Oscar-nominated composer and former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman hosted a Q&A session that was open to the public at the Warner Brothers Records building in Burbank, Calif. This event preceded the Dark Shadows premiere on May 11, which is the fourteenth film that Elfman has scored for director Tim Burton.
The longstanding relationship between Elfman and Burton started with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and includes the films Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish and Alice in Wonderland, to name a few. The crowd in Burbank was a mixed bag of tattooed Burton fans and Oingo Boingo geeks in the band’s t-shirts who clearly hold a shared respect for Elfman’s collective accomplishments on and off the stage.
The cult following for the 60’s TV show “Dark Shadows” gives the film adaptation a built-in audience as well as the unwavering fans of Burton and Elfman collaborations. When asked if he was a fan of the original series, Elfman confessed: “When I started watching it, it was just out and it was like gothic and vampires, but there was no blood… for me, if there’s no blood there’s no entertainment, at 14-years-old I wanted to see vampires sucking copious quantities of blood in the goriest fashion.”
The four time-Grammy winner admitted that the Baldwin Hills movie theater around the corner from where he grew up was his “church” where he worshiped every weekend watching horror flicks in the mid-’60s. An assortment of colorful questions poured in from online viewers as well as those in the crowd from film school students wondering if orchestra sample programs are better than the real thing to his new wave turned film score fans who pondered — what does he miss most about performing on stage?
Check out some of the highlights from the Q&A below:
What have you noticed working with Johnny Depp over the years personally and professionally?
It’s fun watching Johnny Depp grow. He’s developed a beautiful, rich voice that he didn’t have. He sounded like a kid in Gilbert Grape, that was 19 years ago, but he developed this richness of his voice. It doesn’t just happen. His voice as Barnabas and his voice in Sweeney Todd, it’s really a beautiful voice.
What do you and Johnny Depp have in common?
He used to steal guitar pics from my road cases. When Oingo Boingo was rehearsing, we hired out a rehearsal space and they used to rent a room, his band, in the same space. They were broke and they would steal strings and pics from my cases. He confessed to me later.
When you met Tim Burton did you get a sense that you guys had some shared core values that might work for a long lasting working relationship?
We grew up on the same movies and we were both movie nerd kids and saw all the same horror films. When we met I learned that Vincent Price was his idol and Peter Lorre was mine and that kind of defined our relationship for the next 26 years. Vincent Price was always the sadistic master and Peter Lorre was always the tortured one and that kind of defines us. It can be torturous trying to help him find the journey of what kind of music would work for him in his film. He usually gives me a very long leash in terms of what he’ll allow me to do. Some directors won’t let you do music that will seem to weird to them. It’s hard to write stuff that’s too weird for Tim.
What was the influence of composer Bernard Herman in your career and the impression that he made on you?
Bernard Herman is a composer that I discovered two different times in my life and was my big inspiration. When I was about 12 I saw The Day The Earth Stood Still and it was the first time I was aware of film music because up to that point I just assumed the music was just in there. Suddenly I was aware of the fact that the music wasn’t something that just came delivered with the film, somebody created it. And it moved me. I noticed his name and every time I saw Herman, I would know there would be something special. Then when I was 17 and 18, I started going to all the repertory houses and seeing all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies amongst everything else and suddenly, oh my God it’s Bernard Herman, the other side in Vertigo and Psycho, which I wasn’t allowed to see when it came out, and North by Northwest. These incredible scores and there he was again and all my new favorite movies were Hitchcock movies. The reason I became a fan of film music is because of Herman.
How did you treat the score when adapting the music for the remake of Psycho ?
I didn’t really do much of anything. I just tried to not touch it. All I did was make tiny little edits here and there. I didn’t want Bernard Herman’s ghost walking in the room because he was famously cranky. I just imagined him at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night going, ‘You asshole, what did you do to my great score?’ I handled the music as if it were like Holy Scripture.
What is your opinion on new programs that composers use, like orchestra programs, versus a full live orchestra?
There are a lot of scores out there that don’t use a live orchestra that sound really good. There’s nothing that says a score has to have orchestra, but I think if you’re going to use orchestra — a real orchestra sounds better than a sampled orchestra. There’s a lot of scores I’ve done where half of what I’ve laid down, before going to the orchestra, stays. Really only the strings, brass and woodwinds disappeared. Everything else I’ve already done myself. I like using my own samples of my own stuff, but I still can’t ever top real brass, strings and woodwinds. Even thought the sample libraries are getting better and I think they are suitable, you can’t get the nuances out of those instruments yet. Maybe someday they will, but for now I can still hear the difference between a sampled orchestral score. But those work best if the score is not orchestral. I’ve done scores and pieces where it was almost all samples because there was no money.
You were in a rock band for many years, at what point did you start thinking that film scoring would be something that you would be interested in doing? How did you transition away from being a rockstar?
I never thought about it. Being in a rock band was already my second career. I was in a theater group for eight years and that was my life. So suddenly I was in a rock band and then I hadn’t thought about scoring film until Tim Burton asked me to score Pee-Wee doing like a real score. I had done, with The Mystic Knights, the predecessor of Oingo Boingo, there were 12 of us and we did the score for my brother’s film Forbidden Zone. It’s just weird how one thing leads to another because Paul Reubens was a big fan of Forbidden Zone and Tim used to come see the band Oingo Boingo. So my name came up on their list, but for two different reasons.
When they called me in to meet for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I assumed they wanted songs. I just figured that’s why you would call someone like me, is to write songs and he said he wanted a score. I really did ask him outright, why me? He showed me the movie and I went and wrote up a demo on 8-track tape player and played all the parts and sent him a cassette tape. I didn’t think twice about it and I got a call about two weeks later, I’d been hired. I seriously for a night considered not taking the job. I called my manager at the time and I said, ‘I can’t do it,’ and he said, ‘why?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to fuck up their movie.’ My manager said, ‘I’ve been working on this for two weeks, you call them and tell them,’ and I thought about it and I just didn’t have the nerve to make the phone call, which is how I became a film composer.
What do you miss most about performing with Oingo Boingo?
The thing I miss most is being at the Whisky A Go Go, the clubs where it was real hot and sweaty. I think that’s what I really enjoyed the most about it. But I was never cut out to be a performer for the rest of my life because I couldn’t bear touring. I loved playing, but I hated touring because we had to play the same things every night. The repetition for me was a killer. I started to hate my own music after I did a song 50 times. I see bands like U2 or the Rolling Stones and I don’t know how they do it.
Was it intimidating for you to work on Standard Operating Procedure with the partnership of Errol Morris and Phillip Glass over the years?
Yes, it was intimidating because Phillip Glass has made such a humungous imprint, not only in Errol Morris films, but in documentaries. There almost can’t be documentary music without Phillip Glass so his music is perfect all the time. It lends itself to that medium so well. It was really hard starting and trying to neither avoid Phillip so much that I’m just doing the anti-Phillip score, but yet trying not to sound like knock off Phillip Glass. When you’re doing a documentary you are falling into a repetitive vibe and you have to create music that will go under narration, that will go on and repeat itself for long periods of time and at a certain point it’s hard to avoid that. I tried to find a balance. Phillip Glass is one of my favorite composers. There’s nobody alive right now that I have more admiration for. I also didn’t want to do anything that he would give me shit for or think that I was like ripping him off.