Danny Elfman relies on blank mind and instinct to compose film scores

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

American film composer, singer, and songwriter Danny Elfman arrives at the world premiere of Netflix's “Wednesday” held at the Hollywood Legion Theater on November 16, 2022 in Los Angeles, California, United States. Photo by Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/NurPhoto.

Emmy and Grammy winner Danny Elfman is one of the most prolific composers of movies and TV scores of the past few decades. He’s created the music for “The Simpsons,” “Men in Black,” “Beetlejuice,” “Batman Returns,” and more. 

Elfman’s latest project is Netflix’s “Wednesday,” Burton’s fresh take on the daughter of the Addams family who is forced to attend a new school after getting kicked out of her old one. 

While the Netflix series is different from the original 1960s TV show, keen-eared audiences might pick out a familiar sound in its theme: the harpsichord. 

“It was very much intentional to pay homage to the harpsichord in the original ‘Addams Family’ television show. … [Burton] let me use just a bit of the vibe of the television show, and he didn't mind connecting it to the original.” 

Four decades of Elfman and Burton

Elfman and Burton have worked together for the last 38 years on nearly two dozen projects. It all started in 1985 on “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” which marked the first major film score Elfman produced. 

“I first got a call about meeting a young animator named Tim Burton. I had no idea who he was, but I knew who Pee Wee Herman was. Tim called me in for a meeting and we just hit it off. We both grew up on the same monster films. His idol was Vincent Price and mine was Peter Lorre. And so it defined our relationship for the next 38 years because Vincent Price was always torturing Peter Lorre,” Elfman explains. 

Their relationship hasn’t gone without bumps, however. While working on “Nightmare Before Christmas” — an intense period, where the two had been working for at least two years on the project — they had a massive falling out that lasted over a year. 

“It was terrible, and I felt bad about it. It was one of those things that go nuclear and then months later, you're sitting there regretting it. And we used to joke we'd end up like Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, who famously had this great relationship, but then had a falling out on one film and never spoke again for the rest of their lives. It was about a year and a half later, and Tim was doing ‘Mars Attacks!’”

He continues, “I got a call from a producer saying, ‘Would Danny ever agree to talk with Tim again?’ And I was on a plane the next day. We hugged and just said, ‘You know what, let's not even talk about it. Let's just hit reset.’ And we did. I'm just grateful that explosion was a few beats and not another 20 years.” 

The Simpsons’

Elfman’s relationship with animator and “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening stretches back to Elfman’s days with Oingo Boingo. At that time, Groening wrote reviews for the now-shuttered weekly newspaper The LA Reader. 

“He wrote a scathing review. I didn't mind getting a scathing review. I was used to that. I'm still used to that. But he admitted in the review that he only showed up for the encores. And I wrote him this really nasty letter back, which they published, to my surprise. First off, if you're going to review it, show up for the show.” 

The two ended up meeting later in their careers, where Groening showed Elfman early pencil sketches of what would become “The Simpsons.” The animator asked Elfman if he’d work on a theme. 

“I told him what I would do. I said, ‘I would do something really retro. Almost feels like it could be a theme from Hanna Barbera that never was,’  because the beginning of ‘The Simpsons’ reminded me a little bit of ‘The Flintstones.’ And Matt said, ‘Yeah, let's do it.’ And I wrote it that day. And we recorded it the next week. I mean, it was so simple.” 

The scoring process

The best way to score a project, as Elfman’s learned over the years, is to go in blind. It’s a lesson he learned on “Beetlejuice.” 

“I got the script to ‘Beetlejuice.’ I wrote three or four themes and ideas based on the script. As soon as I saw the first rough cut of the movie, I said, ‘None of that's going to work.’ It all got thrown out.” 

He adds, “When I see something for the first time, I try to go in with as blank a mind as I possibly can. Just empty of everything. Just white noise. Nothing. And then when I look at it, what do I hear in my head while I'm watching? I want to be open to what the feel of the movie is, not what I thought it was going to be.” 

Elfman chalks up his work to instinct. And as he watches screenings, he’ll take voice notes about each scene. He’ll even sing out some ideas. 

“I don't want to lose the train of thought because I really want those first impulses, and I don't want to lose them. So the first impulses, more than 50% of the time, will end up in the movie. Sometimes the very first idea, like that first thing I hear in my head, ends up in the movie.” 

Elfman uses the example of his work on “Mars Attacks!” — the theme he wrote was exactly the theme he heard in his head when he first watched the alien saucers attacking Earth. But he points out that in the 110 films he’s worked on, he’s only hit that musical jackpot about 10 times. 

To keep his music fresh, Elfman says he consciously moves between genres. 

“Inevitably, when you're a composer, you're going to have some repetition, motif, stylistically, rhythmically, something that goes on in your head frequently and you can't help it. I just try to make it so it's not too much like something [where] it's like, ‘Oh my God.’ That will make somebody groan and go, ‘This is exactly what he did for this other thing.’” 

He adds, “I do my best to try to not allow it to cripple me or make me crazy.”

Getting back on stage

Prior to his appearance at Coachella, Elfman returned to performing about a decade ago, playing Jack Skellington at live “Nightmare Before Christmas” shows. 

In 2019, after years of trying to persuade Elfman, his manager was finally able to get him to agree to do the desert-based festival.

“It was really the video screens that inspired me. Suddenly, I was thinking, ‘I can do a crazy show, and put some really wild visuals on there.’”

He adds, “I literally thought that I was going to be booed off the stage and that I'd created the trainwreck of my own design. And then, for whatever reason, it just kind of worked. And I was shocked because I didn't think it would. Playing ‘Pee Wee's Big Adventure’ next to ‘Sorry,’ one of the new ‘Big Mess’ songs, next to ‘Insanity’ or ‘Only a Lad’ from Oingo Boingo. None of these things made any sense … but for whatever reason, the audience seemed very warm to it.” 

Leaving Oingo Boingo, hearing loss, and the future

During his 17 years with Oingo Boingo and seven years with Mystic Knights, Elfman says he struggled with tinnitus and hearing loss — which pushed him to leave the band in the 90s. While he’s ascribed the damage to in-ear monitors in the past, Elfman also has a predisposition to the ailment.

“I knew that if I kept doing it the way I was doing it, I would be deaf before I was 50. Also, I have deafness in my family. My father was deaf by the time he was a little older than me. And so I had that always present in my mind. I had genetic deafness. And I was accelerating that deafness along hugely by being on this incredibly loud stage every night.” 

Even after all of these years as a performer, Elfman admits that he still also struggles with stage fright. It manifests itself as an intense fear that he can’t shake before a show, leading to never feeling like a natural performer. 

But in returning to the stage after so long, Elfman says he’s still got some gas left in the tank.

“Coming up for Coachella … I never expected to do this. But I found it was fun. It was a real strange, interesting experience to come back after so many decades, and never feeling that I needed to and yet there I was. And I really enjoyed it. And so I'll do a little more as long as I can. It's a really difficult show to perform live. I mean, we have 45 musicians on stage. I could not have made a more difficult show to take to a live stage with a full rock band with 45 musicians with this incredibly difficult setup. But I'm still game, so, what the hell?” 

Danny Elfman will be performing August 3 in Chula Vista and August 5 in Irvine.