Danny Elfman on Scoring Red Dragon

An Interview with Danny Elfman by Chris Cutter
Written, Transcribed and Photographed by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.84/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the publisher Luc Van de Ven


As the opening notes to RED DRAGON creep into your mind, you’re welcomed into the adult fairy tale world of composer Danny Elfman. From the strange sound of a muted piano to a deep flute to those frantic orchestral swells and crescendos, Elfman has taken his musically creative realm inside the mind of a serial killer. With a scoring style that’s not often associated with his film work, Danny journeys into fresh new territory, adding a new element to his style of film composition. “Ultimately everything I do just works its way into every aspect of my life at a certain point and obsesses me,” Elfman admits.

The key to RED DRAGON’s score is its emotive mood. The turmoil inside the mind of a murderer is precisely defined. The film is underscored in a bold attempt to break away from Elfman’s current style and try something different. Up to now he has been scoring one film after another in the action/adventure genre for almost two years straight, from PLANET OF THE APES to SPIDERMAN to MEN IN BLACK. Danny felt it was time to travel in waters uncharted. “Ninety per cent of it is the writing of the music, capturing it, and then hoping it survives the incredibly complex process of the dub,” he said.

“This was why about five years ago I really started going, ‘I give up on the action/adventure genre, I don’t want to do it anymore.’ But I found myself still doing these movies, reluctantly. A lot has to do with what film it is and who’s directing it. I’ve been trying to do a moratorium, so next year you’ll see me scoring no action/adventure films for sure and really trimming way back on it for the next five years, ten years, or for the rest of my career, however long that is,” comments Elfman.

Then I asked him, “Do you have any future film scoring projects?” “No.” “What about SPIDERMAN 2?” He responds: “I haven’t agreed to that either. I’m absolutely not in the mindset at this moment to agree to anything other than certain commitments I already have. Smaller projects, commercials, and possibly doing some adaptive work on another project, but little projects are all I’m scheduling right now.” While his orchestral approach is mainstream and a bit traditional, Elfman defines his new approach with intricate sounds and arrangements throughout the film. “It was a tough process for all of us,” admits Elfman. “It was not an easy movie. This not a walk in the park. This kind of movie is even more difficult because it’s a prequel.” Since his first collaboration with director Brett Ratner on THE FAMILY MAN two years ago, the transition of scoring styles couldn’t be more different. I’m sure Elfman, as well as Ratner, must have found some irony in going from a feel-good family Christmas film to a Hannibal Lecter prequel.

On Wednesday September the 4th, about a month before RED DRAGON opened in America to be the number one grossing film at the box office two weeks in a row, Elfman (who had been talking to his contractor all afternoon about his new house), took time to discuss with Soundtrack Magazine his collaboration with Brett Ratner, his concepts and approach to RED DRAGON, and how an uncertain future will surely take him into the unknown areas – where he is, after all, most comfortable. Among the new challenges is an upcoming screenplay he’s been writing. “I have a very, very twisted script, and I’m getting back to that right now,” Elfman grinned. “It’s called UNDYING LOVE. It’s absolutely the most romantic, necrophilia love story ever told.”

What did you find interesting about RED DRAGON that made you want to score it?
It was the fact that I hadn’t done something really dark in a while. After a lot of big action films in a row, I was quite happy to take on something that was much more dark, low key, with a minimum amount of guns, cannons, racing motors. It was a less competitive arena to work in. Also, I like Brett a lot, we have this great working relationship and it seemed like working with him on this would be really fun.

Isn’t going from a film like FAMILY MAN to RED DRAGON quite a change?
I like contrast. The best thing about starting RED DRAGON was that it was at the same time I was squeaking around projects for Disneyland Theme Parks. I score a couple of commercials, sometimes three or four, over the course of each year, mainly because they’re relaxing – getting a commission to write one minute of music after you’re doing so many ninety minute scores. So for this first week I was going to start my ideas for RED DRAGON and then shift back to Disneyland Theme Parks, then back to RED DRAGON. It was Disneyland, Hannibal, Disneyland, Hannibal, Disneyland, Hannibal! That was pretty funny. I thought, “Wait a minute, OK you guys, let’s sort this out. Disney first, then Hannibal!” But I do love contrast and the fact that I was having fun overlapping magic and light with dark and intensive, it made perfect sense to me. This was definitely a different vibe than working on FAMILY MAN. It’s a bigger film, a totally new thing for Brett, and he was feeling a lot more pressure than he did on FAMILY MAN because that was a much simpler film.

How was it making the creative transition from SPIDERMAN and MEN IN BLACK II to RED DRAGON?
It was a very comfortable mindset. The only times things get really stressful for me is when I’m doing the same thing twice in a row. If I’d got involved with another SPIDERMAN-Iike, cartoon action film, I would’ve had a big problem. The thing that made this threesome work for me was that SPIDERMAN was so big and heroic; it was this big comic book story that came to life on the screen. MEN IN BLACK II was so frivolous and light, that it was a big switch of gears, even though there was a lot of action scenes in both. The tone of MEN IN BLACK II was so light, the tone of SPIDERMAN was generally so big, it was a relief to switch to the tone of RED DRAGON, which was drama, The composing was much more internalized, and it’s coming from the characters, it’s playing horror, it’s playing tension, playing unease, playing pathos, and dark romance, it’s a much more complex mixture, but it was all about these various emotions, with not a hint of heroism or light comic playfulness.

