A Danny Elfman Q&A: From Boingo to Burton

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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Danny Elfman with Tim Burton in 2013 (photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The release of Big Eyes this Christmas Day marks the 16th collaboration in 29 years between legendary director Tim Burton and equally legendary composer Danny Elfman. Theirs has been one of the most fruitful and creative partnerships in film, one that opened doors for Elfman, the eccentric former lead singer of L.A. new wave band Oingo Boingo, to compose music for dozens of movies, television shows, and stage productions.

But incredibly, Elfman tells Yahoo he never thought he’d have a career in music at all. It was only because he was “drafted” by another filmmaker — his older brother Richard Elfman, Oingo Boingo co-founder and director of the 1980 cult flick Forbidden Zone, which featured Danny’s original score — that he fell into music at all. And even after he landed his first big film-scoring job, on Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, he was still convinced that it was all a “fluke.” He genuinely never expected to become one of the most prolific and acclaimed film composers of the modern age.

After a long performing hiatus due to hearing damage sustained during his rock-band days, Elfman recently returned to the stage for 20 orchestral concerts around the globe titled “Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton,” during which he reprised his iconic role as The Nightmare Before Christmas's Jack Skellington. And he continues to work at a fast clip, juggling multiple projects. But he found time this week to chat with Yahoo Music about his bond with “strange sibling” Burton, his early composing days, his hearing loss, and why the original Oingo Boingo is never, ever getting back together.

YAHOO MUSIC: Big Eyes is your 16th collaboration with Tim Burton, and you two are coming up on the 30th anniversary of your first film together, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Does it ever astound you that your partnership has lasted this long?

DANNY ELFMAN: Honestly, I didn’t even think it’d ever be more than just one movie. I thought it was a fluke. I couldn’t even fathom what I’d be doing in 10 years, let alone 30.

Had you always wanted to work in the film world?

I’d aspired to do film, just not music and film. When I was younger, had I not been drafted into being a street performer and more or less pulled into music, I thought I’d go to film school and be a cinematographer, perhaps. I used to dream of making films, but never music. That never even occurred to me.

Didn’t you get into music relatively late in life? How did that happen?

It all started with visiting my brother in France when I was 18. He was playing drums with a musical theatrical troupe called the Grand Magic Circus. And I got drafted. I had only been playing violin for four months, and I had a violin with me because I was practicing. It was pure chance, happenstance. He heard me playing and said, “Come on the road with us,” and so I did. I had no clue that music was going to be in my life. Then my brother started the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and he drafted me into that troupe. Then he left the troupe and did Forbidden Zone, and had me do the music for that movie. That kind of started everything.

How did you first get together with Tim Burton?

Literally, I got called by an animator. I first assumed they were looking for a song, and then Tim said he’d like a score. And really, I didn’t understand. Why me? But Tim knew my work with Oingo Boingo, and he thought I could do more. And Paul Reubens [Pee-wee Herman] knew my work in Forbidden Zone and liked that. My name somehow came up. So I went and looked at some footage, and then I went home and I had a little 8-track tape player. I did a demo and sent them a cassette. I didn’t think twice about it. I never expected to hear back. But that became the main title to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

You really didn’t realize this was the start of a beautiful friendship, or a whole new career for you?

No, I thought it was one-off thing and a cool experience, and I’d probably never do it again. Who would want to hire me after this? In fact, I thought the score would get thrown out. I assumed Warner Bros. would listen to the score, toss it, and hire a “real” composer and do it right. That’s really what I thought. But once Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out, to my astonishment, I was almost immediately offered every quirky comedy made in Hollywood. I couldn’t have been more surprised. I think it was one of those cases of being in the right time at the right place. I was happy to keep doing it.

Of all the scores you’ve done for Burton films since 1985, which are your favorites?

