From "Batman" to Coachella, Danny Elfman reflects on 35 years of TV and film scoring

"Me getting into film music was a case of a fan getting pulled into the sport," the composer tells Salon

Published February 23, 2020 11:00AM (EST)

Danny Elfman (Margaret Malandruccolo)
Danny Elfman (Margaret Malandruccolo)

When the 2020 Coachella lineup was announced, one of the biggest surprises was the appearance of Danny Elfman, the former Oingo Boingo frontman who is now a decorated movie and TV score composer. In fact, his name immediately trended on Twitter, with fans speculating about pieces they hoped he'd play: "The Simpsons" theme, works from "Nightmare Before Christmas," and music from "Spider-Man," to name a few.

In a January phone call with Salon, Elfman revealed he was hard at work translating the idea he has for his Coachella set — billed as "Past, Present and Future! From Boingo to Batman and Beyond!" — into reality. But in addition to preparing for that appearance, the musician noted he's simultaneously deep into composing a symphonic work for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and already thinking about the full percussion concerto he's prepping for the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2021. Those come on the heels of a percussion quartet he premiered with Philip Glass in late 2019 and the Concerto for Violin & Orchestra ("Eleven Eleven") that premiered in 2017.

"This is the most insane year of my life," Elfman says. "You know, it's from one extreme absolutely to the other. I can't believe that I finish a show in Coachella where I'll be coming out and doing stuff I haven't done in 25 years in front of an audience, and stuff that I've never done before. Which, you know, most people would say, 'It's insane to do that in front of an audience like this. Do something safer,' and I'm just going to put it out there. 

"Then the very next day I fly out to arrive just in time for London, to hear my violin concerto.  And I love that juxtaposition. And the thing I love most with music and life is contrast, and I'm getting a lot of that right now, so that's very exciting."

During a 45-minute chat, Elfman delved into the MasterClass he's doing on creating music for film, reflected on the 35th anniversary of his first film score, for "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," and hinted at what people can expect from his Coachella set.

What was your approach to structuring the MasterClass lessons? 

The main thing that makes a MasterClass a MasterClass is, of course, the interviews. And my feeling is that if I can just get the right relaxed vibe going, I can always talk and tell stories. In fact, it's hard to shut me up. 

Ten years ago, I wouldn't have done it. But in the last 10 years, as I've been starting to do concerts again [Editor's note: Elfman has appeared occasionally at live orchestra and film screenings of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" singing Jack Skellington], I find myself more and more . . .  It's like, "Oh, I'm going to be in this city," and they'll say, "Hey, would you come and speak to a film music class?" or a group of music students at such and such university.  And I started doing more seminars, and I found that I really enjoyed it. If the conversation was loose, I really would get into it. We'd do an hour Q&A somewhere, and it's like, I want to do another hour, you know? [Laughs.] Especially, you know, if the questions are good and keep me on my toes.  

And so that's where I started feeling more comfortable. I realized that I can just tell stories and tell stories and tell stories, so if I can get into that mode, they'll end up with too much. [Laughs.] Because that's just how I'm wired. And so we got the format down, so I could feel pretty comfortable, and brought in some other composers to ask me questions, as well.

From doing all the Q&As, was there anything in particular you learned about yourself as a musician or a creative person, from putting together the MasterClass?

Well, no. I mean, I learned what I've always known about myself: that I can go off on tangents, and then I can go off on tangents from tangents. And if somebody doesn't kind of lasso me and bring me back to reality, I'll be going on about God knows what.

It's instructive to sometimes be reinforced about something about yourself, then. It's like, "Yep, I'm still me."

Yeah, I mean, I really wasn't worried about presenting any image one way or the other. Fortunately, coming from a band, and coming from my past and whatnot, I really don't give a sh*t. [Laughs.] If I appear foolish, it doesn't bother me. If I seem stupid for a moment, it doesn't bother me. I don't have to feel like I have to come off a certain way. 

