Danny Elfman: 'My Constant Worry Is That I'll Run Out of Ideas' (Q&A)

Danny Elfman Portrait - H 2012
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Danny Elfman Portrait - H 2012

The composer wins the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Maestro Award and talks about how working with Tim Burton has changed over the years ("his ears are sharper") and how the theme to "The Simpsons" took 10 minutes to write.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Composer Danny Elfman has won a Grammy and an Emmy and earned four Oscar nominations with almost 80 film scores. On Oct. 25 at the W Hotel in Hollywood, THR film critic Todd McCarthy will present Elfman, 59, with the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Maestro Award, previously won by Alan Menken, Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer and Marvin Hamlisch. McCarthy will host a Q&A with Elfman and Sacha Gervasi, director of the Elfman-scored Hitchcock, due out in November. THR asked Elfman to reflect on his 27-year career and his biggest year, 2012.

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The Hollywood Reporter: How did you score seven films in about a year's time?

Danny Elfman: Eight. Dark Shadows, Men in Black 3, Frankenweenie, Silver Linings Playbook, Promised Land, Hitchcock, Oz, Epic. I've never had a year like this. It's a blur. Ripping myself out of one and hurtling into another is like switching alternate universes, a ripping slash.

THR: You're like the slashed-up Boy Scout on your band Oingo Boingo's Only a Lad album cover, marching on. How was Tim Burton different on Frankenweenie versus 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure?

Elfman: He's still the same Tim -- much more opinionated now, with sharper ears. People think it must be easy by now, but that's not the case. It's still a big effort to find out what it is that's inside his subconscious. I don't have any kind of secret path. He doesn't want to analyze his films upfront: "This means this, this means that, this is how I feel about this moment." He's like: "Um, OK, here's the movie. We'll talk about it when you have something to play." Like David O. Russell, he's got to learn during the process what he responds to and why. He'll draw my attention to a few moments here and there where he has concerns, but it's very simple. Tim's spotting sessions [where the director and composer meet to decide where the music should go and how it should sound] are the shortest on the planet. Alice in Wonderland we spotted in less than two hours.

THR: What was Russell like on Silver Linings Playbook?

Elfman: I was apprehensive because I have a real fear of romantic comedy. It's the one genre I go out of my way to never do because I don't have a feel for it. I see very few comedies, even. But this was just strange enough, and I loved the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. I thought it'd be easy, since there isn't that much music. It was far from easy, because David is such a character. He tortured me endlessly but never stopped amusing me. The trick with David is to be very patient, just kick back and try to enjoy the Russell Experience. Really worthwhile.

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THR: You imagined yourself into composer Bernard Herrmann's head for Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake. What was it like to score Hitchcock?

Elfman: The main thing I wanted to know from Sacha was that he didn't want to do a Herrmann-esque score, a mock Psycho. The story is a romance between Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. It's a fairly romantic score, and it gets a little darker where Hitchcock is in the world of Ed Gein [the killer who inspired Psycho], talking to him. I found myself occasionally doing Herrmann-esque things but not intentionally. He's so much part of my DNA, there's moments where, yeah, there's a bit of an homage there, but it's just me.

THR: Tom Stoppard said when people see Pirandello's influence in his first play, he feels like a smuggler's dupe: The contraband is in there, but he can't recall packing it.

Elfman: Exactly. Bernard Herrmann is the reason I'm a composer.

THR: Why did you do Promised Land? Was it fun because Van Sant likes to let people take big risks?

Elfman: There's so many things fun about working with him, but that's an important one. He actually forces me to take risks. I start with ideas, and he'll say, "Let's try completely opposite stuff and see what happens." I just start playing Gus pieces I'm writing. For Promised Land, I'm thinking, "OK, guitars -- a very simple Americana score." Gus was like, "Why don't we do the whole thing on marimbas?" He's just a pure pleasure to work with.

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THR: Are you and Tim Burton both looking for something perverse? Is that what your imaginations have in common?

Elfman: Yeah, it depends on the film. Frankenweenie is very much not perverse. The heart of the score is very sweet, where Dark Shadows is going to be a bit more perverse.

THR: What makes music funny?

Elfman: I don't know.

THR: Do you have a "funny" button on your console?

Elfman: I wish. On Oz just yesterday, I was playing some music for [director] Sam Raimi, and he was laughing out loud. And what I did that was so funny in this particular moment was a pause. What's usually funny in music is timing. When I'm making Sam laugh effectively, which I've been doing quite a bit of this week, it's because I'm finding the timing of a scene, putting in accents and pauses in very specific moments. It's funny without trying to be.

THR: Music is a combination of repetitive pattern and surprise, and sometimes the best sound is silence.

Elfman: Absolutely correct. Where something starts or ends is a very big thing. There's a lot of music in Oz, about 115 minutes, but I'm having a great time because the music's all very narrative, and I really could go on almost a hypnotic trance and just pour music out in a way I really enjoy. I'm really telling the story with music, I've got a number of themes blocked out, and it's flowing really easily.

THR: Maybe this work binge is good for you. When I asked cartoonist Gary Larson if he ever runs out of ideas, he said no, cartooning gives you "comedy muscles." Do you have composing muscles?

Elfman: Believe me, I'm worried about fatigue but far from it. I've actually suddenly found myself writing really aggressively and fast and not feeling tired at all. I have this joyful feeling of being toward the last laps of a big marathon and feeling very strong. But it's my constant plaguing worry that I'll run out of ideas.

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THR: Has your process changed?

Elfman: It's exactly the same for 27 years. Like lowering a bucket into a well, and you have to wait until you hear the splash of water. Sometimes you're running out of rope and you go, "Holy f---! There's no water in this well." Eventually, I find water.

THR: Is it easier to do a sequel?

Elfman: Men in Black 3 was a pleasure, a vacation almost. There is this simple beauty in a sequel. I've got those characters and that style of how to tell it musically down so cold, it's like I'm stepping in fully loaded. Usually starting a film is like coming out of the Terminator bubble, when you've just gone in from the future and you have no clothes, no weapons, nothing.

THR: Did rock critic/Simpsons auteur Matt Groening ever review your band?

Elfman: He gave us a nasty review, and I wrote a nasty rebuttal because he admitted he only showed up for the encores, drunk. I reluctantly became a fan of his Life in Hell comic. It was like, "I hate this guy, but God, is he good." Twelve, 13, 14 years later, when I was leaving a great meeting on The Simpsons, he goes, "I don't know if you remember, but ... " We shook hands. I felt like The Simpsons theme should sound right out of 1965. I literally wrote it in the car on my way back home, recorded a demo in 10 minutes and sent it to them the same day. The most direct thing I've ever done.

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THR: Hitchcock writer Stephen Rebello told me you are "the impossible love child of Bernard Herrmann and Peter Lorre."

Elfman: It could very well be. I'd like to think I'm the love child of Bernard Herrmann, but I would never be so presumptuous as to say so. The Peter Lorre part for sure. I always joke with Tim because his idol was Vincent Price and mine was Peter Lorre, and this defines our relationship: He's the tormentor, and I'm this tortured Peter Lorre. There's a moment in The Beast With Five Fingers when the hand is crawling up Lorre's chest and he's trying to pull it away. That scene is closer to how I feel when I'm working than anything else. The piece I'm working on is that hand, and it's gonna kill me or I'm gonna try to kill it, but we're locked together in a reality there's no escape from. He nails it to a piece of wood and laughs because he's finally gotten it under control, but of course the next day it's come free and it's gone. The moments I feel in control of my own work are momentary and fragmented.?

THR: May you never escape.

Elfman: The only escape is death.