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 soul—subliminal 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 granite.
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. 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 to finish."
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 of vapor."
As Elfman explains it, a score is musical insight into a character's mind—melodies, 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 disintegrating.
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 dialogue—affecting 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.
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 Boingo sound.
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 music—all 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. That hurt."
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 categories—dramatic 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 appearing—furtive, 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 killer—and 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."
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