Interview: Danny Elfman

He creates Oscar-nominated film scores that adorn hit Hollywood movies. His latest work is the music for ‘Alice in Wonderland’, a project that involved getting intimate with the film’s maverick director


It was always going to be a curious affair. More than 200 journalists from around the globe invited to quiz the Mad Hatter the Red Queen, the White Queen, Tweedle Dum and Dee in the faux splendour of the grand ballroom at The Dorchester. But things just got curiouser and curiouser. A Hungarian reporter asked the White Queen - aka Anne Hathaway in Tim Burton's new version of Alice in Wonderland - why she had never done a role with her pants off. Actor Michael Sheen expressed the burning desire to wear long white ears (he only voices the time-obsessed rabbit) and no one, particularly the females brandishing notebooks, seemed able to ask Johnny Depp anything without becoming tongue-tied. And then there was Danny Elfman, who was not saying very much at all.

Sharing a podium with the much-desired Depp and Burton has its drawbacks, but Elfman is the most prolific and in-demand film composer in Hollywood. With credits that include Batman, the Oscar-nominated Good Will Hunting and Men in Black, along with the host of memorable scores (Beetlejuice, Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow…) that he has created as part of his artistic collaboration with Burton.

Now the 57-year-old Elfman has composed the score for Tim's Alice. Yet no one felt the urge to ask him anything - and he seemed reconciled to not talking. Perhaps he needed a less formal setting, and so it proved. Having been tracked down to Claridges, his base for the duration, he welcomed the chance to have a post-press conference chat.

"I knew I was only ever going to be window-dressing at the conference," he admits, appearing insouciantly cheerful about what other more precious artistes might perceive as a rebuff. "It was the Johnny show 100 per cent, but then it's always that way when you are appearing alongside the talent."

By talent, Elfman means the stars of the film, though it is arguable that his contribution is as important. Without the musical score to lead audiences emotionally through the highs and lows of 120 mins of reel time, cinema would be a very different experience. You only have to mute the soundtrack on Batman to get the picture.

But Elfman would sooner let others take the credit and the spotlight, while he hides in the shadows for he has a deep-rooted fear of public-speaking. Or even being recognised in public. "Celebrity is not for me," he has acknowledged. Clearly the lack of interest from the press conference crowd was a blessing in disguise for this man who remarkably was once the songwriter and lead singer for the cult '80s band Oingo Boingo of which Tim Burton was a fan.

"It's one thing to be on stage with a guitar in your hands, but speaking is something quite different," says Elfman who may be the only Oscar nominee to ever be delighted about not winning. "I sighed with relief. The thought of making a speech is just too horrible."

Though he may not like being looked at, he has no problem with people listening to and appreciating his music - even if it only extends to his TV theme for The Simpsons which he wrote for very little money after being shown sketches of the now-iconic yellow-faced family.

Elfman's love of film scores was honed at the Baldwin Hills Theatre in Los Angeles which is where he spent most weekends as a boy watching horror and sci-fi, and where at the age of 11 he saw The Day the Earth Stood Still and was captivated by Bernard Herrmann's score. The composer remains one of Elfman's heroes and he only agreed to work on the remake of Psycho starring Vince Vaughn on the proviso that Herrmann's original score was used.

The list of acclaimed Jewish film composers (think Michael Nyman, Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Goldsmith for starters) is a formidable one and having joined their ranks, Elfman attributes the disproportionate success of the group to genetics. "Anybody who spends time around orchestras will tell you that Jews tend to have the musical gene," he says. "A large percentage of Jews are musical. It's in the blood."

He was raised in what he describes as a secular household. "We were not a religious family, but there was a consciousness of being Jewish," he says. "I went to Hebrew classes and had a barmiztvah, but I didn't have many Jewish friends. I grew up in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood where I was the only white Jewish kid. I also had red hair, so it was hard to fit in.

"My strongest link to my Jewish background is musical. I am instinctively drawn to Russian and Eastern European music. I also love pieces from Bulgaria and gypsy music - the difference between them and klezmer is very narrow." For further proof of the influence listen to his theme for Edward Scissorhands "It is in fact very Russian in style and feels Jewish to me," says the composer who has recently completed the score for his musical about Harry Houdini, which is destined for a Broadway debut starring Hugh Jackman.

"Jackman's name may speed the production along in a way that mine won't," he notes.

Blossom Elfman, Danny's mother still has Passover every year which Danny describes as a raucous affair, attended by assorted "Elfmen", including Danny's two daughters Lola, 25 and Mali, 30 from his first marriage and now actress Bridget Fonda whom he married in November 2005, and their son Oliver.

Being part of the Fonda family means appearing on Auntie Jane's blog (see the December 2009 party entry) which probably jars horribly with the retiring Elfman who has been known to hide away for several months when struggling with a score.

"The pressure can be unbearable when they are waiting for your music," he says painting a picture of the director and studio bosses collectively breathing down his neck. "It's like waking up every day in a cupboard." But after so many years working with Burton, surely there is a formula? "No, not even after this many films together," he admits."It's just a constant sense of 'this works, this doesn't'. I develop an understanding of the movie from his perspective, not through talking to him, but by getting inside Tim's head."

And what a curious place that must be.

'Alice in Wonderland' goes on release on Friday

    Last updated: 1:59pm, August 28 2014