Danny Elfman on Film Scores, ‘Simpsons’ and Working With Tim Burton
The way film composer and former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman tells it, his whole career boils down to two words: “Fuck it.” He muttered that philosophical phrase when he offered an opportunity to write his first movie score – for director Tim Burton’s feature debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – and the musician said it again when given the chance to perform his now-impressive catalog of symphonic cinematic creations in his “Music From the Films of Tim Burton” concert series.
The shows, which opened in London in 2013 and will kick off its New York City at Lincoln Center on July 6th, contain 15 suites of music from throughout Elfman’s three decades of collaborations with the director — from the primal mania of Pee-wee to the textured grandeur of Alice in Wonderland, with stops at Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands, among others, along the way. But the moment that forced Elfman to want to let go was the prospect of singing songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas, in which he sang the role of skull-headed protagonist Jack Skellington.
“The scariest performing night of my entire life was opening night in London,” the orange-haired composer says of the series, sitting in the office of a radio station. “There was just no way to know whether the entire evening was a complete disastrous mess or not. There were only two rehearsals. And then I’d flippantly agreed to come out and sing. It was like, ‘Wait a minute, did I agree to that?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Can I get out of it?’ ‘No.’ It’s like, ‘Shit!’ I hadn’t sung in 17 years and on some of these songs I didn’t even put in rests to breathe. I need gills.
“So I remember sitting backstage, hyperventilating before I walk out, and Helena Bonham Carter’s there,” he continues. “She sees I’m really nervous and she says, ‘Danny, come on. Fuck it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. How could I forget that?’ that’s been the driving force of my entire professional life. Fuck it. What are they going to do? Kill you? That’s my mindset for everything I’ve ever done that was fearful or impossible or difficult. I walked out there and to my astonishment, the English audience was warm. It was probably the greatest night I can remember in my life performing. Now I just enjoy doing it.”
With the exception of compiling a box set of his Burton collaborations in 2011, preparing the suites for the concert series marked the first time that Elfman really assessed his career. “It was so strange hearing my own progression through 15 works over 25 years and where it started and where it went,” he says with a laugh. “It was kind of like A Christmas Carol: The Ghost of Christmas past goes, ‘And now, Danny, we’re taking you to Beetlejuice.'”
Currently, he’s working on scores for a movie called Tulip Fever and a sequel to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (directed by James Bobin), as well as a violin concerto he hopes to finish by the spring. But most pressing for him is his Lincoln Center run, from July 6th through the 12th. In anticipation of those shows, Elfman met with Rolling Stone to look back at how he got there in the first place.
How did you first meet Tim Burton?
It was just a random thing. I got a call to meet this young animator on a movie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and I knew who Pee-wee was ’cause I’d seen Paul Reubens perform at the Groundlings and I thought he was great. I had no idea who Tim was, of course. Nobody did. When I met him, it was like, “Why me? Why would you want me to do a score? That’s crazy.” Tim was like, “I don’t know. I’ve seen your band and I think you could do it.” It was kind of that simple.
What do you two have in common?
We were both horror-film kids. We loved every horror film made in the Sixties and the Seventies. His idol was Vincent Price, mine was Peter Lorre. It kind of defined us for the next 30 years: Evil mastermind tortured doomed souls, both misunderstood [laughs].
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