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A post shared by Danny Elfman (@dannyelfman) on Dec 12, 2019 at 5:44pm PST

This year marks your 35th anniversary as a composer, with "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure." What do you recall most about doing that first score for Tim Burton?  

Well, I mean, I couldn't figure out why [Tim] wanted me to do it. It was really one of those soul-searching moments. I knew who Pee-Wee Herman was. I'd seen Paul Reubens onstage. I loved the Pee-Wee character, and I actually saw Paul doing Pee-Wee with The Groundlings. 

I figured they wanted me to do a song, because I was in a band, and usually if I met somebody on a movie, it was about a song. And so when [Tim] said, "I want a score," it was kind of perplexing to me.  

I looked at a few scenes, and I got a thing in my head, so I said, "All right, whatever." I ran home and did a piece of music that was in my head from when I saw the few scenes that they showed me, on a four-track, and sent the tape of the four-track. I didn't hear anything for a week, 10 days, two weeks — I can't remember — and figured it just went away.  

Then I got this call from my manager, saying, "You got the job." And my first reaction was, "Tell him no. Tell him I can't do it." And he's like, "Why?" And I was like, "I don't know how to score a film. I loved film music, and I'm a fan of film music, but I can't do it. I'm not qualified, and I don't want to f**k up their film." And so he said, "You know what? I spent ten days putting this together. Here's the number.  If you want to get out of it, you call." 

And I had one of the nights of soul-searching. Like, "Hmm. Is the responsible thing to do to tell them, 'No, find somebody who knows what they're doing'?" And, ultimately, as usual, I decided to do the irresponsible thing. Really, I woke up in the morning and I said, "F**k it." That was it.

And it changed your career trajectory. That's amazing. 

Yep.  It was random, and it definitely changed. You know, a couple months later I'm there in front of the orchestra, and I'd never sat next to an orchestra and heard an orchestra up close in my life. That was really a powerful moment. It was like, "Oh, I can definitely get used to this." [Laughs.] And it gave me a hunger to do more. It really was something that got under my skin that first time. The first cue, the first session, was a big one for me.



A post shared by Danny Elfman (@dannyelfman) on Oct 28, 2019 at 3:04pm PDT

What was the biggest transition for you going from composing more rock-oriented music to these scores? It sounds like you were winging it, basically.

Yeah, but the main thing was to forget everything I knew being in a rock band. It was to not acknowledge the previous six years, seven years of what I was doing, and to reel back further in my upbringing, when I was a young movie buff. 

I always wanted to get involved with film. I never intended to get involved with music.  But I imagined I was going to go to school and study to become a cinematographer or maybe an editor. And if you'd asked me when I was [age] 19 or 17 what I wanted to do, I would have said that. Music was an accident. But I was still a big movie fan. I was one of those nerds that went twice a week to the retrospective movie houses.

Each one played two movies a night, so they're playing 14 movies a week, and there's two theaters doing that, from all periods of time. You'd go to the movies for like a dollar or two dollars, and you're seeing Kurosawa and Polanski. You're seeing old and new films, all jammed together, and a lot of underground stuff.  That was the primary driver of my early days, and that's why I developed not only a love for film, but I became kind of a film music fan very early.  

Me getting into film music was a case of a fan getting pulled into the sport. I mean, I really describe it as — for those who live in L.A. and watch lots of Lakers games, they're used to seeing Jack Nicholson always sitting courtside. [Laughs.]

And it's like somebody got injured and they threw the ball to Jack and said, "Jack, get out here on the court!" [Laughs.] You know, and he's like, [assumes Nicholson voice] "Well, wait a minute..." But it was a little bit like that, being thrown the ball, on "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

And then post-"Pee-Wee," you pretty much dove right in, and it seemed like everything really picked up fairly quickly right away.

