An Interview with Danny Elfman by Ford A. Thaxton
Transcribed and Edited by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.79, 2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Danny Elfman’s long-running collaboration with director Tim Burton continues with the director’s stylistic take on PLANET OF THE APES, which opened late July. A consistent percussive rhythm holds much of Elfman’s tempestuous score together, with bursts of horns and winds heightening the fast tempo. Elfman’s action music is terrifically dissonant, but without ranging out of control.
Much of the intricacy of his music is somewhat obscured amid the picture’s sound effects, but on CD the effect is truly amazing, creating a miasmic and claustrophobic sound design that envelops the listener and creates the mood of charging, equine apes almost as well as Burton’s visualizations did. We interviewed Elfman about his efforts on the new APES film a week before it opened.
We’ve heard a lot of rumors going around the Internet about people wanting to make the score more heroic, and the studio wanting changes, and this and that. What is the real story on that?
I have no idea! These things are always very amusing, where something starts and it can’t stop. It fuels itself and whether it be this or Richard Gere and a gerbil – where this stuff comes from God only knows! It’s probably somebody says something to somebody and it spreads like wildfire. The irony of that story on PLANET OF THE APES is that I was actually holding evenings for additional sessions, because I was expecting to have to rescore stuff, not because of conceptual problems, but because of technical dilemmas. As the film gets edited and all the effects are coming in and changing up to the last second, very often we have to rescore something to try to comfort it, and I didn’t have to use one of those dates! There was absolutely no rescoring and I got nothing from Fox but big smiles while scoring was going on.
No executive went up to you and said, “Hey Danny, it’s got to be like GLADIATOR! Make it more heroic!”?
Oh my God, no! That never happened.
I guess the big question is, obviously, the PLANET OF THE APES icon, the original film, is considered a classic on all these levels. My understanding is that you’re a big genre fan, so, going into this one, did you have any trepidations, like you’re following in the footsteps of a classic?
Danny Elfman: The only trepidation I had is that I didn’t know this film very well! I saw it once when it came out when I was a kid and I never saw it again… I actually wasn’t a big fan. So I bought the DVD, and the thing that worried me was eased immediately. I had been more concerned that the score was going to be more of a traditional, very aggressive Jerry Goldsmith score, which he does so brilliantly, and the fact that it was such an ethereal, otherworldly score, immediately eased all problems I may have had, because I saw that there was not going to be any overlap. I would have been more concerned, if his score was more traditional and aggressive, of what to avoid, so as to not cross over or step on his toes. So it really became very easy once I watched the movie again after 30 something years. The score was such a beautiful, odd, dissonant piece of work. I felt clearly, this is a completely different animal – no pun intended. Having just seen a rough cut of the film, I knew it was going to be very big, aggressive, muscular, kind of a tribal, driving score.
I’m always curious about a composer’s work process on a project. Now, some composers have said they literally start Reel 1, go through it chronologically, and that’s it. Other people look for critical scenes to break the back of, and then kind of build out from there. How’s it work for you?
More the latter. I go through a period of experimentation, based on how much time I have on the film, and then I’ll usually pick a scene in the beginning, the middle, and the end of the movie, and once I have my themes laid out, I need to see how they are going to break down. The only way to do that is to apply them to some critical scenes. If I feel that it’s going to work for these three scenes, then I’m covered. Then I’ll go back to the start and work chronologically through the rest of the movie. But I have to hit the major points and I have to feel real confident that, melodically, I have these different things, I know now how they could fit together – this piece can turn this direction or that direction if I wanted to. It’s kind of like having my building blocks solidly in order, and once I’ve established the primary architecture and identified the pieces I’m going to use, I abandon all that and I start at the beginning and I let the pieces lead me. Very often, then, the melodies and bits will do things totally unexpected. I don’t fight it; I let the music lead me along.
What were those moments that you keyed in on in this film?
One was a big battle sequence at the end, one was a scene where the evil general is preparing for battle and the army has to come to arms, and the other was the hunt scene early on, where the humans are being hunted. There was also another scene, between Mark Walhberg’s character and Ari, played by Helena Bonham-Carter, the sympathetic ape, with their thematic bit. So it was kind of spread out a little bit.
You finished scoring a week and a half ago, but obviously the CD soundtrack album was finished before then, since it’s currently in release. Is the album missing anything significant from the end of the film that you hadn’t finished in time for the CD release?
Yeah, there’s a couple of cues that, were I finished with the score, I would have put on the CD. But the most interesting part of doing the album early was that they asked me, ‘why don’t you elaborate, and come up with a few things for the album inspired by the movie that doesn’t necessarily have to be in the movie.’ So I wrote a suite called “Apes Suite No. 2” which was just for the album. What’s funny is that Tim ended up liking it so much that they cut it into the movie and it became part of the score!
