Music Composer Danny Elfman Talks About His Long-Time Collaboration With Tim Burton
These three long-time collaborators of Burton each did a presentation about their work with Tim along the years during a night called ‘Behind the Scenes: Bringing Burton’s World to Life‘. Atwood and Heinrichs presentations were interesting but a bit short -they respected the time allotted-, so couldn’t get into as much details as I wished they had.
Elfman, on the other hand, took his time and shared during a hilarious and very informative presentation how it all started with Burton, and how it lasted 25 years and going.
He did a selection of films they worked on together and showed extracts of his them. I tried my best to transcribe what was said and find out the adequate clips.
I didn’t know Tim before Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and unlike Rik and Colleen, Tim kind of had to talk me into starting what is now my career but happened inadvertently when I met him. I literally got a call saying ‘Some kid, Tim Burton, an animator, wants to meet you about a movie’ and I assumed it was about putting a song with lyrics. But Tim said ‘I’d like you to score my movie’ and I thought he was going to make a huge mistake and told him so.
But he was interesting and we had grown up on the same references. His idol was Vincent Price and mine was Peter Lorre, both of our lives as children were somehow parallel in a world of horror and being retrieved.
I did go home and write a piece of music, send it to him on a cassette and expected never to hear from him again. I got a call a week or two later saying ‘You got the job.’ At which point I told my manager to tell Tim that I wasn’t going to do that, but he wouldn’t tell him and I didn’t have the nerve to, so I wrote the score for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. And even though I was writing the score I never expected anybody to hear it, I expected the Studio would withdraw before the movie hit the theaters because I didn’t know what I was doing and it seemed like Tim kind of didn’t know what he was doing so I don’t know how those things worked together.
That kind of started things of but it still never occurred to me to do film music as a career. It seemed more like a one off thing. So now suddenly I was getting offers for every wacky comedy made in Hollywood and I realized I could fun doing this. I tried to do as many films as I could in between touring and recording and producing for Oingo Boingo and Tim’s next movie. I had to figure out how to score film between each of his films so it was kind of amusing because in between every one his films I would do four.
The second film Tim came to me with was Beetlejuice, where I really opened up and had more fun with. I also started learning rules about film scoring. My first directive about the opening for Beetlejuice was to write flying music for this long shot about the model town and I wrote that instead:
At this point, Tim would let me do it anything. And I was in a great position, learning how to write for films while scoring films and also not giving a shit if I got hired again because I just considered it as a… I had a day job, so every film I did I thought ‘That’s probably my last score’ so I didn’t care what everybody thought of it and I find that’s a good approach to work.
Some time goes by and Tim comes with Batman. That was considerably a different goal because it was my first and his first big budget film and we were no longer like kids left on their own who could do whatever they want. Nobody cared what we did for Pee-Wee or Beetlejuice but people who invested money, the Studio, did care about Batman. That was when I really learned what film scoring is actually about, the politics, the psychology, the personalities, the difficulty and that it’s not just fun. This was a long difficult road and really the beginning of what was, I feel, my education for film’s scoring.
That was the beginning of a whole different thing because now I’ve got to see Tim really stressed and I got to feel what real stress was about. It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago but I believe that’s when my scoring education began, with Batman. That’s when I thought ‘Maybe I like this job and I want to stick with it, take it a little bit more seriously.’ That triggered two decades now. And let’s skip around a bit.
Because of all the stress with Batman I was relieved that the next one he gave me, which was Edward Scissorhands, was quite the opposite. We were back to the attitude we had with Beeltejuice, which was under the radar, without anybody watching too closely what we were doing. Once again he gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. It’s still probably one of my favourite collaborations with Tim.
[End of Part 1]
The interesting thing about doing all this movies with Tim is that we had no template to follow. When I was given a film I had no idea what kind of idea to put in there and Tim couldn’t really tell me either because there was nothing to use as a model. Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, there was absolutely no model to look at so we had to kind of invent our musical language. There was no Edward Scissorhands-like movie to refer to. When I was given Batman they were like ‘Well, do something like John Williams’ and Tim said ‘no, no don’t do John Williams’ and I said ‘Well then let’s do something different.’ But we didn’t know what. It was all kind of this wild experimentation.
Thanks to Mister Joe for letting me use his phone to record it.