COVER STORY, A Different Beat
Danny Elfman Pinged From Oingo Boingo Front Man to Prolific Movie Score Writer.
Now This Oddball May Pong Into Directing His Own Scripts.
By JOHN M. GLIONNA
The look is pure boyish gloom, a self-conscious
I'll-never-finish-my-homework-on-time frown that weighs on
his features like a moody piece of music. * Danny Elfman has a film
score to write, another major movie for which he must supply the
musical soul--subliminal cadences that will flow between the lines,
speaking volumes to viewers. But a week into the scoring of "A
Civil Action," Elfman is once again reeling toward the analyst's
For the 45-year-old L.A. native, it doesn't matter that he's the
most absurdly prolific and crazily-in-demand score writer in
Hollywood, with nearly three dozen credits ("Batman,"
"Beetlejuice," "Dick Tracy" and "To Die For" for starters) in a little
more than a decade. It doesn't matter that as the founder, singer
and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, the zany L.A. cult band of the
'80s, he delivered on deadline countless times.
Elfman's skepticism has been sharpened by critics. Though he
earned two Academy Award nominations in 1997 for "Men in
Black" and "Good Will Hunting," his work has long been scrutinized
by industry peers, some of whom suggest it's not even his. But
Danny Elfman is used to being kicked around. He grew up the
classic target of neighborhood bullies, a loner who often took refuge
in fantastical double features at the cineplex. Even today, wipe away
that thin veneer of cool bestowed by careers in rock and the movies
and you've still got the uneasy outsider.
So what if he's no John Williams? Elfman doesn't give a damn.
He's pulled it off, evolving from a local counterculture icon into a
sure-fire hire in a risk-averse industry. And he's done it on his own
terms. The out-of-step little boy has gladly grown into the
out-of-step artist. "Most people go their way," he says. "I go mine."
Still, dark pilot birds hover above his shoulders. Writing movie
scores is no different than performing live. He gets stage fright. With
every film, Elfman believes this time the pressure is unbearable. This
time he can't deliver. This time he's a liability, a bag of rocks sinking
a film project that already has wrapped, already has movie-house
trailers in the can, already has its bloody release date etched in
The only thing lacking is the score, the notes he has yet to
imagine. And as he frets, the director, the producer and the studio
executives drum their collective fingertips on the tabletop, the
precious moments slipping past, his deadline closing in. Tick. Tick.
"Every time I tell myself that I'll never do this again, that I hate
this more than life itself," says Elfman, stroking his goatee while
slouched in a garden chair outside his home in the Santa Monica
Mountains. "But the wheels are already turning. It's inconceivable
that I won't finish."
He calls his agent.
"I'm not going to finish," he says.
"Danny," the agent soothes, "you're going to finish."
But, Elfman protests, he's completed only three of the 35
scenes. Sighing, resigned, he begins to plan the party he throws
before every project, the downer of a bash where he says goodbye
to friends and his daughters. He's a convict being dragged off for a
lengthy prison bender.
"See you on the other side," he tells everyone. For three months,
until this latest score is settled, Elfman will spend 12 hours a day in
front of a video screen, using a remote control to stop and start the
footage until he strikes upon just the right musical nuances. There
will be no fun, no candlelight dinners with his girlfriend, no long
weekends with the kids.
Finally, his angst vented, Elfman retires to his basement musical
laboratory. There he gets back inside the head of that Baldwin Hills
teen who escaped to the movies and left moved by their music. His
mind wanders back into the darkness of his neighborhood theater,
where he was first awed by the momentous scores of composers
such as Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner.
Then he goes to work.
The movie score writer is the alter-ego of the rock singer. Bands
lead very public lives. Writing movie music is lonely. Neurotic.
It requires sitting alone in a room plunking piano keys. Elfman
likens the job to writing screenplays, of which he has completed
three. "A movie starts with a writer alone in a room conjuring
something out of vapor," he says. "And it ends with a score
composer talking to himself in a little room, conjuring something out
As Elfman explains it, a score is musical insight into a character's
mind--melodies, backbeats and orchestral explorations that hint at
hidden emotions. Scores can tip off a looming crisis, a monster
lurking nearby (a bassy thump foreshadows the shark attacks in
"Jaws," for example), a marriage disintegrating.
The music also serves as glue, cementing a montage of action.
Often scores convey motion, building tension and helping to drive
the action. Music may swirl around dialogue--affecting yet
unobtrusive. Or it can spring a coup to overtake the viewer's
senses, as in the shower scene in "Psycho."
