Tastemaker: composer Danny Elfman likes it deliciously dark

A taste for the offbeat runs through Danny Elfman's work in film and music, writes Mathew Scott

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 5:00pm

There's a dream that returns to Danny Elfman at regular intervals. Not a nightmare, exactly, but it still comes pretty close.

The scenario sees the composer sitting in his studio working away, but no matter how hard he tries, no matter how much time and effort Elfman feels he is putting in, he just can't get the job finished. It just goes on, and on, and on.

"I get stuck in a loop and I can't get off," says Elfman. "I think I am working but I can't get anything done. I still have to finish, I still have to get it done. So I do have a work dream but it is just not productive - it is torture."

It's a dream that perhaps reflects more about the 60-year-old American's work ethic than anything - that and the force that drives a fear of failure.

Over more than four decades in the entertainment industry, Elfman has charted a course through eight years spent in musical theatre, before fronting the successful American New Wave band Oingo Boingo for the next 17. Towards the end of that last gig, Elfman started composing soundtracks and over 28 years he has contributed to more than 85 films, along the way being nominated for an Oscar four times (for his work on Good Will Hunting, Men in Black, Big Fish and Milk) while picking up awards including a Grammy ( Batman), and an Emmy (the Desperate Housewives theme).

He has also forged a strong personal and professional relationship with director Tim Burton, and found the time for a stream of side projects such as penning the theme for The Simpsons (which won Elfman another Emmy for "outstanding achievement in main title theme music").

"I am happy that sometimes I stumble onto something that is popular," says Elfman, quietly. "But some will [work], some won't. The Simpsons was a total fluke. It was the easiest thing I had ever done. I wrote it in the car on the way home, spent a couple of hours recording it, and sent it to them. I thought that show was going to be over so quick."

Today we are sitting in a cafe inside Hong Kong's Disneyland as the theme park launches its new Mystic Point section, which features a soundtrack Elfman has put together. The Los Angeles native proves an engaging interview, confident and calm but occasionally adding a flourish of emotion. He says the inspiration for this particular piece of work came from somewhere close to home.

"There was an inspirational link to the Haunted Mansion [at the LA Disneyland] which was an iconic thing for me," says Elfman. "I liked the idea of doing something inspired by something I loved. I love challenges. I loved being here and the collaborative nature. I don't get to do that a lot in film. Film is pretty much me and a director. Two people alone in a room."

But for a man who grew up fascinated by the world of the silver screen - he cites Bernard Herrmann ( Citizen Kane, Psycho) and Nino Rota ( The Godfather) as huge influences - being able to work on film, in Hollywood and beyond, has been the fulfilment of every boyhood fantasy. Burton was the first major player to seek Elfman out, along with comedian Paul Reubens when the pair were piecing together Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985). By then, Elfman had decided it was time for Oingo Boingo to call it quits.

"It was out of the blue," Elfman says. "I thought they just wanted a song and they wanted a score. I thought about it and said 'What the hell'. Tim knew the band and Paul knew the work I had done on a cult film [ Forbidden Zone] with my brother. I thought I would really screw up the film and … it would get thrown out. I did it for fun."

Burton also shares with Elfman a fascination with horror films and the composer has over the years been able to lend his talents to the director's dark delights from Edward Scissorhands to Frankenweenie.

"I'll always have a soft spot for anything dark," says Elfman. "But I love writing anything with the word 'very' in front of it. So if it is very dark, if it's very silly, if it's very romantic, if it's very absurd I am happy. As long as it is 'very' something, I am happy. I just don't know what to do with myself when it is normal."

Elfman says other collaborators - such as Gus van Sant, with whom he has worked on films such as To Die For and Promised Land - have afforded him similar freedom to do just what he wants, and that it was being given the freedom to create that originally turned his head towards a career in music.

"As a child I had no interest in music - I was interested in science. It was pure luck of going to a new high school and meeting new friends and they were musicians. I started listening to Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring - that changed my life really. I had followed music in movies. So later when Tim offered me work it was like a fan being asked to join the game, like someone saying 'Here's the ball'."

The story also goes that Elfman one day found himself at California Institute of the Arts and wandered into the Balinese music department. The instructor, he says, told him to just sit down and play. "I was never enrolled but I turned up for two and a half years." The experience helped form Elfman's eclectic range of influences in music and cinema.

Before the interview draws to a close, Elfman wants us to know Hong Kong might figure in his future - if all goes to plan. "Some day I would love to work with [comedian, actor and director] Stephen Chow [Sing-chi]. To me Kung Fu Hustle is one of the best movies ever made. I've shown that to a million people," he says.

"I say 'Look what can be done with this much money and a ton of imagination, rather than a ton of money and not that much imagination'. It's the most original film that I have seen in the past 10 or 20 years. It's always been a dream to visit one of his sets. One of these days, if destiny decides, it just might happen."

Elfman takes a breath, a pause for dramatic effect. "Do you hear that, Mr Chow?"