A different beat
By John M Glionna
L.A. Times, 1999.04.18
Danny Elfman Pinged From Oingo Boingo Front Man to Prolific
Movie Score Writer. Now This Oddball May Pong Into Directing His Own Scripts
The look is pure boyish gloom, a self-conscious I'll-never-finish-my-homework-on-time
frown that weighs on his features like a moody piece of music. * Danny Elfman
has a film score to write, another major movie for which he must supply the
musical soulsubliminal cadences that will flow between the lines, speaking
volumes to viewers. But a week into the scoring of A Civil Action, Elfman
is once again reeling toward the analyst's couch.
For the 45-year-old L.A. native, it doesn't matter that he's
the most absurdly prolific and crazily-in-demand score writer in Hollywood,
with nearly three dozen credits (Batman, Beetlejuice, Dick
Tracy and To Die For for starters) in a little more than a decade.
It doesn't matter that as the founder, singer and songwriter for Oingo Boingo,
the zany L.A. cult band of the '80s, he delivered on deadline countless times.
Elfman's skepticism has been sharpened by critics. Though he
earned two Academy Award nominations in 1997 for Men in Black and Good
Will Hunting, his work has long been scrutinized by industry peers, some
of whom suggest it's not even his. But Danny Elfman is used to being kicked
around. He grew up the classic target of neighborhood bullies, a loner who often
took refuge in fantastical double features at the cineplex. Even today, wipe
away that thin veneer of cool bestowed by careers in rock and the movies and
you've still got the uneasy outsider.
So what if he's no John Williams? Elfman
doesn't give a damn.
He's pulled it off, evolving from a local counterculture icon into a
sure-fire hire in a risk-averse industry. And he's done it on his own
terms. The out-of-step little boy has gladly grown into the
out-of-step artist. "Most people go their way," he says. "I go mine."
Still, dark pilot birds hover above his shoulders. Writing movie
scores is no different than performing live. He gets stage fright. With
every film, Elfman believes this time the pressure is unbearable. This
time he can't deliver. This time he's a liability, a bag of rocks sinking
a film project that already has wrapped, already has movie-house
trailers in the can, already has its bloody release date etched in
The only thing lacking is the score,
the notes he has yet to
imagine. And as he frets, the director, the producer and the studio
executives drum their collective fingertips on the tabletop, the
precious moments slipping past, his deadline closing in. Tick. Tick.
"Every time I tell myself that I'll
never do this again, that I hate
this more than life itself," says Elfman, stroking his goatee while
slouched in a garden chair outside his home in the Santa Monica
Mountains. "But the wheels are already turning. It's inconceivable
that I won't finish."
He calls his agent.
"I'm not going to finish," he says.
"Danny," the agent soothes, "you're going
But, Elfman protests, he's completed
only three of the 35
scenes. Sighing, resigned, he begins to plan the party he throws
before every project, the downer of a bash where he says goodbye
to friends and his daughters. He's a convict being dragged off for a
lengthy prison bender.
"See you on the other side," he tells
everyone. For three months,
until this latest score is settled, Elfman will spend 12 hours a day in
front of a video screen, using a remote control to stop and start the
footage until he strikes upon just the right musical nuances. There
will be no fun, no candlelight dinners with his girlfriend, no long
weekends with the kids.
Finally, his angst vented, Elfman retires
to his basement musical
laboratory. There he gets back inside the head of that Baldwin Hills
teen who escaped to the movies and left moved by their music. His
mind wanders back into the darkness of his neighborhood theater,
where he was first awed by the momentous scores of composers
such as Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner.
Then he goes to work.
The movie score writer is the alter-ego
of the rock singer. Bands
lead very public lives. Writing movie music is lonely. Neurotic.
It requires sitting alone in a room plunking piano keys. Elfman
likens the job to writing screenplays, of which he has completed
three. "A movie starts with a writer alone in a room conjuring
something out of vapor," he says. "And it ends with a score
composer talking to himself in a little room, conjuring something out
As Elfman explains it, a score is musical insight into a character's
mindmelodies, backbeats and orchestral explorations that hint at hidden
emotions. Scores can tip off a looming crisis, a monster lurking nearby (a bassy
thump foreshadows the shark attacks in Jaws, for example), a marriage
The music also serves as glue, cementing a montage of action.
Often scores convey motion, building tension and helping to drive the action.
Music may swirl around dialogueaffecting yet unobtrusive. Or it can spring
a coup to overtake the viewer's senses, as in the shower scene in Psycho.
