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JB: Next up on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic we are very pleased to welcome Danny Elfman to the studio. Hello, Danny.
JB: How are you?
DE: I'm almost awake.
JB: Nursing a cup of coffee, here
JB: It's great to have you, a pleasure to meet you. And, well, Milk, my friend.
DE: Thank you, Thanks for having me…
JB: What drew you to this project initially? The film Milk, which seems to be getting accolades, and is nominated for an Oscar in a number of categories. I know you have worked with the director, Gus Van Sant previously, but what was it about this film?
DE: Well what drew me to it was simply getting a phone call from Gus saying, ‘I'm doing Milk, you interested?’ ‘Yeah I'll do it.’ ‘Okay great.’ ‘Okay bye.’
That's about the length of the actual interaction that got me into the movie Milk. And of course from there it expanded and became a bit more complicated. Gus had actually told me about Milk probably 10 years ago. It's something that he's talked about now and then, something on his backburner. And so, for him to call and go – ‘Remember Milk? ‘Yeah.’ ‘I'm making it.’ ‘Good.’ ‘Cool.’
But, you know, I was just glad he thought of me. You know, obviously, he got green lit. He had many choices and directions to go. And Gus is the type of guy who'll have an idea, musically, of what he wants for different films and sometimes that might involve me or sometimes it might involve completely different kind of music or pre-recorded music or certain artist's music. I was just really pleased he thought, oh this is just another chance for us to work together and I love working for Gus, so it's just an automatic yes.
JB: Gus strikes me as the type of director who is very keen, very sensitive to music.
DE: And he likes to play with it a lot. He likes to play with stuff. So, getting into any project with Gus means I'm going to go in a lot of different directions and mess around with a lot of different ideas. With another director that can be very frustrating. Trying to hone in on ‘What do you want for this movie?’ With Gus it's more of a process of fun experimentation.
I remember the second time he called me he said ‘Well I have a rough cut’ -- I didn't even know he started shooting. I said 'Wow that was fast' but I have no sense of time because I am like a dog, living in a dungeon. It obviously was months later, but it felt like it was barely four weeks later. I said, ‘You've already finished?’ ‘Yeah, you want to see it?’ ‘Yeah sure.’
There was no clear direction on how to begin. But I didn't really care. I just dived in and started doing music. For example, in the beginning, because Harvey listened to a lot of opera, I started in a direction of playing very operatic music, feeling a score that might link to opera. And, as often happens with music, there's certain ideas that conceptually are interesting, but when you listen to it…so I actually wrote about 20 minutes of music that none of it's in the movie. We listened to it and said ‘nah.'
JB: It didn't necessarily call for a big score.
DE: No, no. Hence giving the operatic quality to the score, in a way, actually made it more melodramatic. But there was no way to know that without doing it. It was kind of like an experiment. Then there was this one piece that I wrote for this one scene and he said, ‘I like that. That feels like momentum, moving forward. What if we try that here?’ And then I started elaborating on that, and I took this idea that was for one little bit and I started elaborating on that and doing all kinds of variations on it. Now there was this ‘Oh I like that’ let's try it here and here. Now a new shape was starting to form, it's all a road, a process.
I did know, the only thing I knew getting in was, that I had to stay out of the way. Literally, that was my only… how do I put this… I don't do research going into a movie. I think the least I know the better. I like to forget that I've even read the script even though I do read the script because the more prepared I am in the beginning, the more it sends me down a specific direction which may not be the right direction. I've got to dislodge myself, and the more blank I can be starting out, the better it serves me. So I started with a real blank slate other than -- don't mess this up. Except I didn't use the word mess, but we're live on the air. But, you understand. It's already really solid just don't screw it up.
JB- I have a cue ready to play from the score. And you can tell me if this indeed what you like. I just cued up Harvey's Theme 1 which is kind of the opening of the score. But I can go to any track if you'd prefer.
DE- Whatever you'd like.
JB- Ok, lets listen to that. It is the score for Milk. Danny Elfman is my guest on KCRW.
Harvey’s Theme plays
JB- That's Harvey's theme from the score for Milk. Danny Elfman is my guest in the studio. It's amazing how timely this movie was upon release because of the furor around Proposition 8. It was so relevant when it hit and I don't suppose you knew that going in. I don't know how early you were working on it. How did you represent that musically? Or did you go kind of for the social relevance of it. You could possibly hear it in that cue - his theme. There's a certain elegance or kind of responsibility in the music. I don't know if that's true to any extent but you can tell me.
DE- Well, I mean yeah it wasn't intentional because nothing that I do is ever intentional when I am writing. I could pretend that, yeah I set out for this and, you know, like a target and zoomed in on it, but my process is infinitely more vague and muddy than that. But that is what came out of it. There was a sense of this theme. At first I thought, I remember telling Gus, I said ‘I don’t know, I really like it, but it feels very Americana and it is not at all what I imagined..’ And then I started to think about it and I said ‘why do I keep coming back to this?’ And I go, well, there is a somber responsibility.
