An Interview with Danny Elfman by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.74/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Danny Elfman came into the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie late in the game, with only five weeks left to compose, orchestrate, and record more than an hour’s worth of symphonic music. Aware that Alan Silvestri’s score had been rejected by director Brian De Palma, Elfman accepted his own Mission Impossible and went on to compose a forthright and powerful orchestral score. Interviewed this last May, Danny reflected about his association with the first movie and the challenge of composing the score.
When you came into the project, what kind of input did you get from director Brian De Palma as far as what kind of music he wanted?
In fairness to Alan, anybody coming in second has a huge advantage of understanding what the director doesn’t want – at the expense of a lot of work already put in. I knew that they wanted energy; they wanted something a little more operatic and theatrical. Just seeing the movie without a score, I had an idea and I told them what I thought. A unique thing about coming into a project with very little time left is that you have to jump right in – there’s no time for experimentation. I actually really enjoy that, because I go right for my instincts. There’s an entire part of the process, experimenting with all sorts of different shapes and sizes, which you just don’t get to do then.
I heard a few of Alan’s cues and they sounded really nice. I just think he went for a different tone, really. And now Brian wanted a fresh take, so I purposely never really listened to anything but a few temp cues. I wanted to see the film cold. It was a real down and dirty, quick thing, but very intense. It was not an easy task, having Lalo’s theme to work with. Even though it wasn’t used that many times, it actually made it much more difficult, because I had to always keep it alive. I still had to develop fresh themes that would come back and play the different scenes, but there was always this past reflection that had to be referred to, so it never completely went away. It was very tricky and the work was extremely intense. Brian is not Mr. Mellow!
You’ve arranged Lalo’s theme, which comes from a predominantly jazz/pop idiom, into a more thorough orchestral fashion. Would you describe how you’ve used his theme into your score?
Once the decision was made to do the score in an overblown orchestral way, there was no analyzing that. It was always intended, when the theme would be played – and there were two major spots where it did – that it would sound bigger. The feeling was that Lalo had written it to be played by a small ensemble, and it sounded great on TV, but now we’re doing the movie and it’s much bigger, and the feel of the theme has to be much bigger. I tried to stay true to it, but I didn’t stay true to the ensemble. Who knows what Lalo would have done if they’d have said “Hey, Lalo, you’ve got 90 players!” He might have used 90 players – in television you don’t and can’t, which is not to say that he would have! And it’s not to say that it would have been any better. It probably wouldn’t have been, you know what I mean?
Right. Larger does not necessarily mean it’s right for the particular project.
No, it doesn’t, but in this particular case, we both felt that the theme should play as large as it could, to feel homogenous with the score, so it didn’t sound like we’re shifting tone.
What was the biggest challenge on this score, other than tile 5-week time crunch?
The challenge was that Brian had a lot of demands, he wanted this very dark, romantic theme, he wanted a very energetic theme, he wanted parts to be a little frisky and have a lightness, and other parts to have a kind of operatic feel, so it was very demanding, It’s always very difficult to accomplish all those things. It’s easy enough to compose a very simple score in a short time period; but this really wasn’t a very simple score. Brian wanted a rather complex series of emotions, and the feelings that he had built there to be obvious.
Was this the first time you’d worked with De Palma?
Brian has worked with many top composers at one time or another. How did you find him as an artist?
Intense. He was also unique, on many levels. Also, he would come over almost every day. At the point where I was hired, he was done with post-production, and there was nothing else for him to do, so I really had his full attention, which also something I felt bad about, because Alan, I think, got none of his attention, and suffered because of it. Brian’s very intense and so the process is very intense, but I enjoy intensity!
Do you consider Brian a musically articulate director, as far as being able to communicate what he wants from you?
Heavens, no! That would have made it worse! I’ve never found a director having musical terminology or history behind them to be an advantage for a composer. I find it always to be a hindrance, because in my experience they never say what they really mean. You have to interpret the complex, psychological meanings of what they mean to say. To me, it’s best to communicate with directors in purely emotional terms, and Brian’s responses were all emotional. I didn’t have to go through this strange mystical juju process that I always go through to understand what it is that would make him respond in a certain way.
