Danny Elfman On Scoring For Tim Burton: Silence Is Golden

When it comes to the power of movie magic, one of the greatest ingredients for creating a memorable theatrical experience is the film’s score, no matter how big or small.

I’m a little biased on this subject because I am a huge film score nerd. For me, a movie isn’t “great” unless it also has the music to match. Where some people might be excited to see “Dark Shadows” because it’s another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp quirky collaboration, I get excited because I know that we will likely get more movie music from prolific composer Danny Elfman, who delivered us the memorable scores for Burton’s “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” among countless others.

Much like Burton’s working relationship with Depp, the director and his composer have a shorthand when it comes to working out a film score. And by “shorthand,” that means that they don’t really have to talk about it at all.

“We don’t talk about it up front,” Elfman told MTV News about his and Burton’s initial scoring process recently during the press day for “Dark Shadows.”

“[Tim] has nothing to say starting now. Some directors in a spotting session, that’s when you first look at the movie and break it all down to cues, however many cues, where the music starts and stops. And he always says, ‘Music starts, music stops.’ Sometimes he’ll tell me a little bit about how he feels about a scene, not about the music, but a sense of a scene. A little bit of information. Other than that, if the movie’s an hour forty, our spotting session is probably two hours. It’s short.”

“I’ve been with a director that took two days to spot a movie because they had to go over the backstory of every scene and talk about and describe and every detail. Which really in the end, the scene just is what it is, and you have to come up with ideas and give the director things to respond to,” Elfman explained. “Now, with Tim, everything’s visceral, he doesn’t think anything out of music. He doesn’t plan and think about it, strategize, or get analytical in any way. He wants to hear it and respond. So it’s a complete sense of ‘Look, you come up with ideas, I’ll respond.’ And then he does have a lot to say as we’re getting into it, but he’ll never come in and say, ‘It should be this kind of score, that kind of score.’”

For those listening closely to his score for “Dark Shadows,” you’ll hear a variety of musical influences, from synthesizers to classic rock to “The Legend of Hell House” and “The Shining.”

“The fun part here was the small part of the score because there’s a certain point where finally I hit on a cue, and it’s what we called, ‘The Dark Shadowy part,’ where it’s just three instruments and synthesizers and it’s very 70’s-sounding,” Elfman said of finding the appropriate theme or through line for “Shadows.” “And that stuff was really fun. I knew that when we did use synthetic sounds we were going to want them to be probably very much of the era, so I did a lot of programming of the sounds, and we talked early on about a movie called ’Legend of Hell House’ as a model, which had an atmospheric score, all weird sounds.”

Elfman also took cues from the original TV series, a few of which he inserted into the score just for the fun of it.

“The cool thing about the original music is that it was really interesting, it wasn’t like a soap opera, at all,” Elfman said. “It was actually very eerie, an odd, strange orchestration so, I actually latched right on to a few key moments and a couple of motifs I took some from the TV score and used them. And I knew nobody would really recognize it, it was more for Tim than I, the enjoyment of it, because there’s a little flute line that they use in the thing. It’s like, ‘This is cool.’”

The next ’cool’ music you’ll hear from Elfman is in “Men In Black 3,” followed by Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” and then Sam Raimi’s “Oz, The Great and Powerful.”

Which Elfman score is your favorite? Tell us in the comments or on Twitter!