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Danny Elfman was honored with the “Maestro Award” at Thursday’s session of the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film and TV Music Conference.
Held at Hollywood’s W Hotel, the prolific composer, who’s worked on all but two of Tim Burton’s films, including such classics as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, in addition to box office hits like Men in Black, Spider-Man and the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, revealed much about his process, which he calls torturous. That’s especially true this year, with a full plate of movies on deck, including the just-released Frankenweenie and the forthcoming Hitchcock, whose director, Sacha Gervasi, joined in for the afternoon Q&A (conducted by THR’s Tim Appelo), Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell), Promised Land (Gus Van Sant) and Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi).
Gervasi, too, has an impressive resume which includes the beloved doc Anvil, a film so good that Elfman and his wife had to pause mid-way to gather themselves the first time they watched it. “The movie is so wrenching, we could not even bear to see what happens to these people,” Elfman recalls. “We found it really engaging.”
You could say the same of Elfman’s own work, which stems from a love of music that goes back to his late teens and 20s when he fronted the band Oingo Boingo. And even today, some three decades after hanging up his rock star hat, a bad review of one of his performances sticks out — written by Matt Groening. Said Elfman: “I actually love bad reviews, so the fact that Matt was a critic for the Reader and gave us a really bad review wasn’t unusual. But his was pretty nasty and I wrote a really big letter to the Reader, which I rarely do, mainly because he admitted in the review that he was drunk and only came to the encores.” No wonder he was “huffing and puffing” his way through the songs, says Elfman. It was after a set of some 30 tunes. “They published the letter and 15 years later, I get this call to meet him about The Simpsons.” The rest is TV theme history, with a twist of irony and small worldness that you only get in show business.
Indeed, Gervasi and Elfman were both taken by the Hitchcock history they learned while making the film, which is based on the non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho — especially the role of Hitchock’s wife Alma, who was involved in virtually every aspect of her husband’s work. “She was critical to his whole creative process,” explained Gervasi. “It was a collaboration for 36 years, through casting, script, pre-production … she was a genius in the editing room.”
The pairing included commissioning music for Hitchcok’s films and Elfman dutifully noted that the stabbing strings that accompany the famous shower scene in Psycho is, along with the theme from Jaws, one of the most recognized sonic pieces in the film world. “There’s nothing else that really compares to it,” said Elfman, whose own score was inspired by that of original Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann, which he heard in its original form and in its entirety and also rerecorded note for note. “Not many people ever got that pleasure,” he said. “Handling that score was like being a priest holding the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was that kind of honor.”
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