Danny Elfman came to Comic-Con for the first time today to talk about his 25 year, 13 film collaboration with Time Burton. Coincidentally, a giant boxset of CDs and DVDs and a book and a Zoetrope chronicling that relationship is hitting shelves just before Christmas. Pre-order now.
What's great about Danny Elfman is that he's either sincerely humble or a fantastic actor. He was actually blushing during (and after) the lengthy standing ovation he received when he took the stage. When someone yelled, "You're a genius!" and someone else yelled, "I agree!" he seemed baffled as to how to respond. Combined with his habitual self-deprecation, it was all very charming.
The initial discussion, moderated by I don't know who, sorry, focused mainly on his many collaborations with Tim Burton, and was mainly really simple and interesting. What's the secret to his long collaboration with Burton? Burton doesn't have anybody else's phone number. Actually, he talked about their shared experiences and similar aesthetics. When they met for the first time, they found they had both grown up as kind of weird kids in the suburbs of Los Angeles, they both grew up watching and loving horror films, and they both loved Bernard Herman. Burton's idol was Vincent Price; Elfman's was Peter Lorre. They were a perfect fit.
He told us about the ordeal of scoring Batman--the studio didn't want him, he'd never composed for an orchestra, and at one point Burton came up with a plan to have Michael Jackson write Batman's theme, Prince the Joker's theme, and George Michaels the love theme. Elfman left the project at that point, feeling quite distressed. Eventually he came back to it, and when he played the title theme, John Peters--the producer that didn't want him--stood up and started directing the phantom orchestra.
His favorites were Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. They were small films that nobody was really paying much attention to and there was little studio interference. He originally thought he was ruining Edward Scissorhands with his weirdo score and was gratified to realize how well it worked. The creative process for Nightmare was a bit unusual. There was no script, and Burton would go to Elfman's house and tell him the story. Elfman would get an idea, kick Burton out, and write. Then a couple days later Burton would come back and continue the story until Elfman got another idea.
Alice in Wonderland was difficult because Burton was really really neverous about it. He'd never used green screen before and was unnerved by not being able to see what the movie looked like every day. He wanted the music to be very grounded, and would say, "I don't know. I don't know what the movie is so maybe the music's fine. How would I know?" (It turned out alright Tim. -ed.)
Elfman was very candid, and also very gracious, about the way Burton has shaped his career. For the first decade, he was defined by his collaboration with Burton. After PeeWee he was the comedy guy. then came Beetlejuice and he was the quirky guy. Then Batman opened him up to big grandiose scores, and Edward Scissorhands showed he could do romance. They took each step together, and every film opened a new door for Elfman.
Legendary film composer Edward Herman came up a lot. Herman really made Elfman aware of film music and its possibilities, and while he said Stravinsky's Rite of Spring "rocked his whole reality," Herman shaped him. An audience member asked what director, living or dead, he would most like to compose for, and he didn't hesitate before answering "Hitchcock." But then he said that was impossible, because if he scored for Hitchcock, he wouldn't have heard Herman's scores, and he wouldn't be a composer. It's a paradox.