Always the question is the same: Go for broke or underplay the
emotional conflict? During last year's "A Civil Action," a distraught
mother mourns about the loss of her son. Elfman chose a simple
coupling of strings and piano to give resonance to her pain. For a
confrontation between Robin Williams and Matt Damon in "Good
Will Hunting," he agonized over how thick to lay it on. Says Elfman:
"It drives you mad."
The black beemer cruises south on la Brea: Danny Elfman is
headed back to Baldwin Hills, the racially mixed community
southwest of downtown where, in the '60s, he was the "whitest
white kid," the glaring exception, the one who always got picked
On this day, he has just left a meeting with director John Woo to
talk about scoring "Mission: Impossible II." He's yakking on his car
phone with director Gus Van Sant about another project. Who
knew that it would come to this for a kid who ran with a "weird,
creative group of oddballs." Unlike big brother Rick, Danny never
played in a high school garage band. The son of two teachers, he
joined the science project-clique, tinkered with music alone in his
basement. On a Sears Roebuck organ, he taught himself the
prodigious keyboard solo to the Doors' "Light My Fire." He fooled
around with his Fender knockoff with the box amplifier and crybaby
wa-wa pedal, imitating Jimi Hendrix licks. He took piano lessons,
was told he didn't have long enough arms for trombone. As a
senior, he settled on the violin.
Elfman became a regular at the Baldwin Hills movie theater,
boycotting the dorky Disney offerings but sitting mesmerized
through anything Hitchcock, sci-fi adventures, dubbed Mexican
horror flicks. The kid could tick of the names of the score writers,
seldom the directors. He liked the way their music presented a point
of view and became transfixed by the European classical style of
Franz Waxman and Maurice Jarre, composers who were
emblematic of the so-called Golden Age of film music, generations
before Dolby Digital.
Meanwhile, the Elfman family moved to Brentwood and, as
Danny describes it, he traded the way-cool world of Smokey
Robinson and the Miracles for Beach Boys land. School was
bogus. Graduating early, Elfman set off to bum his way around the
world. At his first stop in Paris, he played violin on the street and
hooked up with Rick to perform with Le Gran Magic Circus, an
avant-garde musical theatrical group.
Then came a period of dark and light for Danny Elfman. He
wandered alone across western Africa, through Ghana, Mali and
Upper Volta, going weeks without speaking to anyone, repeatedly
sick for long stretches. "It was a cleansing," he recalls. "I spent
months in quiet observance. I was like a ghost." Blossom Elfman
recalls finally receiving a telegram from her son after several tense
months without a word. "Strings dry," the enigmatic dispatch read.
"Send resin." But during that year abroad, Elfman also stumbled into
a new brand of African pop called Highlife, a reggae-salsa beat
laden with horns that would become the model for the Oingo
Back in Los Angeles, brother Rick was assembling a bizarre
troupe called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The Knights
offered music, drama and wild improvisation, with each member
developing an offbeat talent. Danny joined up and breathed fire. At
L.A.'s Fox Theater, he once inadvertently torched a paying
customer's hair- sprayed afro. Dressed in a garish papier-mache
spaceship costume designed for just such emergencies, Rick quickly
doused the flames with fire retardant.
Elfman laughs at that image as the Beemer inches down
Carmona Avenue, the street where, as a lad, he staged a ritual
sacrifice of toy monsters that had outlived their usefulness. Last
stop: the Baldwin Hills movie theater, Elfman's introduction to
Hollywood. He drives past the building once, then a second time,
reminiscing about the ushers with their flashlights, about seeing H.G.
Wells' "Time Machine" seven times in one weekend. Finally, he
stops the car and just stares at the place. There's probably music
playing in his head. Something creepy.
For 17 years, Danny Elfman was the lead nerd in a nerdy band
followed mostly by nerds. In 1978, when the Mystic Knights of the
Oingo Boingo broke up, he launched Oingo Boingo (later just
Boingo). In contrast to the antisuburban slickness of groups such as
X, his band reveled in their everyday dorkiness. Their insanely
quick-tempoed horns and world-beat rhythms infused the L.A.
music scene with energy and fun. By the mid-'80s, fans were so
bonkers for the group that when a local radio station hosted a
contest offering a Boingo-related prize, 3.2 million postcard entries
flooded in. If the eight-man band failed to become a national
sensation it was because, critics said, their 10 albums failed to
capture the vitality and emotion of the live shows.
