Tim Burton and Danny Elfman are one of the most prolific pairs in Hollywood. For more than 30 years now, Elfman has provided the soundtrack to Burton's signature macabre whimsy. Their latest big-screen adventure together, Disney's live-action Dumbo, ticks all of their usual boxes: a film starring a quirky outsider (check); a fantastical setting (check); a bittersweet, sad tone (check); Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito (check and check). But that doesn't mean that it's all smooth sailing for Elfman. In fact, even after all these years of working together, he'd never be so bold to assume he knows what Burton likes. "His mind is a curious and interesting and unpredictable place," the composer tells MTV News.
Speaking to MTV News at a recent press day for the film, Elfman talks about his creative partnership with Burton, how he broke his cardinal rule for Dumbo, and why he picked up a violin at age 18 — a move that, by pure chance, solidified his entire career.
MTV News: You and Tim have worked together for over 30 years now, and you've got such a incredible creative partnership. How would you describe that relationship?
Danny Elfman: It's kind of hard to say. It's always full of surprises for me. I learned long ago never to take Tim for granted. People think that we have this automatic thing together, but we really don't. He's got things that are in his head that he's going to have to evolve during the making of the film, and I'm going to need to do a lot of experimenting to figure it out, and to help him figure out what it is he wants. So it's usually something of a process of honing in on just where the musical center of the film is going to be and how he feels about it. It's always interesting, but it's always different as well.
Director Tim Burton (left) and composer Danny Elfman (right)
MTV News: Would you describe it as a marriage?
Elfman: It's weird. It's more than a marriage; it's almost like siblings. I think of him much like I think of my own brother, which means that we know each other really well, but yet it's a constantly evolving thing. We occasionally have big fights, and then like with my brother, always end up feeling bad about it and making up again. It's almost like a blood thing at this point.
MTV News: What were some of the surprises with Dumbo? Were there things that he threw at you that were unexpected?
Elfman: Originally, it's like how are they going to make a CG Dumbo look like an elephant and fly? You know, it's real easy in a cartoon; you just do it, and the cartoon flaps his ears, and off he goes. And if it's a cartoon, you don't think about it. But here, he looks more real and how is that going to work? That was my single biggest question. And then I saw how they designed him, and somehow it just felt real when he took off flying. I go, "Yeah, OK. I buy that."
MTV News: Did you have to see Dumbo and how he would look before you could start working on the score?
Elfman: That's almost always the case. I usually don't write anything before I see something. That's a lesson I learned all the way back on Beetlejuice, where I started writing a month early because I had some extra time. And then I saw the movie, and none of what I had written ... it all got thrown out the first day. I saw it, and it's, like, that's not what I was imagining — just so different. So I began a process of doing the opposite when I went into movies, and trying to blank out my mind as much as possible until I see a movie for the first time, and Dumbo was a rare exception. Because I got the call and I thought about the character, Dumbo, being parted from his mother, and I wrote a theme a year early, and recorded it and put it away in a file. I didn't think about it again. And then a year later, I come back, and it's like I know I did something, somewhere. I'm lucky I found it because in fact it ended up being Dumbo's theme.
MTV News: Did you go to the animated film at all for any inspiration?
Elfman: I had actually never seen the whole animated film until I got brought on the project. It wasn't actually part of my childhood. I remember seeing parts of it with my own children, but I hadn't seen it before I was an adult, and I don't think I ever saw the whole thing. So I was surprised many, many years later when I went and put it on, it's like, oh my god, "Pink Elephants on Parade" is so recognizable. I loved that song. And "Casey Junior." I was very eager to pay homage to both of those tunes in the score.
MTV News: Dumbo is a story about an outsider, and these kinds of characters tend to resonate with you and Burton quite well. Why is that?
Elfman: When Tim and I first met, I think the reason why we connected, we were both very much outsiders as a kid. His idol in life was Vincent Price and mine was Peter Lorre. That kind of says a lot about the two of us. We grew up in a similar way: Los Angeles kids who grew up on many of the same movies. We both had our own personal reasons for feeling connected to outsider characters in just our own lives. And for myself, because I can't speak for Tim, I always felt disconnected somewhat from popular culture and things around me.
MTV News: I think people go into a Tim Burton-Danny Elfman collaboration with a certain expectation. It's going to be dark and whimsical and macabre. Do you ever feel like you have to, or want to, defy those expectations?
Elfman: You can only do that so far, because a film's demands are the film's demands. As much as I may want personally to move completely outside of my wheelhouse and keep myself always challenged, ultimately you have to do what the film asks for. And I also learned this a long time ago, that it's just wrong to put my own personal desires above the needs of the score. The way I've resolved it is I split my year now between writing film music and concert music.
The concert music allows me to just go totally outside of anything I'm comfortable with as much as I like, and I get that out of my system. And when I'm on a movie, I try to look for something fresh, something I could do to keep it fun for myself. But on the other hand, I'm realizing in the context of a film like Dumbo, I'm not going to totally surprise anybody. No one's going to say, "That doesn't sound like Danny Elfman." To do that, I would have had to really not work to the film's best interests.
MTV News: How did you keep things fresh for Dumbo?
Elfman: In this one, it was all the circus and clown music; something I really jumped into and wanted to do every minute of it because I love that kind of stuff. And I usually don't like doing source music, but I told Tim, "I want to do every single second of source music if it has anything to do with the circus."
MTV News: You were talking about how every score has its own set of needs. What were the needs of this score in particular?
Elfman: Primarily, there has to be a bittersweet tune, a melody that can do a lot of different things. The same melody had to play the heartbreak of this little, poor baby elephant being taken away from his mama, but it also has to play the triumph of him flying over crowds, and saving and rescuing his friends. I knew that it was going to be kind of a monothematic film to a large extent, even though there were some other themes, but that the theme would have to do a lot of different things.
Burton on the set of Dumbo
MTV News: Would you say that was the biggest challenge for you?
Elfman: No. The biggest challenge always for me is not so much that. It's really figuring out what's going to work for Tim. That's the challenge because his mind is a curious and interesting and unpredictable place. I never think, "Oh, Tim's going to love this," because he's surprised me for 17 films, all the time, by picking up on some weird piece of music that I didn't think he was going to like and having that become his favorite piece, and something that I would think would be a slam dunk, he was like, hmmm, not so much. So I never have any expectations of what he's going to like or not like when I start his movies.
MTV News: You've had such a prolific career, and you've scored so many projects, so many films and TV shows. But do you remember the first song you ever wrote, and what that was like? What was it?
Elfman: The first thing I ever wrote… I was 18 and I had just picked up my first instrument six months earlier, which was a violin. My brother lived in Paris and he was with a theater, musical theater troupe called the Grand Magic Circus. I was visiting him and practicing in the other room, and I didn't know the director had come over when I closed the doors. And I came out and he said, "Eh, you're pretty good. Why don't you come play with us?" So six months into playing my first instrument, I toured with this French theatrical troupe for a month. And during that period, he asked me to write a couple of things. It had never even occurred to me before. Honestly, before I was 18 I never had any thoughts of getting into music.
MTV News: Why the violin?
Elfman: Because I was going to travel for a year in Africa, and it was either a flute or a violin. They were the only things small enough to bring around, and the flute didn't appeal to me.
MTV News: So you brought your violin to Africa?
Elfman: I did. I spent a year dragging a violin around. It was in the beginning of that trip that I met with the Grand Magic Circus. I finished my stint with them, and I went off for a year in Africa with my violin.
MTV News: And now you're making circus music professionally.
Elfman: Yes, exactly. And here I am, making circus music. Full circle!