Danny Elfman: A Film Composer In Focus

Danny Elfman tells Classic FM about his working methods with film director Tim Burton.

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You know Hollywood composer Danny Elfman means business when he books out all three recording studios at London’s Abbey Road. In Studios 1 and 2, he’s been cooking up themes for Tim Burton’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Actress Jane Horrocks has joined him in Studio 3 to record songs for a black widow spider in Burton’s animation fantasy, Corpse Bride. Between times, he’s dipping into, Charlotte’s Web, an adaptation of EB White’s children’s book, starring Julia Roberts. “I’m working on two movies, back-to-back, with a talking spider!” exclaims Elfman. “What are the chances of that?”

In fact, the chances of Elfman spinning eight-legged themes for two films in quick succession aren’t actually that slim. As Burton’s long-term collaborator, he’s developed an insatiable appetite for the gothic and burlesque, resurrecting a clutch of weird and wonderful creatures of the night, such as Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands.

Willy Wonka is the latest addition to the Burton-Elfman portfolio of social misfits, lonely characters who live with the bittersweet taste of their own eccentricities. “I grew up on horror films, monsters and dark humour,” admits Elfman, when Classic FM phones him at Abbey Road. “I’m a fan of odd things.”

For those who missed the book, and the classic 1970s Gene Wilder film musical, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory tells the story of how Charlie Bucket (played by Freddie Highmore) is plucked from an impoverished family and thrust into the limelight when he becomes one of five children who win a golden invitation to tour Willy Wonka’s (Johnny Depp) world-famous chocolate empire. Inside the gates of Wonka’s wacky factory, his rotund little helpers – the Oompa Loompas – expel anyone who can’t resist the temptation to eat what they see.

“But it’s not like the original film because [in this version] Charlie and Willy never sing,” explains Elfman. “It’s driven by the book in which you only hear the Oompa Loompas’ chants.”

Cue Elfman’s songs and fairy-tale colourings with dark orchestral hues and choir. His style would be unique if it weren’t for the fact that he’s cast a spell across most of today’s screen composers and directors. In Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, he had to plug his ears and ignore the quirky themes from his previous films, such as Edward Scissorhands, that were initially “temped" with the film so that Burton could get a feel for its atmosphere during the early stages of production.

“But every time my music got too magical or quirky it turned the film in a direction Burton hated,” reveals Elfman. “He wants Willy Wonka’s world to feel mysterious and dark, until we get to know him.”

“It’s always best to approach each new film with nothing in mind, because anything I think beforehand is ultimately going to slow me down,” he explains.

“Even so, there’s a point with every film score when I really feel like I’m going to kill myself and if I don’t I’m going to take a shotgun and go out on a killing spree.”

Thankfully, Elfman has passed this point peacefully on Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Now he just has two talking spiders to contend with.