Danny Elfman Brings Music From Tim Burton’s Films to Lincoln Center


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Danny Elfman at Avery Fisher Hall.

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Damon Winter/The New York Times

“I’M a mole,” Danny Elfman said, putting on a pair of shaded glasses as he sat in a bright restaurant at Lincoln Center recently. Mr. Elfman, the versatile composer who has scored nearly 100 movies, ranging from “Good Will Hunting” to “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” as well as writing the enduring theme to “The Simpsons,” was talking about his proclivity for the nighttime. “I lived at the beach for five years, and they called me Nosferatu on the Beach,” he said. “As soon as the sun got big and red and was going down, I would come out.” He works nocturnally, too, moving among three studios he owns around Los Angeles, soundtracking into the wee hours.

Mr. Elfman’s penchant for darkness also comes through in his career-long collaboration with the director Tim Burton, who brought him his first feature to score, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” and followed it with “Beetlejuice,” two “Batman” films, “Edward Scissorhands” and “Big Fish” (which earned Mr. Elfman an Oscar nomination), among others. A concert of the music from their movies begins performances on Monday at Avery Fisher Hall, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. For the program, Mr. Elfman reorchestrated 15 suites (which will be conducted by the Grammy winner John Mauceri), and he sings the part of Jack Skellington, the depressed hero of “Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas.”

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Self-taught, Danny Elfman started as a street performer.

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Damon Winter/The New York Times

As he’s gained acclaim as a composer, Mr. Elfman has branched out, scoring a ballet for Twyla Tharp, creating a concerto for Carnegie Hall and composing for a Cirque du Soleil show and several rides at Disneyland in Asia. A self-taught musician, he started out as a street performer and fire breather with an avant-garde theater troupe. True Elfmaniacs know him as the frontman for the ’80s new-wave band Oingo Boingo. (You may remember the group from such hits as “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science.”) He’s hardly sung publicly since. “I’m terrified of audiences,” he said.

An invitation to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in London a few years ago led to the creation of the Burton suites and helped him get over his stage fright — sort of. “It was really like being out there without a net, on a high wire,” he said. But as his wife, the actress Bridget Fonda, reminded him, you don’t get the thrill “unless there’s no net,” he said. The production has since played to sold-out crowds at the Hollywood Bowl and the Kennedy Center, with concertgoers dressing up as their favorite Tim Burton characters.

Mr. Elfman, 62, who lives with Ms. Fonda and their 10-year-old son in Los Angeles (he also has two adult children from a previous relationship), spoke about his collaboration with Mr. Burton, being a contented workaholic and how much money he’s made off “The Simpsons.” These are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. Was doing an orchestral show your idea?

A. No. I never come up with things outside of composing. It started probably four years ago. We did this 25th-anniversary boxed set of Elfman/Burton music, and it forced me to go back, and listen, and edit, and put together all 15 scores I’d done with Tim. Otherwise, I never listen to anything I’ve ever done. If it happens to come on cable, I might watch for five minutes. All I can hear is, I could’ve done that better.

Q. Once you accepted the commission from Albert Hall, what was that first show like?

A. One of the scariest nights in my life. I remember sitting there backstage, and Helena Bonham Carter was there, fortunately. She was going to do “Sally’s Song” from “Nightmare Before Christmas,” and she says, “I know what you’re thinking.” I’m thinking: “Head out that exit; don’t come back.” And she goes, “Just [expletive] it, you know?” Oh, yeah, you’re right. [Expletive] it. Walked out there, and I had the best time.

Q. Is that an attitude you’ve always had?

A. My whole career was based on that. I always thrived on negative energy. When I did my first commission for Carnegie, a 45-minute concerto, I made the mistake of visiting Carnegie Hall, and there’s manuscripts of, like, the real guys. There’s Shostakovich. There’s Stravinsky. It was paralyzing for me. Like, I’m a kindergartner in the playground with the big boys — I don’t belong here. And I sat for weeks at home unable to do anything until I finally got it in my thick skull, like, [expletive] you, you know? [Expletive] you, Shostakovich, and [expletive] you, Stravinsky. And I could almost feel them going: “Yeah, that’s right. That’s what you need to do.” And then I was able to go. I felt released.

Q. Do you read music?

A. Orally. I learned to write without ever having learned to read. The first 25 scores, I had to write every note with pencil, because we didn’t have computer help, which I’m grateful for. It was actually really good training. The nine films preceding “Batman” didn’t prepare me for “Batman,” but it gave me the confidence to move forward. Of course, I also used to work 16 hours a day instead of my lazy 12 that I do now.

Q. Do you consider yourself a workaholic?

A. I guess. I have to do a couple of legitimate films just to stay alive, to actually get a paycheck. Then I love doing little films. So every year, I do films for a dollar. Literally, a dollar. The last one I did was “The End of the Tour.” It’s about David Foster Wallace. And I also am trying to do concert work. You know, for 10 years, I was in a band and composing. No matter which I was doing, I loved doing the other thing. A real classic Gemini, I suppose.

Q. When you work on a film, do you start with the script?

A. Sometimes. What I imagine from the script is never what’s on the screen. So much of the music comes from the tone, and that tone is a combination of the cinematography, the editing and the performances. [The script] doesn’t tell you what the feel is going to be.

When I see a rough cut, what I picture is the opening scene of “Poltergeist.” It’s just the television screen with the static. That’s what I want my brain like, just static. Nothing. White noise.

Q. Why do you think you and Tim get along so well?

A. Our aesthetic has always been from a similar place. We grew up on the same stuff: Southern California, horror. I spent every weekend of my childhood at a movie theater, and church for me was the Baldwin Hills Theater in Los Angeles. I saw every horror film, every fantasy, sci-fi film made — from all over the world, too, because that’s how they did it back then. I was seeing Mario Bava films from Italy. So when I met Tim, his idol was Vincent Price. Mine was Peter Lorre. It helped kind of define our relationship a bit, because Peter Lorre was perpetually the tortured one, and Vincent Price was a little bit more the evil mastermind.

Q. Do you talk much about each project, or do you have a shorthand?

A. He doesn’t like to talk about it a lot. Some directors really want you to talk through the psychology, the back stories. Tim isn’t like that. He’s just like, here it is. There’s nothing to talk about until I have music to play, and then he’ll be very opinionated. Film composing, half of what we do is composing; half is navigating the rocky, tumultuous water of a director’s psyche and those around them, especially if the film is odd or if it’s previewing with difficulty.

Q. Does inspiration ever strike quickly?

A. Rarely. “Simpsons” was like a one-day thing in my life that paid off. I heard it in my head driving home, ran down to my studio, recorded the whole thing and sent it to them.

Q. And now it’s probably what you’re most recognized for.

A. For better or for worse. If I died right now, that’s what they’ll put on my tombstone.

Q. Do you make money every time it plays?

A. I guess. Ironically, the thing that really paid off with that is singing those three syllables, “The Simpsons.” I made a lot of money off of that. Kept me in health insurance for the next 30 years.

Q. What do you listen to when you’re not composing?

A. At the end of the evening, I want to listen to stuff that’s not orchestral and that’s going to clear my head. Radiohead, Cat Power, Sparklehorse, a half dozen others have the best chances of doing that for me, taking me down to another place. Otherwise, I’ll keep working on it all night long in my dreams, and I’ll never stop.



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