You may remember I recently blogged about Danny Elfman's new "music for film" MasterClass (which launched on Halloween, naturally). A day or so after it posted I got an email from someone on his team asking if I wanted to interview him. My response, "Uh, who could say no to that…?!" I soon found myself Skyping with the founder of Oingo Boingo, the father of the Simpsons' theme, and one of the most prolific film composers of all time — Happy Mutant extraordinaire, Mr. Danny Elfman.
Here's what we chatted about:
Rusty: Hi there, Danny. I'm thrilled to speak with you today.
Danny: Hello, thank you.
Rusty: I wanted to share a couple of things we have in common real quick before we get into it. One… we're both redheads.
Danny: I was just going to say that. That's got to be the first thing.
Rusty: Right? Well, it's obvious. Two… we both collect strange and unusual objects.
Rusty: Just saw an article about your strange and unusual collection and they shared a picture of you with your creepy ventriloquist dummy.
Rusty: Yeah, Buddy! Well, I wanted to tell you, you must know Archie McPhee…
Rusty: So, a couple of years ago, they made my likeness into a product. I'm a creepy ventriloquist dummy toy, a finger puppet.
Danny: Wow… Oh my god, that's so cool. What an honor. You should be honored.
Rusty: Oh I am.
Danny: Wow. Well, you have to go look at my nine episodes of "Danny and Buddy."
Rusty: Oh my gosh, yes, ok.
Buddy reveals a BIG secret!
Danny: Yeah. It's like when I started doing Instagram, it's like, I don't know what I want. You know? What do I want to share?
Danny: People, I've never been on social media in my life. I've avoided all contact with everything and then suddenly I realized — it was when I started doing classical shows — you know what, I have to start. I don't have to with film music. I don't need to publicize it. I feel like I just don't need to. It's coming out with the movie and the movie gets its own publicity. And I've never cared about publicizing my own separate connection to that. You know what I mean?
Danny: Then suddenly I was doing a violin concerto and it's playing in different places, I said I have to be able to reach people who know me and try to pull them into that part of the world, which is obviously what social media is all about, really. I mean, other than just people, you know, wanting to share themselves. And so when I did it, I started doing like crazy stories about my my creepy dolls and stuff like that. And everybody was saying, "Danny, no, Instagram is just to do like upbeat, just two sentences, really quick." And I was like, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it Danny style. It's just going to be long involved ridiculous stuff.
Danny: And, you know, it's ok. It's like… I just want to be myself.
Rusty: Yeah, you've got to do it your way.
Buddy's totally not joking.
Rusty: You have a brand new MasterClass and you're teaching folks how to make music for film, which makes sense given your 30-plus-year career! You have over 100 films under your belt, which I was surprised to hear, pleasantly surprised. So many, it kind of blew me away.
Danny: Yeah, it's funny how that happens. You know…
Rusty: They just add up real quickly.
Danny: Yeah. Wow, it's kind of like, wow, how did that happen? But I guess that's what happens when you just keep going.
Rusty: You're right. You're in a groove, for sure. You know, I have to say, when I saw the video for your MasterClass pop up in my feed, which is how I found out about it, I stopped what I was doing to watch it. And I was so impressed that I immediately wrote a blog post about it. Not even having purchased, you know, the class itself. Because what struck me is that it's more than you just sharing your knowledge to people who want to learn how to compose film scores. It's more like a creative elder sharing his wisdom.
Danny: Well, you know, the reason why that happened is when I started doing Elfman/Burton and then these Nightmare before Christmas shows… So, what was that seven years ago? It was really the first time I was getting out there and being more public again. And what would happen is I'd go to a different city and I'd get a request. It's like, "would you come to this class?" Or where I'm going to be doing something through a university. They'd say, "We're doing this and that" and "Will you talk with the students?" So, I started doing that. And what I found is that I really enjoyed it. I got to the point where rather than going, "Oh God…" You know, because there are certain kinds of things that I just dread. I can be a nightmare for a publicist because there are just certain kinds of things that I'm really bad at. But the thing that I loved most when I was out there doing these was one on one, not one on one meeting person to person, but one on one meaning I had direct contact with music and/or film music students.
There would be a moderator onstage and they would ask questions, but then I would always say, "Can we switch to the audience?" And that's when I really started enjoying it all.. when I just got audience questions.
Rusty: Oh, that's great.
Danny: And I realized kind of the perspective of where music students were, where film students were. And in that, I hadn't really realized what I do in any kind of perspective before. That my approach to film music isn't going to be the same as another composer.
Rusty: Right. In your class, I also like that you say that it's ok to fail. I truly believe that is something that we all need to learn, that failure is a precursor to success. And the more failures you have, the bigger successes you will get.
Danny: Yes, and also, you know, it's ok to feel totally insecure about your work.
Danny: So, there are really two things I wanted to make center of what I was doing in that class, trying to convey was that it's ok to fail. Well, three things. First, it's ok to fail.
Second, it's ok to feel like you're not sure about what you're doing. And most importantly, if you're not wired in a way like some lucky artists are with incredibly organized minds, you know, if you're like me, which is like the inside of your head, it's like a tornado of dust going around and a lot of it is garbage. Like in a real tornado (laughs) there's a lot of debris. And out of that debris, you have to kind of find bits to grab hold of, rather than engineering something.
And so, you know, I was kind of looking and the only similar thing MasterClass had to offer was the Hans Zimmer class on scoring. And his approach is so very, very different than mine. I felt like I should go in there and offer this up. You know, I think there are some degree of students who feel like, "Maybe I'm not meant for this because I'm too disorganized. I have a hard time engineering a score from top to bottom before I write, like some composers do. But look at the way Danny: works. He just dives in and does it in this kind of chaotic way, but figures out how to get the pieces to fit together and then turn it into some kind of structure."
