it's another completely new world to me, and like with the orchestral commissions, I'm searching for a musical language that feels original to me. (Director) Jack O'Brien, much like Guillermo, is an energy powerhouse with some hidden alien energy cell implanted somewhere in his body, I'm sure. He's also a great collaborator and ringmaster. In all our brainstorming sessions with the creative team, he drives it along, throwing out a continuous stream of ideas designed to challenge, enhance or counter whatever we're going on about, which really gets the brain cells going into high gear. He seems to thrive on spontaneous creative energy. As this is my first encounter with theater, it's been a great introduction.

THR: What drives you to do all this work outside of film?

Elfman: For 10 years I had two simultaneous and competitive careers. My band Oingo Boingo and, with the introduction of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (1985), a new, terrifying career in film music. At the time, I thought it was driving me crazy; but now, in hindsight, it was keeping me sane. I've always got a war going on inside me and at least in those days, the battle lines were clear: If I was on a tour, having to repeat my repertoire every night, I'd long for the luxury of scoring a film where I could be working on a new piece of music every day. If I were in the middle of a film score, I would inevitably find myself at that stage -- where I often still do -- when the possibility of finishing the entire work on time seems completely impossible, like finding yourself exhausted on a strenuous mountain climb and realizing that you're barely halfway up. At those points, I'd long for the simplicity of going out onstage and knowing exactly what my job was and what was expected of me. Not to mention the sweat.

When the band split up in '95 and I spent some years doing just film music, I realized that I would indeed go insane. Too much discipline and not enough free expression. Too much pressure building up. I began writing scripts and sold three of them, though none have yet been produced, but it was an avenue to pour my excess energy into, trying to find some kind of balance. But then, as I mentioned before, I got the orchestral commission from the ACO in New York, and it became clear to me that this was something I needed to pursue.

I once saw a documentary on a guy with Tourette's syndrome. He was able to control it enough to do his work at an office all day, but then he'd come home, lock himself in his room and scream profanities until he finally felt exhausted and OK. That's kind of how it is for me. The film work takes a tremendous amount of control and focus, and I have to form all my ideas to exact timed bits to fit the images and the editing. That builds up a lot of pressure. When I get to write free, it lets that pressure out.

THR: How does film composing differ from concert work?

Elfman: I think it all comes down the ability to be able to run amok after having too much restraint for too long -- finding that balance. Therein lies the line between being a responsible film artist/craftsman and a tristate serial killer. In a film, I may get an idea that really excites me, but I've only got (two minutes) to express it. I may, in my heart, feel that I could run with that idea for 12 minutes -- but I can't. The work in film must always be supportive to the needs of the film. The objective is not to write a piece of concert music -- though that may happen anyhow -- but to support the film, to enhance it, to help give it continuity and unconsciously tie things together for the audience, to help the audience tap into hidden emotions or agendas, or to intentionally throw them off if needed, to help stitch together something that may be fragmented, or perhaps intentionally do the opposite, as the director sees their film's needs.

In symphonic work, the joy is letting the music take on its own life. I've said this before, but it often feels like a tremendous amount of work is required to get an idea moving forward, like pushing a train uphill. But at a certain point, the thing takes on its own momentum, and takes unexpected turns. So it's that feeling of holding on, rather then pushing it, that is the most exciting thing. It's that need to occasionally bounce off the walls, letting anything happen for any reason, and having nothing to guide you that is the joy. Or, to oversimplify: to cut loose.

And equally important is the chance to stretch out and try things that the films I've been working on simply wont allow. In "Serenada Schizophrana," I'd always wanted to write for two pianos and I did. I wanted to write a crazy choral piece in Spanish or French with lots of percussion and I did. In "Rabbit and Rogue," I was able to mix ragtime, classic romanticism and Indonesian influences into five extended movements that was a really wild experience. Then I was able set myself an agenda of shattering those movements into fragments and (rearranging pieces) so that each movement stole pieces from each other -- something I've always been intrigued by for a long time.

THR: Throughout your career, going back to the theatrical troupe and Oingo Boingo, you've had your fair share of harsh critics. Does that bother you at all, or are you motivated by it?

Elfman: I've had three separate careers, and I'd say the only thing that they have in common is that I got fairly consistently bad reviews in all of them -- often quite passionately and savagely bad, which I take as a compliment. As I come from the school of being trashed since I was 19 years old, I've not only become used to it, I've come to expect it. On the rare occasions I get a good review, it almost seems as if something is terribly wrong. I know this sounds weird, but criticism is a motivator; I actually kind of depend on it. I've almost always felt out of sync with almost all current aesthetics all the time, so it seems correct that one whose life is dedicated to defining and maintaining a particular aesthetic (should perceive) whatever I am doing at any particular time as contrary or off the mark -- or at the very least irrelevant.

Now that I've entered the so-called "classical world," I expect that to compound dramatically. Most of my inspirations come from the early part of the 20th century. I'm of the opinion that most classical or orchestral composition in the latter 20th century moved into a rarefied realm that removed them from the grasp of a common, uneducated musical listener. In other words, the music must be understood first in order to be able to hear it as something other than noise. And don't get me wrong: I don't think there's anything wrong with that. For years I dreamed of becoming a modern reinvention of the composer Harry Partch, who was very avant-garde and radical in his approach. Steve Reich and Lou Harrison were also great inspirations to me. I absolutely idolize Philip Glass. But when I sit down to write, I have a goal of trying to write orchestral music that anyone can listen to without a contemporary music background. To take familiar melodic building blocks and ideas and "mosh" them together into a shape they're not supposed to exist in.

I know this sounds stupid, but I try to make my compositions entertaining and occasionally even fun. Not a popular notion in this day and age in the concert world. Certainly not in the ballet or opera world either. The critical frameworks in those realms are far more rarefied, by many magnifications, of those of rock music or film, so I can only expect an even colder shoulder and more venomous words.

So be it. I've always thrived on "f*** you." Having said that, I assume that whenever strangers recognize me and like me they'll greet me with a warm, "F*** you."

THR: So with all your success as a composer, do you ever feel like you've exacted some measure of revenge against your critics?

Elfman: Like I said, I've been a target all of my adult life, and as soon as I became successful, I felt the claws pulling at me big-time, But my revenge is simply that I'm still here. I started out as a street scrapper doing stuff that had no business being done. When I became a film composer, I definitely had no business being a film composer. I took a lot of flack for it, and I got a lot of energy from that. I like bursting into a room and staking out a claim and not allowing myself to be kicked out.

I've always felt like an outsider. I did in the beginning and I do now. Of course that sounds ridiculous, as I'm now a 23-year veteran deeply entrenched in the Hollywood music system, but that's how I feel. Still fighting to find my balance and hold my place.

I think that because of the number of years I've hung in there, I've garnered some respect. But especially now, as I enter these new realms, it's that constant awareness of those voices that chant, "Wont you please just go away?" that still gives me fuel and helps me to say, "Nope. I may not be welcome, but I'm not going away until I'm dead. When the big D slams me, that's when I'll go, and not a day before.
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