After composing five film scores straight, without a weekend off, it’s fair to say that Danny Elfman has had a very long year. Still, there was no limit to what he would do to work on a film about his idol, Alfred Hitchcock.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I have to do this,” Elfman recalls about committing to Fox Searchlight’s Hitchcock, which was scheduled for delivery right before his opus on Disney’s Oz: The Great and Powerful. “I wouldn’t have a film-music career if it wasn’t for Bernard Herrmann, who has inspired me since the age of 12.”
It would be an understatement to say that Elfman is a big fan of the Master of Suspense and his longtime music collaborator. Never mind the large photograph of Hitch that hangs in Elfman’s office (as observed by Hitchcock helmer Sacha Gervasi), Elfman is the only composer who has handled the sacred scrolls: Herrmann’s original manuscript for Psycho, which Elfman deftly adapted for Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake. For his current project, Elfman was so stoked to visit the Hitchcock set where they were shooting the Psycho editing-bay scene with Anthony Hopkins (as Hitch) and Helen Mirren (as his wife, Alma) that he asked if he could come back for a second day.
But idolization has no boundaries and, though the production was strapped for cash, Elfman wasn’t going to compromise the score to a movie about his favorite filmmaker.
“He literally bought sections of the orchestra out of his own pocket,” says a gobsmacked Gervasi. “We were recording with the top musicians in London, and we couldn’t afford to keep them through lunch. Danny asked the orchestrator, ‘How much do the violas cost? 3,000£? I’ll take them. How much for the French horns?’ And Danny held the musicians through lunch.”
An adult gesture for a composer not always recognized for his adult scores, despite having credits on a multitude of dramas like Dolores Claiborne, A Simple Plan,and last year’s Restless. We all know the gothic, orchestral stylings from Elfman’s Tim Burton fare (for instance, this year’s Dark Shadows and stopmotion Frankenweenie) to his summer tentpoles (Men in Black 3, the first of which earned him a comedy score Oscar nom), however, this is arguably the first awards season in a long time that Elfman has had an abundance of adult-themed scores, a trend that he says “isn’t intentional.” As the new kid on the block in the late ’80s, his splashy Dvorak-like score for Burton’s 1989 Batman was overlooked by the Academy, but it’s been his grownup themes for Good Will Hunting (1997), Big Fish (2003), and Milk (2008) that have garnered Oscar nominations.
In addition to Hitchcock—which Elfman committed to under the condition that he didn’t have to turn in a Herrmann-esque score, rather a romantic, classical sound—the former Oingo Boingo frontman churned out his seventh score for Van Sant, an eclectic guitar-stringed mood for the environmental political drama Promised Land. Then there’s David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook,which represents a departure for Elfman in terms of his process and contemporary sound. Employing drums, stringed-pads (that Elfman created), guitar as well as his own vocals, the score to Silver Linings Playbook is a synthesis of late-’60s harmonized sunshine pop coupled with a coffee-house acoustic vibe.
“What saved me was that these scores were different and there were no overlapping of styles. If I had two scores that were in a similar genre, I would have gone through a mental meltdown,” Elfman humbly admits. “I didn’t get log-jammed, but I had to be more focused than ever before.”
Also keeping Elfman at the top of his game is the company he keeps with offbeat directors who challenge him. At first, when Elfman heard Silver Linings Playbook was a romantic comedy, he resisted. “That is the genre that I feel no affinity toward at all, and it’s the only one I stay away from. I did a few early on in my career, and they were incredibly difficult.”
But after watching a cut of the film, Elfman was drawn to the actors’ chemistry. Upon agreeing to work with Russell, Elfman says, “He didn’t even know if he needed music in the movie. It was a total journey for him, and I learned with David, you just take that journey. I said to myself, ‘If at the end, I served no purpose but to show him that he doesn’t need a score, well, that’s fine.’ ”
That ride entailed Elfman actually stepping inside the recording booth. Typically, during a scoring session, the composer is on the other side of the glass.
“I was playing around with instruments and put my vocals onto one piece as a goof, and David was like, ‘Do more of that! Do more of that!’, like he was producing me. Before we knew it, that’s what we were doing,” Elfman says with a laugh. “It was really crazy and off the track of what I’m usually doing, which is writing very intense, big scores.”
Russell says of their first-time partnership, “He was working with a simple arsenal of instruments due to budget. The end result seamlessly blends with the source and the emotion of the characters. I think that was the challenge, to find the voice of his music that would do that.”
Elfman says Van Sant is another director who “pushes me in strange directions.” Originally on Milk, Elfman wrote 15-18 minutes of opera-like music, inspired by the fact that Harvey Milk was a fan of the genre. After playing it several times for Van Sant, “He said, ‘You know, it’s not working,’ so we went back to square one,” Elfman recounts.
And while Burton is one director with whom Elfman can easily employ his Herrmann-esque and monster-movie side, specifically the classic horror organ wafting in Frankenweenie, it comes as a surprise to learn that Elfman and Burton still don’t have a shorthand after working together for 27 years.
“Every film is like starting over. I’ve never written a cue for Tim yet where I’m like, ‘He’s going to love this!’ He’s extremely unpredictable, and I never know how he’s going to react. Sometimes he has to take a journey to find out where the musical heart of his film is,” explains Elfman.
Nevertheless, the pair has a director-composer partnership that’s second only to Steven Spielberg and John Williams, yet one that the Academy doesn’t often recognize.
“I have a simple philosophy about (Oscar politics): I don’t think about it at all. I’m a big supporter of what the Academy does for films, but when it comes to the awards part of it, I stay as far removed as possible. It’s like elections—you can go crazy trying to anticipate what’s going to happen, but how people vote is still a great mystery,” says Elfman.
As one of the few scoresmiths who can churn out a panoramic orchestral creation, Elfman will likely get his due from the Academy one day. Already his eighth reteaming with Sam Raimi, Oz: The Great and Powerful, sounds like the type of epic, á la Lawrence of Arabia,that voters crave.
“The movie has this big, blustery old-fashioned feel, and I wanted to give it a big, effective, narrative score,” Elfman says. “It’s huge—105 minutes of music.”
And no matter what road Elfman embarks on musically with a director, it always comes back to Herrmann. “If anything, I’ll evoke more Herrmann-esque sounds in Oz: The Great and Powerful than I did in Hitchcock,” says Elfman. “At times I can’t help it, I have to try not to be Herrmann-esque because his music is so much a part of my musical DNA. For that is from whence I sprung.”