You’ve done action films before, but in terms of the modern, ultra-explosive, big-budget action films, the kind defined by the CON-AIR or THE ROCK type of emotional feel, how did you find this project?
I try to stay as far away from that as possible! That’s a feel and a style that I have no desire to get anywhere close to.
How would you describe your take on scoring action? You’ve kind of adopted the throbbing nature of Lalo’s theme and carried that into a kind of almost relentless musical drive.
That’s my style. I’ve always tried to keep melodies going. It wasn’t a significantly different challenge than BATMAN. BATMAN was just more Gothic, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was of a different tilt, but I was in no way trying to give it any more contemporary feel. I tried to avoid the use of contemporary instruments, even what I call the big TV scoring feel so prevalent today, with tom toms and electric guitars, a certain manner of bass drums, and whenever I hear it, I know it delivers a certain kind of punch and energy, but it always makes me laugh!
Gee, I hear them even now as you’re speaking!
There was never any question that, had I been approached to do that style of score, in more of the Bruckheimer genre, I would have replied, as I always do when I’m asked to do a style of score in a genre like that, “of course not! Hire somebody who does that! Don’t hire me!” That’s not what I do.
Looking back on this, after a couple of years, what’s your feeling about the experience of working on the film?
Every now and then something comes along that’s very demanding, and gives very little time, and you have to go absolutely on your raw instincts. I can think of a dozen movies where I wish I would have come in much later than I did. Coming around earlier just made it miserable, and accomplished nothing more than if I’d have come on later. I’m a firm believer in instincts first and brain second. There is a beauty to that. If there is very little time, don’t use your brain, just go for your instincts and dive in. Don’t analyze anything. That’s my favorite way to go, but it doesn’t happen very often.
So what are you up to now? The last time we talked you’d just finished SLEEPY HOLLOW, and you’d mentioned you couldn’t get any work and you had to sell your dog for medical research, poor pooch. What are you working on now?
I have an industrial I educational film for first level executive trainees at Ford Motor Company. It’s called HOW TO BE A JUNIOR EXECUTIVE, and I’m doing the background music for it… And then I’m up for some student films…
No! I’m just kidding! Right now I’m doing no films. I wanted to take time off after SLEEPY HOLLOW and I’ll be starting up sooner than I’d like to think, this summer. I elected to skip the summer releases, which meant starting work in the spring.
Do you have anything set up yet? I mean, other than the Ford Executive training film!
I’ll be doing a Taylor Hackford film called PROOF OF LIFE, and I may be doing Sam Raimi’s film, THE GIFT. I actually already wrote him a fiddle piece which I play on camera in the film, unfortunately, much to my horror! Sam conned me into that, and it’ll never happen again in this composer’s lifetime!
Now that should be something to see!
I had to play live, on camera, in makeup, and I haven’t played fiddle in 20 years!
So, having already written a piece for THE GIFT, hopefully I’ll be able to work it out to do the rest of the score. Tricky, it’s happening soon, It’s very low budget, I have a lot of work I have to finish up, but I am definitely on board for Taylor’s film, and that’s it. I’m really trying to get back to doing a couple films a year.
Being more selective?
It’s not even that, it’s just that, for ten years, that’s what I did, and then for four years I upped it and after last year, ‘99, I decided, boy, I don’t like doing this full time. To me, it’s a great part-time job, but not a great full time job. My way of working does not lend itself to doing this full time. When I do it full time, that’s all I do. I’ve never been good at balancing work and having a life, especially when I’m composing. Composing takes tip every bit of my time, and I realize now why it worked so well doing just a couple films a year. Trying to make it so I could put less hours into it and still have a little life around it doesn’t really work for me. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a silly comedy or what it is, it still gobbles up 100% of my energy and time. A couple a year.
I understand you’re working on a script now?
Yes. It’s an adaptation of a book I optioned. Actually it’s an original script based on a story in a book, having optioned a biography written on an event. I don’t even want to tell you more specifically at this point, other than it’s very sick!
Now, that’s a surprise!