And to me, Harvey had become an American hero. I said there is nothing wrong with just playing him, like a simple American hero. Look at, what is the story really? It is not really about politics -- the heart of the story is about somebody finding themselves late in life with a cause that's bigger than themselves, that becomes – defines -- them, and that they themselves become a symbol to others for something greater that they couldn’t have imagined years earlier. Getting caught up in something that is bigger than oneself and taking on the responsibility and becoming a leader. That is an American story and the fact that the politics are involved in it, you know you can't really convey that musically. There was a point, where we talked that maybe the score should be 70's influenced to convey the time and that would have been another direction to go, but its just not the direction we elected to take. We decided it would be better to go internally, play Harvey's character not the time, not the place.
Besides, songs will much better convey the time and the place. You can't convey the time and the place better than the songs of the period, so why try to compete with that. The songs are playing the time and the place, the score should play internally what is Harvey, what is his character, what is the trajectory of his life that we're covering here.
Did that make any sense at all? I don’t even think it did to me.
JB - Absolutely. No, it was beautiful. Milk is on the life of Harvey Milk, his life, his struggle and untimely death. Harvey Milk, gay activist and the first openly gay elected official in California. Do you have a memory, a personal memory of these events in the 70's?
DE – Well, yeah. But like many people from Southern California and, especially someone who is a heterosexual in Southern California, I was aware of him and I was aware of his importance, but not as much had I been part of the movement which I can’t pretend I was, other than when he was assassinated I became acutely aware of him and what had happened and the importance of it. So, I think for a lot of people who are somewhat politically aware, but are not political activists, which would have to be me in that period -- still trying to figure out what the hell I was trying to do and obsessed with my own desperate struggle for survival. And when he was killed I became ‘oh man..’ and then becoming much more aware of who he was and what he had done. I didn’t live in San Francisco, but that doesn’t really matter later, when you're scoring a moving you're scoring that story. I never read a Spiderman comic either and it didn’t affect my ability to score that movie. So having back knowledge of stuff is a good and sometimes a bad thing. I remember the assassination really clearly, Moscone, and being really shocked by it. I knew who Dan White was and I followed a bit of the so-called Twinkie defense. So, I was aware of it, but I can’t pretend to say that I was part of the while it was happening.
JB - If you would choose another cue for us, I would like to go back to the soundtrack. Just give me a number, I'll pass this over to you and I'll remind people that we will have tickets for the film, run of engagement passes, as well as five autographed copies of the “Milk” soundtrack. Danny Elfman is my guest on MBE, you got one for us?
DE - Oh dear, Give Them Hope, Number 24.
JB - Okay, it is the Academy Award nominated score for “Milk” on KCRW.
Give Them Hope plays
JB - It is the Oscar-nominated score for Milk, composer Danny Elfman, my guest in the studio on Morning Becomes Eclectic. It's great to have you here.
DE - Thanks
JB - I always admired, what seemed to me, like two distinct chapters of your career -- almost 20 years in Oingo Boingo and then 20 plus years now as an established and celebrated film composer, but what I came to realize just doing some research last night before meeting you, is that it really feels like more of one brilliant continuum, really. It’s not so much chapter one, chapter two -- but this kind of happy accident that just keeps happening. Anyways, its certainly admirable that you have had these two notable moments.
DE- Thank you, it is like chapters -- and its actually 3 chapters in my mind. I had three separate lives. One of them was eight years of doing musical theater, which most people don’t know about because it was at a street level. Without that, I would not have become a film composer. There was a 12-piece Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, which was pre Oingo Boingo even though we stole the name later for the band. It wasn’t a band. There were no electronic instruments, but that’s where I taught myself to write and transcribe music. We did a lot of early jazz, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Django Reinhardt.
JB- This was like a street cabaret?
DE- Street Cabaret. And then it became indoor multi-media and we played up in San Francisco and LA. So that was very much a chapter of my life, because that’s where I got into music. I wasn’t sure at that point if I wanted to do music or theatre and then it became musical theatre. But then suddenly one day I hear ska music from England, in 1978 or something. And I go, I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to be in a band . I don’t want to do any more sets -- cause at that point we had 12 sets, 9 costume changes and there was make up and multi-media and it became so cumbersome.
And suddenly I became obsessed with the idea of a band with nothing but guitar and amps. Wow. Wouldn’t that be cool if everything we have in one van? And I started a band and that began a whole separate chapter and that had no overlap with the first. Virtually none. And with the Mystic Knights, I started to write my own compositions but there was no written piece that I had performed that was written before 1936 I think, somewhere between 1936 and 1939 was my cut off. I didn’t even listen to music recorded after the ‘30s and suddenly I was in a rock band. And that obviously wasa separate chapter. Then when the film composing thing came up, out to the blue, a happy accident as you said, when Tim Burton asked me to do Pee Wee's Big Adventure, I decided to jump in. Fortunately I almost didn’t. But had I not done that 8 years of musical theatre, I would not have done it. I would not have attempted it. It was those 8 years of writing notes on paper myself that allowed me to do the later things. When I started a band, I thought wow I wasted 8 years of my life. Oh well, too bad. Now hear I'm an old man at 28 and I'm starting a band and everyone else is 18. Nothing I can do about it. And then suddenly, 5 years later – 5/6 years -- I'm a film composer but I could not have done that had it not been for those first 8 years.