Oh, that’s hard. Probably the first five films I did with him, which would be Pee-wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Up to that point, everything I did with Tim was like starting completely from scratch. There was no template to turn to. But now, after I’ve done like 95 films [with and without Burton], I realize those five were very unique. I didn’t know at the time that I was doing stuff that had no model whatsoever. So those are always, of course, going to be very much favorites. Nobody was watching us, and anything went. On the other hand, now that we’ve done these concerts, I look back and think another one of my favorite pieces for Tim would be the theme to Alice in Wonderland.

How does it feel to return to the stage to perform that music? Why did you decide to do it?

Reworking film music for the stage is a challenge, especially doing 15 suites of 15 scores for Tim in one concert. That was like a super-challenge… which is why I couldn’t resist! It just seemed impossible, so that made me want to do it.

Do you think you’ll ever return to pop or rock music again?

I don’t really have that desire to do pop songs or whatever. I’m just so enthralled by the million possibilities with an orchestra. It would take me 150 years to absorb it all, if I lived that long, which I can’t. Pushing myself with orchestral music or ensembles is really much more intriguing to me. I don’t feel compelled to sit down and write tunes. But that could happen at any time, I guess. If that’s what gets in my head, that’s what I’ll do. But right now I’m focused, really, on non-film projects for next two years.

Such as?

I’ve been asked about the possibility of doing violin concerto in 2016, possibly a concert in Dubai, and another ballet in Monte Carlo. In the best of all worlds, I would do one non-film work a year. But I haven’t been able to keep that up… There are so many things I want to do. It’s just a drag that I have only one body and half a brain to do it with.

Do you consider yourself a workaholic?

I wouldn’t say that. I just have a lot of things I want to do before I die, so to do them, I’ve really got to hustle!

I think you’ve basically already answered this… but would you ever consider an Oingo Boingo reunion? Have you been approached about that?

Oh, Oingo Boingo has been approached every year to do a reunion! But that will never happen with me. They can do it, if they wish. I can’t physically get in front of that decibel level ever again. When I stopped doing Oingo Boingo, I knew that I would never get on that kind of concert stage ever in my life again without totally destroying my hearing — what was left of it. So there was a real, simple, clear reason to get out of that. So even though I’m finding myself once again on the concert stage, standing in front of an orchestra is way more controllable. Orchestras are not that loud when you’re standing next to them; you don’t hear about conductors going deaf because orchestras are too loud. So that’s been an interesting way to get back into doing some performing.

So it’s just your tinnitus that stops you from doing it?

No. When a band retires, that band should stay retired. That’s just my sense of it. The dead should stay dead, and memories should stay memories.

But you don’t seem to have a problem revisiting your Jack Skellington character onstage…

For me, it was not that much of a stretch to do Jack Skellington, because I’d never done Jack live before. So I had no recollection, no nostalgia. Even though it’s going back to an early piece of [recorded] work, it’s not going back to an early piece of performing. So it doesn’t have that kind of baggage.

I saw the Halloween 2014 concert you did in Los Angeles, and your Skellington performance was very enthusiastic. You really got into it.

Yes, doing Jack is really fun. Because I can be that character somehow. I’m comfortable slipping in and out of that skin — or lack of skin, since Jack doesn’t have any skin!

After nearly 100 film scores and three decades, how do you keep things fresh and keep that creative spark alive when it’s time to compose music for another movie?

That’s always the hard thing. There’s no magic formula for staying fresh. God knows I wish I did have that formula! When you have a long career, that’s the big, difficult thing. That’s also why I’m trying to do other projects. That’s how I try to keep myself fresh, by doing things I’ve never done and then hoping some of that rubs off on my work for film.

How does Big Eyes differ from other scores you’ve done for Burton films?

It was really the smallest piece of work I’ve done for Tim, ever. He really wanted to keep it very, very simple, so it was a very different and unique project for us. It was more understatement than overstatement.

Are you and Tim Burton close? Do you see each other much outside of your work together?

We don’t get together a lot outside of work, but on the other hand, I can’t say I don’t know him well. It’s almost like we’re siblings; we don’t see each other a whole lot, but he’s very much a part of my entire consciousness, my upbringing, everything. I guess I think of him as a kind of strange sibling.

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