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Danny Elfman Tells the Stories Behind 8 of His Classic Scores

Photo: Fox, Twentieth Century Fox, Pee Wee Pictures, Touchstone Pictures

This year’s Lincoln Center Festival launches with a concert featuring Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton. Still, when I chatted with the composer to cover some of the most popular sounds of his career, he was afraid he wouldn’t remember specifics. “My historical sense of my own work is absolutely atrocious,” he warned me. “Once I’ve moved on from a film, I’ve never listened to those scores again, or even watched the movies I’ve scored. I’m almost allergic to the things I’ve worked on. If it’s playing on TV, I’ll usually change the channel.” Fortunately, he was selling himself a little short, as he was able to recall the inspiration for the music behind some the most classic scenes of the last 30 years. With Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton opening tonight and running through July 12, Vulture spoke to Elfman about eight of those scenes.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: “The Breakfast Machine”

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the movie that marked the beginning of Elfman’s career as a film composer, as well as his work with Tim Burton, a collaboration that now spans 30 years. Pee-wee Herman, the main character, is an oddball who’s surrounded himself with wonders of his own making. His world is an enchanted, eccentric circus of curiosities. Most of these ideas are captured from the start, in a scene where Pee-wee’s breakfast is prepared by an elaborate mechanism. Elfman’s score acts like the clockwork driving this kooky technology.

“I really went heavily into a Nino Rota inspiration for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, so if you heard something circuslike, I can only imagine that it came from that place.” Elfman said. “The first scene that I wrote, which to me established a lot of the tone of the movie, is the breakfast machine. That’s where I really dived in and tried to find the Pee-wee character in that piece of music. It then spread out to the rest of the score.”

The Nightmare Before Christmas: “Jack’s Lament”

If The Nightmare Before Christmas often comes up when naming Elfman scores, it could be because everything about creating this movie was different. The Kurt Weill–inspired Nightmare took two and a half years to complete, where most of Elfman’s film scores are done within 12 weeks, toward the tail-end of postproduction. That Elfman was cast as Jack Skellington’s singing voice was due in part to the fact that the pumpkin king’s identity crisis mirrored Elfman’s own at the time, particularly in the song “Jack’s Lament.”

“I really related very heavily to Jack and his relationship to Halloween,” Elfman recalled. “It was kind of my relationship with my band, Oingo Boingo, at that point. I was the singer and the songwriter, so in a way, I was the king of my own little kingdom. But I desperately wanted out. I wanted something else. So as I was creating songs for Jack and writing those parts, I was also kind of writing from my own heart and where I felt at that time. So it’s a real character to fall into. I wrote most of everything in about 30 days with Tim, but when I recorded the demos with him, I finally said, ‘Tim, I almost couldn’t bear it if someone else was singing these songs.’ And he said, ‘No, don’t worry. They’re you’re songs.’ I was relieved because, at that point, the thought of someone else stepping into Jack would have killed me.”

Batman Returns: The Penguin Dies

The theme Elfman composed for Batman and Batman Returns is certainly memorable, so much so that it was even used for the ensuing animated series. The overall score evokes a path paved in tragedy for the hero and villains of Gotham. Batman’s world functions within a maze of moral gray zones, but your sympathies might never baffle you more than when the Penguin dies. He’s unquestionably sadistic and homicidal, but his death is painful and pathetic, and the weighty, funereal music takes us to a place where we can actually feel mercy for the merciless man.

“I love the Penguin,” Elfman said. “He was a character that I really felt for. He’s a bad guy, but I still liked him, and I was really sad when he died. As silly as the scene is, when he dies and they carry his body, I found myself bizarrely touched by it.”

Edward Scissorhands: “Ice Dance”

It’s hard not to notice children’s choirs on several Elfman tracks. Normally that sound would be reassuring, but in Elfman’s hands, it’s otherworldly and unsettling. You never feel very grounded when the chorus chimes in, as if they’re singing a gorgeous warning. The children’s choir particularly characterizes Edward Scissorhands. Elfman can’t say exactly why he’s drawn to this type of vocal work, but he knows he likes it.

