American Film


Los Angeles native Danny Elfman has been one of Hollywood’s most prolific and celebrated composers since the 1980s when he began scoring the films of his friend, Tim Burton, beginning with PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985). The two have collaborated on more than a dozen of Elfman’s 90 screen credits, including BEETLEJUICE (1988), EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990), SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999) and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010). The son of a children’s book author and a teacher, Danny joined his brother Richard in Paris in the early 1970s, where they started a musical theater troupe, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Biongo. That evolved into the quirky independent rock band Oingo Boingo, whose songs were featured on a number of film soundtracks, including WEIRD SCIENCE (1985). Today, Elfman is best known for his scores for fantasy and superhero films like MEN IN BLACK (1997), BATMAN (1989) and SPIDER-MAN (2002), music that evokes the fear and wonder of fantastic worlds and magical powers. Small wonder then that he was director Sam Raimi’s choice to compose the music for OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, which offers a new perspective on the L. Frank Baum characters made famous in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The Disney release stars James Franco as a small-time magician who, with the help of a hot-air balloon and a stiff breeze from Kansas, finds himself in an unfamiliar place. The composer spoke with us from his East Hollywood studio at the end of a chaotic last week before the score for his next project, the 20th Century Fox animated feature, EPIC, was recorded by an orchestra.

As a film composer are you like Oz, great and powerful?

No, as a film composer I’d say I’m hopeless and vulnerable.

You’ve worked with Sam Raimi several times. What’s that relationship like?

I love working with Sam. He’s really a very gentle guy. It’s fun working with him.

You’ve said in the past that your frequent collaborator, Tim Burton, is like Vincent Price, while you’re more like Peter Lorre. Who’s Sam Raimi?

Raimi would be Quasimodo.

Was OZ one of those projects where you got to do something you hadn’t attempted before?

I can’t say there’s any way to work on a big fantasy film and say "I’m doing something I’ve never done before" after 80 films. Also, to say that, I feel, would be pretentious. "I’ve done something I’ve never done before" is not something you’ll ever hear me say.

Most people have strong musical connections to the L. Frank Baum stories, either from THE WIZARD OF OZ or the stage musical "Wicked." Did those represent a hurdle of some kind or influence you in any way?

No. I gave it no thought whatsoever. I’m a believer in zero research. I used to be big on research and now I’m absolutely the opposite. I found over the years that every time I got involved early and developed ideas based on thoughts of what it was going to be, not a single note of what I’d written has ever gotten used. At a certain point I actually see footage, and it’s always like, "Oh! I get it! That’s what it is!" And I really am of the philosophy that you could take the same script and end up with 10 different scores based on 10 different directors with 10 different styles of film. The way the camera moves, the acting performances will really dictate a completely different score. So now, when I read a script, I get interested in it, but I try not to get too far into developing my thoughts until the first time I see rough footage. The perfect state for my brain is like a television channel when the transmission has ended, like in the old days, if you remember the beginning of POLTERGEIST. On a blank screen? Well, that’s how I like my brain to be when I see a film for the first time. Pure white static. Nothing.

What was the greatest challenge in scoring OZ?

The challenge was that it’s a big movie, a big story. It was going to be like 110, 115 minutes of music. I mean, that itself is like a huge endeavor. It’s like doing two scores. But I knew there would have to be a tone and there would have to be emotion and love themes and heroics and transformation. My attitude, when I come on, is to be as flexible and fluid as possible. I want to wrap myself around it. I want to make myself really just receptive and find the film as easily as possible. The more fluid I make myself, the more I can find it easily. I kind of pour myself like some kind of viscous liquid over it, and it happens. I know this all sounds really ridiculous...

Not at all. Regarding the Wizard, do you find it necessary to identify with a character the way an actor does in order to compose for him?

Well, yeah – definitely. At a certain point, I’m going to get into the film through that character and try to align myself with that character, so yeah, that’s very important. And, you know, there will be a point then down the line where those characters are just my whole life.

What’s the emotional core of the movie?

