Interview with Alice in Wonderland Composer Danny Elfman
by Alex Billington
March 29, 2010
Continuing my series of interviews with composers, today I present our newest interview with the legendary and wonderfully talented Danny Elfman. I spoke with Danny earlier in March over the phone with a focus on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland which as he mentions in the interview is the 13th film he's done with Burton. However, we go beyond just Alice to talk at length about how he scores his films, from beginning to end, and how it's sometimes a tough battle and sometimes a wonderful experience for him, as well as what it's like working with Tim Burton. This is another one of those fascinating interviews you just have to read!
I suggest putting on Danny Elfman's Alice in Wonderland score (buy it on iTunes), or any of his scores, in the background while reading this interview and it'll greatly enhance the experience. There is nothing like hearing his work while reading about how he came up with it, especially considering this is one of the most exciting interviews I've done. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed conducting the interview!
I'm very fascinated with the process and the technique of scoring and I wanted to focus on that. Starting at the top, I was wondering if you could walk through a little bit of your scoring process. Do you read the script at the beginning? And what comes next in creating the score?
Danny Elfman: No. I don't actually start with the script. I'm sometimes sent a script. And I actually -- believe it or not, I try to avoid getting any ideas or taking any ideas seriously from the script. And what I discovered over the years is that every time I started early and wrote music, none of it ever survived, not a note, when I actually saw the movie. Because what I came to understand is that there's so many ways to shoot the same script. And depending on how the director decides to shoot that script, really, will have a lot to do with what kind of music [I create]. You can take the same script and shoot it very theatrically, with the lighting and the sets, or shoot it very raw or more naturally. And if the cuts are quick and jarring, if the cuts are smooth with lots of dissolves, they just really want a completely different kind of music. Not to mention the huge factor of the performances. And the performances are really-- for me, it just so changes what I imagined in my head. I've never seen a movie that ended up like what I thought it was going to be from reading the script.
So it sounds like your process comes from actually watching the finished product, or close to a finished product?
Elfman: Yeah, exactly. It comes from the visuals. Sometimes it's finished, sometimes it's unfinished. On one extreme, you've got a movie like Batman, where [Burton's] only halfway through shooting. He brought me in to sit in with them for a few days on the Gotham City set. And really, between looking at, maybe, 30 minutes of footage that they'd roughed together and walking around the set, I really did, in fact, on the way home from that trip to London, get the whole Batman theme worked out in my head, what became the main title. But that was the type of theme where 30 minutes was certainly enough to get the tone of it. So you have to see something-- or rather, I have to see something. I think everybody works completely differently. But for me, as soon as I have a picture, whether it be rough or finished, in front of me, I start hearing the music. It's just an immediate response to image. And so I'm definitely image driven.
Now, it could be a polished, finished film, which happens sometimes when you step in at the very end. Or, more likely, it's just a big rough mess with huge gaps not there. That doesn't matter. You still get the tone and the feel and the performance and the story enough to get started moving. So it all starts with looking at picture, no matter what form that picture is. And then I just start immersing myself in it, really. I get into it a lot, and I try to write down my initial impulses.
I mean, the best way to describe my process is I'll try to pick three or four scenes that I think are crucial turning point scenes to the movie. Maybe, something in the beginning, something in the middle, and certainly there's always some major moments towards the end that define the bigger or more important moments in the film. And I'll put an inordinate number of hours into those scenes. Sometimes, I'll even add the main titles to that. The main titles may not seem important, but they often are to me. Because that's, again, very often how I'll define the tone of what I'm getting into and how it's all going to work.
So if I've written a main title, and I've got three or four or five scenes leading up to a finale. And I feel like I've got those nailed, and I can understand in my head where the themes go and how I need them to behave for me -- meaning, do I need them to: If I have a theme I like, do I need it to get whimsical? Do I need it to get heroic? Do I need it to get serious? Do I need it to get mocking? Do I need it to get sarcastic? You know, what do I need it to do? And I need to know that it's going to do all those things I'm going to ask it to. So it's kind of like the theme become an animal, and I've got to make sure it can do all these tricks that I'm going to demand it to do. Before I, then, go about the process of starting the rest of the score.
Do you do a lot of revisions on a particular theme or a piece of music in the film? And how many revisions usually are there? For example, on the theme for Alice in Wonderland, how many different revision did you go through until you got to the final theme we hear in the movie?
