From Pee-Wee to Batman to Two Films a Year
Article by Lukas Kendall; Part 1 of 2
Film Score Monthly #62, October 1995
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Today is a special day for Danny Elfman - which has nothing to do with any film or film score. It's the day a week he spends with his two daughters, who pretty much bounce off the walls as their daddy arms himself with coffee and smokes for yet another film music interview. "You're here to talk about film music?" he says, "Well, film music sucks, that's pretty much my opinion." He is marginally amused to see a copy of FSM from some months back where every letter fell under a heading of something "sucking," complete with a cartoon of Jerry Goldsmith reading FSM and thinking "This magazine sucks."
The Elfman "compound" is one of those Southern Californian homes built high into a cliff. with a spacious, vertical "yard" rather than a ranch-like horizontal one; it features all kinds of plant life even surrounding a little stream. The house is marvelously decorated with Nightmare Before Christmas-like skeleton-chairs and knick-knacks, including a shrunken head mounted in a glass case. It's part normal home, part Addams Family and part Pee-Wee's Playhouse - gymnast rings. for example. hang outside his studio, a separate, smaller building, presumably so he can get up and stretch on them at any stressed-out time. Elfman is even dressed like he could be a character in The Nightmare Before Christmas, with an "alternative" striped T-shirt, a face much younger than his 42 years, a fabulous frock of bright red hair - most fans probably don't realize what red hair he has, since film music magazines are cheap and printed in black-and-white - and even some newly applied tattoos.
To begin to understand why Danny Elfman thinks film music sucks, one must understand his own peculiar entry into the field, meteoric rise to the top of it, and disenchanted withdrawal into a self-imposed two-film-per-year schedule. Danny Elfman has no formal musical training, as he puts it he didn't go to music school, he went to film music school - the local movie theater in Baldwin Hills, California (a suburb of Los Angeles) where he and his friends would go every week to take in the latest cinematic offerings. "I don't know when I first saw The Day the Earth Stood Still - it couldn t have been when it first came out, because I hadn't been born yet - but that had a major impact on me," he says. "I loved Ray Harryhausen's animation with Bernard Herrmann's scores, to the point where if it was Harryhausen without Herrmann, it just seemed incomplete. Obviously I loved fantasy and horror, the darker the better; in fact, when comedies or musicals came to the theaters, myself and my friends would boycott." It was through this process of being a movie fan that Elfman came to notice the different styles composers had, the absence of which he laments in today's movies. "By the time I was a teenager, I prided myself in recognizing the music of my favorite composers. After a while, I'd go, oh, this is Steiner, and oh, this is Herrmann, or Tiomkin, or Waxman, there was something unmistakable about them."
Elfman was a rock 'n' roller with the popular band Oingo Boingo (they provided the song "Weird Science" to the movie of that same name) in the late '70s and early '80s - it ended October 31 of this year in a farewell concert - and was hired to score Tim Burton's first feature-length film, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in 1985. His quirky, off-beat but dramatically astute style was a perfect match for Burton's bizarre visuals; to this day, his earliest comedy music is a model for scoring the countless, much lesser films churned out by Hollywood as film editors routinely turn to the Pee's Wee Big Adventure/Back to School CD for temp-tracks. Step by step, with the help of Burton's popular films and the representation of Richard Kraft - then a record producer at Varese Sarabande later an agent at ICM and now head of his own Kraft-Benjamin Agency - Elfman continued to rise.
Then in 1989, he scored Batman, and was suddenly huge. The Batman score was orchestral and appropriately gothic, but with a unique, Elfman-esque flair. Love it or hate it, there was and is a frenetic, idiosyncratic quality to his writing which is fun to listen to and dramatically effective, and therefore alternately loathed and imitated by classically trained composers who probably loathe it all the more since they have to copy it all the time. If there were big projects before Batman - Beetlejuice, Scrooged, Midnight Run - even bigger ones came in the three years after it: Darkman, Dick Tracy, Edward Scissorhands, and Nightbreed. He even revitalized (briefly) the television theme with The Simpsons and Tales from the Crypt. He called it quits on the action genre after Batman Returns in 1992, tried his hand at lush orchestral romance in Sommersby in 1993, and then poured his efforts into The Nightmare Before Christmas, released in late 1993. He provided songs, lyrics, score. and several singing voices, including the lead voice - a mammoth contribution which resulted in him being as much the author of the film as Tim Burton, since both were involved from the very beginning, before there was even a director or script.
