Legendary composer Danny Elfman has compiled an impressive array of soundtracks over his 30+ years in the business… no few of them with director Tim Burton. Burton’s unique vision of Gothic whimsy found an ideal partner in Elfman’s mischievous, subversive music, and today one can hardly think of one without the other. They have collaborated on well over a dozen projects, including Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Alice in Wonderland, Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish, Mars Attacks! and the 1989 version of Batman. Their latest collaboration – a live-action adaptation of the Disney classic Dumbo – opens this Friday. Elfman spoke about the project and his partnership with Burton during promotion for the film.
Question: What’s the process like between you and Tim Burton at this point? How do you two work together on a film?
Danny Elfman: It’s funny. This is our 17th film… and I still never know what to expect from Tim at all. People think that we must have the shorthand, where it’s really simple. Working with Tim is a lot less simple than a lot of other directors. His mind is strange and interesting, and I learned many years ago never to take for granted what I think he’s going to want. It’s always a kind of round-about process. When we start the film, he’ll say very little about the music. We have a thing called a spotting session where we go through the whole film top to bottom, and break it down into all the musical parts and give them all a name and a number. If the movie is an hour and 45 minutes long, the spotting session will be two hours and 15 minutes. If the movie is two hours long, it will be two-and-a-half hours. It’s very quick. He doesn’t want to talk about it. When there’s music to hear, then he’ll talk. This is something that we’ve learned together. Talking about it beforehand doesn’t actually get us anywhere. He’ll respond to what he hears. Then I’ll do a lot of ideas and I’ll get the sense of the ones he’s responding to.
One thing I will as say is: when I got the call about the movie, one of the first questions I always have, is “are [production designer] Rick [Heinrichs] and [costume designer] Colleen [Atwood] on the project?” And if they are, I’m in.
Q: What was unique about Dumbo that you haven’t experienced in your other projects with Burton?
DE: This one started much further in advance than other projects. We talked about it almost a year from when I was going to start. And I went back to work on the movie I was working on a year ago… but I had a little theme in my head.
I didn’t know a lot about Dumbo. I didn’t see it as a kid. I did remember that the baby elephant loses his mom. That’s going to be bittersweet and sad. And I had a musical idea. And before I started, I went and I wrote it, played it, finished it, put it away. A year later I came back. And I’ve never done that with Tim before. But it’s always going to be an interesting process getting to wherever we’re going to get, musically. Usually it’s something that we have to find in process. And I just never know where that’s going to be. I think it’s a good way to work actually. When directors say what kind of music they really, really want, it usually ends up being not at all what I’m imagining. It’s better just to talk about how you feel about the movie. Start there and see where we go. It’s a mystery… and that’s what makes it such an interesting process.
Q: Did the original movie enter into your work for this one at all? Any pieces of inspiration.
DE: The firefighting clowns. We all have firefighting clowns in our past somewhere, if we look at our own lives. [Laughter.] Seriously, the fun part is not having seen it as a kid. I didn’t have a lot of attachment other than I knew that I saw it. The first time I had ever seen it from beginning to end was after I got the job for this. I started with the core emotions: I wrote the first as a bittersweet sad theme, matching a baby being separated from his mother. That bittersweet feeling always makes me excited. And the sadder it is writing it, the happier I get as a composer. I try to put my themes through a bit of an acid test to see if I have the melody I like. Can I make it triumphant? Can I make it quirky? Can I make it silly? Whatever it is going to be asked to do, I need to know that it will do that. I don’t want to find out that the music just doesn’t want to get big or triumphant at the end of it all. I need to make sure it makes the demands that will be placed on it. That’s part of my process. I put it through all those things, and see if it works.
Once I hit the beats he wants to hear, Tim is very specific. “Here’s what we should get when Dumbo flies.” “Here’s how it should feel when there’s real danger.” Once I hit on those feelings – and it usually just takes once moment for Tim to catch what he’s looking for – we know where we’re going with it.
Q: Does that present any unique challenges?
DE: Every project is challenging, and Tim’s projects can particularly challenging. But I’ve composed the scores for over 100 movies… and a big chunk of my favorites in that category are for Tim’s. The challenges don’t matter if the results work. It’s kind of like having kids. If you remember the first year, you never want to look at another kid again. But then they’re so cute and it’s so great. You forget all the challenges because of the results. There’s something similar going on with composing a movie. In the middle, I often say, “I’ll never do this again. I’m done.” And then at the end, if it came out well, then I go, “yeah, sure, I’ll do this again. It wasn’t so hard.” Was it hard? I don’t remember. It kind of gets erased beneath the final work.