The band wasn't shy about taking swipes at society. Elfman
wrote lyrics about things that bugged him, often about "middle-class
socialist brats," left-wing liberals and even music critics. Oingo
Boingo's biggest hits were the ominous "Dead Man's Party" and
wacky "Weird Science."
What Elfman remembers most about those years as a local rock
phenom isn't the money, the quasi-fame or the hot-ticket annual
Halloween concerts at the Universal Amphitheater. He thinks back
on those early performances at the Whisky, the intimate Sunset
Boulevard club where he could feel the restless pulse of the crowd.
He would dive off the stage and ride a wave of hundreds of hands.
"I loved those shows. The sweat. I'd make a gesture with my hands
and see the sweat fly. I'd play with it, watching the sweat hit the
crowd, and they'd throw some back. It was a trip."
The little ogre has emerged from his cave, traded the near-dark
of his home basement for the bright lights of the recording studio.
He clears his throat. Over the speakers, the voice is low-key, like
that of the somber kid in "Harold and Maude."
In Scoring Studio M on the Paramount lot, Danny Elfman holds
a completed score for "A Civil Action." All business, he retreats
behind a glass wall and faces an electronic sound board alongside
the film's director, Steve Zailian. Eight hours of instructing a
75-member orchestra will produce just 12 minutes of music--all of
it extracted piecemeal in a process that includes six takes on one
30-second snip of footage. For these few days, Elfman revels in the
company of musicians, zinging one-liners at technicians. Gus Van
Sant, who directed "To Die For" and "Good Will Hunting," likes
how Elfman takes over at such sessions. "It might be your film," he
says, "but it's Danny's recording session."
Yet Elfman looks frazzled. Before starting "A Civil Action," he
had exactly zero days off after completing the score for "A Simple
Plan." In another three days, he would sit down with Van Sant to
view his remake of Hitchcock's "Psycho," for which Elfman
re-created the original score by his childhood hero, Bernard
Herrmann. And after that, he would return to his preferred one-man
world to dream up music for three forthcoming films: "Hoofbeats,"
with director Sergei Bodrov; "Sleepy Hollow" by Tim Burton, and
Wayne Wang's "Anywhere but Here."
As usual, the music will drift into his head mostly after sundown,
as it did with the dark comedies "Edward Scissorhands" and "The
Nightmare Before Christmas." "I've got vampire's blood," Elfman
concedes. "Sunlight makes me ill and lethargic."
The artist envisions his own obituary.
"It'll say, 'Danny Elfman, who wrote the theme to 'The
Simpsons,' etcetera,' " he cringes. "That's what I'll be remembered
for." Air-brushed for all eternity by the project on which he spent
the least amount of time. Like, two days.
Elfman met in 1989 with the cartoon's creator, Matt Groening,
who shared sketches of Homer, Bart, et al. "I told him, 'If you want
something retro, I have it. If you want contemporary, I'm the wrong
guy." Groening wanted retro. Elfman jokes that the manic little riff
he conceived earns him $11.50 every time it's played, no matter
where in the world. "I met some artists [in India] and we were
talking about American movies and I mentioned a few of my
projects," he says. "Not one of them registered, until I mentioned
'The Simpsons.' Then their faces lit up. They were really impressed
Other score writers are a tougher audience. For years, rumors
that he was an impostor stung Elfman. It seemed everyone in the
film composing frat knew who really wrote Danny Elfman's music.
"It didn't bug me that people said, 'I hate your work,' but for a while
everybody who worked for me was getting credit for my music.
Still, with little formal training, Elfman writes in what can best be
described as his own musical language. Ex-Oingo Boingo guitarist
Steve Bartek, who has orchestrated Elfman projects, says the darts
left his friend protective of his written compositions, which often
contain notational flubs. "Reading Danny is like reading e.e.
cummings," Bartek says. "It's different but not a problem. But he's
paranoid about it."
Movie score writer Graeme Revell, composer for "The Crow,"
"The Negotiator" and other films, says the scoring community's old
guard views Elfman with suspicion. They see Elfman as a one-note
wonder, someone who may understand rock but cannot navigate
complex classical interpretations. "Hence the suggestion that if
Danny writes some orchestral score in the grand old tradition, it
can't be Danny Elfman who did it," he says. Revell believes
otherwise: "Danny understands drama intimately and brings several
styles of music to his work. He can bring to bear elements of rock
or minimalist traditions."