Elfman: Well, I mean, there's two levels to that. But in the beginning, when I'm playing music, let's say on Alice for Tim, it's very common that I'll have half a dozen pieces worked out first time I play music for Tim on a particular scene. Because early on, I'll have a lot of ideas. And I'm not sure exactly what my main themes are going to be. I have pieces that I like. So I might try an approach to a scene that I like. And I might try one or two variations to that approach. And then, I might walk away from it, come back-- in fact, that's what I try to do. And then approach the scene completely separately again from a totally different perspective. And then, if I can, to even do that a third time.
So whatever I've been working on, whatever I think, "Oh, that's interesting," I'm going to intentionally go back. Leave it for an hour, come back, and then try to write music for the same scene again and do something totally different. That's the kind of variation process when I'm first bringing the director into my world. When we get to the point where, okay, we've got all that stuff nailed down. We've got the big scenes nailed down, and I start scene by scene, there's really no limit to the number of revisions I can do. I mean, there are scenes -- there's one scene I know I wrote 23 pieces of music before the final one actually got in there. That's kind of extreme on Alice. Others might've been three or four revisions.
Where does your biggest inspiration come from in composing in general? Is it other musicians or artwork?
Elfman: I don't know. I still think I'm inspired by what I grew up on, in a way. That's a hard one to answer. I grew up as a film music fan, as a young man, way before I started scoring or even was interested in the possibility of scoring. I was a huge fan of Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota. And I could tell, listening to an old movie, was that a Max Steiner score? Was that a Franz Waxman score? Korngold? Tiomkin? And I loved playing the game of tuning into a movie, an old movie on television, and then trying to guess who the composer was on old stuff, then seeing if I was right. I was definitely a film music nerd, but it never occurred to me to actually do it. So I liken myself to a fan that got pulled into the game, like a basketball player that suddenly gets thrown the ball.
Can you still do the guessing game with today's movies? Can you watch something on TV today or go to another movie now and guess who the composer is from today's movies as well?
Elfman: It's much, much harder today. But there are certain composers that have a real clearly defined style. I might be able to go, "Oh, that's a John Williams score. That's a Tommy Newman score." And there's certainly a lot of composers that surprise me. I go, "Wow. That's really good. I don't know who that is." And then I'll find out. But much more today than back in the old days, you've got a lot of very successful composers who really make their living by imitating other composers.
Elfman: In that sense, it's really, really hard. Because I'll go, "Well, am I hearing -- is this Jerry Goldsmith? I don't think so. I think it's somebody doing Jerry Goldsmith. But now, they're doing John Williams. And now, at this point in the movie, it seems like they're doing-- oh, look at that. They're doing Danny Elfman. Hmm. Interesting." They sound a little bit like a smorgasbord of composers. So in that sense it's harder to tell. Because composers, back in the old days, they didn't freely, in the context of the same move, borrow the style of two to three other contemporaries of theirs and mimic them. But that's a big chunk of film music today.
So then how do you differentiate yourself? How do you continue to stay original and fresh and unique in the scores that you create, so that you can stand out from the others? It seems like that would be a challenge for you, at this point and time, to do that.
Elfman: Well, I mean, it's always a challenge, and I can't say, for a fact, that I do sound original or stand out from the crowd. I mean, that's for others to say. I try to just approach things the best I can. And I hope that what I'm doing is, to some extent, original. You know, nothing's totally original, of course. And believe me, it's also hard not to rip off ourselves. At a certain point, once we have a certain kind of style, there's always a temptation to fall back and do something exactly like we've done before, as well. And that's always a heavy temptation, even if a director doesn't tell us, "I want this style for this scene, and this style for this scene, and this style for this scene." Because I think the biggest difference in composing today and the old days isn't so much the composers -- it's the way films are made.
When Alfred Hitchcock made a film with Bernard Herrmann, he wasn't telling Bernard Herrmann, "I really want this cue to sound like this Korngold score. And I really want this one to sound like this Alex North score. But for this cue, can you please give me that thing from, you know, whomever?" He hired Bernard Herrmann to do Bernard Herrmann. And they hired Alex North to do Alex North. The directors didn't get that involved in the music. It was a completely different system. In fact, the director frequently moved onto another film and the editor and the composers were just left to do their work. So it was just night and day completely different. And I'm not saying that that's better. It's just very different.
Now, you have directors who frequently will insist on different scenes in their moving sounding like something that they've already got in their head, or something from another movie. So I'm not really-- I'm not trying to blast other composers for being derivative more than they should be or need be. It's really about the filmmaking process. Because I've been there, and every composer goes through this problem of a director's got something in their head. And it's just really hard to shake them out of it. It's the fact that directors are who they are, and their own personalities cause that. Composers, like everybody else, we have to-- at a certain point you have to give them what they want. Or you have to, at a certain point, turn your back and split. It's a very difficult process.