I wouldn't have done it if I didn't feel like I have something to offer that's going to be different and also different than they're gonna learn at film school or music school… Which is going to be the correct way to approach everything by being methodical. But some of us just have a problem with methodology. I wanted to be out there saying, "Hey, you know, if you've got a lot of musical ideas, it's ok. You don't have to turn into a scientist to put this stuff together. There are other ways to do it."
Rusty: Right, that's a powerful realization. I know you say that you're an "accidental" composer and that you're completely self taught and that you never had a mentor. How does it feel to be in that teacher/mentor role, given that you didn't have that in your own life?
Danny: Well, I mean, I feel that I have just been incredibly lucky in my life. That, you know, everything that happened to me has been a series of accidents. And then in those accidents, and I try to convey this in the class, if you have a lucky accident, you still have to work super, super hard at turning that into something that will last.
Rusty: Yes, yes.
Danny: The accident is the opening. The door opening is so frequently a lucky accident. If you look at any famous composer, there's those lucky moments of they just happen to be in the right place at the right time. And that goes without saying. But, on the other hand, if you get that moment, what do you do with it? And so that's where I'm trying to come in and go, look, I was an "accidental" composer. But having said that, I had to figure out how to make it work for 35 years and in figuring that out, I've developed some tools and I feel because I was lucky that I should give some of that back.
Rusty: Yeah, that's terrific, absolutely terrific. It's "making your luck," you know?
Danny: Yeah, yes.
My craziest story of how that happened was on Batman, because it hit me on a 747 coming home from the Gotham City set. And I was on the way home, and I heard the beginning of the score, and I started to hear it more than the beginning.
Now, unfortunately for me– most of you who are listening to this should be able to just take a piece of paper, take a napkin, and go dg-dg-dg-dg-dg-dg-dg-dg-dg, and you have it. I can't do that… For me to write, I have to have a keyboard. And at that moment, it was just nothing but me and a Sony tape recorder. I had no keyboard. I had no access to anything… And so I couldn't make voice notes next to the fucking guy sitting next to me… So I kept running into the bathroom.
Rusty: I laughed reading your story about being on a plane and trying to get the Batman music out of your head. That really made me laugh. I personally do my best creative thinking when I'm flying. And sometimes I'll take a short trip just so I can get the ideas onto paper. But, I have to know, do you have a better way of capturing your ideas now?
Danny: Well, I mean, there's only two ways to capture an idea. One is, obviously, if I have my computer and a keyboard, I can actually play stuff in and do that. That's the best way. The other is the fast, down-and-dirty, cheap way, which is when I'm driving, because frequently that's where I get my ideas. I do a lot of stuff in the car. Obviously, I don't have a computer and a keyboard in my car. So, what I have learned to do is to take voice notes. How do you convey in a voice note that there's three different parts fitting together? That can be tricky. There's only so much you can do. So, in the Batman story, I kept running in and out of the bathroom to do voice notes because I was trying to convey a sense of counterpoint and chord movements. So I was like, "Ok, rhythm is here. This is the bass here. Here's the French horns coming in. Here's the counter line with the strings." And I'm hoping that when I got home, I would take seven or eight sessions of voice notes and superimpose it all and that it would kind of make sense and bring it back to my memory. Because that's what was all about. I knew that when I landed, it was all going to be erased.
You know, obviously a better way to do it, if you've got the training for it, is to be able to grab a napkin and draw out musical staffs and write it all out. And I just don't have what's called "solfege" — when you can just, in your head, either the music you want and write it out without a keyboard. You know, for me, I can't write without a keyboard.
Rusty: Ah, interesting.
Danny: You know, I have to have like a piano in front of me in order to write notes. So, it's not that different because I'm still gonna get weird ideas at the worst possible moments.
But, on the other hand, I do now travel with a little keyboard. I try to make it so, even on an airplane, I can actually play parts. And if I need to write something down that I have a reference for pitch.
Rusty: Right. That's great. I keep a blank notebook with me on the plane. That's what I do.
Danny: I know, but you're lucky.
Rusty: I know. I know, believe me I know.
Danny: It would be like, imagine you couldn't write English without a big dictionary next to you or something.
Rusty: I get it completely.
Ok, Professor Elfman, when was the last time you learn something completely new? With a MasterClass, you're asking people to learn something new and to be open to doing something different from what they're currently doing to get to the next stage. Starting new, that can be hard for grownups, for adults to do that.
Danny: It's really hard. But it's essential.
For me, it's probably when I'm doing my concert work. Every time it's like I'm going into completely new territory. And that's why I'm doing it. I'm trying to do a commission, a concert every year now. So, this is my third year, I just finished my third commission. I'm on my fourth year next year and I got my fifth and sixth behind it. So these are like everything I'm doing. Totally new. You know, when I started three years ago with the violin concerto, I realized I'm going into a world that I know absolutely nothing about and that my film work hasn't prepared me for this. You know, I've got to go back and kind of study what I'm doing from scratch. And so that's the new part. And I'm pushing myself into it.
Rusty: Yes, good for you. Well, I think your class is going to be really successful. It really looks great. And from the feedback I saw already, it looks like people are really digging it. It really did stop me in my tracks. I'm not someone who's into, you know, composing music and I want to watch it.
Danny: Well, that's really nice. I thank you. That's great to hear.