Always the question is the same: Go for broke or underplay the
emotional conflict? During last year's A Civil Action, a distraught mother
mourns about the loss of her son. Elfman chose a simple coupling of strings
and piano to give resonance to her pain. For a confrontation between Robin Williams
and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, he agonized over how thick to lay
it on. Says Elfman: "It drives you mad."
* * *
The black beemer cruises south on la
Brea: Danny Elfman is
headed back to Baldwin Hills, the racially mixed community
southwest of downtown where, in the '60s, he was the "whitest
white kid," the glaring exception, the one who always got picked
On this day, he has just left a meeting with director John Woo
to talk about scoring Mission: Impossible II. He's yakking on his car
phone with director Gus Van Sant about another project. Who knew that it would
come to this for a kid who ran with a "weird, creative group of oddballs." Unlike
big brother Rick, Danny never played in a high school garage band. The son of
two teachers, he joined the science project-clique, tinkered with music alone
in his basement. On a Sears Roebuck organ, he taught himself the prodigious
keyboard solo to the Doors' "Light My Fire." He fooled around with his Fender
knockoff with the box amplifier and crybaby wa-wa pedal, imitating Jimi Hendrix
licks. He took piano lessons, was told he didn't have long enough arms for trombone.
As a senior, he settled on the violin.
Elfman became a regular at the Baldwin
Hills movie theater,
boycotting the dorky Disney offerings but sitting mesmerized
through anything Hitchcock, sci-fi adventures, dubbed Mexican
horror flicks. The kid could tick of the names of the score writers,
seldom the directors. He liked the way their music presented a point
of view and became transfixed by the European classical style of
Franz Waxman and Maurice Jarre, composers who were
emblematic of the so-called Golden Age of film music, generations
before Dolby Digital.
Meanwhile, the Elfman family moved to
Brentwood and, as
Danny describes it, he traded the way-cool world of Smokey
Robinson and the Miracles for Beach Boys land. School was
bogus. Graduating early, Elfman set off to bum his way around the
world. At his first stop in Paris, he played violin on the street and
hooked up with Rick to perform with Le Gran Magic Circus, an
avant-garde musical theatrical group.
Then came a period of dark and light
for Danny Elfman. He
wandered alone across western Africa, through Ghana, Mali and
Upper Volta, going weeks without speaking to anyone, repeatedly
sick for long stretches. "It was a cleansing," he recalls. "I spent
months in quiet observance. I was like a ghost." Blossom Elfman
recalls finally receiving a telegram from her son after several tense
months without a word. "Strings dry," the enigmatic dispatch read.
"Send resin." But during that year abroad, Elfman also stumbled into
a new brand of African pop called Highlife, a reggae-salsa beat
laden with horns that would become the model for the Oingo
Back in Los Angeles, brother Rick was
assembling a bizarre
troupe called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The Knights
offered music, drama and wild improvisation, with each member
developing an offbeat talent. Danny joined up and breathed fire. At
L.A.'s Fox Theater, he once inadvertently torched a paying
customer's hair- sprayed afro. Dressed in a garish papier-mache
spaceship costume designed for just such emergencies, Rick quickly
doused the flames with fire retardant.
Elfman laughs at that image as the Beemer inches down Carmona
Avenue, the street where, as a lad, he staged a ritual sacrifice of toy monsters
that had outlived their usefulness. Last stop: the Baldwin Hills movie theater,
Elfman's introduction to Hollywood. He drives past the building once, then a
second time, reminiscing about the ushers with their flashlights, about seeing
H.G. Wells' Time Machine seven times in one weekend. Finally, he stops
the car and just stares at the place. There's probably music playing in his
head. Something creepy.
* * *
For 17 years, Danny Elfman was the lead
nerd in a nerdy band
followed mostly by nerds. In 1978, when the Mystic Knights of the
Oingo Boingo broke up, he launched Oingo Boingo (later just
Boingo). In contrast to the antisuburban slickness of groups such as
X, his band reveled in their everyday dorkiness. Their insanely
quick-tempoed horns and world-beat rhythms infused the L.A.
music scene with energy and fun. By the mid-'80s, fans were so
bonkers for the group that when a local radio station hosted a
contest offering a Boingo-related prize, 3.2 million postcard entries
flooded in. If the eight-man band failed to become a national
sensation it was because, critics said, their 10 albums failed to
capture the vitality and emotion of the live shows.