How did you deal with the temp score on this project?
Generally I don’t deal with temp scores. I don’t even listen to them. PLANET OF THE APES and RED DRAGON were exceptions where I did want to listen to the temp because I wanted to know what to avoid – both of those having previous movies and scores that went with them. One is a remake and one is a prequel to a really well known and very well done movie. I wanted to be aware of what Howard Shore had done in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and then I thought, “All right, that’s what it is. I neither want to put all my energy into avoiding any nuance that’s similar, but also I want to make sure that I’m not directly falling into something that is the same.” If you put all your energy into avoiding something, then it becomes an obsessive thing that will eventually dictate the tone of the score, and I didn’t want to do that. Howard and I happen to have a lot of tonalities that are very similar. In PLANET OF THE APES, though, I heard the Jerry Goldsmith score and said, “What I’m doing is so radically different, I don’t even have to think about it. Having heard it now, I won’t even think about it again.” With RED DRAGON, it was different because tonally the movies are very similar, so it was something I had to be aware of. I knew already that Howard was one of the few composers with whom I’m going to have a certain amount of overlapping even on films that have nothing to do with each other. When SILENCE OF THE LAMBS came out, I remember thinking, “Wow, that was very close to BATMAN!” The main theme of BATMAN was working exactly the same scale as SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I remember being relieved that I hadn’t been exposed to it because some people might have said, “Oh, one’s copying the other.” I knew he wasn’t referring to me in any way, but I’ve been aware since then that we tend to use the same kind of minor scale repeating motifs. Even though ultimately his style is much different than mine, there is an area, especially in a kind of modal, melodic, scale dynamic, that is similar, and I needed to be aware of that.

They temped RED DRAGON with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS mainly. Did they use any score from HANNIBAL?
Definitely from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but I really doubt they used music from HANNIBAL. It was Brett’s desire, as much as possible; to go back closer to the tone of SILENCE and to move far away from HANNIBAL. I did hear the temp, but I wasn’t really aware of what might have come from what movie or not. The temp influenced what I could and couldn’t do. It was more like being aware of where to go and where not to go. It was difficult because Brett wanted the score to completely have its own identity. I took an approach to it that I think is very different than the original, yet is tonally very similar. But I feel I put enough original melodic energy into RED DRAGON to define it as its own entity, which is what Brett wanted.

Do you ever use your mock-ups as temp music for the picture you’re scoring?
No. Directors always want to do that, but I try not to let them. I’ve done it a few times and it’s always backfired on me. Ultimately, orchestral music done on synthesizers has a mushy feel to it. As a mock-up played over small speakers in my studio to give the director an idea what I’m doing, that works. But if you put it through big speakers in a theater, to me it usually sounds awful. It’s actually more likely than not to make everybody real nervous.

Did the time you had to score RED DRAGON give you any time for experimentation?
I probably spent about three weeks playing different things. It was very, very tricky. I was trying to find the level of heaviness, the level of darkness, the level of energy. Brett likes things to get powerful, big, and dark. Finding that balance for him and capturing the tone of the movie was tricky. You’ve got multiple stories and characters overlapping, you’ve got a creative dynamic that covers a serial killer who’s much more central to the story than the killer was in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

What scenes in RED DRAGON did you use to initially establish your primary themes?
The major themes were around Dolarhyde, the serial killer. I knew that it was all going to revolve thematically around his character. One scene that I started with that was very important was a scene where Dolarhyde is holding a reporter captive. He’s making him see his transformation into the dragon. It’s a very horrific scene, one of my favorites in the movie. Another really big one was where we first find Dolarhyde and he opens up his great scrapbook where he has his press clippings and all of Hannibal Lecter’s press clippings, who he’s infatuated with. He has his whole life laid out in this scrapbook. Those two scenes were the two that I started with.

After you’ve established your basic themes you began to score the picture from start to finish, letting your initial ideas lead you. What spontaneous musical elements did you find happening in RED DRAGON?
During the composition I came up with melodic ideas that worked around Ed Norton’s character, but I needed to find a tone that would work around Hannibal’s character also. That was different during a couple of scenes; one with Ed Norton hunting for clues, the other one was when he has a dialog with Hannibal in his cell. Then there was a love scene, as it were, between Emily Watson, the blind girl and Dolarhyde, the killer. Now I had a half a dozen themes and amongst those scenes I had what I felt was all the melodic content of the score, so I went back to the beginning. The biggest surprise for me was this twisted child’s theme that I’d written around Dolarhyde as an element of pathos. That came forward much more than I thought it was going to. The trickiest thing about RED DRAGON is that we are in the midst of a horrendous serial killer; we have to feel this sense of revulsion, and at the same time, unlike the original, feel a true sense of pathos for this monster. That’s a much trickier balance than when a monster is just a monster; it’s much easier to play. Now when you want to invoke sympathy up to a point and certainly pathos around that monster, it becomes another animal.
That was really the key to Brett’s RED DRAGON. We definitely feel for this guy even though what he does is horrible. There is something human in him that doesn’t necessarily want to be the monster that he is, but ultimately that human side of him doesn’t win out. There’s a point in the movie where he’s trying to suppress it and he’s quite tortured, so that emotionally is the heart of the movie.

A special note of thanks goes out to those who made this article possible: Betty Einbinder and Lucia Bernard (Universal Pictures), Chris Cutter (journalist), Chris Iverson (Danny Elfman’s assistant), Mark Northam (publisher Film Music Magazine), and composer Danny Elfman.



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