Composer Danny Elfman has scored dozens of movies in the last ten years, and received an Oscar nomination last year for his score for Milk. But he’s probably most famous for his work on almost all of Tim Burton’s films. This week’s release of Alice in Wonderland marks the 12th time that Danny Elfman has scored a film that Tim Burton has directed, and Elfman was kind enough to sit down with RT (which he says is one of four sites he visits everyday) and share some of his favorite movies and some of his musical influences. We did ask him for five favorite films, but his reaction was, “What I wrote yesterday would be different than today. I have to put some ties, because there’s no way I could do it otherwise.”
For pure spectacle I’d have to put somewhere a tie with Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia – two spectacles, two different directions, but they’re both the best of great, grand moviemaking.
For pure narrative storytelling that’s absolutely engaging, I’d have to say Godfather and Godfater 2. You know, there’s just no way to top that.
I’d have to put another like The Shining and Strangelove – Kubrick duo, because I just can’t possibly choose those.
I would have to then put Rear Window and Psycho as a Hitchcock duo – there’s no way I could choose between those two. If, you know, it comes to a “Sophie’s choice,” I’d just have to go, “I’d take them both,” because there’s just no way I could make these choices.
I’ll then end with another tie… a huge influence on me. Juliet of the Spirits and Casanova by Fellini. Just two favorite Fellini movies that I’ve always really loved. No one knows Casanova. I’ll never forget one of my sad moments: I was with my ex-girlfriend years ago and the Academy was doing a special screening of Fellini’s Casanova. We tried to get there early to make sure to get a good seat… There were six people there. It was as close to a musical as he’s ever done. And Nino Rota’s music is fabulous. And I’d be totally lying if I didn’t say that those both, the scores, Nino Rota’s scores, weren’t a huge influence on me. And those are two sides of Nino Rota, not to mention The Godfather, so he pops up a lot [as an influence].
Next, Elfman talks about the music that influences his work, and what it’s like to work with Tim Burton.
RT: I feel like there’s a certain Russian influence to some of your score.
Danny Elfman: Well, yeah. I mean, if it came down to like musical influences, Prokofiev would be right at the center of everything. And then it was Stravinsky that got me interested in orchestral music in the first place. So the Russian thing is definitely huge.
With some of your collaborations with Tim Burton, is there something in his work that brings out that Russian influence?
I don’t know if it’s Russian or if it’s Eastern European, for sure. I used to say that only with Tim could I get away with – for a movie like Edward Scissorhands – writing what is really like an Eastern European, Jewish theme. But fortunately Tim doesn’t think literally, that way. But you know, out of Eastern Europe, including Russia, you have to include all of Eastern Europe, to me the most old soul of orchestral music comes from there. The stuff that really connects with me, the stuff that really inspires me, the stuff that I feel is the soul music equivalent of classical music. If orchestral music has had its version of soul, you know what James Brown was for pop and R&B, that’s where Eastern European is for orchestral music. That’s where the soul is.
Speaking of the European (and going back a film), it feels like there are hints of Wojciech Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula in your Wolfman score.
Oh yeah. It’s is one of my favorite scores, so I won’t even deny that he was an influence there. You know I tried to – as I do with Bernard Herrman when he’s an influence – I try not to mock or steal, but I won’t deny that frequently there’s an influence of Herrman, or Rota. This is more unusual in that rarely is there a living composer [that’s the influence]. Dracula… There are a few scores here and there where I’m jealous that I didn’t do it, and I hear the score, and I go “No, this kicks my ass,” and that was just one of those.
That Dracula score is a beautiful score
It’s a great score, and it’s one of my favorites. It was one of those moments where I went in there all seething like “I wish I would have gotten this gig!” Then I saw the movie and heard the score, and I said “Uh… no. I just received a whuppin’.”
Are there any influences that we should be listening for in Alice? Any particular hints? Anything that really inspired you this time?
If there was an artist that was a bit of an influence for for me in this, it would be Phillip Glass. In Alice‘s theme, I’m aware of the Glass. And he’s also someone I’m not ashamed of saying I’ve paid homage to when the time is right, and hope I do him respectfully. But if you listen to Alice‘s theme, and I say that I’m not a fan of Phillip Glass, I would just be a bold-faced liar. And I hope that neither Kilar or Phillip are angry with me right now. (laughing) You never know — I could get an angry letter from Phillip next week saying “You bastard!”
How does your process work? I read a little bit that when you get the scripts for a movie with Tim Burton, you’ve learned not to try and work ahead, and that you have to wait until you’re seeing the film.
Yeah, the working ahead has always just backfired on me. It actually either is no help, or it slows me down, because I have to undo everything I thought I was going to do, and then get into the right frame of mind.
Is that specific to him?
No, that’s specific now to all jobs. If I come with pre-conceived notions, I’m just going to spend more time undoing those notions. Because with few exceptions (and I’m sure that there are exceptions), there’s a hundred ways to shoot a script. So you read a script, and you get an idea of what it’s going to be… The movie never looks like the script in my mind. There are certain things that really dictate the kind of music. One is the cinematography; is it done naturalistic? Is it done lush? Is it done monotone? Two is the editing. Are you getting long, fluid sequences with dissolves? Are you getting quick cutting? All these things really influence the music that would feel correct for it. And the performances, of course. Different performances… You know, you might have an idea of how somebody’s going to play a certain way, and then you see them and you say, “Oh they’re playing completely different.” So, I’ve learned to kind of go in with as few pre-conceived notions as I possibly can. That’s where I generally do my best work.
It was a pleasant surprise to hear your song “The Little Things” at the end of Wanted. Can we expect to hear any more singing from you anytime soon?
No, not that I’m aware of, at any rate. That was just on the blue moon, the rare moment.
What inspired you to actually get behind the microphone for that?
Timur [Bekmambetov, the director,] told me that that’s what he wanted me to do. Early on in the process, he wanted a song-like thing, a riff for this sequence where the character takes his keyboard and he smashes it in someone’s face. And I wrote something, but Timur said “No, thank you very much, but I’m looking for something else.” At the very end, when I’m done with the score, I get a call [from Timur] saying “I’m listening to it again, I really like that. Could you put lyrics to it?” So I’m leaving the next day to do Hellboy 2, and I’m already done with the Wanted score. So I quickly put a verse on, sent it out, I get to London to record Hellboy 2, Timur says “We love this! Can you write a chorus? Can you finish some more lyrics, and actually sing it?” I say “No, no, you don’t want me to sing it.” Timur says “Yes! We really want you to sing it, like it’s a demo!” So I scribble out some more lyrics, and literally after hours, when I was recording Hellboy 2, I was going in another room at Abbey Road, and singing the Wanted song.
And then worse than that, because Timur is the sadistic man that he is, he says “OK, that’s good — now do it in Russian.” He made me sing it in Russian, and I had to do it with a Russian coach, kind of feeding me one line at a time. Russian is the hardest language for an English-speaking person, I can’t even tell you. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I would say a line, I’d be saying it over and over, and she’d be laughing. I’d say “What did I say?” and she’d say something like “Instead of saying ‘I love you,’ you said ‘something potatoes.'” And she’d tell me the difference, and it would sound exactly the same to me. It was a very sadistic thing for Timur to do. But I love Timur and I’ll do anything for him.