Film composer Danny Elfman never picked up an instrument until age 18, and he attributes his enormous success as a composer to his teenage friends who inspired him to do it. “My friends in high school were musical, and I was the non-musical member of this group of friends,” he said. “I still owe my career to the fact that I happened to hang out and get stoned with this particular group.”
Elfman, who has scored everything from Edward Scissorhands to The End of the Tour, appeared on one of the Los Angeles Film Festival’s popular Coffee Talks panels in June. The subject was film scoring. American Beauty composer Thomas Newman joined him on the panel.
“This is kind of a film composer geek wet dream, isn’t it?” moderator Doreen Ringer-Ross, Vice President of Film and TV at BMI, said before jumping into the conversation. The audience laughed heartily in agreement; between the two of them, Elfman and Newman are responsible for some of the most iconic film scores in recent memory.
While Elfman didn’t start making music until he was a teenager, he was hooked on movies as a little boy. He recalled walking to the movie theater every weekend as a kid, where he saw “monster movies and horror films, two of them every weekend”—mostly dubbed foreign imports. “That was my church,” he recalled. “That was where I worshipped.”
Elfman picked up violin, which he played as part of a musical troupe in Paris called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and one day he got a call from Tim Burton, a fan of Oingo Boingo, who wanted him to compose the score for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Elfman almost turned him down, but couldn’t bring himself to tell Burton no. “My career was based on that,” he said. “Not picking up the phone.”
Newman comes from a family of composers including his father Alfred, brother David, uncle Lionel and cousin Randy Newman. “For me it came late,” he admitted. “It was almost like, what else was I going to do?” But coming from such a dynasty, Newman said he has struggled with how to approach the work. “The more I tried to be like film composers, I felt slavish to the concept,” he said. “I always thought if I did [try to emulate my relatives] I’d be, like, a third-rate John Williams.”
Newman cited Charles Ives and Morton Feldman as major inspirations. Elfman said he is inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s work. “I started noticing there was just something extra,” he said. “There was a personality… Of course, we grew up in an era when you could actually hear the music when you were watching a movie.”
The panelists agreed that the worst thing to hear when sharing the score with a director for the first time is the imperative to “make me cry.” Directors can often be influenced by editors or others around them, so they as composers have to fight for their score. As Elfman explained it, only half of their job is to compose; the other half is to play psychologist.
When he listens to his own scores against picture for the first time, Newman said “you can really tell pretty quickly if it’s working”—and a composer has to be honest with him or herself if it isn’t, and not force themselves to like a piece of music just because they wrote it. “I think mostly we’re all pretty passive when we sit in a movie theater,” he explained. “So I want to get to that place as a composer [where] I’m not working at liking it, it’s just bringing me in.”
Elfman says he used to read scripts before the scoring process, but now prefers to see the footage without any preconceived notions. “I look for any kind of handle into a score,” he said, and when he’s seeing footage for the very first time without having read the script, “I’m going to get some thoughts, and those little first impulses might be handy.”
In scoring a new project, “you want to start with what’s most fun,” said Newman, “Just because I think fun and joy translate, and it’s going to get ugly and it’s going to get hard and there’s going to be plenty of rejection, so you want to start with what inspires you.” Newman said he hates to begin by searching for a melody; he feels it ties him too much to a procedure.
Newman wondered aloud: “Wouldn’t it be great if creative work were tidy and non-chaotic?” Or perhaps the beauty of their work is in the chaos.
Mary Sollosi / Film Independent Blogger