For some movie and music enthusiasts, Danny Elfman needs no introduction. For those who think they don't know the composer's work, consider this: If you've seen The Simpsons or Tim Burton's Batman, Beetlejuice, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, or Edward Scissorhands, then rest assured, you're familiar with Elfman's canon. As a film composer, his style is often associated with Burton's movies, which is why Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton — a multimedia concert event featuring Burton's artwork projected on a screen while Elfman's movie scores are played by a live orchestra and sung by a full chorus—makes so much sense.
The program, which kicks off on July 6 and runs for seven performances, offers more than just another side of Burton, as Elfman's contribution is new, too. Rather than random snippets from the film scores, the program features suites from 15 different films, specially crafted for this event. "The imprimatur of the composer is evident in every note," says John Mauceri, a longtime champion of film scores in the concert hall who will also be conducting the orchestra during the event.
In anticipation of the performance, Elfman talks with Lincoln Center not only about his working relationship with Burton but also his early musical influences, his role fronting 80s new wave band Oingo Boingo, and the old film he almost wishes he could re-score.
Lincoln Center: This concert isn't merely an orchestral retrospective of your scores for Tim Burton's films—it's a multimedia concert event with film clips and Burton's sketches, and rumor has it we'll even get to see you perform onstage?
Danny Elfman: Correct. Tim put together a visual accompaniment presentation of all kinds of stuff—his own sketches, costume designs, and some footage from films. So it is like something that he put his own personality into. And I will, in fact, be coming out and singing a bunch of songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
LC: A lot of people might not realize, if they're only familiar with your film compositions, that you were the lead singer of Oingo Boingo—not to mention, the singing voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Are you relishing being back out on the stage after composing for film for so long?
DE: I'm really enjoying this tour. [After Oingo Boingo,] I didn't actually end up with any desire to come back onstage, but this concert's producer asked, Would you consider coming out and singing one or two Jack Skellington songs? And, as usual, I react without thinking and said, Yeah, sure, why not? It'll be fun! And then when it came time for the first concert in Royal Albert Hall in London, of course I was like, [voice of mock agony] Oh, my God, what've I done, why did I say that? But I did it, I survived and didn't get tarred and feathered as I was expecting, and decided—you know what? That was fun! Really different than the stuff I used to do in the band. It's so the antithesis of standing with an electric guitar in front of a mic, and because it was Jack Skellington's character, I could enjoy it on a very, very different level.
LC: I understand Tim Burton was an Oingo Boingo fan, and that led to you doing your first feature length score for his feature length debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure?
DE: Yes, he used to come hear my band, and he just thought somehow it might be interesting [to have me score his film], and Paul Reubens knew of a thing I'd done for my brother [Richard Elfman] called Forbidden Zone years earlier. So, between the two of them, my name came up, and we had a meeting. Then I went home, wrote a piece of music based on some of the footage they'd shown me, and sent the cassette—I just recorded the piece on a four-track tape recorder—and never expected to hear from them again. And that piece of music became the main title to Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
LC: Cassettes in the mail—that's not really the way I imagined things worked in Hollywood...
DE: Right, but I couldn't have been more outside of Hollywood at that point.
LC: Was it intimidating to go from the world of rock music to writing for orchestras? Did you have prior experience doing that?
DE: No, but I'd been musical director of the Mystic Knights [a.k.a. The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo], which was like a 12-piece theatrical troupe where everybody had to play three instruments, and there's a certain point where, it was, but it's not that different than writing for an orchestra. Because, essentially, if you think of writing a complicated piece of music for 10 or 12 players, like a chamber piece, and then upping it to the orchestra—it's still the same mental process.
LC: Can you tell us a little about the process of working with Tim Burton, and how the spirit and feel for a score comes into being?
DE: Tim is not into analyzing his work or deconstructing it in any way. When we watch the whole movie together and we break down all the cues, the music starts here and ends here—they're the quickest spotting sessions of anybody I work with. It's really up to me to start experimenting, and until I have music to play, there's not much for him to respond to. Once that's done and I've written the music, he gets more into Oh yeah! Oh, no! Yeah! No! It's a process: He turns me loose, I go into the laboratory, I come up with a lot of ideas—some of them kinda crazy—and then I play them all for him, and he learns through that what he does and doesn't respond to, and from his reactions, I learn—okay, here is where the score is gonna go.
LC: What would you say were your primary influences early on, when you were developing that style that would become synonymous with Burton's films and your name?
DE: Definitely Bernard Herrmann was my big influence growing up. I learned at about 12 when I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still that film music had a purpose, and it could move you, and I also saw that there was a name attached to it—it wasn't just a thing that was there. There was a person behind it. Later, as I became a real film buff, it would be Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, and to an extent, John Barry. But you know, as I got deeper into it, I really turned my lens backwards, so my influences started becoming composers that were no longer around. Like Franz Waxman, Erich Korngold, and Dimitri Tiomkin. And then, it all gets filtered together, but it was triggered by Herrmann.
LC: Are there any modern composers outside of the film music realm that influenced you?
DE: Definitely Philip Glass. He's like the big 20th century influence outside of film music, though he's also inside film music. And of course, John Williams is the one who really brought it all back to life. Any [film] composer that writes for a full orchestra owes a debt to him.
LC: So, are you allowed to tell us what's next for you?
DE: I have a film coming out called The End of the Tour, I have a film score I just finished called Goosebumps, and I'm just about to finish up a lovely little film called Tulip Fever, in London, that Tom Stoppard wrote. Then I jump right into Alice in Wonderland 2. So, it's a busy year—and it's weird. I never did expect at this point in my life and career, when I thought things would be mellowing out, that it would be the other extreme. But this year, and probably the last four or five, years have been the most intense I've had in my career. You know, it's never what you think it's going to be.