Nightmare was not a bomb, but it wasn't a blockbuster; Burton and Elfman's dark Halloween/Christmas imagery made for an interesting and original film, but not a family classic or a rebirth of the musical. Burton and Elfman ultimately had a falling out over the picture, which to this day neither is willing to discuss, and Elfman was absent from Burton's 1994 Ed Wood. Nightmare and its aftermath was important to Elfman in that it determined a new direction for him, which was not the route of the eight-picture-a-year film composer. He did a new rock album, Boingo, and commenced work on scripts, with an eye to direct. All these things - film composing, writing, performing, hopefully directing - would interlock in a new, unique creative career which would continue to pay the rent, but allow for different modes of expression at different times. The new career-plan has paid off right away in his film music; 1994's Black Beauty, last spring's Dolores Claiborne and this fall's Dead Presidents and To Die For are a quantum leap above his earlier efforts in terms of orchestration and complexity, while still being functional and effective as film scores.
Which pretty much brings us up to date. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess the reasons why Elfman thinks film music sucks, since they are the same ones about which Film Score Monthly readers complain: Movies are a business, temporary music scores have reduced composers merely to copying the expected styles; composers have to plagiarize in order to continue to work. sound effects are too loud - directors are too dumb; there's not enough time to write; there are few if any original voices or ideas. That last criticism is refreshing in a time when film scores have become so identical, the conventions so entrenched, and the composers so expected to write the same score over and over again, that the only way to judge film music is in degrees of accuracy to the original "source." For example, score Z is a pretty obvious knock-off of scores X and Y, but the composer had no choice, and it's pretty competently done, so we like it.
Elfman's criteria, on the other hand, is more in degrees of originality. For him, if score Z is a knock-off of scores X and Y, no matter how close or not-close it is, it's still a knock-off, so who cares? Lost forever are the infinite number of different and potentially much better ways of approaching movie X. Elfman does not get work based on his ability to write knock-offs of different composers - he's the first to admit he's not trained in the way John Williams is, and thus there's no point in him trying to be John Williams. Plus, he has written so many of the "score X's" of the world in the first place - things like Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands which end up in every temp score, and anybody who disagrees should watch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Casper - that it's infuriating for him to see other composers rip him off, deny it, and all the while deny that he even "wrote" those scores in the first place.
"I do understand the fact that it's just a money-making thing," says Elfman, taking a drag from his cigarette, "but that doesn't matter, you should still give it your own voice. Composers are always prone to imitating themselves, which is part of that subjective thing called one's style or voice. It tends to reappear. Composers tend to have inspiration from various classical scores and early film scores, as has been the way with classical scores for hundreds of years. However, to my knowledge, I never remember Matt Steiner plagiarizing Franz Waxman plagiarizing Bernart Hernmann plagiarizing Nino Rota. They all had distinct voices that were their own, wherever their inspirations came from. Today, a number of very talented composers seem to be plagiarizing so freely that it can be impossible to find where their voice is in a particular work. Cue by cue, one can hear John Williams become Thomas Newman become Danny Elfman become Jerry Goldsmith, as if following a temp track which in fact is all too often the case. Film music today is all about ripping things off. It's one thing to do it well or have it well executed, out if you're just copying something that's already been done, that's all you're doing. If one is just providing any style that is asked for, then one is, for lack of a better word, a hack
"It would be one thing if that's what they consider themselves, and they're honest about it, but usually that's not the case," he chuckles a little. "So many composers will do scores that are just copying everything from beginning to end, changing a few notes or twists on a melody here or there. Stealing in film music permeates the entire business. If somebody does do something original and it works, it's then ripped off immediately by everybody else; it's like a magnet, boom, everything for the next five years is going to rip it off. There are too many composers today who successfully bang out music by the yard like so much wallpaper, without any sense of artistry." (Contemporary composers Elfman admires, for those wondering if there were any, include Jerry Goldsmith, of course, as well as Graeme Revell, Rachel Portman, Tom Newman, John Williams, Elmer Bernstein, and "four or five others.")