The emotional core of this movie was fun to play. It’s a con man with a good heart. He doesn’t believe he has goodness in him or that he has any potential, and he has to find that potential and find that he’s a better man than he thought he was. That’s really the heart of the story, and so once I found that, that’s really where I took it – or rather, where it took me. It was trying to express the fact that he doesn’t have any faith in himself. Early on, we can hear that he has aspirations, but he has to figure out that he has the ability to do more.

Was that a parallel to your own situation?

I had a kind of unique situation in the writing of OZ. I’ve had a very busy, hectic year, and I was a little worried about my energy, coming into such a big score. And for reasons that I still haven’t figured out, I fell into the most rhythmically perfect writing period that I think I’ve ever experienced. Without trying, I fell into the themes really easily and I just started writing it. And every day I was looking at what I’d written and I was going, "I’ve never written that much before!" I’m used to writing, struggling to get two minutes a day and I was finding three and three and a half and even four-minute days, but I wasn’t trying! It was really weird. I actually finished the score two and half weeks, three weeks ahead of schedule, which is incredibly bizarre. It was such a magical thing that when I went back to work on my next film it was more like my usual torturous process.

Like THE WIZARD OF OZ, this new film goes from black and white to color. Does your music do that?

No, we always knew that we would approach it differently in the mix. We talked about whether we would actually start it in mono and go to stereo or just start it with a narrower perspective and have it open up. But the score is still the score, so there isn’t really a way to write for black and white or color, regardless of the rumored conversation that Bernard Herrmann had about PSYCHO. He was rumored to have said why he wrote only strings for PSYCHO. His answer was because the film’s black and white. And so I’ve had that thrown back at me a number of times. I always say the same thing: "He’s a composer. He was bullshitting!"

You’re known for scoring stories of superheroes in major studio films. What other types of stories would you like to work on?

I like working on all kinds of stories. This year has been an exceptionally interesting and versatile one. Going from FRANKENWEENIE and DARK SHADOWS to HITCHCOCK, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and PROMISED LAND to OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL and EPIC. I had the great fortune this year of really bouncing to extremes, and that is what I love most.

Do you work well under deadline pressure?

That’s the only way I work. Very often when I’m doing press stuff, they’ll be asking me, "What is your motivation when you sit down to write? What is your inspiration?" You never say the truth...

Which is...?

Deadlines! My inspiration is the deadline. If I didn’t have the deadline, I’d still be working on PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. So my inspiration is motivated by the fact that "holy crap, my time is gone! I’ve got to get notes on the paper. I’ve got to get it down now!" Any film composer who’s successful and works well ultimately is motivated by pressure. I don’t consider myself a naturally disciplined person.

Do you spend a lot of time listening to new samples and trying to keep up with those synthetic sounds?

Well, I do as best I can, but in the end I hate everything. I work with what I work with. There are certain kinds of sounds that samples do better than others. If you’re doing a big action piece, a big aggressive piece, you can actually get the piece to sound really pretty good, but if you’re doing a very quiet or evocative piece, you know the soft playing of strings, the lack of vibrato in the samples – you know, it is what it is. It just gets you through the moment, but no one would ever mistake it for real strings.

Was Bernard Herrmann an influence on your score for HITCHCOCK?

Well, Herrmann was probably a bigger influence on OZ than HITCHCOCK.

How so?

With HITCHCOCK, we made a conscious decision not to make it Herrmannesque. There were a few moments, of course, where I’m sure it did, almost unconsciously, because it’s so much a part of my own musical DNA. I’ll get Herrmannesque even when I’m not trying to get Herrmannesque. But because of the fantasy nature of OZ there were actually probably more moments where I was allowing myself to be Herrmannesque with my use of brass and woodwinds than in HITCHCOCK, where I was trying not to.

Did you have a mentor when you started out in this field?

No, not at all. I got into film totally backwards. I had no mentor. I had no lessons. I was in a musical theatrical street troupe for seven years and it’s there I taught myself to write. Then, as you know, I was in a rock band for a number of years. But really, it was this bizarre combination of two things that catapulted me into film – both random. Tim Burton used to come and see Oingo Boingo, my band, and he seemed to think that I could do more with myself than I had shown; and Paul Reubens was a fan of this little cult film called FORBIDDEN ZONE that my brother [Richard Elfman] had done. I scored the movie with the Mystic Knights – not scored in the traditional sense, but, you know, I wrote tunes and did a little score. I never expected it to lead to other stuff. I did those and I went back to the band and it was all history until PEE-WEE popped up. And they were going through names and my name popped up. And Tim knew me through the rock band and Paul knew me through FORBIDDEN ZONE. So I got called in for an interview, and if anything I tried to say, "Why me?" I didn’t really get it.

