Danny Elfman on Composing Score for 'Men in Black: International': 'I Get to Visit a World I Love'

Em (Tessa Thompson) and H (Chris Hemsworth) in Columbia Pictures' Men in Black: International.
Giles Keyte/Columbia Pictures

Em (Tessa Thompson) and H (Chris Hemsworth) in Columbia Pictures' Men in Black: International.

There's nothing composer Danny Elfman looks forward to more than diving back into a world he already loves. That's why the Grammy- and Emmy-winning film scoring legend who's set hearts racing for more than three decades was so excited to strike up the band for a fourth run at the Men in Black franchise.

When the producers of the upcoming fourth chapter in the mind-erasing saga came around asking for a new neuralizer-worthy score, Elfman knew just what to do for the 26-track Men in Black: International (Original Motion Picture Score).

"When it's a musical genre that you enjoy it's always a pleasure to go back to it becuase Men in Black has allowed me to visit this unique musical world where I'm combining retro and comtemporary music in a playful way," Elfman, 66, tells Billboard about his brassy, thrilling score for the June 14 reboot starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the franchise launched more than two decades ago by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

"I get to visit a world I love that's unique and that I only get to do when I go back to Men in Black," he adds, recalling the first time he sat down again to play the signature "bon-bon-bon" bass line to get back in the MIB headspace. Working with co-composer Chris Bacon, Elfman says he stuck to his trusty playbook when it comes to return trips to previously explored cinematic universes.

The composer famous for everything from the theme to The Simpsons to dozens of Tim Burton movies thinks it's a "big mistake" when beloved franchises don't pay homage to the original scores when revisiting familiar places. "I'm always amazed when people don't follow the simple lesson that James Bond and Star Wars taught everyone when they bring back a theme everyone loves because it gives people a great thrill," he says.

His goal for the MIB reboot was to deliver something that is fun and beloved, with nods to the melodies and musical themes that have become attached to the characters over the years -- like he did with Brian De Palma's 1996 Mission Impossible by embracing composer Lalo Schifrin's iconic original score -- while still bringing some fresh ideas to the new installment. "The trick is: Can I bring some sounds, some sonic element that feels fresh but really delivers an element that the audience would love to hear? I want to give them that moment of, 'Oh, there is my old friend.'"

Elfman achieves that delicate balance with his signature mix of bright brass, skittery percussion and ebullient strings on tracks such as the frantic classical-to-lounge "Viper Room," while weaving the familiar with some new sounds for Thompson's character, Agent M. "I wanted Molly to get her own theme... because later in the movie her journey is part of what is giving us the emotional connection when we discover the whole thing," he says. 

Hemsworth didn't get a similar signature theme treatment, though, because Elfman feared it would "clutter" the score, in much the same way that Lee and Smith didn't have personal soundtrack cues. "It was more their theme as a team and his part is he's a team guy and in the community of Men in Black... she's the newcomer, so I decided to give her a melody." 

The other musical memory Elfman was happy to tap again was the groovy '60s ultralounge feel he weaved throughout the first three films' scores, an "old-school spy movie" sensibility that harkens back to Bond and the 1966 007 parody film In Like Flint. "That's a connection I established in the very first one... because when I saw the original with the skinny ties and black suits it brought back to mind the Sean Connery-era James Bond and the Jerry Goldsmith themes in Flint," he says. "It's a conscious throwback nod to that era when the idea was to keep it playful, which is very easy to do because you're just having a ton of fun with it." 

And though the film has International in the title and it takes the mind-erasing twosome across the globe, Elfman says he resisted the allure of spiking the score with superflous exotic sounds and instruments, despite the MIB team's attempts to convince him. "I really wanted to avoid that, even though there are a few moments in Morocco where they asked me to bring in some Moroccan flavor," he says. "I tried as much as I could without going too on-the-nose with that." 

Listen to "Viper Room" from the MIB: International soundtrack -- due out on Friday -- below.


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