Here’s an interview I conducted (pun intended) with the film composer Danny Elfman, for the release of Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful. Elfman is, obviously, best known for his frequent collaborations with Tim Burton, but has also worked with Raimi around half a dozen times, beginning with Darkman in 1990. I knew I’d love the Oz soundtrack, but I was actually surprised how much I really enjoyed the film too.
As with most text interviews, this has now disappeared from the Empire website since its revamp in October, 2015. So I’m now re-posting the full piece here.
The time difference between the UK and the States mean that most of Empire’s transatlantic phone-calls take place in the evening, UK-time. Danny Elfman though, arranging to talk about Sam Raimi’s excellent Oz the Great and Powerful, asks that we call for our interview very early in the morning. “It’s midnight here,” he shrugs. “I’ll probably be working for another couple of hours.” If he is, as is apparent, nocturnal, it seems entirely appropriate for a man who has written half a dozen other Raimi scores and fifteen for Tim Burton. By chance, the evening before, in the mood for an ‘80s comedy, Empire opted to watch the Rodney Dangerfield “classic” Back to School. We hadn’t remembered – or perhaps ever realised – the Elfman connection, but from the opening bars of the opening theme, it’s immediately clear whom the soundtrack came from. And just in case there should be any mistake, Elfman appears in a nightclub scene halfway through the film, as a fresh-faced member of onstage band Oingo Bongo. Y’know, it would have been a shame not to mention that…
Empire: By chance, I watched Back To School last night. I didn’t know that was one of yours!
Elfman: Back to School is very early Danny Elfman…
You’re in it! You’ve got a couple of good close-ups.
Oh goodness, yes. You can’t ever escape the past. But at least I wasn’t the only one. Robert Downey Jr. was there being silly with me.
You can almost tell it’s your score as soon as it started. What makes an Elfman score so immediately identifiable?
I don’t really know. I’d like to think it’s less the case in my last decade than in my first. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was my first ever film score – Back To School was my third – and I’d never taken a lesson on an instrument, never mind scored a film. I was teaching myself everything from the bottom up, so when I listen back now, which I’m starting to do to put together some suites for a concert in October, those things sound very primitive to me. That doesn’t mean [they’re] ‘bad’. Maybe I should learn something from them and get to something more primitive again. I think in those days I was driving on this crazy energy, so maybe it’s that. I wasn’t following any rules, because I really didn’t give a shit! Maybe that shows.
You’re particularly known for working with Tim Burton, but you’ve also collaborated regularly with Sam Raimi…
It’s 15 times in 27 years for Tim, but I think I’ve only done about six films with Sam. Darkman was the first. That was the great thing when Batman came out – suddenly a lot of doors opened for me. I had a shortlist of people I’d automatically say yes to, and Sam Raimi was way up on that list. I was a huge fan of the Evil Dead movies, so I was so pleased to get his call. He called me from the set in the middle of the night, after I’d just played a show, in downtown Los Angeles. If you see the movie Darkman, there’s a scene where Liam Neeson comes stumbling out into an alley in the rain, and a car drives by and splashes him. That splash of water was me, standing in the rain with a bucket of water. That was my first ever meeting with Sam. He put me in a raincoat and said, ‘Stand here, and when he comes stumbling out, toss that water in his face!’ He made me do it about ten times, and I caught a cold.
How does working with Sam Raimi compare to working with Tim Burton?
They’re very different. Sam is very easygoing, when it comes to the studio and the music. He just seems really to fit into it and enjoy it. Tim doesn’t enjoy it. He’s much more intense during the process, figuring out what his movie is. Sometimes he has to go on a journey himself with music, and discover where the centre of it is. It’s a little more of a game with Sam – like we’re playing around and goofing. Not that he doesn’t take it seriously, but it can feel sometimes more like we’re having a good time and goofing off. Tim…(pauses) It’s not that we never goof off. Usually by the time the score is written and he’s in the studio, he actually can get really silly and funny. But during the actual process, he’s usually pretty intense.
How did Oz differ from your previous experiences with Sam?
It actually took me back to Darkman, in a sense. This is the easiest time I’ve had with Sam in a long while. The score went really quick, and it was just like right on the nose from the first beat. It was like I’d nailed it for him from the first presentation. I don’t know why this one was like that, it’s rare. I wish they were all like that! It was a reminder that even a 115-minute score can be relatively easy, [whereas] sometimes a 25-minute score can be excruciatingly difficult. It’s a strange business, but every now and then one just comes down really easily. I remember having that with Tim on Mars Attacks!. Just for whatever reason, BAM!, that one shot out of the gate and I heard the main titles as soon as I saw the rough cut of the opening sequence. But I’ve done like 80 or 85 films, and we’re talking half a dozen like that. Most of them evolve from suffering! Oz was just one of those rare things that was calm and simple. I was with Sam and Bob [Murawski, editor], and I just kept waiting for things to get difficult, and they just never did.
Did you have a particular affinity with the material?
