An Interview with Danny Elfman by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.18/No.72/1999/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Sidestepping from the world of pop music into that of film music in 1988 with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, Danny Elfman quickly established himself as a formidable composer in the realm of motion pictures, the more fantastic the better. Elfman took continued strides as his relationship with PEE WEE director Tim Burton fermented through such films as BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BATMAN RETURNS, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and MARS ATTACKS. Their latest collaboration can be found in Burton’s richly evocative take on the Ichabod Crane story, SLEEPY HOLLOW, featuring a moody and wistfully ferocious score by Mr. Elfman. Interviewed the week after the film’s premiere, Danny Elfman described the creation of the film’s score and his methodology for creating monster movie music.
Considering your past association with Tim Burton, was it a given that you’d be doing SLEEPY HOLLOW?
It was pretty much a given in the sense that he called me as soon as he got the movie. He wanted to lock me down for the project, which is normally how he works. With SLEEPY HOLLOW, it was a fast-track thing, so I got the call pretty quick, and he asked me to make sure I’d be available for such and such months, to do it.
At what point did you actually get involved with the production of the music?
Tim always takes me out onto the set in the middle of shooting. We’ve been doing that ever since BEETLEJUICE. So he brought me out, I sat on the set for a day, and watched them shooting, and then Chris Lebenzon, the editor, showed me some scenes, even though it’s only half done, and that just basically got my mind going.
Does that help you as far as determining the music you’re going to write later on?
It helps a lot, because I’ll get thematic ideas. With BATMAN, for example, wandering around on the Gotham City set is where I got what became the BATMAN theme, way before they were done with the movie. What I’ll normally do is I’II get a bunch of first impressions down, and then I’ll walk away from it for a couple months or however long, and I won’t think about it again. Then I’ll come back fresh. But I’ll have these first impressions, and usually, four out of five times, my first impressions stick.
In terms of SLEEPY HOLLOW, what elements initially grabbed you as being integral to the core of the music?
Due to the fact that it was a monster movie, I knew there would be a romantic side, and I knew that there’d be a little bit of a fairy tale-ish side. I didn’t know how everything was going to work together, but I knew that I was going to want to use a lot of brass, to get a weighty sound. Other than that, it’s not like a direct thing. It’s hard to say exactly what triggers what, other than I’m walking around, I’m looking at stuff, and then I’ll start to hear ideas in my head.
You’ve woven some interesting vocal thematic elements into the score, both solo and choral. Would you describe how you were using those and what your overall approach to the music was, in this case?
My overall approach? I couldn’t begin to describe it! I don’t even know what it is! I had a theme for a boy’s solo voice, and originally I thought it was a theme I was going to use under the flashbacks of the young Ichabod, but it ended up incorporating right over the Horseman and all this other stuff, in different ways, and it surprised me. They tend to do that. Something I think will be good in one place pops up over another. It tends to move into places where I don’t expect it, and I’m always surprised – and I like it
On a literal level, it makes no sense that the same theme that is playing over Ichabod’s flashbacks as a child is also playing over the Horseman. The Horseman had two other themes, but sometimes the Ichabod theme would just pop up and we’d need to play it. I never resist those things. Ultimately, I believe there are no rules about what can play over what. If it works, I don’t question why. So that theme became the main theme of the music, although I didn’t initially intend it to be that way.
The voices seem to be associated with the past, whether it is the past of the Hessian or the past of Ichabod. These things are coming out of the past and affecting what’s going on with the characters now.
It all kind of starts to become a big puzzle, like a tapestry. The fun part of a big score is having a general outline of what the tapestry is going to be, but then as you’re filling it in there are all these surprises.
Letting your creativity go and seeing where it takes you, instead of mapping it all out and being strict to that…
Exactly. In some movies, though, you might need to do that. For example, in BATMAN RETURNS, there’s the Catwoman Theme and the Penguin Theme, and they’re always over the Catwoman or the Penguin. Or almost always. It’s more literal because you’ve got these specific characters and the themes play the characters. In SLEEPY HOLLOW, it wasn’t that way. I didn’t seem to feel the need to be one hundred percent literal that way. There was a theme that only plays over the Horseman, when he’s rising up on his horse or galloping full blast. The Anti-Hero theme. And there’s another theme that only plays when he’s coming, or being talked about coming, or we’re about to meet him, or he’s here, and those things played fairly literally over those moments. But then what I’m calling the Main Theme, Ichabod’s Theme, tended to pop up anyplace! I would just go, “well, there is!” Tim would go, “Yeah! Sure! Cool!”
It’s almost as if the whole score, even when fragmented, is intertwined around the presence or at feast the idea of the Horseman who’s so central to the film. Even your cue ‘The Gift’ seemed to be derived from the Ichabod / Horseman music.
That’s true. And this Ichabod theme also becomes this romantic theme, which I think happened in ‘The Gift’ also. It goes over several scenes. She gives him the book, and from there it plays over several other scenes.
I think you used it also when he found out that the book saved him from the bullet…
That was kind of a variation of their romantic thing. It would always pop up in those moments. That’s the corny part of the score, like taking a romantic variation of what is Ichabod’s theme, turned slightly to this direction or that direction and it becomes the romantic theme. Playing it pretty literally over them coming together, when they’re about to kiss, when he thinks about her as he looks at the book in the fire, and again when she rides off, and when they come together. It’s more like old-fashioned scoring. He looks at the book and sees the bullet hole, and it plays for a second and then moves on.