Every successful composer, [has] two things in common, especially if they've been successful more than a few years. They're going to have a lot of endurance, and they'll have stuck with it for a really big effort. There is that old thing about 10,000 hours, and I really think that's true, but there's also a lucky break. And you have to be prepared when you get that break to how you deal with it, and "Pee-Wee" was a lucky break.  It just happened to be the right place at the right time. 

Comedic film scoring in the '80s had gone rather flat. And when "Pee-Wee" came along, there was no model at all for "What is this supposed to sound like?" [Laughs.] And I just jumped in. I saw Pee-Wee riding a bicycle; it reminded me of a European film.  And I said, I'm just going to go right into the world of Nino Rota and Fellini, and a little bit of Bernard Herrmann, and a little bit of this and that, and make a mashup of crazy stuff, my own way. 

And after "Pee-Wee" came out, it was one of those lucky things where people noticed it, and noticed the music, and I was suddenly offered, like, dozens of quirky comedies. In fact, I became the quirky comedy guy, which was pretty strange because, you know, comedy I did not consider my forte at all. [Laughs.]  

But it was a lucky break because it got noticed, and that's the hardest part. When you're a composer and you're starting out, you're doing stuff, and you get opportunities to get your music out there — but can you get something noticed?  And that sometimes involves just that luck of timing, and the timing at that moment . . .  If I had gotten "Pee-Wee" four years earlier or later it might have been a very different story, so it's hard to say.

The idea of timing is such a huge thing, absolutely. And sometimes you work on something, you put it out there, and if the stars don't align, or you don't have the right person notice it, it's so easy for something just to kind of fall by the wayside, unfortunately. 

Yeah. And that's where the persistence lies in. It's like waiting for that moment, you just have to persist and persist and persist. Now, in my case, I got a lucky break right from the get-go, but I resolved not to turn that into just a single lucky break. I started working really, really aggressively to learn the art of what it was.  

Around my being in a band for ten years, between '85 and '95, I tried to at least get one or two movies in around my writing/producing/touring schedule, and every film I did I tried to push my limits of what I was comfortable with and do something just a little more intense, or a little more orchestrated, or a little more dense, or a little more full. I tried to learn something from every score.  

So it really was a 10-year education of what I can do with it. And I tried to increase what I call the toolbox of what I had to work with. Because when it started with "Pee-Wee," it was a pretty small toolbox, my skills. I knew from the get-go that if I was going to survive, I needed to really expand what I had to work with.



With Tim having fun at the Hollywood Bowl, Halloween 2018 @timburton

A post shared by Danny Elfman (@dannyelfman) on Aug 10, 2019 at 1:26pm PDT

"Edward Scissorhands" is turning 30 this year.  What do you remember most about doing that score?

The thing that struck me with all those [Tim Burton] films — really, "Pee-Wee," "Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Edward [Scissorhands]," "Nightmare [Before Christmas]" — all of those films, what they had in common, was no model, virtually no model on what they should sound like. I didn't realize until years later what a blessing that was. 

When I did "Pee-Wee," I expected the score to get thrown out. When I did "Beetlejuice," nobody cared what we were doing; it was such a little film, and I was just having fun. When I did "Batman," the only superhero at that moment to go on was John Williams' "Superman," and the only thing we decided at the beginning was that we didn't want to do that.  So we knew what we didn't want it to be, but there was no sense of what we wanted it to be. There was no model of a dark superhero. 

And when I did "Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Edward," it was the same thing. I mean, "Edward," there was, like, virtually nothing. What is the tone of the score?  Who the f**k knows? [Laughs.] There's, like, nothing to look at as, "Oh, it's reminiscent of this." It just didn't exist. 

The beauty of that, in hindsight, is that it was pure invention.  There was nothing to guide me one way or another. And now I realize what an incredible luxury that was.

Are there any scores that you've done over the years that you feel haven't received as much as attention as they should have, or you wished were more well-known?