So in terms of where it is and where it was and where it's going, it's really hard to say. But in the process of knowing that directors can be very, very picky and very difficult, I try, as all composers that are worth anything-- and there's a lot of really good composers out there today. You try to keep your own voice. You try to sell it to the director from the perspective that you think makes the most sense. And sometimes you have to pick your battles. Sometimes it gets really bloody in the process. And sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's really easy.
So you never know what to expect. Every movie is like walking out onto this landscape. This is the best way I can describe it. Each film you start, as a composer, you're walking out onto this huge landscape. And you can talk about music until your blue in the face with a director. It doesn't mean shit. Because when you start actually playing stuff for them, it's never going to be what they're expecting. Because there actually is no way to describe music. And you can't show a picture of it. You're going to talk about it in an abstract level. At a certain point they'll hear it. And they're going to respond the way they're going to respond. And often, they don't even know why they're responding the way they respond. It's just how they're emotionally responding to the music. And that landscape, sometimes, is like this lovely bucolic stroll, where it's like being on a boat and gliding down a river. And sometimes that landscape, you find yourself in the middle of World War I. The army's tanks are coming from every which direction and gas grenades are getting thrown. And there's shells coming from everywhere. And you really put out your energy and try to keep your head down and not get hit.
So the crazy thing about it is that you often just never know what-- you open a door, and you start into this landscape. And you take a few steps, and you really have no idea what that landscape's going to become. So that's really the best metaphor I can describe for what it's like starting a new film. Sometimes, you finish a film, and you go, "Man, I was expecting that was going to be so difficult. And it was just so smooth, such a lovely experience. And it was such a nice, straight, easy path." And then, sometimes, you know, you get to the other side really feeling like you just survived a war. And that can feel good, too, by the way.
Yeah. With Alice, you've, obviously, worked with Tim Burton I think more than any other director. And that must--
Elfman: Well, yeah. Yeah, 13th time, and I have to say I can't predict him any more now than on Pee Wee's Big Adventure.
So he's just as unpredictable?
Elfman: Yea, completely unpredictable. People think we have some kind of shorthand, that I know what he's going to be looking for. And he knows what to expect. He really isn't that way, at all. I appreciate and understand his sensibility. But how he's going to react to a particular piece of music, I have no way of predicting.
Does he want something new from you in every film he does? Or does he even reference his own films and say, "Oh, I want the sound from this one, or I want the sound from this other one?"
Elfman: No. He'll never say from anything. He'll really just say, "This music makes me feel this way." And I don't know why, but it does. And then, I have to sit there and go, "Okay. What is it? Is the orchestration? Is it the melody?" And so I'll, then, do a lot of trial and error. I'll take the same piece-- sometimes, I'll write something completely different. Sometimes I'll take the same piece and just change a few things. Change the tempo and change the orchestration. And suddenly, he really likes it.
So there's a very tricky intuitive process of what's making the director feel this way. Is it this instrument? Is it the sound of the trumpet? Is it the sound of the clarinet? Or, really, is it just the melody? Or is it just this turn in a melody? And if I take this turn and change it, suddenly, it's feeling completely different. And so very often, there's a lot of experimentation, changing it, rearranging it, re-orchestrating it. And if it's still not working, at a certain point, you have to abandon it completely, and just go somewhere else. But sometimes, it's also surprising what an impact a small adjustment can make to a piece of music and in the actual orchestration of it.
What are you working on at the moment. Do you have anything else coming up? I think you're on The Green Hornet, right?
Elfman: Not quite yet. I'm doing Restless, for Gus Van Sant. And then, we move on to The Green Hornet with Michel Gondry.
How are those two going? I mean, I look forward to hearing all of your scores, but it's always exciting to know so early out how they're coming along.
Elfman: I don't know. I've really just written a little bit of music for Gus. I haven't presented him anything, yet. I know Gus well enough to know that we'll take a journey together. And I'll try lots of different things. Gus will encourage me to try lots of really radically different things. You know, approach it from completely different angles. And it'll be interesting. I've never worked with Michel, and I'm really looking forward to it. I'm a big fan of his. So I have no idea to expect from that.
I think that's a perfect place to wrap up.
Elfman: Well, great.
Thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Elfman: My pleasure, totally. I'll talk to you again some day.
Thank you to Danny Elfman for this opportunity and to Disney for arranging the interview. Alice in Wonderland is currently playing in theaters, so check it out if you haven't seen it yet.
If you enjoyed this interview, I'm currently putting together a series of interviews with other composers like Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, Michael Giacchino, Thomas Newman, and Alexandre Desplat. So let me know who else you'd like to see, as I truly love talking with composers, they always have so much to say!