Danny Elfman

by Chelle Vaughn
Video Entertainment Magazine, 1996.04.04
Original article at
Danny Elfman, at 43, has reached a place in his career where change is almost inevitable. He is no longer working with Tim Burton, with whom he collaborated on a string of successful films including the "Batman" trilogy and "Nightmare Before Christmas" (in which Elfman also lends his singing voice to Jack Skellington.) It was Burton, as well, who was responsible for introducing Elfman to composing for television. Although he is now well-known for the themes from both "The Simpsons" and Tales From the Crypt, Elfman's earliest compositions for TV included two episodes of Amazing Stories ("Mummy Daddy" and "Family Dog") and one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("The Jar")—all projects with Burton. Now, fifteen years after his debut scoring films with "Forbidden Zone"- composing for films as diverse as Hot to Trot (1988) and Somersby (1993) along the way, Danny Elfman is ready to de-emphasize his reputation as composer.
"I've already been weaning down from films for a couple of years now, because there's not much that's interesting to work on," he said during a recent interview in Las Vegas. "If there were more films to work on that I really I enjoyed, then I would. There's just a lack of interesting jobs out there right now- film music is not in its greatest moment. Sitting around waiting for something interesting to work on, that kind of pushed me into writing scripts. Now, I want to put together a production company to get my directing debut off the ground, and produce."
Elfman is no stranger to taking change in stride- or to adapting to changes stunningly well. He grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Hills, (his mother, Blossom Elfman, is a writer and illustrator of children's books.) At eighteen, he found himself, after a brief stint in Paris playing violin with his brother Richard's theatrical troupe (Richard Elfman, director of Forbidden Zone and 1994's Shrunken Heads) playing a wholly different type of music while touring through Africa. "I had my nineteenth birthday crossing the border into Nigeria, " he recalled. "The border guards all sang me 'Happy Birthday'". Though he never went on to college, Elfman agreed that, through his travels, he did receive an education, of sorts. "It depends on what you consider an education- survival techniques, yeah. I learned how to disguise myself as either a Protestant or a Catholic religious student, in order to get meals out of missionaries all over the continent of West Africa. Learned how to play hymns on the violin. Anything for food, because there just wasn't a lot to eat out there but rice and peanut sauce. The missionaries would have all this fucking Western food- canned ham, canned vegetables, things like that. After a couple months away from it, I would do anything for it. So I learned how to disguise myself as a good religious boy. I learned how to keep myself alive when I came down with malaria, which was to not go to a hospital, but to find a Peace Corps person's house and knock on their door. When they opened it, I'd collapse and say, 'American.' They'd have no choice but to let me have a cot in their backyard. Where I was, hospitals were more where you went to die than to get better. So, yeah, I learned a few things."
He brought back from Africa, along with what might be called a propensity for acting, several percussion instruments which resulted in an interest in Indonesian gamalan music. "I had been playing some West African percussion, and that led me to the Indonesian gamalan stuff. So I just walked into Cal Arts one day—I was never a student (there)—walked into their Indonesian music department, and there's this Balinese guy sitting there playing. He said, 'Sit. Play.' So I did, and came back a few times. I started feeling bad, and finally told him, 'Look, I'm not a student.' He just laughed, and said, 'Sit. Play.' I continued to sit and play for a couple years."
The time spent in Africa also gave Elfman an appreciation for African art, which has since expanded and he is now considered a rather serious collector, according to Los Angeles musician and art aficionado Andy Prieboy. In fact, the cover of Prieboy's record, "Upon My Wicked Son", is a painting by David Sandlin, "Fallen Angel", licensed from Elfman's collection. Elfman says, "I don't collect any one thing; I've been a packrat all my life. I mean, I have a collection of Santos, little religious statues from all over Mexico and South America; in the past I've collected a lot of African art. Various artists- a Oaxacan painter who does really interesting stuff, the painter that did the cover of Andy's stuff, David Sandlin, a really amazing guy from New York. More recently, photographs- I started collecting Diane Arbus... I only have one Diane Arbus, but there's a second I'm trying to negotiate on and get. The guy who's got it is asking too much, so I'm just waiting. With photographs you do that; it's not like a painting, where there's only one, and whatever anybody asks, you either pay their price or forget it, because there's not another one. With photographs, there's fifteen of this one, ten of this, twenty-five of that, so sometimes it's kind of a waiting game if there's one you really want, you have to be patient for it to come back on the market. I've got a piece in the Guggenheim right now, part of a Peter Whitken exhibition. I was really sorry I couldn't go out there for the opening, because of the tour."
That tour is a final one for the band that Elfman fronts, Oingo Boingo. Formed from the theatrical group founded by brother Richard, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, the band debuted in 1979 with a self-titled EP. Since then, their yearly Halloween shows have become a Los Angeles tradition, performing hits such as "Dead Man's Party". Elfman has included his band in some of his film projects, too; in addition to performing the title track to "Weird Science" with Oingo Boingo, they performed in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy, "Back To School". When I asked Danny about what he'd be doing with the time freed up from the touring schedule of his band, he was adamant about cutting down on scoring films, though, he said, "This year was fun, finding some interesting new people- Gus Van Sant and the Hughes Brothers- to work with. It's a really nice change of pace. I'll still probably do a couple scores a year. I'm just looking for smaller films. I think I'm the only one in my profession who's been fighting their way down the ladder. Generally speaking, the bigger the film, the less options there are to do an interesting score. Because when they spend a lot of money on a movie- well, first off, they're almost always bad movies- and they also tend to get very cautious with the music and stuff. How many big movies would one want to work on? Most of them are just noisy pieces of crap and the music just gets lost in a bunch of noise, anyhow."
A horror fan since childhood (he lists some of his favorites as The Time Machine, Jason and the Argonauts, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and Beast With Five Fingers) Elfman is an avid follower of the work of Italian director Dario Argento (Suspiria, Inferno.) He did not rule out the possibility of a collaboration with Argento in the future. "I had the pleasure of hanging out with him when I was in Italy. We'll just have to see what happens. I'm trying to figure out a way to get him out here to work on more stuff."
As for definite plans for the future, besides being a father to his two daughters, Lola, sixteen, and Molly, eleven, Elfman is eager to continue working in film, but in a different capacity. He is set to begin work on a film bought by Fineline, Little Demons. "Little Demons is actually a musical. It's a very, very dark, wicked little black comedy. A period piece, England, 1920, with three very wicked little children. Kind of an interesting challenge, in that no one's pulled off a live musical, a non-animated musical film in a while."
A challenge it may very well be, but if there is anyone who has proven able to meet and make a success story of one, it is Danny Elfman.
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