EXCLUSIVE: The looming new year brings with it a double anniversary in the singular career of the great Danny Elfman. It will mark the 40th anniversary of the composer’s first film soundtrack (Forbidden Zone, the deliriously odd cult classic) as well as the 40th anniversary of Oingo Boingo, the new wave band with a brassy boneyard sound and loads of lyrical mischief in alt-rock standards like Dead Man’s Party, Only A Lad, Little Girls and Weird Science.
Elfman remains a movie maestro in high demand and the Los Angeles native has no plans to pass off the baton anytime soon. Still, Elfman has found himself contemplating his legacy more in recent seasons and the thought process has led the erstwhile rock star to a new and unexpected place: the classroom.
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With “Making Music Out of Chaos,” Elfman’s just-released addition to the highly regarded MasterClass series, the 66-year-old self-taught composer finds himself taking on the first formal musical instruction of his career and doing so as the teacher, not as a student.
Elfman tells Deadline that his energizing motivation for the endeavor was one of connection with fellow artists who consider themselves unorthodox thinkers. That energy helped Elfman overcome the gripping shyness that usually grabs him when he’s in a spotlight with notes on paper instead of the musical variety.
“Artists’ brains work in a lot of different ways and I don’t think I’m the only — well, know – I’m not the only artist out there who has a very chaotic way of formulating things,” Elfman said. “I can never seem to get systematic about how I approach things. It’s all chaotic but then out of that chaos I began to learn how to make it work for me. And I felt like I should share this because somewhere out there are other artists who have disorganized systems just in terms of their own wiring. I could explain how it works for someone like me, who’s similar. I don’t block things out, I can’t plan it, I just found a way to make my chaotic mess of a brain work.”
Elfman “figured out” how to score a feature film when he was approached 35 years ago by a first-time feature film director named Tim Burton with a somewhat random proposition. Burton, who had seen the Oingo Boingo frontman perform, asked the musician if he wanted to join the fun on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure for Warner Bros. For the record, Elfman’s actual reply to Burton’s invitation to take a ludicrous leap was a succinct one: “F*ck it.”
Conservatory-trained rivals likely dismissed Elfman as a rock-star dilettante in 1985 but the inexperienced interloper proved himself and, eventually, became a self-made institution in a competitive field that usually defines “faceless.” Now, with more than 100 other film and television credits, Elfman is still “figuring out” the process one project at a time. That chaos, as Elfman describes it, may be a challenge to manage, but it has also yielded beautiful mistakes and unexpected inspirations during the composer’s prolific and eclectic career.
They have led to Grammy and Emmy awards and, with The Simpsons theme, a prime-time signature that has endured for (so far) 31 seasons. His other memorable small-screen successes include Desperate Housewives, Batman: The Animated Series, and The Flash.
Elfman’s big-screen scores for Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting and Milk, and Tim Burton’s Big Fish were each nominated for an Academy Award. His list of major feature film projects is dizzying, and includes Dick Tracy, Mission: Impossible, Good Will Hunting, Spider-Man, Midnight Run, Back to School, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Scrooged, Justice League, Hulk, and A Simple Plan. (That last entry, from 1998, costarred Bridget Fonda, who married Elfman in 2003.)
“The joy of composing for me are those mistakes still, too, those random things that pop out of nowhere,” Elfman said. “That is part of the thing that I’m hoping that people will embrace. The possibilities of the unexpected.”
Elfman’s past successes echo so loudly in pop culture that he enjoys a level of mainstream recognition that outstrips most film composers, including his heroes, Hollywood Golden Age masters such as Bernard Herrmann, Dimitri Tiomkin and Max Steiner. The echoes are frequently emanating from a stage, too, with ventures such as the 36-date international tour devoted to Elfman’s music from Burton films that wrapped up in late 2017, or the San Francisco Symphony’s live performances of the composer’s gothic score for Burton’s Batman (1989) this past April.
Elfman’s collaboration with Burton has been a defining relationship for both of them but the composer says it’s never been exceptionally easy or even especially easy along the way. The final result has always been a satisfying one, Elfman says, but the struggle to get there has been considerable at times.
Still, Elfman has scored 16 of Burton’s 19 feature films with Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, Alice in Wonderland and, most recently, this year’s Dumbo, among them.
Not included on that list? Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, which, despite its title, was directed by Henry Selick (it was based on Burton’s character creations, however). The 1993 stop-motion animation music featured Elfman as the singing voice of Jack Skellington and has become a signature achievement for all involved thanks to an especially impassioned fanbase. Elfman sees his character’s face tattooed on arms, legs, chests, and backs across the world — one of the more literal signs of Elfman’s indelible body of film work.
Asked what similarities he finds in collaborating with filmmakers like Burton, Raimi, and Van Zant, the musician said one obvious connection is the lack of musical specifics any of the three will bring to an early-stages project.
“Every director is just really different, and I’ve tried to talk about that a little bit in the class,” Elfman said. “Those three that you mentioned, none of them would ever describe things musically which is, really, a good thing. I try to encourage directors to talk to me emotionally. What are you looking for? I’ve found that when they get specific and musical usually it leads down a wrong street. Usually they don’t quite mean what they think they’re saying. It’s more problematic.”
Elfman has worked with filmmakers as diverse as Guillermo del Toro, David O. Russell, Taylor Hackford, Errol Morris, Joss Whedon, Ang Lee, and Richard Donner. Has there been a musically specific director anywhere in the mix who was in tune with their communication?
“Warren Beatty,” Elfman says. “He’s one that would be very specific about music because he has a musician’s background. Usually directors express what they feel, or what they want to convey to an audience. Do we want to be subtle, crazy big, over-the-top? It’s usually not down to specific musical reference. Warren was the only one who might say at the end of a take, ‘That was really nice, can we try that melody on an oboe? What if we try it in the key of B flat?’ Wow, um, sure, okay.”
Elfman’s Making Music Out of Chaos series separates out lessons in orchestration, composing, counterpoint, and conducting, but also devotes time to industry insights and historical contexts. The approach throughout is geared toward sharing lessons that will be meaningful to composers of any level.
With the MasterClass, Elfman also opened up his private studio to the public for the first time. That’s kind of a big deal. Elfman found that being a teacher has made him a student of himself, too. Articulating his lessons and answering questions has illuminated the musician in regards to his own muse and his own music-making.
“Funny, I don’t think about what I do until somebody asks me about it, until I started doing a few seminars in recent years I never thought abut it,” Elfman said. “What I do comes more as second nature.”
As a thinker, Elfman is far closer to the extemporaneous magic of Miles Davis than he is to the lockstep formality of John Philip Sousa. When that jazz vs marching band juxtaposition is offered to the composer he responded with a long, deep laugh.
“Well, that’s an interesting thought! I see the thinking but, well, to me Miles Davis is the embodiment of cool and if there’s anything I’m not it’s the embodiment of cool. I love Miles. I saw him in Paris when I was 18…”
Elfman chews on the idea for a moment and tries to come up with a more appropriately “hysterical” jazz icon. Then, without a hint of irony, the Hollywood maestro delivers the perfect downbeat appraisal of a chaotic mind that is full of self-doubt but in harmony with it. “I think,” the maestro sighed, “I should be somebody less composed.”
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