Danny Elfman Recalls ‘Batman’ Score Stand-Off, ‘Craziest Story Of All’ With Prince And Studio

To say that the long (25-plus years) partnership between composer Danny Elfman and director Tim Burton has been a magical one is an understatement — especially for a film score nerd like me. From “Batman” and “Edward Scissorhands” to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and the “Simpsons” theme, there’s a good chance you’ve been exposed to one of their many, many collaborations.

Earlier this week, we brought you an exclusive clip from quite possibly the most epic box set I’ve ever seen: The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box (available now). It’s a massive collection of the duo’s 13 scores together, featuring more than 19 hours of music, an exclusive DVD, and a long list of rare audio, video, and collectible material.

I was lucky enough to speak with Elfman about this must-have set, how things have changed since he and Burton first teamed up, what convinced him to share so many unreleased demos and ideas, and a surprising behind-the-scenes fact about his unforgettable “Batman” score.

MTV NEWS: How have things changed in the way you score films, from “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” to “Alice and Wonderland”?

DANNY ELFMAN: It’s the same general process. I am still trying to lay it all down and I am going to have to play it for the director and, in that case, the producer. The difference is that I had a choice of two string sounds in ’88. Strings long, strings short, and that was it. Now, of course, I can choose between many, but the idea of the assembly of it is not that different. But sonically, it really is the difference of a very cheap early blue-screen effect, where they were just trying to figure out how to put a guy swinging a sword in the screen with a dinosaur, and today, where it’s a lot more seamless.

The intention is all the same, but the technology is radically different. And it’s all there, I just decided, “F— it. Put it out there.” And that’s weird. I am a very, very private person, and there was a lot of arm-twisting. It’s kind of like letting people into that side of me. It’s a great leap forward — let’s put it that way. If you would’ve asked me a couple years ago if I would do it, I would’ve never even had remotely considered it — just the same way I would never be on Facebook. I’ll be the last person to not be on Facebook. I have no desire to share myself.

MTV: Ah, but for the film score nerds out there like me, this is a dream come true.

ELFMAN: That’s why I am opening myself up, and I made those exceptions — because with Facebook, I don’t care if there are people who are interested in my life. I am not interested in sharing my life. But I was a film geek, and I have a soft spot for film geeks or film music geeks. And this is different. This isn’t about what movie I saw and what I am doing tomorrow and where I went this weekend. This is about the work, and the argument is, this is something I should be able to share with those people who are very much like myself, who are actually interested beyond the personal geek side, which I can still keep as private as I want. The process side I know.

MTV: So what finally convinced you to go through with it?

ELFMAN: I’ll give you the exact argument that I made. I asked myself, “Is there anybody that I would be that way about if there was a box set where I would want every word, everything they ever wrote, every demo, and every idea?” I’m thinking, “No, there isn’t,” but then I thought, “Oh no, wait a minute — what if Bernard Herrmann had a longer career with [Alfred] Hitchcock? What if he’d done 13 films of Hitchcock? Oh my God, over 25 years? I’d kill for that!” There’s nothing he would’ve done that I wouldn’t have wanted a piece of. I would have wanted anything. I would want to see scribbles on a napkin, I would have wanted to hear him grunting in a microphone… So when I thought that way, I said, “Okay, that’s how I feel about Bernard Herrman. So I guess as crazy as it seems to me, I should imagine that there are other people out there who care about what I do, even though I think they are silly for caring about what I do.” There it is. There was my logic leap.

MTV: Let’s talk about “Batman.” What do you remember most about working on that score?

ELFMAN: For “Batman”… You know, that is the craziest story of all, of the whole quarter-century. There is quite a bit about it in the book in detail, but this is the really, really short version… It’s such a nutty story, the development of that [and] the powers-that-be wanting me to collaborate and to co-write the score with Prince.

MTV: What?! Co-write the score with Prince? I didn’t know that!

ELFMAN: Having to step down, and refusing to do that — it was the roughest decision, still, in my entire career. Nothing has come close to having to potentially walk away from the biggest opportunity in my lifetime, and then having it come round full circle back to me. It was the most depressing feeling, like an “I’ve blown it, I’ve f—ed up my life” moment, followed by the most empowering “I did this for a reason and it’s come back to me and now I can do the things I wanted to do in the first place” moment.

MTV: How did Tim react to them wanting Prince to co-write?

ELFMAN: It was a rough thing, but Tim didn’t have power back then to call all the shots for himself. “Beetlejuice” and “Pee-Wee” weren’t enough to make him a power player, so there were a lot of different personalities involved. I had major convincing to do on so many levels, a lot of people wanted me off the score — and I have to add, for good reason. I had never done a big movie before, I had never done a drama before, and I had never done an action film, so I was totally and completely unproven. I don’t think they were even unreasonable for wanting somebody else to do the score, but it was like a defining moment for myself in terms of “How far am I willing to go to keep my identity in mind and to do it the way I think it needs to be done?”

[Post-Script: Elfman went on to win his first and only Grammy award (thus far) for the “Batman” score in the category of “Best Instrumental Composition” for “The ’Batman’ Title Theme.” And while I’m a fan of Prince’s “Batman” album, I don’t even want to imagine what an Elfman/Prince score would have sounded like. -KW]

The Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box is available for pre-order now. You can find out more information about it (and place an order) at www.burtonelfman.com. Stay tuned for more of Elfman’s walk down movie music memory lane, wherein he discusses “Nightmare Before Christmas,” as well as future projects with Tim Burton and Sam Raimi.

What do you think of Elfman’s oeuvre? Let us know what you think in the comment section or on Twitter!