“Centered?” Danny Elfman asks during a Monday afternoon phone call from Los Angeles. “What do you mean, ‘centered’?” We’re on the subject of the 18-hour-a-day, 20-day stretches the Grammy-winning composer typically logs when scoring a film– and as his perplexed, slightly peeved tone might suggest, attempting to stay centered has never been a priority during the process. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that way,” the 62 year old says. “Doing what I’ve done my whole life, I can look back now and go, ‘I’ve got some weird wiring in my brain,’ and whatever that weird wiring is, it’s worked for me.”
Though there are moments in Elfman’s scores that don’t stray from convention, it’s the left of center, avant garde and zany cues–the ones he says “directors would probably think were absolutely ridiculous” — that have established him as among the most beloved and identifiable contemporary film scorers of this era.
But to hear the red-haired composer connect the dots of his more than three-decade long career — from fronting ’80s rock band Oingo Boingo to scoring Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (his 101st film) this year — is to understand that it all hinged on a chance phone call from Tim Burton. “I remember being called in for a meeting about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” the California native recalls. “I wrote a song and just thought, ‘They’ll never ever keep this, it’s too ridiculous.’ But [because composing] wasn’t something I was ever aiming to do, I had the advantage of not caring if it got thrown out. It was an experiment to me … I just didn’t give a shit,” he says. “But I have no doubt that if I didn’t get that offer from Tim, I never would have started scoring films. I don’t know what I would have done, I imagine I would have become a career criminal.”
Pee-wee went on to be the first of more than a dozen films — Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands among the most iconic — that Elfman would score for Burton, whom he says is still “one of the most unpredictable people” he’s ever worked with. And those suites of music are the subject of the Music From the Films of Tim Burton concert series, which debuted at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2013 and will run at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall Monday night (July 6) through Sunday.
During the 87-piece orchestral performance, Elfman, who says he “never got over stage fright” and has “always been uncomfortable with being the center of anything,” will make a guest appearance to sing music from The Nightmare Before Christmas. “I agreed to sing and then one of the show’s producers called and I was like, ‘Oh my God, did I agree to that? Is it too late to get out of it?’ But I’m glad that I did it. I had never sung any of them live, ever.”
Having just finished recording the music for his latest movie, Tulip Fever, in London three days prior, Elfman gave Billboard the backstory on some of the career milestones that will be showcased at Lincoln Center.
Going back to Oingo Boingo, do you ever miss being on stage and performing with a band every night?
No. I know that sounds weird. I mean, I miss being in contact with the audience, but I don’t miss the regiment of having to get up there every night. There was an element of being in a band of performing that never really suited me well. I just am not one of those people that just naturally … loved to be in front of an audience. So it was kind of a real struggle every time; part of me loved to perform with my own material and loved the energy that can happen with an audience, but at the same time I’ve always been uncomfortable with being the center of anything, if that makes any sense. And believe it or not, between the Mystic Nights and Oingo Boingo, I never got over stage fright either. When I finally decided I’d had it, I just couldn’t be on those really, really loud stages anymore. It wasn’t hard; it wasn’t like I went through a lot of anguish over it. And I also had an extreme problem with repetition, like doing the same songs every night. I think there are people that are just wired for that. Like, the Rolling Stones. I admire that, the ability to get up there and do it. But if I’m even on tour for six weeks, I always start to go insane. It’s like six weeks of doing the same material, and I was just ready to jump out of a window. So I guess the bottom line is I really wasn’t well suited for that particular profession, but I can’t say that I don’t have incredible memories of being onstage in different moments in front of different audiences.
Was there anything you did tp help cope with stage fright?
I just had to accept it. I really didn’t want to start taking drugs and getting into that mode. I did and do, however, have a weird thing with lyrics. It’s almost like the more I know the lyrics, the more likely I am to blank out on them. I just walk in the blank spaces of just, like, nothing. It’s always a little terrifying. I could be in the middle of a song that I’ve sung hundreds of times and suddenly I just go blank. And weirdly, it was like the better I knew [the lyrics], the more likely it was to happen.
Which of Tim’s films have you most creatively contributed to? Which have you been most involved with?
