Batman? Bartman? Darkman? Elfman
By Larry Rohter
New York Times, 1990.12.09
Since 1985, Danny Elfman has been leading a double life. In six years, he has
scored 15 feature films, becoming the hottest young composer in Hollywood and
one of the most versatile. He has written scores for the big-budget epics Batman
and Dick Tracy, as well as for comedies such as Midnight Run and the
horror melodrama Darkman. Even the theme of one of this year's most popular
programs, The Simpsons, is his creation. For a much longer time, however,
Mr. Elfman , who is 36 years old, has also been a member of the quirky new wave
rock-and-roll group Oingo Boingo (pronounced OYN-go BOYN-go). As the lead singer,
rhythm guitarist and chief songwriter for the eight-piece band, he is no stranger
to hard-driving pop music played in amphitheaters full of eager teenage fans
singing along with hits such as "Dead Man's Party" and "Not My Slave".
"I know there are people who look upon me as some sort of freak of
nature," Mr. Elfman said of his unusual bifurcated career in an
interview at his home here, which is equipped with both a recording
studio and a small screening room. "But I just want to find
interesting prople to work with. Something where I can let my
imagination go, that's all I care about. What I want is to build a
body of work, and whether it is on film or record matters less to me
than the chance to do it."
Mr. Elfman's first score was for the director Tim Burton's comedy
Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and his most acclaimed work since has come on
two other films Mr. Burton directed, Beetlejuice (1988), and Batman (1989).
Though the two men have no formal commitment to continue working together, theirs
is one of several de facto director-composer partnerships that have sprung up
in Hollywood in recent years, including Steven Spielberg and John Williams,
David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, the Cohen brothers and Carter Burwell, and
Robert Zemeckis and Alan Silvestri.
"You search and search for compatable relationships," Mr. Elfman
said. "It's so rare that when you find it, you want to stick with
it." Mr. Burton, who like Mr. Elfman grew up in Los Angeles in the
1960's as a cartoon, movie, and pop music buff, said: "it has gotten
easier for us to work together, but I don't think we have had to work
at it too much. I used to go see Danny in clubs, before I knew him. I
just always connected with him and Oingo Boingo's music, even though
it had nothing to do with film."
Edward Scissorhands, which opened Friday, is the fourth
collaboration between the two. Mr. Burton's film is a dark fable about the misadventures
of a suburban teenager created by an eccentric inventor. In a recording studio
one afternoon, a shrunken head nicknamed Uncle Bill looked down on Mr. Elfman
and Mr. Burton from the console as a 79-piece orchestra recorded a 90-second
cue to accompany a key scene in the movie. Communication between composer and
director was as much by glances, raised eyebrows, and guffaws as by words. It
is not always that easy, Mr. Elfman said.
"Directors don't know anything about music really, and if they
do, it's not necessarily a help," he explained. "Warren Beatty is a pianist
and knows much more about music than almost any director, but when he and I
started on Dick Tracy, communicating on a musical level was getting us
nowhere because it is all so interpretive. We started having much more success
when we started talking on a strictly gut level. That's why I always say to
directors,'Just tell me what you want this scene to say emotionally.'"
His rock-and-roll roots notwithstanding, Mr. Elfman is a composer
in the classic film mode. He admires mainstream composers like Jerry Goldsmith
and Ennio Morricone and says he would like to be able to achieve with Mr. Burton
something akin to what Bernard Herrmann did with Alfred Hitchcock or what Nino
Rota accomplished with Federico Fellini. As a new collection of excerpts from
several of his films and TV shows, called 'Music For A Darkened Theatre', quickly
reveals, Mr. Elfman likes to write large, lush pieces for orchestra, with generous
doses of brass and strings. He does not, on the other hand, like bright and
bouncy cues for synthesizer or electronic ensemble, and he laments the growing
tendancy to use technology to manipulate audiences and cover up flaws in a film.
"I detest contemporary scoring and dubbing in cinema," Mr. Elfman said. "Film
music as an art took a deep plunge when Dolby stereo hit. Stereo has the capacity
to make orchestral music sound big and beautiful and more expansive, but it
also can make sound effects sound four times as big. That began the era of sound
effects over music. It's easier to let sound effects be big and just jump out
and do everything than it is to let music do the same thing."
