danny elfman has been making music for your favorite films for almost 30 years

We speak to the genius behind the musical wonderlands of Tim Burton, as well as The Simpsons theme tune, and cult band Oingo Boingo.

by Francesca Dunn
27 February 2015, 10:40am

Danny Elfman is forever writing. This time around however, the subject couldn't be further removed from the gothic Tim Burton collaborations he's become associated with. "Right now I'm in the middle of scoring Fifty Shades of Grey believe it or not," he tells us. "It's really strange and interesting, but that's why I decided to do it. I thought it'd be fun, plus I like Sam Taylor-Johnson." Danny found that there was nothing for him to reference when it came to scoring the film, describing it as "kind of mainstream porn, but done very tastefully." He liked having no genre to look to as a model, explaining that such an unknown always perks up his interest. In tackling something so unexplored musically, Danny tried to find the balance between modern, electronic and romantic. "Even though it's risqué, in the end it's still in essence a romantic story. It's an odd balance of new and old."

I approach everything from a state of despair

A latecomer to music, Danny didn't pick up his first instrument until he was 18. In fact, his entire career sprung from moving neighborhoods in California and falling in with a new group of friends, most of which were musicians. Upon graduating he decided to take a year out and travel the world, secretly planning to learn the violin too. He took one with him and ending up spending the entire year in Africa, carting the instrument across the continent as he went. "I'd only been playing four months when I got hired by a French musical theatrical troupe called Le Grand Magic Circus. A year earlier I'd never even considered playing an instrument or performing, so that was the start of a whole new life!" A whole new life that would see the self-taught talent front successful band Oingo Boingo, score almost every single dark fairytale that Tim Burton would turn his hand to, bring his super power to both Batman and Spiderman, and, something that far too often goes forgotten, create the omnipresent, omnipotent theme to The Simpsons.

It doesn't exactly make sense, but one wonderful thing about Tim Burton is that he doesn't need to make sense of things.

When Danny starts to compose a score he always goes through the same process. "It's called misery and more misery," he jokes. "I approach everything from a state of despair because it feels like starting for the first time, every time. It's always a bit dreadful and obsessive until something catches and I get sucked into a vortex and pray that the director is on the same wavelength that I'm on." Turns out they're frequently not, but Danny accepts it as part of his profession to dream up an idea only to have a director destroy it. He admits that it's tough sometimes, "but you know... it's a collaborative art form. You have to get into a director's mind, and sometimes they have ideas that simply run aground. Often the whole process is exploratory! Even with Tim Burton, often he doesn't know exactly how he feels about the score. I just have to begin writing lots of music and in the process of listening to what I've done, he learns. 'That one's not working for me but that one's interesting - do more of that'. It really is an exploration."

Despite working to the ever-evolving mind of a director, Danny always produces scores alone, finding it a very solitary profession. "I mean, there's a bit at the end when you get an orchestra in and it becomes a big event, but out of three months work, that might be just four days." When there are no initial ideas, his decline into misery and despair usually begins with selecting the two or three most pivotal scenes from the movie and working his magic on those. "I feel like if I can capture the tone of these scenes it will unlock the rest of the score." In Sleepy Hollow, for example, Danny wrote a theme for the child version of Ichabod Crane, which went on to become the theme for the Headless Horseman too. "It doesn't exactly make sense, but one wonderful thing about Tim Burton is that he doesn't need to make sense of these things." In fact, Danny finds that the most interesting scores don't make sense at all when you try to deconstruct them in a logical way. "If it feels right, there doesn't have to be any actual rhyme or reason to it." He explains that some scores however, take a more traditional route, with graphic novels like Batman and Spiderman guaranteed to have an obvious hero theme, villain theme and love theme. Oh and differing to many composers, Danny is all about the brooding minor key - only very occasionally going into major chords when he absolutely has to. This is down to, he believes, his longtime love of Russian orchestral music. "The love of the minor melody is very deep in my blood," he adds.

The love of the minor melody is very deep in my blood.

With close to 100 scores on his very hefty CV, surely this whole music-making business is second nature to him by now? "I wish!" he exclaims, laughing. "I think it actually gets harder. I did really stupid stuff earlier on without thinking about it, but now I've got an awareness that actually makes it more difficult." He also admits the very real problems of trying not to repeat anything, and massively regretting musical decisions - refusing to listen back to the final products, unable to do so without thinking up something better. "I'm almost never really happy with it, but I finally came up with a policy to just finish things and move on."

The Simpsons is the biggest lottery ticket surprise of my career.

Surely the worst part of being a composer for film is the inability to truly lose yourself in a movie. "It's hard not pay attention to the score but it can sometimes happen. It's just if the score isn't doing what I like, it annoys me… and sometimes if the score is really, really good, I get envious and have the opposite reaction. It's hard to completely ignore it." Back to The Simpsons, whose universally recognizable theme tune was scored by our new composer friend back in 1989. Out of all 522 episodes, does Danny have a favorite? He laughs. "I suppose my favourite would be the first, because that's the one they thought nobody would ever see! I honestly never thought that it would survive past the first episode. I thought it'd get canned really quickly. The Simpsons is the biggest lottery ticket surprise of my career." It shouldn't have been all that surprising to Danny, because as everyone who's ever seen a Tim Burton movie knows, nothing is impossible. 


Text Francesca Dunn
Photography Pani Paul

tim burton
the simpsons
Danny Elfman
music interviews