Danny Elfman's Nightmare

As Hollywood's hottest film composer readies his most personal project, the upcoming animated musical, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, he lets fly on everything from the rumors that he doesn't compose his own scores to what's wrong with cramming pop tunes into movies.

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Film music composer Danny Elfman is describing a nightmare. "There's this slowmoving freight train barreling toward me," he says. "Physically, emotionally, psychologically, there's this panicky sense of 'Uh-oh, get the shovel, dig, dig, dig that tunnel and lay those tracks to make sure the train stays on course.' Then it's, 'Whew, we got through that little mountain, but, uh-oh, what's that up ahead?"'

The engine hurtling headlong toward Elfman is Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, the upcoming Disney animated feature containing 10 original Elfman songs. On the face of it, it sounds more like a lark than a nightmare. After all, it's a holiday romp--in it, the king of Halloween wreaks havoc by trying to bring Christmas to Halloween Town. And it features stop-motion animation of the sort lots of us fell in love with as little kids in such movies as The 7th Voyage of Sinhad and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms married to cutting-edge technology of the sort lots of us fell in love with as taller kids in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

On the other hand, it's a project that's been talked about for a decade, and it turned out to be so complicated it required a special studio set up in San Francisco to house over 100 specially trained animators, artists and technicians. Then, too, it's a movie that excites high expectations. Not only does it mark the latest of Elfman's collaborations with Tim Burton--to date, these include Pee-wee 's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and the two Batman epics--but it also comes on the heels of three of Disney's all-time most successful animated movies, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. From what I've seen and heard of this Nightmare, it's bracingly oddball and wild, complete with such typically Elfman-Burtonesque touches as a villain who breaks into a Cab Calloway-style routine while making mincemeat out of Kris Kringle, a ghost dog named Zero, singing fluorescent skulls, and coffin-shaped sleighs.

Just now, I'm visiting with Elfman in the crackly atmosphere of a control booth inside a Warner Bros. recording sound stage. While director Burton gangles about nervously twirling his shades, Elfman tries to wrest from the 50-odd musicians just the right note of piercing melancholy for "The Reprise." It's a lilting romantic duet that Catherine O'Hara and Elfman himself sing for the movie's hero and heroine. Yet no matter how artfully Elfman cajoles, flatters or gently explains his desires to the weary-looking musicians, no matter how specific he gets with his "mezzo pianos" and "fortissimos," he falls short of drawing out what he's after.

"There's a very funny note that shouldn't be there in Bar 17," he observes softly to the orchestra and his conductor. He adds, "Are the French horns playing legato? And I have to say that the performance was not, ummm, the best we've had." They try again. The piece sounds, variously, mournfully beautiful, funereal, then inconsequential. Take after take fails to please the perfectionistic Elfman. Burton flops down into a sofa, where he gets surrounded by various people on his staff. "Look, is there a possibility of air conditioning in this room?" Elfman snaps, smiling acidly. "What is this, the Warner Bros, sweat shop?"

The orchestra takes a break. Elfman bounces around the room trying to lighten up, then he bops over to Burton to remind him, half-jokingly, "We have a member of the press here with us tonight." This prompts them to stage for me a mock mutual strangulation. Asks Elfman, "Tim, when was the last time I decked ya?" to which Burton shoots back, "When was our last meeting?"

Back at work, Elfman probably doesn't see what I see: a player in the front row shooting one of his colleagues a look that seems to say, "Oh, man, it's only movie music." The thing is, of course, Elfman doesn't just make movie music. His unapologetically pushy, evocative, moody scores for such movies as Sommersby and Midnight Run are stuff I find myself humming. His compositions for Burton's movies are stuff that seem to navigate the Burton mindscape the way Nino Rota's do Federico Fellini's and Bernard Herrmann's do Alfred Hitchcock's.

"It's been a really artistically fruitful relationship," Elfman says. "We've always had pretty smooth sailing in terms of musically working together." When I canvas Burton on the same subject, he observes, "Danny kind of stumbled into film music a little like I stumbled into film. He grew up liking movies. I grew up liking movies. Film music had an impact on both of us. That's all the expertise we had going into this. We're just trying to bumble our way through it, without a lot of preconceived ideas. He totally understands the tone I like, which is usually an even mix of funny, tragic, overly dramatic, all at the same time. He understands that it doesn't matter if it's a comedy, a horror movie, whatever. He understands the complexities of things. In my case, he helps us to understand what the hell the movie's all about."

Suddenly, Elfman and the orchestra finally get in sync. The groove they hit is so eerily, unexpectedly right that Elfman begins singing "The Reprise" in the control room in that spookily fluid, nervous tenor recognizable to any fan of Oingo Boingo, the L.A. cult band Elfman fronts. The place chills out. Even a battle-weary sound tech sways to the swooning strings and a lovesick accordion. Burton, watching Elfman surreptitiously, actually allows a grin to animate his face. Only a spoilsport would call it less than a perfect take.

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