Interview: Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman
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He’s part of the terrible trio that includes Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Now Danny Elfman is in Leeds for a live concert. Film critic Tony Earnshaw exclusively spoke to him.

DANNY Elfman is a nervous man.

Not only is he heading north to the Yorkshire badlands but he is coming here to sing live on stage for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Back in the 80s Elfman was in a band called Oingo Boingo. He quit when his hearing began being affected by the volume of live rock music. Since then he has restricted himself to working in the studio as a film composer and the creator of The Simpsons theme tune.

So what made him agree to a concert tour of the UK, presenting his compositions for the films of Tim Burton that stretch back a quarter of a century?

“My agent asked me ‘What do you think about singing a few songs from Nightmare? And without even thinking – which is typical for me – I flippantly I said ‘Sure. Why not?’ Now, as I get closer, I’m like ‘My God! What have I said?’

“I am very nervous. First of all I have never performed any of these songs publicly in my life. They were only done in front of a microphone. Secondly I haven’t performed publicly in 18 years. I had stage fright in the 23 years that I did perform with my band. Now it’s all coming back to me – that terror of standing in front of an audience.”

The songs Elfman refers to can be heard in The Nightmare Before Christmas in which the 60-year-old musician provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington. The movie is just one of 15 he has scored for his close pal Tim Burton. Indeed, the suite to be performed on stage with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Leeds Arena on next Tuesday celebrates the 25 years he has spent as one of Burton’s key collaborators.

The four-date mini tour begins at the Royal Albert Hall in London and takes in Glasgow and Birmingham as well as Leeds.

In terms of the thrill factor Elfman calls it “huge”.

“When I was asked to start creating concert suites I had this intense psychological block about it. Two years ago I went back and listened to my earlier scores. It was a really bizarre experience. Then I got the call saying ‘How about a concert suite of all 15 films for a single concert?’ It seemed daunting but it also seemed like it was the motivation: if I’m ever going to do it, now is the time. I should do it with tremendous energy. And I did it. And I’m really glad.”

Aficionados of Elfman’s work will recognise the essence of his scores and soundtracks. The man himself is loath to be drawn on what constitutes the Elfman style. He leaves that to the fans. Or critics.

“I don’t know what my style is. I don’t even consciously know what I’m doing when I do it,” he says.

“And God knows, I don’t know why I make the choices I make. It’s all somewhere between unconscious or subconscious. I don’t plot it out. I sit down, look at images and music starts coming out. I begin experimenting. And often what comes through my hands is not at all what I expected and is surprising to me.”

Elfman does admit he avoids settling into a comfort zone. Having conceived a theme, he will take a deliberate 90-degree turn and then compare the resulting two pieces. The challenge is in the contrary nature of the work he creates. “That’s part of what I call the laboratory process of how I like to work. When Tim comes in for the first time to listen to stuff he’s often tortured by the fact that I’ve got four versions of a cue. But that’s my process and that’s what he’s used to.”

Elfman and Burton grew up admiring the horror and fantasy movies of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. For Elfman it was the Edgar Allan Poe movies of low-budget king Roger Corman or the tag team of stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen and composer Bernard Herrmann who dragged him to innumerable drive-in double-bills.

Easy, then, to imagine these two monster kids joining forces for movies like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman. I suggest that having such a synchronised relationship is rare. “It’s rare in the sense that it’s not frequent,” says the four-time Oscar nominee.

“It can be quite terrifying for a director because with music it’s indefinable. There’s no way to describe something in your head and have a composer come back with just that thing. It’s always going to be different. So when a director does find somebody who’s in sync I think they’re probably anxious to continue.

“What makes synchronisation, nobody knows. Without knowing what it is that really links us I seem to be able to get into his head, in a way, that he finds works.”

Is it a shorthand – a deep familiarity with a partner?

“No, I don’t think it is. I’ve heard that a term a lot but every time I start with Tim it’s almost like starting from scratch. We may have certain deep-rooted subconscious things that link us but when it comes to the music we don’t talk about it. Never did. And when I’m playing him music for the first time he can be at first quite confused by it.

“It’s very rare [that I] just play something and he goes ‘Bingo!’ There is a process we still have to go through which is actually often more intensive than with other directors. He’s a complex person. There’s nothing simple about Tim. And so there’s no automatic [sense of] ‘I’ve got it.’ I know I’m going to have to work for it.

“And it may mean circling around and spiralling in to the centre, almost like one of his drawings or squiggles. But we always seem to get there.”

Perhaps the only drawback of Elfman’s concert season is that it perhaps reinforces the impression that he’s the guy who does the music for Tim Burton’s movies. Yet for every Beetlejuice and Batman there has been a Black Beauty, a Good Will Hunting and a Silver Linings Playbook. No pigeonholing for Elfman, then. “I’ve worked very hard at trying to keep myself that way,” he asserts. “When I started Bernard Herrmann was my idol and he was a master of all genres. My career has happened because of Tim. Every film I did with him seemed to open more doors for me. The hardest genre to break into was the dramatic films and so I made a real effort to try and get films that were a little more low-key and serious. “I have to keep myself moving. If I do multiple films in a year I don’t want to do four fantasy films; I’ll go crazy.

“A good year is going between a fantasy film – a big one – to maybe a crazy little film to a very offbeat comedy to a very serious drama. When I keep moving that’s the only time I’m happy. It’s an essential thing to keep myself going and not go insane.”

Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton, Leeds Arena, Tuesday October 8, 7.30pm.

Early days of film composer

As a child Danny Elfman soaked up classic sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still with music by Bernard Herrmann who became his hero.

Prior to becoming a top-flight composer Elfman was a member of a band called The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo.

His first credit as a composer was the low budget time-travel musical Forbidden Zone, directed by his older brother Richard.

He first worked with Tim Burton on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. In the years since they have collaborated on 15 films.

He has received Academy Award nominations for four films.