I suppose in terms of the creative contribution overall, the biggest would be The Nightmare Before Christmas, because that’s the only one where [Tim and I] created it from the ground up, and I was involved with it for two and a half years rather than just three months.
Even after all of these years, have you ever left a spotting session and been nervous about fulfilling the needs of the director?
I would say, if I’ve scored 90-something films, then I’ve been nervous 90-something times. The only exceptions will be when I’m doing a sequel. When you’re doing a sequel, you feel like, “OK, I already know what the tone is. I’ve already established it, I’ve already been through the torturous process of figuring out what works for the director, what doesn’t work for them, what survived, what didn’t survive.” You put in so much of that hard labor of figuring it out that you kind of know, “Oh yeah, I got it, I know what I’m expected to do.”
What’s been the most challenging process to date?
The most challenging overall would have been Batman. I had never scored a big film. I’d never scored a dark film. I’d never scored a dramatic film, and I don’t think anybody except for Tim wanted me on the film. I think there was such a feeling of me not being the right guy– I really had to prove myself. [Batman] was also the most arduous process overall that I’ve ever been through. But then there are films where there’s no major torture session of proving anything, but re-scoring The Hulk for Ang Lee and The Avengers: Age of Ultron for Joss Whedon — those were incredibly challenging with just a lot of music in very few days.
How does the process of composing for Tim compare to composing for another director, like Ang Lee for example?
Every director is completely different. Their confidence, areas where they’re insecure, areas where they have strong opinions, areas where they have no opinions are all very, very different. To be a successful film composer, you really have to be able to get in people’s heads and figure them out. But Tim specifically, how are his films different? I would say, I maybe feel a little more pressure to deliver, more expectations perhaps. Not from him, but from almost an audience out there. People really expect me to come through, so I feel like I have to do a real bang-up job not to disappoint. But Tim is still very unpredictable for me. I can’t second-guess how he’s going to react to anything. Even after 16 times, it’s like I never know what to expect in terms of how he’s going to react. He’s one of the most unpredictable people I’ve worked with.
Has there ever been a film that you had to turn down because of scheduling or something that you wish you had been able to do?
Oh yeah, many. Everybody’s got that in their career — actors and composers are going to be the same that way. It’s like, you know, turning down an opportunity because you’re already committed to something and knowing that the thing that you’re being offered is probably better — it’s really one of the hardest things we have to deal with. Being married to an actress [Bridget Fonda], I know that it’s the same situation — to bail would be dishonorable. But seeing a ship go by that’s like a really… “Oh my God, that looks so appealing.” The possibility of [that] career opportunity and have to watch it sail by is really difficult, but I have dozens of dozens of times.
How did you write the theme song for The Simpsons?
It was as simple as getting a phone call to take a meeting with Matt Groening. He showed me a pencil-sketch version of what the opening [of the show] looked like, and I wrote [the theme] in my head on the way home in the car. I went down to the studio, sent them the demo on a cassette tape and the next day they said, “Yeah, that’s great!” It was one of those very, very rare things. It was like a one-time slam dunk. I never expected anybody to hear it and I never expected the show to last either. It was really, purely for fun.
Do your kids listen to music? Do you listen to some of the same artists?
My 10-year-old, he’s really into Minecraft, and so the music he tends to love is silly renditions of hit songs with Minecraft lyrics — Minecraft is not only his life, it’s his musical taste. You know, it’s not something I’m pleased about, but it is what it is. My tastes have no effect on him at all.
What do you listen to when you’re driving? Are there any contemporary artists you’re into?
I tend to listen to new material every five or six years, I go through five-year periods where I have no idea what’s out there, and then I’ll listen to some kind of DJ thing and I’ll go… “Oh, what’s that, what’s that?” Pandora will turn me onto stuff. It has sort of become my radio replacement. Sometimes I’m glad to see what’s playing, but I don’t consider myself anybody that keeps a pulse on anything. My world is so removed from the pop world and it always has been for as long as I can remember. Of course, I’d love to know if there’s a new Radiohead coming along that I can immerse myself in the same way that I have with them for the last decade or so. I’m sure that there are and there probably have been for a while and I’m sure I’ll discover them four, five, six, seven years late like I usually do and just get totally into them.