On Dark Shadows – An Evening With Danny Elfman
Tuesday evening, fans and friends gathered at the historic Warner Brothers Records building in Burbank to witness a public question and answer forum with famed film composer Danny Elfman. Jeff Bond who wrote The Music of Star Trek and Danse Macabre: 25 Years of Danny Elfman and Tim Burton conducted the interview and public question portions of the evening.
Collectively, Bond and Elfman shed light on the premise of Dark Shadows: it’s more of a comedy through Tim Burton’s land of quirky characters and a “lot of ridiculous situations” involving an 18-century character finding himself transported to 1972. Originally, Elfman did not enjoy watching the Dark Shadows series because, “If there’s no blood, there’s no entertainment; and if there’s no entertainment, I’m not going to watch it anymore.” He really indulged in the horror movies, but the romance of shows like this did not appeal to him at the time. In retrospect, he can appreciate it from an adult’s perspective. When asked which element of the film helped Elfman develop its score, he replied, “I don’t know. I just look at the movie and come up with ideas. Tim was very specific that he wanted to keep it small.” However, according to the musician, due to its melodramatic nature, the prologue turned out to be quite lengthy.
Elfman’s greatest inspiration is Bernard Hermann, a composer he discovered twice in life – first, when he was twelve and began to understand that someone actually had to create the music that goes in a movie. Later, around 17-18 years old, his fervor for horror grew when he started to go to repertory houses to watch Hitchcock movies. Soon enough, he began to admire Hermann’s work which eventually served as the muse for his own scores. Although he does hold a special place in his heart for the horror genre, Elfman doesn’t consider any of his projects horror films. He has completed romantic scores for Wolfman, Night Breed, and other movies, but he loves writing for doomed characters in romantic stories most.
Through the course of the evening, the gentlemen overviewed Elfman’s progression with music, how he fell into the limelight as a major motion picture composer, and ultimately how he and Burton became a dynamic duo. Elfman insisted that his entire career hinged upon mishaps. “Everything’s been a series of accidents.” He regaled the crowd with his traveling experience in Africa, referring to it as “$1-a-day travel.” By the end of the whirlwind trip, however, he had contracted malaria three times and was diagnosed with hepatitis. The illness forced him to return home and start again.
Next, Elfman moves into the course of unnecessary events which led him from rock star status to film composer. He considered the rock band Oingo Boingo his secondary career because he had been in a theater group for several years prior to it. The Mystic Nights (of Oingo Boing), predecessor to OB, scored The Forbidden Zone, giving Elfman a slight notion of what the composing process entailed. Burton, a fan of OB, and Paul Ruben (also known as Peewee Herman) were fans of the Mystic Knights. When they were looking for a composer to score Peewee’s Big Adventure, Elfman’s name was of mutual interest between Burton and Ruben. They commissioned him to watch the film and score it. After taking a peek at it, he created a demo cassette tape, sent it their way, and thought it would end there. A few weeks later, he got the call that the job was his. Reluctant to accept the opportunity because he didn’t want to ruin the movie, he told his manager to decline the offer. However, his manager insisted that Elfman make the official phone call to decline on his own. Because he was too intimidated to make the call, he grudgingly stayed on board with the picture. “And that’s how I became a composer,” he scoffed, reiterating that the job fell into his lap. Every Burton film opened more doors for him, but between each of them, he had to work on a number of other films in order to gain experience and learn as much as possible. For him, the best part about writing scores became “Before and after” because “it’s a lot of work.”
Elfman mentioned that he and Burton have been a team for 14.5 films (the .5 stemming from the project-in-progress Frankenweenie). Together, they experiment a lot with sounds to get a sense of what they need it to do for a film. He insisted that Big Fish, Dark Shadows, and Alice in Wonderland were among some of the hardest films he has scored. Edward Scissorhands, however, was easy for him because he knew what he wanted to do instantly. The composer made sure to mention that Burton loves his villains. Consequently, he loves to write music for the villains that Burton creates. What works for the pair is the fact that as a director, Burton gives Elfman a long leash to write on. That being said, he acknowledges that “it’s hard to write stuff that’s too weird for Tim.”
On working with Burton and Johnny Depp, he notes how “wonderfully” Depp has matured his voice into a rich one. Elfman entertained the crowd with a sweet anecdote about how Depp used to steal guitar picks and strings from his guitar cases when Oingo Boingo was together. Their bands practiced in the same studio spaces, and Depp later confessed to Elfman that he used to steal from the band when they were not looking. No recompense has been made since.
Upon opening the interview up to the fans, Elfman divulged his process of creating music for a movie, “I’m definitely a preacher of modern times because I can write dense parts, but I’m hearing everything… I have it in my head, but I can play it out slowly.” Unlike composers of earlier days like Gershwin and Hermann, Elfman indulges in the ease of modern technology because he can slow the parts of the music down and break a score into pieces to perfectly it.
One adoring fan praised Elfman as a god for perhaps his most noted creations – The Simpsons theme song as well as the music to Batman. Though he has made some of the most famous scores to date, he still holds admiration for his peers. Elfman proclaimed Phillip Glass is his greatest inspiration. Surprisingly, when John Bond interviewed Glass at an earlier date, he discovered that he, in return, is a fan of Danny’s. The feeling is certainly mutual for both artists.
With yet another film under the Elfman-Burton belt and even more planned for the future, it seems that there is no end in sight for Danny’s career. His fans eagerly wait to see what he does next. Dark Shadows hits theaters Friday May 11th.
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