It was definitely fun to work with. Finding the tone with the director is always a big chunk of the battle, and sometimes there is no easy answer because the director has to figure out what the tone translates to in music, but I just seemed to hit the tone for Sam quite quickly. It means a lot of experimenting [which] is normal for a movie. I don’t know what was different about this score, other than… [thinks] Well, sometimes you just throw all these things in the air and they come down in a perfectly symmetrical way, and you go, ‘Oh, really?’ I look at lots of movies and think they’ll be fun, but it can still take a while to figure them out. This was really simple and clean and fun, and I had a really good time.
How early did you come to it?
I came on very early – like, a year early – because they were shooting a few things, and Sam asked me for a music-box waltz for someone to dance to, and some marches and a few things like that. I couldn’t have spent more than an hour writing a waltz, recording it and sending it to him – I didn’t worry about it, because I knew I could always replace it with a different melody in the future. All they needed at that stage was a tempo and a feel. But as it turned out, when I came back a year later, I felt like I’d really locked into it and that I wanted to stick with it, and it became the Witch’s theme. It was a miracle that I liked it a year later. I never like anything I do a year later!
Is providing specific, requested things like that usually part of the process?
Usually I don’t start until there’s a rough cut, but occasionally, if there’s going to be a piece of music that they’re going to shoot to, you write something that they’re going to use for their scene. Every now and then I will write something very early on that they can animate or choreograph to.
Did you feel in the shadow of The Wizard of Oz? Are there any musical references or jokes?
No… well, yes, there’s one joke. For the bulk of the film we pay no attention to the original film at all – there were very specific instructions not to pay attention to it because they didn’t own the rights to it – but there’s one moment where the Munchkins start to sing. There was a big dilemma about how the Munchkins sound, because I didn’t want to mimic the Munchkins in The Wizard Of Oz so we had to ask ourselves, ‘Well, if the Munchkins broke into song in the book, how would they sound?’. But there was no way to avoid the fact that Munchkins sound like Munchkins! So we have this joke I really like, where they start to sing and someone yells, ‘Shut up!’ and stops them! So for a moment you think, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to turn this into a musical!’ I enjoyed that.
Superficially, Raimi’s Oz looks like it has a lot in common with Burton’s Alice. How do you avoid repeating yourself in a situation like that?
The trajectory and the story and the emotions of the characters are all so different. The only thing that’s very similar is the big, colourful whimsical landscape, but that doesn’t really dictate the music. The music in Alice was more about her sadness and heroism, and the odd, quirky elements. In Oz The Great And Powerful, the score follows almost a love story between the scoundrel and the girl, and then it picks up with Oz sort of finding his heart. So it’s more playing emotional things, love scenes, little tragic scenes like the China Doll, and then this wicked, waltzy theme for the Witch. It was more an old-fashioned, traditional score, I’d say. Sam always likes to do that. He likes to keep things old fashioned and classic –[even] the Spider-Man score. He’ll let me stray sometimes – I got to really step out of that on A Simple Plan – but in Spider-Man and Oz, we stayed pretty classic.
So the music comes from the characters? A big whimsical landscape doesn’t dictate a big whimsical score?
No, I really just follow the characters and their emotional lines. There are definitely times where there’s action, and you’re playing ‘action music’, but I don’t know that it would be any different if the action was against a much less fantastical backdrop. Action is action, and battle is battle. If this had been a much lower budget film with much lesser visuals, I’m not sure the score would have been much different.
Going back in time to your work with Tim, and Batman in particular, it’s strange to remember that pre-1989 Batman meant Adam West….
Yeah! The thing about Tim’s first four films was that I had nothing to go on. There was nothing to tell me what type of film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was going to be. Beetlejuice: nothing. The same for Batman. They wanted it to sound like John Williams’ music but I don’t do that – only John Williams can do John Williams – so I had to find another language for it. Same again on Edward Scissorhands: there was virtually nothing to look at. All Tim’s early films were like starting out in complete darkness . There wasn’t a genre of film to model anything after.
What did you want to achieve with Batman, as your first non-comedy score?
The tone we were aiming for was much darker than superhero films had been up to that point. It’s hard to explain to kids now, because the whole genre has gone incredibly dark, but at that time superhero films meant Superman. Batman was just so much more weird than that on so many levels and trying to find a language that would work for that was tricky. But right from the get-go Tim said that we were never, in any way, going to refer to the Adam West television show. Not even a wink or a nod.
There’s some very slightly referencing of the ’60s Batman theme in some of the Prince music though. Was that something you were competing against?
Prince’s soundtrack was never a hindrance for me. I just knew that there were these three scenes that had songs in them, and whenever that happens I just skip those scenes and get on to what I have to do.
The Joker has a waltz, like your Oz witches.
Yes, in fact I was just listening to that. I’d forgotten I’d written that. I don’t even know what inspired it or why I wrote it.
It wasn’t something that came from Tim, that he needed something for the Joker to dance to with Vicki?
I’m sure we did talk about it, but I don’t remember the conversation. I think the idea was to make it a big, grand dance, yes. I’m sure I didn’t come up with it on my own. Tim must have been imagining something in his head. There are quotes from Beautiful Dreamer in there too, because that really is something that the Joker is… ohhh, I don’t remember! Did the Joker kind of half sing that at one point? [Empire: Errr, no?] I can’t remember. It’s so long ago. You’re catching me off guard here! I haven’t seen Batman in a couple of decades.