So when did you get it?

Right there on PEE-WEE, the first cue that I heard played back. I was hooked. But even when I wrote the score for PEE-WEE I expected it to be thrown out.

So this is something you’ve learned by doing. Do you mentor young composers now? Do you have a staff at your studio?

It’s a pretty lonely endeavor. I keep a very small crew. Of course, I have a staff, but I always prided myself in having one of the smallest crews in my profession. I have two people who work here at my studio every day. And I’ve had the same orchestrator since PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE – Steve Bartek, who was my guitarist in Oingo Boingo, who literally got the job by just going: "Hey, Steve, believe it or not, I’m getting hired to do a film score. I need an orchestrator. Have you ever done any?" And he said, "I took a class." And I said, "That’s good enough." But I never really mentored anyone, so to speak, because I don’t think I know how.

Your work for Tim Burton is now available in a box CD set. Have you listened to it straight through, and how did that affect you?

Well, yeah, I had to put that together. That was like three months of intensive work. And it’s the first time I ever listened to my past work. It was very weird because I really obsessively do not listen to anything I’ve ever done. Ever. Once I’ve made the soundtrack and the soundtrack is done, I never listen to it again unless I have to. To suddenly have to sift through 25 years of work was really interesting. It was really very strange. It was like, "Oh my God, did I write that? Oh my God, that was so primitive." Then at the end, I was like, "Well, that was primitive, but maybe I need to kind of learn something from that, too." It was really interesting. It was shocking. The funkiness of some of the recordings was also shocking.

If you don’t ordinarily listen to Elfman, what or whom do you listen to?

Well, I tend to listen to stuff only when I’m driving and only before I go to sleep because I’m writing all the time. So because I’m writing I never really get to listen to stuff, but when I’m driving I primarily listen to hip-hop. And when I’m at home I listen to – it’s pretty eclectic – I mean..."Armful of Parts," Radiohead, some Erik Satie, Shostakovich...I try to listen to things that are calming. It’s really about trying to get the tunes out of my head so I can go to sleep. It’s pretty practical. I will, if I’m not careful, continue writing in my sleep.

So you go from the snowy screen to the dark screen?

The snowy screen is just when I’m watching the screen for the first time. That’s where I’m blank. After that I’ve got to get incredibly focused. So there’s nothing snowy there. It’s like skipping from picture to picture to picture as I’m trying to hone in on what it is that’s necessary for each moment. What happens is that, in that process of working 12-hour days, sometimes it’s hard to let it go. I know it’s not a unique problem for me because, talking with other composers, I think it’s kind of a classic dilemma. You’re working and you’ve got these themes going, you’re working such long hours and you find yourself kind of looping music, and that’s kind of deadly. It leads to waking up feeling un-rested, but nothing accomplished by this so-called work you’re doing in your dream. I mean I’ve actually had extended dreams where I say in the dream "This is ridiculous, I’m dreaming!" And some technicians come out and go, "No, no, no... you’re hooked up to a hard-drive, everything you’re working on is getting saved." "Really?" "Absolutely." "This is fool-proof?" "In fact, there’s a redundant backup system, even if it crashes, everything’s being saved." So I continue writing, I continue working. And of course, I wake up, and it’s like "Nooooooo...!"

THE WIZARD OF OZ is perhaps the most famous and best-loved fantasy film ever made. It was based on one of the most popular children's books ever written, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which, Life magazine noted in an article about the film, differed from most other such “fables” in that it contained “1) a modern U.S. heroine and 2) absence of any really horrifying ogres, monstrosities or bewitchments.” 

In addition to the Judy Garland classic THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), L. Frank Baum’s book was previously adapted for the screen in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1910) directed by Otis Turner and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1925) starring Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy.

For more on THE WIZARD OF OZ visit the AFI Catalog of Feature Films.