Elfman's ecletic portfolio opens with Tim Burton films, flipping
past to comedies including "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," and moves
on to dramas such as "Midnight Run" before cracking the
blockbuster realm with "Batman." Still, for more than a dozen years,
the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ignored Elfman.
He joked that he couldn't even get nominated for "Best Danny
Elfman Score." Then, in 1997, it happened, Oscar nominations in
each of the score-writing categories--dramatic and musical or
comedy (the winners were "Titanic" and "The Full Monty").
"I was shocked and saddened," says Elfman, who had been
gunning to remain the most-unrecognized major film music
composer in history. "To go from the stern cold shoulder to this. I
finally admitted it was a good thing."
A way to tell critics to go to hell.
A visitor touches the cat curled up asleep in Danny Elfman's
living room and snatches back his hand, realizing the animal is hard,
lifeless. Taxidermied. "Ah, you've met Frisky," says its master,
suddenly appearing--furtive, like the creepy count in "Nosferatu."
Frisky isn't a beloved pet enshrined at his favorite perch, just
another conversation piece Elfman rescued from a New York City
shop window. As a child, Elfman shrank from things macabre. He
was terrified of the doll's head depicted in the newspaper ad for
"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" quickly turning the page.
Now he looks for and even seeks out peculiar bric-a-brac, from the
skeletal remains of a tiny human fetus to a drum made from male
and female skulls. And the century-old head of an Ecuadorean
tribesman. "This is Uncle Billy," Elfman says, introducing the
mummified noggin that was a mascot to the "Edward Scissorhands"
crew. "Uncle Billy even got his own credit."
But Elfman most adores the dolls scattered throughout the
house. He has dolls crawling with fake insects and evil marionettes.
He believes they carry juju, the personality of the people who kept
them. "I like dolls with lots of juju, ones with the vibe."
The scariest, he says, are ones whose sweet, childlike
dispositions have been transformed by wear and tear into something
perversely sinister. At first, the malevolent grin on a 1920s-era
ventriloquist's dummy intrigued him. Then he began to imagine the
doll climbing his staircase, wooden boots clogging toward him
across the hardwood floor. Packing the doll in a tiny wooden coffin,
he sent it to a friend. A few days later, Elfman received a note,
scribbled from the doll's point of view. "It's been boring over here
since Peter had his accident," it read. "I want to come home."
Elfman can be as poker-faced and unpredictable as his toys.
He's the impish eccentric who keeps his music-writing lab so cold
that visiting directors shiver and belly-ache for heat, the composer
who jokingly cracks a rawhide whip at scoring sessions,
Fellini-esque, just to keep people guessing. He also muses about
starting his own religion, the Church of Elvis Jesus Presley Christ, in
which The King would appear as God's nephew. His tattoos feature
Islamic, Greek and Tibetan characters and he longs to cover his
entire scrawny body in ancient languages. He forsakes rock CDs
for Indian film scores.
A picture on the refrigerator shows Elfman with 14-year-old
daughter Mali, who's clutching a meat cleaver. Dad sees her as a
chip off the Danny block. For a school project, she reported on a
teenage serial killer--and was asked not to read to the class. "I told
her this is a wonderful thing. You've just been banned."
Elfman's mother says he's "just a sweet kid with a streak of dark
humor." Brother Rick says the weirdness fuels the art: "He's the nice
old lady who writes wicked mystery novels, not the village ax
He likes to watch Mali compete as an equestrian and just to
hang out with his other daughter, 20-year-old Lola. He keeps up
with old buddy Matthew Bright, an independent director and high
school friend, who says Elfman once gave him $10,000 in cash to
get Bright's friend into drug rehab. He has written scores for their
low-budget films for $1. "He wanted me to do yardwork," Bright
laughs. "But I weaseled out. His yard is, like, an entire canyon. Just
looking at it gave me a heart attack."
Danny Elfman is restless. He tired of the Mystic Knights, then
the Oingo Boingo scene. Now, after almost 30 films, he is bored
with scoring. He landed a two-picture writing, directing and
development deal with Disney and continues to work on scripts. He
might record a solo album.
One thing's for sure: Gone for good are the days when he would
chase a three-hour Oingo Boingo performance with 12 hours at the
piano, composing a score. Still, while it may be the wicked Danny
talking, he says he misses those extremes. Returning to an insanely
creative life doesn't spook him. "I know one thing. I'm just not
happy being a film composer all year round," he says. "While it may
be a great part-time job, it's real crappy full-time work."
John M. Glionna is a L.A. Times Staff Writer.