Yeah, but that's the same with every composer. It's the heartbreak of the profession: You'll work for a year or months on something really intensely, and it's over in a weekend. You can imagine what that's like for the filmmakers who were spending a year, a year and a half, or two years, and it's over in a weekend. I know how heartbreaking it is even for me just after three months, four months of really hard work, to have it just disappear in a week.  

There's a lot of that, but that's just part of what it is, you know?  You have to roll off of it and go, "Well, maybe next time."




A post shared by Danny Elfman (@dannyelfman) on Oct 17, 2019 at 7:31pm PDT

There's, like, a relentless optimism you have to have to be a creative person: That there will be a next time, and you don't know what's going to happen around the corner.

Yes, exactly. You never know what's going to catch notice, and which will just disappear. One of the great ironies for me always, traveling around over the years, is that I go different places, and the single piece of mine [Laughs.] that everybody knew was "The Simpsons," a piece of music that I spent exactly one day of my life on. It's a strange justice how things all come together, but you just learn to ride with that.

What do you remember most about doing "The Simpsons"? Did you get any sort of direction for that?  Since obviously that was a TV theme, did that differ at all from movie scores?

It was so simple. I just talked with Matt Groening about the concept that he had. And [show co-developer] Jim Brooks was there. They showed me a pencil sketch of the opening, and I heard that piece of music in my head. I said, "If you want something really retro and crazy, I'm the guy, I could do it, because that's what I'm hearing in my head. If you want something contemporary, forget it — I'm not the guy."

It was a period of time where TV themes tended to be a little bit rock, jazzy almost. And I had this crazy piece of music, which I said is inspired by Hanna-Barbera. I mean, [Homer] was driving the car, and it reminded me, because I grew up on "The Flintstones," where [Fred Flintstone is] also driving a car, but he's using his feet, obviously. But it had that same kind of energy.  

By the time I got home from the meeting, it was done. I had it in my head. I ran down to my studio, and I did a demo. I spent a couple hours orchestrating it, working it out, and sent the tape the same day. And I just got the message back saying, "Yes, okay, let's record it."

That's awesome.

But that's the one-in-a-million kind of moments. I never expected anybody to hear it. I thought the thing was so weird and crazy and quirky that it would be out for two seconds, and I did it strictly just because I liked them, and it seemed like a fun thing to do. 



#coachella #coachella2020 #coachelfman

A post shared by Danny Elfman (@dannyelfman) on Jan 2, 2020 at 10:14pm PST

You're appearing at Coachella in April, and billing the performance as "Past, Present and Future! From Boingo to Batman and Beyond!" Are you still formulating the show? What can you tell us about what that might be?

I'm still very much putting it together. [Laughs.] I mean, I can only tell you that it covers everything, and it's going to be an insane show, because the juxtaposition from one thing to the other, it's extremes, contrasts, and I'm just embracing it.  

It's risky. There's going to be nothing kind of like this chapter for this part of the show and this chapter for this part of the show. I'm just jamming it all together. I'm making, like, a mixtape of my life over the last 40 years. [Laughs.] And it's going to be pretty insane. Plus two world premieres that I've never done.  So it's really going to be interesting.  

I know that I'm opening myself up to a lot of criticism of having things that are so really opposed to each other pushed together, but that's what makes me me. That's what's exciting for me, is pushing things together that don't belong together. 

That's a fun challenge, too.

Yeah. I'm putting this out there as something that, you know, it may blow up in my face. [Laughs.] But it may not. But that's how I like it.

Is it nerve-racking for you to think of doing something like Coachella and breaking out songs you haven't done in a quarter-century? 

Of course. Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs.] It was nerve-racking a quarter century ago, and it's definitely nerve-racking after a quarter century. But I'm doing a few surprises with some of it.  Like, I've got some old songs, but then some of them I'm freshening up and adding bits to them.

I definitely have a bit of a political agenda that I might be a little bit obsessed with at the moment. So that's going to rear its head in ways. 

Elfman will appear on the Coachella stage on Saturday, April 11 and 18.


By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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