Can you remember why you made the theme a march?
I can’t, but I must have written dozens of themes, and that was one variation. It was a series of experiments, and that was the one Tim really responded to. I don’t really have much of a process. I just do what I want, and still to this day I don’t really think about it. When I’m doing something I don’t really understand why I’m doing it at all. It usually makes sense a year or two later, but at the time it never does!
Scoring Batman was my great test of fire. It was rough. In fact, there was a point where I actually had to drop out of the film and come back, while they were working things out. It was only my tenth film and all I’d done to that point was comedies, so I had less experience than anybody should have in that situation and neither the producer, Jon Peters, nor the studio wanted me. The only comment anyone would make at the beginning was that they didn’t want me, they wanted John Williams. I really had to fight to win everybody over, but I still approached it very aggressively. On my third presentation to Peters, Tim Burton got very excited and kept saying, ‘Play the march! Play the march!’, so I played the piece of music that ended up becoming the Batman theme. Suddenly, Peters leapt out of his chair and started conducting. I finally had him, after, like, months of trying! He went from being totally adversarial to very supportive and from then on he was a great ally for me. He fought hard to get the orchestral score released as well as the Prince album. I never expected to have any of my music released as a second soundtrack. I don’t think that had ever happened before.
Was the second one even harder?
No, the second one was just fun, because I already had the theme and I was able to do variations on it, and I realised what fun it is to find a theme I like and just play with it. I’d have killed to do thematic variations on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. I could keep going on those for ever. I was a lot more confident on Batman Returns. I was probably up to about twenty films at that point, and a few of them had been big ones. I was able to relax and be a bit more confident, and there was nobody at that point trying to push me off the film! I didn’t have to claw my way into my spot and hold on for dear life any more! The first one was like holding on to a freight train that was out of control. The second one was my territory, and I just had fun with it.
Speaking of Beetlejuice, I love the main title. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make a tuba do that, before or since.
That’s because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! That was my fifth score, I think. Tim used to joke, because Pee Wee, Beetlejuice and Batman were my first, fifth and tenth scores, and Tim would say, ‘How are you doing four films in between each of mine?!’ I said, ‘I’m trying to learn how to score, so I can do scores FOR your films!’ Beetlejuice was one that was like, ‘Oh my god, this is unplayable,’ because… Finally it was, but I hadn’t realised how impossible it was for the brass. The tuba had it easy! The tuba was playing the downbeats, and every downbeat was followed by an upbeat on the French horns, and that’s really hard, to pay fast offbeats. The horns and the trombones had a really rough time. I realised at the first rehearsals that it was not working at all. But they’re amazing musicians, so eventually we got it. It was just hard.
How do you go from being in a band like Oingo Boingo to immediately being able to score for an orchestra? Where does that ability come from?
Well, by luck, the band was my second career. I’d been in a musical theatrical troupe for eight years, and by the time I started my band I thought all that experience was completely wasted [laughs]. I’d taught myself to write, primitively, for the 12 of us in the troupe who all played multiple instruments. We did old arrangements by Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt from the ‘30s, and I had to transcribe them. That was my education. At the end, I wrote a very ambitious five-minute piece inspired by Stravinsky and Prokofiev and all these people I love, and then I retired completely. When I got asked to do Pee-wee, I hadn’t written in about five years, and considering that I’d only been writing for five or six years… When we started we were basically a street band and did everything by rote, and then after about three years I was like, this isn’t going to work anymore, and I had to start writing things down. So when Tim called for Pee-wee, my first reaction was that I couldn’t do it, that it was outside my abilities. And then I decided, “Well, fuck it, I’ll just do it.” I didn’t really have anything to lose. When I first sat down to write the first cue, I really had to look at the stave and try not to panic! I started scribbling… This was before we had software to help us. I just had pencil and paper!
What made Tim come to you for Pee-wee?
I’m told, though I don’t know this to be true, that Tim used to come and see my band, and he just thought I could do it. Then Paul Reubens, who plays Pee-wee, was a fan of this film I’d done for my brother [Richard Elfman] called Forbidden Zone, and so I think my name came up in those two different incarnations, and it was just a lucky break.
Had you always been interested in scoring for film? Who were your inspirations?
Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first film score I ever really noticed. It made me aware that a person actually wrote them, that they didn’t come from clouds or from space. I must have been around ten years old. Then I really noticed his name on all my favourite films: Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the other fantasy films he did. Then I rediscovered him in my teens through my newly found infatuation with Alfred Hitchcock. I still think that North By Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho are three of the best film scores ever written. Herrmann was my great inspiration.
What do you think of Hans Zimmer’s Batman scores?
I think he did a fantastic job. What Nolan did was great and really took it into a whole different realm. After Tim, those films were really a mess. When I heard they were reviving the franchise I was like, ‘Oh god, really? Can they get even more ridiculous now?’ And instead it was the opposite, which was really smart.