Typically, Mr. Elfman and the director will view a rough cut of a
film he is scoring. Then he will record a preliminary sketch of the
main musical themes he has in mind on a synthesizer and play them for
the director. With the help of his orchestrator, the guitarist Steve
Bartek of Oingo Boingo, he will then commit the music to paper and
have it distributed to the musicians. Because the music score is one
of the last elements in the making of a film and release dates are
often inflexible, Mr. Elfman is often working under intense time
pressure, forced to tinker with the score any time a scene is trimmed
or extended. "As we get to the end of a film, I'm just tearing sheets
off and it's going to the copyists, who have to work overtime on a
Sunday night to get all the music copied for a session the next
morning," he said. "It can get real tense toward the end, let me tell
Pop musicians like Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and David Byrne
of Talking Heads have dabbled, with considerable success, in film
scoring when their bands are on break from recording or touring, and
solo artists ranging from Randy Newman to Mark Isham have also
established flourishing parallel careers as film composers. Mr.
Elfman, however, seem unusual in trying to work full time in both
realms almost simultaneously.
"It's getting harder, and that's why I am starting to pull back a
little bit, touring less and doing fewer films," he said. "It was
easier to pass between the two worlds in the beginning because I
rarely spent more than four weeks on a film. But for the last couple
of years, I've been getting so deep into it that it's become a
barrier in both directions, and I really have to push through. When
I'm in the middle of a film score, it's inconceivable for me to think
about performing live or writing songs."
Occasionly, despite his best efforts, Mr. Elfman's two careers
collide in pecular ways. No sooner had he finished the score for Dick Tracy
last spring than Oingo Boingo went on tour to support its new album, "Dark at
the End of the Tunnel". But when it was decided after previews of Dick Tracy
that some cuts in the movie's main title sequence were necessary, Mr. Elfman
was suddenly called upon to make changes in the accompaning music. He could
not abandon the group on the road, so he ended up supervising the recording
session over the telephone from a Milwaukee hotel room, with the conductor,
Shirley Walker, the orchestra and Mr. Beatty at the other end of the line. "It
really wasn't as weird as it sounds," Mr. Elfman said, laughing. "All I could
hear was the brass and the tempo, so I was basically there just as protection."
Despite such comflicts, Mr. Elfman said it would be hard to
imagine abandoning rock-and-roll altogether. His reputation and the
demand for his services is such that he and his wife and two children
could live well just from the film projects he accepts. But as a
songwriter and band leader he has far more autonomy than he can hope
to enjoy as a well-paid hired hand, moving to one movie as soon as he
has finished scoring another.
"Going off and writing songs, I have total control, which you
don't have as a film composer," he said. "Once a score is done, they
can take it, cut it up, bury it under sound effects, anything they
want. As a songwriter I don't have to please anybody but myself and
the band. Nobody comes and listens to the song and says,'Change this,
change that, cut a verse out.'"
At the same time, his experience as a composer has made him aware
of the inherent limitations of pop music. The sheer grind of the pop
musician's life, he believes, results in boredom and an element of
predictability that makes the world of film scoring seem all the more
alluring. "Rock-and-roll, like the theater, has one really negative
side, which is repetition," he said. "Every time you go on stage you
are performing a body of material that is essentially the same, and
that's what drives me crazy and keeps me from doing extended tours.
There's a certain point where I long to get back to the purity of
writing an orchestral composition at a piano, where I have no
physical restraints and I don't have to deal with my greatest enemy,
which is my voice."
Mr. Elfman's rock-and-roll background and lack of formal schooling
have made him an object of scorn to some of Hollywood's more traditional film
composers, and, he thinks, an object of envy to others. His dark, dense, and
ambitious 75-minute score for Batman, though essential to that film's
runaway success, was not even nominated for an Academy Award, which many of
Mr. Elfman's admirers attributed to such resentments among his peers.
"It's a very elitist community, much more so than any other aspect
of film," Mr. Elfman said of the small group of musicians who make
their living scoring films. "It's not unusual for a director to
direct a film having no film-school training and to turn in a
brilliant film. It's not unusual for a writer who doesn't come from a
literary background to write a brilliant script.
"But it's unheard of for a composer not to have formal musical
training and write an orchestral score. Guys like me are supposed to
write synthesizer-based scores or pop scores, we're not supposed to
dive into the sacred well. I made the mistake of being honest early
on and saying I had no training, and I know there are people who have
a low opinion of me for that reason."
But with film scoring offers continuing to pour in, Mr. Elfman
said he has no concern about his standing in the larger film community. Having
had to perform a series of concerts in Los Angeles at the same time he was finishing
the Edward Scissorhands score, he is looking forward to a real vacation,
after which he will begin writing songs for Oingo Boingo's next album and will
choose one of the movie scoring invitations his agent has been receiving. "If
you're a composer, how else can you write three or four solid hours of music
a year and have it all played back?" he asked. "Every minute you write is going
to be performed, and that's really wonderful."