Danny Elfman's Nightmare
That Elfman's homegrown brand of "test marketing" might prove insufficient for the studio bosses at Disney is, director Burton will admit under prodding, a nightmare of its own. The characters, unlike most of Disney's animated stars, are angular and ragtag, not smoothed-out and immediately lovable. "The problem is you never quite know what someone else's perception of something's going to be," declares Burton, who, at the beginning of his career, worked as a Disney animator and created the now-legendary six-minute, German expressionism-influenced animated homage to Vincent Price, Vincent, and the 29-minute live-action Frankenweenie, which the studio outright refused to release.
"All I hope is that we don't run into the thinking that, because these characters look weird, that they're going to be perceived as scary. There's nothing really negative in it. There isn't even a villain, per se. It isn't like bad characters taking over Christmas. Jack Skellington does what he does because he likes the feeling of Christmas and thinks he can do a good job. Disney's been great. So far. But I keep waiting for something to happen."
Whether Disney lets Elfman and Burton go their merrily macabre way or not, it's obvious that Elfman happily stands apart from most of his movie-music composer peers. He assesses the state of modern movie scores as "definitely shifting for the worse." How so?
"There are several major studios where musical scores have become irrelevant because all they want is a hit song," he observes. Declining to get specific he continues, "One studio likes to jam hit songs into period pieces. You know, rock music in a movie taking place in a completely different time! And directors don't seem to give a fuck.
"There are exceptions," Elfman allows. "When I heard what [Elmer Bernstein] did with Bernard Herrmann's old score for Cape Fear, where the stereo gave the music such impact and power, I felt like I was about to be blown out of my seat. It was just heaven. A couple of times over the past eight years since I've been doing movie scores, I've thought of pulling out. I've gotten so disheartened by the direction things seem to be going, but Cape Fear actually encouraged me.
"With everybody today, it's sell a couple of million albums and make a lot of money. I understand that a movie studio is in business to make money and that they want to get a video on MTV to market their movie. On the other hand, the blatantness with which [pop] pieces get jammed into movies is horrendous. It's hysterical hearing a song that couldn't possibly fit in any less well, yet you have these studio people saying, 'Ah, how beautifully this song fits in here!'"
But hold on. Hasn't Elfman himself succumbed to the hit song seduction? After all, fellow Oingo Boingo fans may cherish Elfman and company's frenetic vocals and playing on stuff like "Dead Man's Party" and "Only a Lad," but it took "Weird Science," for the 1985 John Hughes flick of the same name, to put this cult band on the charts. "That was a teen film," Elfman points out, sounding prickly. "If you've got a contemporary film with contemporary characters and can find something that fits, I'll always try. On Batman Returns, I saw the potential to put in a song of Siouxsie & the Banshees that fit, but didn't stand out from the tone of the movie. Nothing could have convinced me to attempt to find a place for a song on Sommersby."
Even in an age when so much is oversold, on and off the screen, Elfman's music recalls the great sweep and passion of older, often better movies. So, what does he make of the old Hollywood saw that says if you notice the music in a movie, the composer is grandstanding? "Absolute bullshit," he answers like a shot. "That's just an excuse to be lazy. As a kid watching movies, I suddenly became aware that music was elevating the picture, doing something else to the movie. In every classic film I've seen, the music stood out as a character to make a bold statement. But Dolby sound was the death of the classic film score, the single worst thing that ever happened to film music, because it marked the end of film music being a major character and the beginning of sound effects being a major character."
Despite his status as one of the most frequently recorded of all contemporary movie composers (he already boasts a very persuasive compilation disc, Music For a Darkened Theatre, that includes everything from his theme from "The Simpsons" to a nifty bit from the otherwise forgettable Hot to Trot), Elfman has been cut little slack by critics.
"I'm used to getting flack from critics," Elfman says, shrugging. He laughs when I mention the rampant confusion over whether he or Prince wrote the Batman music, or whether Madonna, Stephen Sondheim or he wrote Dick Tracy. Then there are the rumors that someone else actually writes his music. Or that he hums his music themes into a tape recorder for others to flesh out.
"You have to remember that I didn't become a composer until eight years ago and that I'm totally self-taught and instinctive," he explains. "I have so many friends who are directors, writers, cinematographers and editors, but the single most snobbish and elitist group of all in movies are film composers. They're the only ones that will punish you for your lack of schooling and who won't accept you because you're self-taught. They just insist that you don't exist. And, although I taught myself to write notation on paper, I'll always be perceived by some as a 'hummer'--someone who hums the melodies and turns them over to teams of orchestras who do my work. I go to Italy a lot and recently I was there at a party and this young composer came up to me and asked about these same rumors. Even over there, he'd heard that I just hum my music or that I don't even write it. It's amazing, but, once something like that starts, there's no reason to worry about it because there's nothing you can do about it."
Nevertheless, interesting directors clamor to work with Elfman. What was it like writing (and rewriting) the score for Dick Tracy? "Warren [Beatty] was insane," he observes. "But, see, what overshadows all the craziness involved in working with Warren is that I wanted to write a big, romantic Gershwinesque melody and that's what I got to write." Doing Midnight Run for Martin Brest?
"He's a total, unbelievable pain in the ass," he declares, "but, at the end of the day, after so much fuss, hassling and a torturous ordeal, he allowed me to write a score that I have no regrets about." Yet, although scoring Sommersby for Jon Amiel was "really fun," he's fondest of such things as Sam Raimi's Darkman and Clive Barker's Nightbreed, "because melodramatic stuff lets me tap into 'movie classical' forms, you know, Wagner and Mahler by way of Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa and Max Steiner."
What's next for Elfman? Although he enthuses over the fact that he will again be working with Burton on Ed Wood, he says he plans next to write a "lush, romantic score" for Black Beauty for debuting director-- and offscreen, his longtime companion--Caroline Thompson. He's even more animated when he rattles off several projects he is developing on his own. If all goes as planned, Burton will next year produce and Elfman direct his own pet project screenplay, Julian, a ghost story. He enthuses, too, over two musicals: The World of Jimmy Callicut, which he calls "Pinocchio meets Ixird of the Flies, that's my perspective on growing up, not Spielberg's," and Little Demons, a Disney project set in '20s Europe being written by the pair who penned Burton's Ed Wood, and which he says is "wonderfully sick and as devilish as can be gotten away with." Will new challenges bring satisfaction to Elfman's restless spirit? He nods his head in the affirmative, then drawls, in pure Elf-manese, "Maybe, but no doubt I'll find a whole new level of critical nonacceptance."
Stephen Rebello interviewed James Caan for the November issue of Movieline.