The band wasn't shy about taking swipes at society. Elfman
wrote lyrics about things that bugged him, often about "middle-class
socialist brats," left-wing liberals and even music critics. Oingo
Boingo's biggest hits were the ominous "Dead Man's Party" and
wacky "Weird Science."
What Elfman remembers most about those
years as a local rock
phenom isn't the money, the quasi-fame or the hot-ticket annual
Halloween concerts at the Universal Amphitheater. He thinks back
on those early performances at the Whisky, the intimate Sunset
Boulevard club where he could feel the restless pulse of the crowd.
He would dive off the stage and ride a wave of hundreds of hands.
"I loved those shows. The sweat. I'd make a gesture with my hands
and see the sweat fly. I'd play with it, watching the sweat hit the
crowd, and they'd throw some back. It was a trip."
* * *
The little ogre has emerged from his
cave, traded the near-dark
of his home basement for the bright lights of the recording studio.
He clears his throat. Over the speakers, the voice is low-key, like
that of the somber kid in "Harold and Maude."
In Scoring Studio M on the Paramount lot, Danny Elfman holds
a completed score for A Civil Action. All business, he retreats behind
a glass wall and faces an electronic sound board alongside the film's director,
Steve Zailian. Eight hours of instructing a 75-member orchestra will produce
just 12 minutes of musicall of it extracted piecemeal in a process that
includes six takes on one 30-second snip of footage. For these few days, Elfman
revels in the company of musicians, zinging one-liners at technicians. Gus Van
Sant, who directed To Die For and Good Will Hunting, likes how
Elfman takes over at such sessions. "It might be your film," he says, "but it's
Danny's recording session."
Yet Elfman looks frazzled. Before starting "A Civil Action,"
he had exactly zero days off after completing the score for "A Simple Plan."
In another three days, he would sit down with Van Sant to view his remake of
Hitchcock's Psycho, for which Elfman re-created the original score by
his childhood hero, Bernard Herrmann. And after that, he would return to his
preferred one-man world to dream up music for three forthcoming films: Hoofbeats,
with director Sergei Bodrov; Sleepy Hollow by Tim Burton, and Wayne Wang's
Anywhere but Here.
As usual, the music will drift into his head mostly after sundown,
as it did with the dark comedies Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare
Before Christmas. "I've got vampire's blood," Elfman concedes. "Sunlight
makes me ill and lethargic."
* * *
The artist envisions his own obituary.
"It'll say, 'Danny Elfman, who wrote the theme to The Simpsons,
etcetera,' " he cringes. "That's what I'll be remembered for." Air-brushed for
all eternity by the project on which he spent the least amount of time. Like,
two days. Elfman met in 1989 with the cartoon's creator, Matt Groening, who
shared sketches of Homer, Bart, et al. "I told him, 'If you want something retro,
I have it. If you want contemporary, I'm the wrong guy." Groening wanted retro.
Elfman jokes that the manic little riff he conceived earns him $11.50 every
time it's played, no matter where in the world. "I met some artists [in India]
and we were talking about American movies and I mentioned a few of my projects,"
he says. "Not one of them registered, until I mentioned The Simpsons.
Then their faces lit up. They were really impressed by that."
Other score writers are a tougher audience.
For years, rumors
that he was an impostor stung Elfman. It seemed everyone in the
film composing frat knew who really wrote Danny Elfman's music.
"It didn't bug me that people said, 'I hate your work,' but for a while
everybody who worked for me was getting credit for my music.
Still, with little formal training,
Elfman writes in what can best be
described as his own musical language. Ex-Oingo Boingo guitarist
Steve Bartek, who has orchestrated Elfman projects, says the darts
left his friend protective of his written compositions, which often
contain notational flubs. "Reading Danny is like reading e.e.
cummings," Bartek says. "It's different but not a problem. But he's
paranoid about it."
Movie score writer Graeme Revell, composer for The Crow,
The Negotiator and other films, says the scoring community's old guard
views Elfman with suspicion. They see Elfman as a one-note wonder, someone who
may understand rock but cannot navigate complex classical interpretations. "Hence
the suggestion that if Danny writes some orchestral score in the grand old tradition,
it can't be Danny Elfman who did it," he says. Revell believes otherwise: "Danny
understands drama intimately and brings several styles of music to his work.
He can bring to bear elements of rock or minimalist traditions."