Elfman cites John Williams's classic shark theme from Jaws as an example which if ripped-off today, would be justified probably like this "They'd say, 'Well, it's just two notes, it's just a thing, anybody could have done that, so I'm just kind of doing the same thing, I'm not really doing John Williams.' Well, the fact is, he did it first. It doesn't matter how simple it is or where it came from, he brought it to a genre. It doesn't matter to me whether I can identify John Williams's classical homage for several of the Star Wars themes. The fact is, he brought it to the science fiction genre and made it fresh. On Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, of course I was inspired by Nino Rota. Nino Rota's influence is all over it, but I was the first to take it and apply it to a contemporary American comedy. And then after Pee-Wee's Big Adventure came out, I heard Nino Rota-inspired music in every contemporary comedy for the next five years! And still, well 'Elfman didn't do that, that's inspired by Nino Rota,' but that's not the point. The point is they didn't think of doing it for an American comedy The fact that Nino Rota and Bernard Hermann are my inspirations and show themselves in scores like Batman and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure I'll freely admit." Elfman cites Psycho. Vertigo, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Jason and the Argonauts and "just about everything" by Herrmann as among his favorites, Rota's work for Fellini's Casanova is his single most favorite score, the music getting into the film to a point where it's "almost a musical with everyone about to burst into song and sing along with the score."
"I'm really concerned about the direction the whole thing is going in right now," he says. "I won't take on too many films, let them overlap, do two at the same time, have to turn to arrangers and just churn it out by the yard, or start a music composing franchise with 'proteges' like several unnamed big shots are doing right now. With salaries hovering near the half-million mark and with the ability to spend several weeks writing a theme or two and having a team of arrangers do the work, it's easy to see where the temptation leads." Elfman has limited himself to two films a year, in between other writing and rock and roll projects, an unbelievable artistic commitment which, if thought about in other terms, is something akin to "losing" millions of dollars a year in projects he's turned down. He has refused to sell out in an era when there is every reason to do so.
"Every year, because I'm such a cynical bastard to begin with," he reflects, "I wonder if l'm not making a decision I'll regret for the rest of my life. 20 years from now, when I'm dead broke, I'll probably regret many of the decisions I'm making now. I might look back and think that I could have done such-and-such a number of pictures from 1990 to 2000. But the movies are around forever. I've done a couple of cheesy comedies when I first started out; I was struggling to do anything, just to get back in front of an orchestra. I wasn't able to pick and choose, but now I am, and I don't want to have more of those types of pictures following me around." He here refers to the Hot to Trot and Summer School type flicks in the mid to late '80s he might have been better off not doing. However, even on 1986's Back to School, starring Rodney Dangerfield, he takes pride and some shock in the fact that although the film wasn't much, the sty!e of his music has continued in similar films - "just something about that vibe."
"Besides I get more cantankerous every year," he adds, "something I've been working on quite actively, as I've been trying to model myself in Bernard Herrmann's quirky image. I mean, composers are all assholes, myself included. We'll never have a guild or a union because you'll never get us all in the same room at the same time. For some reason we all seem to behave like male cats in an alley in heat with one female. It's not a matter of composers being pleasant or approachable, it's a matter of them being assholes, at least to other composers. Maybe it has to do with nobody ever giving me credit for doing anything."
Still, when asked why he should care about this, why he and other film composers shouldn't just take the money and run, Elfman's response is immediate and absolute "We're supposed to be artists."