Danny Elfman's Nightmare

Now everyone's breathing easier, but not for nothing has this project provoked nightmares of onrushing trains in the 40-year-old musician: it's suddenly discovered that the music sheets from which the orchestra is playing are in a completely different key from the vocal tracks laid down by Elfman and Catherine O'Hara. Hushed huddles ensue among Elfman, Burton, the conductor and various recording technicians. What to do? Try to find out whether O'Hara's schedule would allow her to fly out to re-record her lines? Hire a "voice double"? Should Elfman, as he suggests, only half-kiddingly, sing both his and O'Hara's roles? Despite the pressure, nobody freaks, nobody points fingers. But it's been a long night in a series of long nights for such a potentially costly foul-up.

"I fucked up," Elfman says about the incident when we meet a few weeks later for a conversation in his rustic Topanga Canyon home. "It was such a shock. A year ago, when we originally recorded the reprise duet between the hero and heroine, the song was meant to be done in two different keys. But because the movie has since been reedited, somehow or another I grabbed the wrong key. Only that night on the sound stage did I realize, 'Oh, my God, I really screwed this up.' Nobody shit over the whole thing, though, because at least it wasn't one of the songs on which we have 40 voices, that took three days to record. In the end, Catherine came in and re-sang her four lines with me. It only took 15 minutes. So, it wasn't total panic, just one of those 'uh-ohs."'

Speaking of "uh-ohs," did Disney, known industry-wide for intrusive attitudes toward moviemakers and their projects, express any attitude about such a sweetly offbeat production? Elfman's score, like the screenplay and style of animation, is so rich in unexpected mood shifts, clever lyrics and musical genre-bending, it seems far simpler, yet more sophisticated, than Disney's recent animated smashes. How did the studio bosses take to a score that's quintessentially Elfman, yet also features nods to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Tom Waits, even Barnum & Bailey?

"I told Disney up front, 'You're not going to get a pop ballad out of this,'" he asserts in a tone that says one shouldn't doubt him for a second. What, no big, potentially salable duet for Peabo Bryson and Celine Dion? Or Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville? Shaking his head, Elfman answers, "I can't work as a composer for hire anymore. I have a pretty clear idea of what kind of music I do and don't want to write and, at this point, I'd rather die than to try and force a contemporary ballad on a timeless or old-fashioned musical. By the same token, Nightmare could never work by trying to squeeze it into that Beauty and the Beast framework--you know, a six-song, contemporary Broadway-ish Disney musical. That would be like trying to graft the head of a tiger onto the body of a gorilla.

"You understand, I'm not saying what I do is better, it's just more to my taste," Elfman remarks. "Disney, to their credit, gave Tim a lot of autonomy to create this strange little project and so I was excited to do a musical that was not Broadway-based or Broadway-inspired but very much like an old-fashioned musical from the '30s, '40s or '50s. Now that I'm done with most of it, I realize how much work those old musicals were. But the way the music constantly weaves in and out to tell the story means that this movie could have been done in any earlier period."

And Disney is letting it ride, quirks and all? "They never pressured," Elfman assures, "never tried to turn it into a hybrid of a contemporary formula. They just let it be another animal altogether, even when nobody actually knows how it will work or how people will take it. It's not Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, but it's at an imaginative level that might spawn some kids to open a door to their imaginations. In fact, Disney's showing this real hunger, what with their partnership with Merchant-Ivory and taking on Tim [Burton]'s project Ed Wood [about the cult movie director] to get into dark little areas they've never had any contact with before."

This jibes with something Burton told me, too, when he said, "One reason I like this project so much is that it's very clear and was designed a long time ago. It meant Disney was never in a position where we went, 'Here's our idea,' and they were, like, 'Fine, but what are you going to do with it?' It was very laid-out, with the characters and story very much as they are. It's a very different thing from the kind of animated movies they've done. I hope it has a positive effect on them."

By all accounts, though, the road leading to Tim Burton's Nightmare, which the eponymous producer describes as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas, only in reverse," was packed with twists and mazes. On live-action movies, for instance, Elfman begins work when the director has his footage in the rough-cut stage. That's when he begins working up themes and musical cues, which he refines further and further as the movie gels into its final form. At that point, he records the score. Nightmare was completely different. The raw material Elfman and Burton began working from was a decade-old plan.

"[Burton] had a story, an outline," the musician explains, "but the first attempts with another writer to put a script together were evaporative and didn't work at all. We kept missing deadlines. I told him, 'Look, let me just start writing songs that tell the story, 'and he agreed. It became a clean, pure process of my beginning writing from the first song and working chronologically. I'd call Tim every three or four days, he'd come and we'd talk about where the story went next, he'd leave and I'd already be hearing the beginning of the next song in my head. I started demoing them all up, singing them, until, eventually, we were really excited to be telling the whole story and fleshing out the characters in music. Then, Caroline Thompson came in and kind of wrote the script around it. And suddenly, the Disney animators up north in San Francisco, who were putting together their new studio, started animating the songs first because they had real concrete stuff to work with."

It's truly Elfman's baby: he not only collaborated on the story line and script, composed the lyrics and music, he also "sings" the movie's lead character (complementing Chris Sarandon, who "speaks" the role) and is also one of a trio of comic Santa kidnappers called "Lock, Shock and Barrel." Elfman, to whom some collaborators past and present attribute a very well-developed ego, says he is unconcerned that peers may take potshots at his ambitious-ness. He says, laughing, with a shrug, "Listen, I've got demos of me doing all the vocals, with the exception of 'Sally's Song,' because it's the only one I couldn't sing. Tim doesn't have kids, but, from the beginning of this project, my then six-and-a-half-year-old, now nine-year-old daughter Mali and my 14-year-old Lola have put their stamp of approval on every song."

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