Elfman's ecletic portfolio opens with Tim Burton films, flipping
past to comedies including Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and moves on to dramas
such as "Midnight Run" before cracking the blockbuster realm with "Batman."
Still, for more than a dozen years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
ignored Elfman. He joked that he couldn't even get nominated for "Best Danny
Elfman Score." Then, in 1997, it happened, Oscar nominations in each of the
score-writing categoriesdramatic and musical or comedy (the winners were
Titanic and The Full Monty). "I was shocked and saddened," says
Elfman, who had been gunning to remain the most-unrecognized major film music
composer in history. "To go from the stern cold shoulder to this. I finally
admitted it was a good thing." A way to tell critics to go to hell.
* * *
A visitor touches the cat curled up asleep in Danny Elfman's
living room and snatches back his hand, realizing the animal is hard, lifeless.
Taxidermied. "Ah, you've met Frisky," says its master, suddenly appearingfurtive,
like the creepy count in Nosferatu. Frisky isn't a beloved pet enshrined
at his favorite perch, just another conversation piece Elfman rescued from a
New York City shop window. As a child, Elfman shrank from things macabre. He
was terrified of the doll's head depicted in the newspaper ad for "What Ever
Happened to Baby Jane?" quickly turning the page. Now he looks for and even
seeks out peculiar bric-a-brac, from the skeletal remains of a tiny human fetus
to a drum made from male and female skulls. And the century-old head of an Ecuadorean
tribesman. "This is Uncle Billy," Elfman says, introducing the mummified noggin
that was a mascot to the Edward Scissorhands crew. "Uncle Billy even
got his own credit." But Elfman most adores the dolls scattered throughout the
house. He has dolls crawling with fake insects and evil marionettes. He believes
they carry juju, the personality of the people who kept them. "I like dolls
with lots of juju, ones with the vibe." The scariest, he says, are ones whose
sweet, childlike dispositions have been transformed by wear and tear into something
perversely sinister. At first, the malevolent grin on a 1920s-era ventriloquist's
dummy intrigued him. Then he began to imagine the doll climbing his staircase,
wooden boots clogging toward him across the hardwood floor. Packing the doll
in a tiny wooden coffin, he sent it to a friend. A few days later, Elfman received
a note, scribbled from the doll's point of view. "It's been boring over here
since Peter had his accident," it read. "I want to come home." Elfman can be
as poker-faced and unpredictable as his toys.} He's the impish eccentric who
keeps his music-writing lab so cold that visiting directors shiver and belly-ache
for heat, the composer who jokingly cracks a rawhide whip at scoring sessions,
Fellini-esque, just to keep people guessing. He also muses about starting his
own religion, the Church of Elvis Jesus Presley Christ, in which The King would
appear as God's nephew. His tattoos feature Islamic, Greek and Tibetan characters
and he longs to cover his entire scrawny body in ancient languages. He forsakes
rock CDs for Indian film scores.
A picture on the refrigerator shows Elfman with 14-year-old
daughter Mali, who's clutching a meat cleaver. Dad sees her as a chip off the
Danny block. For a school project, she reported on a teenage serial killerand
was asked not to read to the class. "I told her this is a wonderful thing. You've
just been banned." Elfman's mother says he's "just a sweet kid with a streak
of dark humor." Brother Rick says the weirdness fuels the art: "He's the nice
old lady who writes wicked mystery novels, not the village ax murderer."
He likes to watch Mali compete as an
equestrian and just to
hang out with his other daughter, 20-year-old Lola. He keeps up
with old buddy Matthew Bright, an independent director and high
school friend, who says Elfman once gave him $10,000 in cash to
get Bright's friend into drug rehab. He has written scores for their
low-budget films for $1. "He wanted me to do yardwork," Bright
laughs. "But I weaseled out. His yard is, like, an entire canyon. Just
looking at it gave me a heart attack."
* * *
Danny Elfman is restless. He tired of
the Mystic Knights, then
the Oingo Boingo scene. Now, after almost 30 films, he is bored
with scoring. He landed a two-picture writing, directing and
development deal with Disney and continues to work on scripts. He
might record a solo album.
One thing's for sure: Gone for good are the days when he would
chase a three-hour Oingo Boingo performance with 12 hours at the piano, composing
a score. Still, while it may be the wicked Danny talking, he says he misses
those extremes. Returning to an insanely creative life doesn't spook him. "I
know one thing. I'm just not happy being a film composer all year round," he
says. "While it may be a great part-time job, it's real crappy full-time work."