Danny Elfman on Scoring ‘Justice League,’ Working With Joss Whedon & Gus Van Sant

On Friday (Sept. 27), Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman will receive the Max Steiner Film Music Achievement Award at the 10th annual Hollywood in Vienna festival. 

The honor, which is named after the Viennese composer of such films as King Kong, Casablanca and Gone With the Wind, will be presented during an evening of Elfman’s music, performed by the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna and conducted by Maestro John Mauceri. Past awardees include Alexandre Desplat, James Newton Howard, Randy Newman, Lalo Schifrin and John Barry. 



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Hollywood in Vienna’s 10th anniversary comes at a time when  the recording of film music is undergoing a resurgence in Vienna via Synchron Stage, an old scoring stage that was given a $12 million facelift and re-opened last year after years of dormancy. Home to one of the biggest scoring stages in Europe (it can hold a 130-piece orchestra), among the composers who have utilized its services recently are Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams and Rupert Gregson-Williams.


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The Vienna concert kicks off a big weekend for Elfman, whose first violin concerto, written for violinist Sandy Cameron, will be performed in Hamburg at the Elbphiharmonie on Sept. 30. Then Dec. 6-7, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas Live In Concert, with music by Elfman, will make its debut in New York at the Barclay’s Center. As he has in other cities, Elfman will recreate the role of Jack Skellington, alongside other cast members.

Billboard talked to Burton’s longtime collaborator about receiving the Steiner award, his return to the DC Comics universe with Justice League, which opens Nov. 17, and other projects.  

You’re receiving the Max Steiner Award Friday. What effect did his work have on your composing? 

He’s the godfather of film composition. There had been groups and orchestras that played with silent movies, but it was all accompaniment. [He was] the first person to create a narrative synchronized score that ran with a movie, with [1933’s] King Kong. That was a groundbreaking moment because no one had thought of that— telling the story synchronized to the picture with music. That set the tradition of music story telling along with the film. 

[With] King Kong, he establishes these motifs. He did things I find myself doing today with rhythmic figures, of how Kong moved and comes alive, and the pace and the pulse quickening as it does. That’s what scoring is all about. 

You’ve just been in London recording the score for Justice League. It’s been 28 years since you scored Batman. What was it like going back into the DC universe? 

It was great. It was like I never left because I’m using the same thematic material that I used back then. It never actually went away [Laughs.] It just was great fun.

There are a few little fan moments. I instated a moment of the Wonder Woman theme that Hans Zimmer did for Batman Vs. Superman, but I also had two minutes where I had the pleasure of saying, “Let’s do John Williams’ Superman.” and that for me was heaven, because now I have a melody to twist, and I’m using it in an actually very dark way, in a dark moment. It’s the kind of thing that some fans will notice. Some won’t. It’s a moment where we’re really not sure whose side he’s on. 

The people at DC are starting to understand we’ve got these iconic bits from our past and that’s part of us, that’s part of our heritage — we shouldn’t run away from that. Contemporary thinking is, every time they reboot something, you have to start completely from scratch — which, of course, audiences will tell us again and again, is bullshit. Because the single-most surviving and loved theme in the world is Star Wars, which they had the good sense to not dump for the reboots. And every time it comes back, the audience goes crazy. 


Did you write new themes for such characters as Flash and Aquaman? 

I created very simple motifs. There are so many themes, you can’t just do a big theme for everything. So i created a motif for Flash, for Aquaman and Cyborg — but they’re very simple things, and [DC] understood. I said, “These things may never be used again, but I’m giving you all the components, should you wish to have things to build on.” So they either will or they won’t, but that’s how I approach a project like this. You have to take the attitude that this is the beginning of a mythology and it all matters, it all comes to fruition, and with any luck they will.

I loved the people I worked with, they were wonderful. The DC guys were great. I kept talking about the DNA of John Williams in this other theme — using the DNA of Batman in these other variations, which were not the Batman theme — but it all derives from that… Musical themes are like genes, you carry the DNA along and it creates these subtle connections which are perceived on an unconscious level. It’s funny because I’m terrible at puzzles, but I love musical puzzles. It’s a different part of my brain. 

Did you record at Abbey Road? 

Abbey Road and Air. On my god, we had nine days of 12-hour recording sessions using both studios. It was crazy. It’s funny, I’ve only worked with [director] Joss [Whedon] twice, but they’re both been insane situations. I was joking with him at the end, “It would be great to do something normal where we actually have a regular schedule instead of these hyper-reduced schedules.” On the other hand, i like challenges and I love Joss, so it was all good. 

Why do you love working with him?

It was the same as when I worked with him on Ultron. He appreciates melodies and pieces. He’s like, “Oh, you’ve given it identity here!” There was a moment where the Batmobile shoots out of a thing and he goes, “Go batshit crazy here! Batman the shit out of it!” When I’m using the Batman theme, I’m using the melodic sense of it, I’m wasn’t doing full-on Batman, and there’s a moment when he says, “No, right here, Full on!”

Are his musical instincts right? 

I think they’re great and he loves doing little things like that that are pure fan excitement: “Do John Williams here, Batman the shit out of this moment.” He knows how fans think. Give them these little things and let them enjoy it.

You also just finished Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, with Gus Van Sant. You’ve worked with him consistently since Good Will Hunting. I can’t imagine two more disparate films than your latest with him and Justice League.

It does not contrast more than Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a true story about a quadriplegic cartoonist in Portland, and Justice League. Insane contrast, which I love.

It was just the pleasure of Gus being really experimental and wanting to do all kinds of crazy things. He was picking up stuff of mine — there’s this little lullaby I wrote for my son when he was born called “Oliver’s Lullaby,” and he said, “we’re going to use that here and here.” He was just combining crazy stuff.  He was having crazy fun mixing up bits and pieces. Especially when he’s on a little film like this, Gus likes to be real off-the-center adventurous, do things that are crazy or sentimental, or the opposite of what it seems it would be at the moment ,and you go with it and just have fun.