“I’ve always enjoyed using some kind of choir, or the boys’ soprano soloist; there’s just something about the sound of children that particularly gets me,” he explained. “There was nothing to indicate what music should be played for this movie. I had two themes for Edward Scissorhands but no themes for anybody else. That’s just the way it came together. Frequently, my process isn’t really a process. It’s what scenes form in front of me and trying to explain it. I don’t know what made me want to use children’s voices other than telling the story and telling the fairy tale. I think that probably opened the door to Tchaikovsky and using a choir in that way, I’m sure. But it’s all very unconscious … Edward was a really cool process of being left alone with Tim. Nobody was watching over our shoulders, nobody even seemed concerned that we were even writing a score or working on the music. We were just two weird guys working on our own, under the radar and everything. And the result was Edward.”

Mars Attacks: Destruction Scene

An instrument that keeps popping up in Mars Attacks is the theremin. It’s distinctly ghostly, and rampant in old horror and sci-fi movies. But for Elfman, the theremin is a reflection of the bonds that tie him to Burton.

“The goal was to invoke the ‘50s and that sci-fi sound that Tim and I both grew up on,” said Elfman. “When we met during Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, we realized that we both had the same background. We both grew up in Los Angeles and we both grew up watching horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films. It was an era where you got to see a lot of movies. So using the theremin was certainly no accident in Mars Attacks. The whole idea of a Martian attack goes right back to the ‘50s or ‘60s and the movies that we saw when we were little kids, and a theremin would have certainly been used.”

Good Will Hunting: Park Scene

Because Good Will Hunting’s score is mostly dominated by Elliott Smith tunes, it’s easy to forget that Elfman was also involved. Though his imprint may be subtle, it’s no less effective, especially in the park scene between Will Hunting (Matt Damon) and his psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), and later, when Sean keeps repeating, “It’s not your fault.” In both scenes the music comes right at the end, but what it conveys is a change in Will’s perspective, or a crucial shift in his relationship with Sean. Again, part of what makes this work so poignant comes down to the process.

“It was a rare case where I knew what songs were going to be where,” Elfman recounted. “Normally in a film, I’m just told, ‘We’re going to put a song here.’ In this case, from the very beginning, I was listening to Elliott Smith. Elliott and I would get together in this basement, pull out guitars, and play ideas of stuff. So I had a really good sense of what several scenes were, what the score was going to be, what the song was. I was grateful because I was able to make it much more transparent than usual, and make it feel more integrated. It’s something that I really haven’t had since. So that was really special. Not to mention the pleasure of meeting Elliott Smith.”

Hitchcock: In Editing

Hitchcock, the biopic starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, was never a huge hit, but it had its moments, and Elfman carved most of them. Knowing that frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann is one of Elfman’s most cited influences, I asked him if he channeled the composer to score this picture, especially in the scene where Hitchcock and his wife Alma edit Psycho.

“Very consciously. We didn’t want the score to be a Bernard Herrmann homage,” he admits. “On the other hand, there were moments when I just wanted to allow his spirit in the door. The heart of the score is a romantic theme, which plays over and over, so I still think of it as more of a romantic score than anything else. But there are still moments where I at least try to crack the door. We decided early on that we didn’t want it to be poorly done Bernard Herrmann. Since he was part of the story, it was just too on-the-money to do that.”

The Simpsons: Opening Theme

In the infrequent case where someone can’t place Elfman by name alone, just tell them he composed the theme for The Simpsons. It’s so recognizable that Elfman wouldn’t be surprised if, despite over 100 film credits to his name, his tombstone one day reads, “Wrote the Simpsons theme.” So how did he come up with this playful orchestral piece? The answer is in his childhood.

“It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done because it was immediate; there were no notes, no changes, no suggestions,” he says. “I got called into a meeting with Matt Groening. He showed me a pencil sketch of the opening of The Simpsons and it felt very retro and crazy, what I remember growing up on. I told him, ‘If you want something contemporary, I’m not the guy for that. But if you want something like a crazy Hanna-Barbera that never was, then I think I’m the right guy.’ I literally wrote the piece in the car on my way home from the meeting, in my head. I ran down to my studio and within a couple of hours, I wrote all the parts on a multi-track. Then I sent the cassette back to Matt, and I think I got a call the next day saying, ‘Yeah, that’s it’ … I didn’t know that I would actually be hitting a jackpot. I didn’t expect anybody to see The Simpsons. I didn’t think it would last more than one season, if it even lasted one season. So I did it purely for fun. That silly moment would become this major defining moment in my life. It’s amazing. It’s ironic.”

Danny Elfman on 8 of His Iconic Scores