JB- It seems like nothing went to waste.
DE- In the big picture, but at the time I felt like I really screwed up and gotten a late start. I was desperately like ‘What am I doing?’ and then it all kind of made sense later. I could not have done Pee Wee with out getting at the piano and remembering how did I write Oingo Boingo concerto Number 11/2. It was the first time I wrote a really ambitious five-minute composition for as number of parts, kind of inspired by Stravinsky and it was that really ambitious piece that gave me the only and tiny shred of confidence that I had to approach a film score.
JB- And, of course, there is the thread of the theatrical and cabaret aspect that continues through Oingo Boingo and kind of leads you inevitably to film. So its funny there are these continuous threads through your life, and even growing up in Los Angeles and bring a fan of cinema from a very early age.
DE- Oh absolutely, yeah. In fact I grew up on a movie theatre in Baldwin Hills here in Los Angeles and I think I spent every weekend of my conscious childhood that I could remember in a movie theatre and that also became huge, obviously, in a way I didn’t know. I was watching and listening to movies, two of them, every weekend. And it was a great time to be into movies as a kid because your local theater had two movies every weekend – two different movies. It’s a concept my own children can’t even fathom – you know, now a theater plays a movie for several months, and you have the “multiplex”, and there are certain things that are playing in a certain way. But the idea of just going to a theater and there’ll be two different movies every single Saturday. And we didn’t need any parents – nobody dropped us off there, we all just walked. It was incredible. It looked like “Children of the Damned” on Saturday – it was like, all these boys, walking from every direction, almost no girls. It was really weird, probably because it was all horror and science fiction. I mean, I would say the theater played almost exclusively science fiction/fantasy and horror because that’s what drew these boys in great numbers, and it was like – all these boys coming from all directions and gathering in the theater and forming this kind of rowdy mass and then the movie starts and they kind of hush down. Except occasionally you get a little noisy, and the usher would come shine a light on you and you’d shut up.
That was our temple – that’s where we worshipped. There were girls every now and then, but it was this weird kind of world of boys and horror and monsters, and the more gruesome the better, and occasionally a comedy or something. And every now and then there’d be a Disney movie and we would boycott. Nothing against Disney, I worked for them, I love them, but we were of a certain specific ilk – it had to have something, if not a monster, a mutant, if not a mutant, then some sort of fantastic Viking battle action in order to get us in there and hold our attention.
JB- Do you remember the first time you were in a theater when your own music was scored to a film, and that sensation?
DE- That was incredibly weird. I had done some music with The Mystic Knights – the theater group for my brother, for a film called “Forbidden Zone,” which was like a weird cult film, which is still around now. And that was fun, it was interesting, but it was like a family project. It was like my film for my music with a band, not for an orchestra – and it was my brother’s film and it was really fun, it felt like a home project. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure -- actually going to an opening at Mann’s Chinese, and hearing my music played by an orchestra, was truly otherworldly. I felt like – that – not to mention, hearing the orchestra in the recording session playing my music for the first time was extraordinary, I just couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe anything could sound that big. And now, by comparison, that was a really small orchestra – it was a 60 piece band, which I consider to be almost a 2/3 to half-size orchestra. But for that point, it sounded incredible, I couldn’t believe it. It was also like an injection of a really, really addictive drug, because I came out of there going, ‘I definitely want more of this.’
JB- Danny Elfman is my guest on KCRW. From the first film, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” with Tim Burton, you went on to do many, many films with Tim Burton. Arianna made a thoughtful comment by saying that you are to Tim Burton what Nino Rotta is to Fellini – an inextricable part of the film.
DE- Well, I don’t know if that’s true, but thank you for the sentiment. I love doing Tim’s movies and, what can I say, it’s like I’m very at-ease in his world. The first time we met, we had a lot in common, we grew up on the same kind of movies. Peter Lorrie was my idol, and Vincent Price was his idol, and we both had a lot of Roger Korman and Hammer in our backgrounds and so we kind of had a lot in common.
JB- You’re currently working on Tim Burton’s latest, which is “Alice in Wonderland” – not out until 2010, but can you give us any advance info, or is that still all top secret?
DE- Well, I don’t really know anything, because –
JB- Is Johnny Depp Alice?
DE- (laughs) The mad hatter.
JB- Oh, OK (laughs)
DE- But it’s the first time I’ve visited Tim’s set and had come away with no clue what was going on, because I’ve been on pretty much all of his sets at some point, and they’ve always been really fun sets to be on, as you can imagine. But here it was a green screen, because this is motion capture, and he was like ‘I’m really sorry, I know it’s not leaving you with much,’ except for some fantastic drawings that he did, which are always great to look at and see. But I know as little as you do!