Danny Elfman tells us how to compose scary-sounding music

22 December 2015, 10:54 | Updated: 22 December 2015, 12:12

We caught up with the legendary film composer at a rehearsal for a live-scored screening of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, where a brand-new Elfman piece was debuted.

You’ve just been rehearsing some new music for the end of Alice In Wonderland: have you heard it played by an orchestra before?
That was the first time it was ever played. I only wrote it a couple of weeks ago.

So how did it feel to hear it?
Good, really good. Nothing like hearing a good orchestra playing your piece for the first time.

Do you automatically scrutinise the orchestra when they’re playing your work?
When it’s the first time, you have to. You’re listening for little things that sneak in, even typos. First time anything’s played, even if it’s the first time played with an orchestra of a piece that has been played before, you still listen very closely.

New music fom Danny Elfman!

This afternoon, we heard some BRAND NEW music from Danny Elfman! We eavesdropped on a rehearsal for tomorrow's live-scored screening of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland at the Royal Albert Hall, and Danny Elfman himself was there to see it happen. Fancy a listen? More about the incredible show here: http://classfm.co/rLPzfc

Posted by Classic FM on Friday, 11 December 2015


Danny Elfman on the three notes that pay for his health insurance

Alice in Wonderland is a relatively young score – it’s only five or six years old – why do you think it’s had such a big impact, and is at the point where it can be played live by an orchestra in a concert?
I don’t know, I was surprised for that very reason. Usually it’s after two or three. But I can’t ever answer why anybody wants to play anything, I’m just glad when somebody wants to play some of my music.

People often say that you have a particular sound, films like Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas. What is it about those classic Elfman scores that makes people say ‘Ah, that’s a Danny Elfman score?’
I don’t know, I’m probably the worst one to ask. I’ve been told that, but I couldn’t tell you what I do, because it’s what I do. It’s almost like describing “Why do you look the way you do… I don’t know… my genetics?”

So you’ve got a big year coming up. Goosebumps, which obviously is already done, the new Tim Burton film-
I’m not doing that [Mrs Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children].

Well, our research is obviously terrible.
It’s probably unknown, but no. Still coming up this year, Tulip Fever will follow Goosebumps.

And we’ve also got the sequel to Alice in Wonderland as well.
That’s what I’m a little past the middle of. I kinda snuck out, but since it’s all in the family I kinda snuck away from ‘Alice’ to do ‘Alice’, and I didn’t feel too guilty.

How much of the material from the first one is going to influence the second?
Well, definitely thematically all the themes are there, plus a new theme for a new character, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. He got the new theme.

When you’re writing something like that, a theme for a new character like that, how do you go about it?
There’s no technique about how one approaches it. You look at the entire tone of a score and you go ‘How can I fit this character in?’. Give them something that’s kind of his own thing. So in this particular case, ‘Alice’ has already so many thematic ideas, I needed to give him something that sounded different. It’s not like just a seventh melody out of six others. It was kind of tricky, but I just knew that whatever it was, it had to find its own identity, not to just get absorbed, because “Alice’ is a pretty thematic score, melodically it keeps cycling between different themes and it’s like ‘uh-oh, gotta put another one in, gotta make it stand out.

In a purely practical sense, how do you go about making a score sound scary? What musical tools do you have in your arsenal?
Well, there’s many, many ways to make something sound scary. The classic, traditional way is low strings - since the 20th century they’ve been used to convey ‘spooky’, but there’s many sounds one can use if it really is a scary movie. I’d be looking for strange sounds. In ‘Alice in Wonderland’, there’s nothing actually scary for real, it’s all fantasy, so for the weirder side I try to use an influence, actually kind of a George Martin thing with the strings, so slightly conveyed a bit of a psychedelic thing, so he’s influenced some orchestration with some of the early Beatles tunes. ‘I am the Walrus’ comes to mind, and a couple of the others. I took a little bit of that feel to convey the weirder side of the ‘Alice’ score. It’s not so much that it’s scary, it just gets weird.

The new piece you rehearsed today sounded a bit like the choral parts of ELO’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. You’ve got a grounding in pop and songs to an extent, haven’t you?
Well, less than you’d think. I have real specific eras that I tuned in and tuned out. So as a kid I grew up on The Beatles, but then I dropped out for over a decade. I wouldn’t listen to anything recorded after 1938. I was really in my own head living in Harlem, 1931, and then all of sudden all this stuff’s been happening in the last decade. ‘Who’s this David Bowie?’ and that kind of stuff.

Since then I dropped in and out. I’ll pop in and get the new favourite band. But I’m amazingly not connected to that world, even though I supposedly did that for a long time [Elfman was a member of Oingo Boingo]. People don’t believe me when they’re playing a song and I’m going ‘I don’t know what that is’ – ‘of course you know what that is’ – ‘I really don’t know what that is!’ As an adult, sometimes when I was done writing at the end of the night, sometimes I’d tune in late night FM radio for an hour to clear my head and I’d inadvertently discover bands and suddenly it’s like, ‘Radiohead, who is this? I’ve gotta learn more about them.’ In terms of pop music in general, I’m clueless.

Why do you think you, as you say, dropped out for a decade?
I was a street musician and I was working with kind of a musical, theatrical troupe, and we did a lot of music from that era. The first music I ever learned to write down was Duke Ellington music that was written probably in 1933, so it was just kind of an obsessive infatuation with things of that period.

When you’re writing, do you still work in that same way? Do you notate much at the computer, or is it by hand?
Now it’s all computer. In hindsight, I’m not sorry that for my first ten years writing we didn’t have that luxury, because I did work 18 hours a day. I’m glad I don’t quite have to do that seven days a week anymore, but it was still really good experience having to scribble it all down in pencil.
Geek question: your score for ‘Mars Attacks!’ is brilliant. Properly intimidating and scary, tons of theremin, but basically for a really silly film about an alien invasion. What are your memories of writing that score?
That was one that was real simple. Some movies with Tim [Burton] are a little more roundabout to figure out how to get to it. The first time I saw the film there was what they call an animatic of the opening sequence. It’s not finished animation, it’s a primitive animation, but the feel of it was there with the first few spaceships, and then more and more and more spaceships, and I actually heard the opening title music in my head right while it was playing. I had to stop the screening and go out and make a bunch of notes and then go back in because I didn’t want to forget it. But it’s one of the few times that anything like that happened that easily. It was like ‘Oh my God, I hear this, it’s happening!’

Any of your other scores where that’s happened?
Not many. The two things that most come to mind in that regard would be the theme to The Simpsons. I wrote it in the car on the way home from meeting the creator Matt Groening, and by the time I got home it was all done in my head. But having done something like 90 or 95 scores, it’s happened precious few times quite that simply. I don’t know when I’ll hit 100 scores, I have to go on IMDB and do some kind of count.