Tim Burton shoots, Danny Elfman scores. This is the story of how
the man from Oingo Boingo became Hollywood's coolest composer.
By Kevin Allman
Details magazine, December 1993
Danny Elfman has a taste for the twisted and a sure command of the unwieldy. At the turn of the '80's, when power-pop trios ruled, he led Oingo Boingo, an eight-piece ensemble that incorporated a horn section, tribal rhythms, and Spike Jones-style arrangements. With the band, he created a frantic sound that reflected the attitude of punk and added equal doses of silliness and snottiness. Despite these innovations, the group never rose above cult status; their biggest hit, "Weird Science," was the title track of a lame John Hughes comedy.
Not that it mattered. By the mid-'80's, Elfman had already begun a parallel career as a film composer, rejecting synthesizers for full-scale orchestras and grafting the lush results on big-screen extravaganzas like Batman, Beetlejuice, and Dick Tracy. On his latest project, Tim Burton's animated Nightmare Before Christmas, Elfman took on yet another role: He not only wrote the score and lyrics, but also provided the voice of the male lead, Jack Skellington, the Snappy Pumpkin King of Halloweenland, who travels to Christmasland and finds love.
It is a perfect collaboration: Elfman and Burton mine a common gothic sensibility shaped by the atomic age's cultural (and psychological) fallout. And in Burton, Elfman has found an artistic soul mate, another suburban malcontent who knows how to create a world of fantasy with equal parts perversity and tenderness. "It's a real intuitive relationship," Elfman says about the partnership. "Rather than telling me exactly what he wants orchestrally, Tim will show me a scene and describe the feeling he wants to get across. Then I'll go into the studio and try to find that feeling in music."
On a Warner Bros. soundstage, a sixty-four-piece orchestra is playing the overture to The Nightmare Before Christmas while Elfman listens in the control booth. In his uniform of black T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, the forty-year-old Elfman looks more like a grad student than the man in charge. He's unfailingly polite, but tenser than usual; it's the last day of musical touch-ups on the movie. By the time the orchestra takes its union-mandated break, Elfman is pacing, but he still has a wicked smile. "I forgot my lucky bullwhip," he says. "Sometimes I have to take a young violinist, string her up between two mike stands, and make an example of her." He grins. "It's very cruel. But very effective."
Fifteen minutes later, a rough cut of Nightmare is spooling past. It looks like typical Burton - eerie, childlike, and somehow gentle, a kind of necro-Fantasia. Elfman's overture is perfect. Like so much of his work, it manages to be grand and self-mocking at the same time (think of his theme for The Simpsons). If Burton's movies are dark cartoons, Elfman's music cues us not to take things too seriously.
The orchestra concludes with a thundering flourish. The composer trades looks with the engineer. "It's too much," Elfman pronounces. "But it's a good too much." Several days later, the soundtrack is in the can. Elfman is at home, trying to relax. His house in the hills near Los Angeles is an architectural improvisation of various styles, built into the hillside above a creek and connected by lots of little staircases. The place looks like a collaboration between an art collector, a paleontologist, and a ten-year-old with an unlimited decorating budget. Balinese musical instruments the size of daybeds compete for attention with an enormous prehistoric mamm al skull. Dolls and Day of the Dead tchotchkes from Mexico are everywhere. Joel-Peter Witkin photos hang in the office, and there's an original Diane Arbus in the screening room.
Elfman pops an Evian and settles in front of a fireplace. "If you had asked me in high school," he says, "I would have told you I wanted to be a cinematographer. Anything but a musician."
The son of two schoolteachers, Elfman grew up in Los Angeles. He was, he freely admits, a science nerd. "I won second place in the junior high science fair. My project was called 'Detecting Ionization From Radiation.' Back then, you were able to send to the Atomic Energy Commission and get strontium-90 and cobalt-60 in little vials. I used to steal needles from my diabetic grandfather and use them to irradiate flies, hoping to create hideous mutations." Correspondingly, his early cinematic expe riences revolved around cheap sci-fi movies like The Beast With Five Fingers. "I still have recurring dreams of being pursued by amputated hands."
His self-proclaimed "nuclear paranoia" surfaced again when his wife was pregnant with the first of his two daughters. "I was so convinced that my little experiments had altered my chromosomes that I knew I was going to create a human monstrosity. In the delivery room, when I saw the wrinkled top of her head coming out, I was convinced that her brain was on the outside and I started to pass out."
As a teenager, Danny hung out with a musical crowd, including his brother Rick and a girl named Kim Gordon, who went on to play bass for Sonic Youth. After high school, he learned to play the violin. Then his brother invited him to join "a ragtag street ensemble" that he'd founded - the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.
After a while, the group moved indoors and became a multimedia spectacle with film clips, costume changes, and an African percussion ensemble. When the Mystic Knights folded in the late '70's, Elfman truncated the name and formed a rock 'n' roll band. At that time, the L.A. music scene was all nasty stripped-down punk; Oingo Boingo was different - new wave speeded up to 78 rpm, propelled by Elfman's Chipmunks-on-speed vocals. Though fans made singles like "Only A Lad" and "Violent Love" into local radio hits, critics were mostly dismissive, and the town's hardcore punks turned up their pierced noses. Elfman didn't care.
"I wanted to piss everybody off," he laughs. "If anybody banded together as a movement, I was against them and I wanted to offend them."
One young animator and Boingo fan wasn't offended. That was Tim Burton. In 1985, when Burton got his directing break on Pee-wee's Big Adventure, he enlisted Elfman's help - and began a collaboration to parallel that of Federico Fellini and Nino Rota, or David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti. At a time when scores were being done on synthesizers with an eye toward the pop charts, Elfman conjured up a big, gorgeous score for Burton's weird little tale. Peals of joy rang out when Pee-wee polished his bike; Bernard Herrmannesque strings screeched when it was stolen. In the following years, Elfman teamed up with Burton for Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns. He also worked with Evil Dead director Sam Raimi on Darkman and composed the grand, poignant score for Sommersby.
Despite his success, Danny Elfman is still pissing people off. He makes no bones about his lack of formal musical training - which he says annoys Hollywood. "In an era of musical blandness, to be hated so vehemently means I'm doing something correct. I should have just lied and said I went to Juilliard. No one questions a director coming out of nowhere and doing a film, but you don't come out of rock 'n' roll and do what I'm doing."
And Elfman still clings to Oingo Boingo, more out of passion than the stubborn urge to be a rock star. The band serves as a counterpoint to the lonely rigors of composing, and provides a more visceral, adolescent form of self-expression. "Composing is a discipline, a structured art," he explains. "It requires an enormous amount of concentration. Oingo Boingo is the total opposite. I have to get to an almost spaced-out state to work on that music."
Burnout finally surfaced in the fall of 1992. "I was tired of the whole thing. I was seriously considering letting go of Oingo Boingo." But he didn't. The group's tenth album will be released early next year. And Elfman has his 1994 film projects already picked out. First, he plans to score Burton's Ed Wood, the film biography of the transvestite Z-movie director. Then he'll take on a remake of Black Beauty.
He also talks longingly about bringing back two favorite film genres: the horror movie and the splashy musical. On the drawing board are Julian, a ghost story the Elfman wrote and hopes to direct, and Little Demons, "a twisted, twisted musical." More than anything else, though, he'd like to bring back the era of film composers Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin, when the music was more important than the sound of bullets and exploding helicopters. "These are the dark ages of film scoring," says Elfman. "The '40's and '50's were the best eras. Somehow I feel like I'm carrying the torch."
He laughs. "Or the stake."