Danny Elfman makes music like the conductor of the house band at a traveling circus. He does everything backward, whimsically: He scores horror movies like carnivals and comedies like funerals. The sheet music for Beetlejuice reads as if it were plucked from the repertoire of a drum and bugle corps: marimba, vibraphone, timpani, tuba. Nobody can use a tuba on a soundtrack anymore, lest they be accused of pilfering the Elfman sound. That’s typical of the Elfman legacy. He has an uncanny way of making anything he does seem synonymous with him forever.
“These days,” Alex Ross once wrote of Philip Glass, “he often seems trapped in his formulas; he writes ‘Philip Glass music’ in place of music that happens to be by Philip Glass.” A composer with a style as recognizable as Danny Elfman’s can’t help but risk such a burden — and Elfman has been risking it for 30 years. He is well aware of the problem. “It is true that, as I approach my hundredth score, I can’t invent from scratch every single time,” he says by phone from Los Angeles, where he’s just concluded work on the historical drama Tulip Fever. “I have to draw upon myself at a certain point. But I try not to do so to the point where I feel like I’m always predictable.”
Only on occasion does he slip reflexively into Danny Elfman Music. “I’m sure when you hear the score to Goosebumps you’ll go, ‘Well sure, that’s Danny Elfman.’ I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel there. I won’t pretend that you won’t recognize my style. But I hope of, say, five pieces, at least a few of them, if my name doesn’t appear at the top, you’ll hear the music, see my name at the end, and think, ‘I had no idea that was Danny Elfman.’?”
His secret is to maintain a certain diversity of projects — from blockbuster fantasies to period heist pictures, superhero blowouts to glossy erotica. “In this contrast I find some solace,” he explains. “That’s what keeps me balanced. If I have three big action movies back to back, I’m going to commit suicide.”
There was a time, of course, when composing the music for even a single big action movie would have seemed quite beyond Elfman’s purview. He was enjoying modest success as the leader of a rock band called Oingo Boingo in the early Eighties when he received an unexpected phone call from a young director by the name of Tim Burton, who wanted to know if Elfman would come to the studio to talk about a movie he was working on. Elfman was mystified.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know why I was meeting,” he reflects. “I didn’t quite understand. Usually at that point when I got a call from somebody about a film it was to do a song. I asked them if that’s what it was about and they said, ‘No no, it’s about a score.’?” Elfman had never done a film score before. “I was like, ‘Uh, hmm — don’t know about this!’ I was apprehensive, to say the least.”
Elfman took the job, inexperience be damned. Then he apprehended just how difficult it would be. “It was like being a football fan,” he remembers. “You’re following your team around, you’ve been watching the sport for years, you know the plays and the players and the teams. And then suddenly they toss you a ball and say, ‘OK, here we go.’ As a fan you have an idea of what you should be doing. But you don’t necessarily know how to execute it.”
So he plundered his past for any relevant expertise. In the mid-Seventies, Elfman realized, he’d spent time with a musical-theater group — an “avant-garde cabaret,” in his own evocative description. He’d long ago taught himself to transcribe and write music for the ensemble. “When the film came up I had to double back and go, ‘All right, how did I write that big arrangement?’ I was using some crude rudimentary toolbox that I possessed somewhere in my closet of memory to apply here.”
After meeting with Burton, Elfman retired to the makeshift studio in his garage to devise a rough demo. He recorded an obstreperous little thing on a four-track player and mailed Burton a cassette, thinking not much would come of the effort. It ended up being used as the main title theme. This proved true of the entire project: Elfman assumed he’d be fired before work on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was even finished, if indeed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure ever was.
“I had a job to do, and I wasn’t really out to impress anybody,” he says. “I wanted to do it, and I wanted Tim to be happy with it. But I also kind of thought Warner Bros. would listen to it and toss the score immediately, so I didn’t expect anyone to hear it.” That indifference became the animating force of Elfman’s music. “I think it was a great advantage to not give a shit what anybody thought.”
Elfman’s work on Pee-wee was so integral to the success of the film that he and Burton felt compelled to continue working together — and they have, almost exclusively, for 30 years since. Their fruitful collaboration is being celebrated with a touring concert, entitled “Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton,” which arrives at last in New York at Lincoln Center after playing to great acclaim in London, Tokyo, and Prague.
What is it about Elfman and Burton that makes them such a winning team? “Things Tim does that are normal to him don’t seem abnormal to me,” Elfman suggests. “We both have a weirdness about us.” That affinity for the strange defines much of their shared sensibility. And it may account for how totally Elfman’s sound has informed Burton’s vision: Elfman may owe Burton his introduction to the world of film, but it’s quite impossible to imagine the success of the latter without the contributions of the former. Elfman’s scores aren’t merely important to Tim Burton’s movies. They are essential.
You might think, after working with each other for three decades, that Danny Elfman would be the most well-thumbed name in Tim Burton’s Rolodex, the first number on the speed dial when a new project shimmers into view. But Elfman doesn’t take the work for granted. “I never assume I’m going to get hired for Tim’s next film,” he says, rather surprisingly. Nor does Elfman assume his work will make the grade. “One thing I know about Tim is that I never know [if] I’ve written something he’s going to love. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I never think, ‘Oh, I know what to do, it’s a Tim Burton movie, got it.’ I’ve never been able to have that attitude, ever. There are other directors who are more consistent — they’ll like this, they won’t like that. With Tim I never really know. He’s really unpredictable in that way. That’s probably what’s kept it interesting for over 30 years.”
Does Elfman still find anything intimidating? “Everything and nothing,” he declares flatly. “I’m not afraid of anything; there’s nothing I feel I can’t do. Yet everything feels like I’m starting from scratch. With every project I feel like I’m still lowering a bucket into the well and I don’t know where or even if I’ll hit water. There’s that constant anxiety and insecurity: Will I find something?” Still, he’s proven to himself a hundred times that the well is never dry. And he really seems to have done it all — Batman to Spider-Man, Fifty Shades of Grey to Charlotte’s Web. Is there anything Danny Elfman simply will not do?
“Yes,” he laughs. “A contemporary romantic comedy.” Why’s that? “I have no idea what to do for normal people in a normal situation. If I’m intimidated by anything, it’s normal.”
Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton runs at Lincoln Center July 6–12.