So it kind of reverse engineered!
That was great, because, first off, it’s amazing that it works, with only a few little tweaks, almost perfectly to an action sequence. So I almost can’t believe I didn’t write it for that scene! But secondly, it’s an interesting backwards way of approaching it. At that point, I was two-thirds of the way done with the score, so it’s not like I didn’t know what the score was. But I was now imagining writing for scenes that didn’t really exist, writing from my own internal perspective, and I came up with something that we all really liked, and it ended up as part of the score! There are maybe two or three cues, if I had an extra month on the album, that would have made it on there, but I think by far the gist and soul of the score is probably there.
There’s a piece on the CD called ‘Main Title Deconstruction…’ What’s the story behind that particular cue?
Again, that was because Sony Classics just gave me the ability to have fun. They said “have fun with this,” because I wasn’t done with the score. So I did three or four things like that. I did a piece called ‘The Hunt’ and I extended it – it’s actually twice as long as what’s in the movie. I took the Main Titles and I made a deconstruction; I’ve always wanted to do that and no one’s ever asked me before, and I was really having fun with the music. Then I did these ‘Apes Suite 1 and 2’ which were elaborated from pieces in the movie. Even the Main Title is almost two minutes longer than the Main Title in the movie, because there weren’t finished Main Titles when the album needed to be finished. Out of 40-ish soundtracks out there, it’s the first time anybody’s ever asked me and allowed me to have fun with a soundtrack in that way. So I only wish that I had more time to do more experimental pieces, because, as a composer, what’s more fun than that? Taking a Main Title and deconstructing it, turning it around backwards and turning it in like a dub mix of a deconstruction, it’s tremendous fun for me, it was very creative and I enjoyed it. I wish I could do that stuff more often!
What are you on to after PLANET OF THE APES? Other than a well-deserved vacation?
I’m doing a ballet with a British choreographer named Matthew Bourne. It’s my first ballet, and it’s based on the story of Edward Scissorhands… God knows if I’ll survive it! We’re both trying to figure out “how do we begin?” And then I have a really, really twisted script that I’m finishing up, that will enter the market place in some way or another.
That’s right; you have aspirations of writing and directing.
Well, I might lose my citizenship over this one, we’ll see! And then I have SPIDER MAN coming up in January.
Everybody’s going to want to know what you’re going to do far that. I saw the trailer, and it looks very impressive so far…
I haven’t seen the trailer yet. But I’ve already been down that road with BATMAN. You know, whether it is PLANET OF THE APES, BATMAN, or SPIDERMAN… you can’t worry about what hard-core genre fans are going to perceive of what you do or don’t do. You have to take everything for what it is – the movie will be what it will be, and I’ll do the best I can with it.
Are you also going to be doing the sequel to MEN IN BLACK?
I’m talking with them, but with the schedule and the ballet and everything, I’m not sure how that is or isn’t going to fit. That and a movie called THE RED DRAGON.
The prequel to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
Right. These are things that I’m talking about with the respective directors, but I’m attempting to only do two films a year again, which is what I did for most of my composing career, so it’s a little tricky getting that and all the other stuff that I want to do.
Are you planning a ‘Music from a Darkened Theater, Volume 3’ at any point?
Yeah, we’re also talking about that right now.
The Nightmare Before Christmas – Danny Elfman and the Anti-Musical
You’ve got to realize when we did THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS we were very much doing an anti-musical. There was a very conscious effort to do no music in that film that felt in any way, shape, or form like it could have come from a contemporary animated musical. So Tim and I knew we were going to catch lots of flack on the music, and I did. I got some of the most hateful reviews that I’ve ever gotten in my life on NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, but I was expecting it. Because, if you’re a real fan of today’s animated musicals, you almost kind of have to be down on it, because it’s so in your face!
What was funny about it was that, at the time, for the two years I worked on it, I was running all the material for the movie by my young daughter, who was 7 to 9 years old at the time. And this is a little girl, listening to this stuff, totally delighted. I remember doing the press junket, and they’re asking me, “this stuff’s too intense for children, isn’t it?” and I go, “well, no, actually every piece I’ve done has been approved by a 7-year old girl!” It was great.
Also the idea of using ten songs instead of five and telling the whole story in narrative is a very archaic, not-popular thing to do now. Everything’s’ gotten so formatted, down to five-to-six songs and you can almost time them, if you’re watching a musical, that there’s going to be a song within two minutes and it’s going to be the exhibition song, and then it’s going to be her “it’s so hard being who I am in the world today” song, and then it’s going to be the love song. You can almost clock it the first time you see the movie. And here we’re doing this crazy thing, ten songs, and telling the whole story in song, which would not have been crazy in 1940, but in the ‘90s was kind of crazy!