Danny Elfman Talks Tim Burton, 'Simpsons,' and Why He Found the Anvil Film 'Emotionally Wrenching'
Danny Elfman Talks Tim Burton, 'Simpsons,' and Why He Found the Anvil Film 'Emotionally Wrenching'

(L-R): Composer, Danny Elfman, Director, Sacha Gervasi, and Tim Appelo, Hollywood Reporter, Film Editor (Photo: Arnold Turner)

Composer Danny Elfman finds deep inspiration when writing about tragedy.

The character Jack Skellington's need to escape the little world where he was king in the 1993 animated film "Nightmare Before Christmas" mirrored Elfman's struggle with the end of his band Oingo Boingo. He lost his dog not long before working on his new animated film "Frankenweenie." For the forthcoming biopic "Hitchcock," Elfman focused on the deep wells of emotion springing forth from actor Sir Anthony Hopkins' eyes.

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These were some of the secrets unleashed by the Grammy-winning, Emmy-winning and Academy Award-nominated composer often associated with his classic collaborations with director Tim Burton ("Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "Batman") as well as filmmaker Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting") during a Q&A at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference at the W Hotel in Hollywood, Calif., on Thursday.

Director and recent collaborator Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil: The Story of Anvil") joined Elfman during the session. The pair showed some footage from "Hitchcock" and answered questions from Hollywood Reporter film reporter Tim Appelo and conference attendees in the audience.

(L-R): Danny Elfman, Sacha Gervasi (Photo: Arnold Turner)

Among other bits of Elfman trivia gold, the composer revealed that he wrote the theme for "The Simpsons" on the drive home from his meeting with creator Matt Groening, and that half of the songs that made it into "Nightmare Before Christmas" were the demo versions. He also noted that he's had the unique experience of scoring a movie about Alfred Hitchcock and recreating Bernard Herrmann's score from "Psycho," "which I did for Gus Van Sant in a misguided little adventure of redoing the movie," he joked, referencing the reviled 1998 scene-by-scene remake with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche.

The day before at the conference, composer Gustavo Santaolalla said he wrote the entire Oscar-winning score for "Brokeback Mountain" before a single frame was filmed. Elfman, on the other hand, said he always writes to picture, after a semi-disastrous attempt at doing otherwise during the making of 1988's"Beetlejuice."

Elfman said "the emotional side" of Hitchcock's story attracted him to Gervasi's picture. He had no intention of mimicking Herrmann, lest it sound like parody. As he rightly pointed out, John Williams' "Jaws" theme and Herrmann's "Psycho" shower scene music are perhaps the two most recognized bits of instrumental sound from any two movies ever. Elfman was so fascinated by the project that he actually visited the set during filmmaking.

"He commits 1000 percent. So you just get the energy, the intensity," Gervasi said.

"I rarely ever get to see actors work," Elfman said. "I told Sacha, 'Were it not the fact that I'm in the middle of a score, I would ask if I could be a PA and be on the set every hour.' It was so interesting to me. Watching them work was a real treat. It was really amazing. I jumped at the chance to sit in."

Danny Elfman (Photo: Arnold Turner)

Elfman was a huge fan of Gervasi's documentary about hard-luck Canadian metal band Anvil.

"I take exception to the 'Spinal Tap' allegory," he said of the film. "In fact, the movie was so wrenching emotionally, my wife and I had to stop the first time. We couldn't finish it. We had to come back and finish it. We found it really engaging. One can look at it and say 'Spinal Tap like' because they're a crazy rock, heavy metal kind of thing. But it was really moving. Very rare that we have to pause before the last act of the film because we're almost afraid to see how it ends."

Elfman couldn't possibly have predicted how things would end when he read a bad review of an Oingo Boingo concert back in the day written by a newspaper journalist named Matt Groening. He was so incensed by the review, where Groening admitted to being drunk and only watching the encore, that he actually wrote the paper a letter. Fifteen years later when he was hired to write the theme for "The Simpsons," that incident came up.

"You probably forgot --" Groening began. "I remember," Elfman deadpanned, which brought a loud laugh from the audience. Envisioning a '60s-style theme "like a Hanna Barbera cartoon that never was," Elfman had the now classic tune all mapped out his head by the time he got home.

With a career as long and diverse as the 59-year-old former pop star, there's bound to be some clunkers. Elfman was candid and jovial about this fact, but emphasized, "the best of intentions go into every single project. People ask me, 'How did you end up on that film?' You know what? There was a point where everybody believed in the possibility of this. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. It just happens."

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