You’ve also got this dissonant horror/suspense music which I find equally interesting. It’s constantly tonal and dynamic. How do you approach creating effective horror music without winding up with sheer noise?
Again, I don’t know how to describe it, except when I saw the scene, I heard this kind of intense music. I love writing dissonance, so I’m always really happy whenever a scene will allow me to get dissonant, whether it’s DOLORES CLAIBORNE or SLEEPY HOLLOW. It’s always great fun for me. Probably the most fun scene I had in scoring SLEEPY HOLLOW is the scene where the Horseman breaks into the house of the family and kills them all. When the mother’s head rolls up and you see the eye looking through the floorboards, that’s my favorite scene!
How has your method of composing changed over the years? Are you working on keyboard, are you notating?
The most dramatic way that my method had changed has been that, finally, over the last couple of years, I’ve turned over to MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] notation. I have very mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it can mean the difference between completing 65 minutes out of an 80-minute score or all 80 minutes out of an 80-minute score. It knocks my days down from 16 hours a day to a more leisurely 13 or 14 hours a day!
On the other hand, I always feel like I’m cheating. I wrote my first 22 scores down on paper, every note, and I felt there was a kind of purity to that, and that’s why I have very mixed feelings about it, but on the other hand, on a score like this, it never would have worked. I would have had to have hired guns to help me out.
The edits changed. The film went through a process of a lot of versions, and things got moved around a lot. That’s where the notation part kills you. It takes so many hours to get it all down, and to have to start scrambling it and scrambling it, so in this movie, more than any other, the MIDI notation saved my ass.
There were some cues I wrote six versions of, just following where it went. Within the process of MIDI, I was able to preserve half of it, and then move all these other sections all over the place, and just basically print it out all over again. It drives the orchestras crazy! They would get new printouts and I would say “Bar 25 to Bar 35 are the same”, and “Bar 1 to Bar 11 is the same” – everything else is different! I’m really surprised I didn’t have any suicides in the orchestra!
That is, for any composer and orchestrator, the most aggravating part of their job, but it’s what you have to do. You can’t complain, you just do it. It goes with the territory. With Avid [a digital editing software system] editing, it’s just much more so than it used to be, because the editors have the ability to, very quickly, try completely new takes on a particular scene, in just a matter of hours. When they were cutting film, they just didn’t do that. They would try a couple cuts but they wouldn’t try sixty cuts in one 4-minute sequence! So I think Avid has radically changed editing, and that’s also radically changed how composers have to deal with their work.
So having a program like tile MIDI allows you to keep up with that.
It allows me to totally keep up with it and not have a nervous breakdown. Still, even with that, I was working months on this score, and by the last months I was only sleeping 5 or 6 hours a night. It was really hard work – I haven’t worked this hard since BATMAN, and BATMAN was 100% notated. It was still excruciatingly hard work, but without that extra help, I would have had to do something which is even worse – the worst of all evils, which is handing a cue to an orchestrator and go, “Look, I can’t deal with this! You do it!” Then, at a certain point, it stops being your composition. So between evils, this is the lesser of them.
How closely did you work with Tim Burton on this score?
Tim got much more involved with this score than most of our other films. We were both in New York and I was just two doors down from his office, so instead of showing up every three or four days and hearing the music, he was popping in every day. He’s very involved and very opinionated.
How did the score evolve in that process, from your first impressions on the set through the composing and working with Tim and dealing with the changes as they occurred in postproduction?
It was so difficult, because in this score every cue almost overlaps every other cue! There’s only about 10 minutes of movie that doesn’t have score. So when it’s like that, every change you make affects everything else. Sometimes they would cut 12 seconds out, and then that one cue no longer went into the other. And then they would move two scenes around, and it would involve radical rethinking of certain areas, much more than you would think a 6- or an 8- or a 12-second lift would do, because it used to flow seamlessly from one cue into the next, and now it’s jarring. So I’d have to back-up, back-up, back-up, and then re-write the whole ending, and end in a different key. It’s like dominoes. Once you start changing one area you have to start changing more and more and, when you thought you’re only going to deal with two bars you’re now dealing with forty!
Did the film’s period at all affect your music?
No. I almost never pay attention to period, unless there’s something you’re trying to make a comment about in the period. This score’s just kind of timeless.
Is there something that you would describe as the “Danny Elfman Sound?” Something distinctive or recognizable that emerges in the music of BEETLEJUICE and MARS ATTACKS and MEN IN BLACK and now in SLEEPY HOLLOW? What’s your view of that kind of thing?
I don’t know. I like to move very closely to the images, and to have a style. It may be a little bit schizophrenic, which is maybe why sometimes my soundtracks are hard to listen to on record, because I’m following, on a frame-by-frame basis, what I’m seeing. And sometimes that makes it a kind of an astounding bore, but I like lots of dynamic. I like to get really big, and really sweet, and really soft, and really sad, and really funny. The score should be busy telling the story. I like to think that, if you played the film with just the score and you couldn’t hear what they were saying, you’d still understand a lot. Not intricacies of plot, but you’d get a lot of the story out of it.