Via Chicago 1 June 2008
November 2006

I've been enjoying James Tata's reports from the bowels of National Novel Writing Month. He's taken up the challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in November. To catch up, see his posts: considering, considering, one day before, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 5.

A review and discussion at Acquarello's place leads me to believe I may have been too quick to dismiss a little Peruvian film called Madeinusa. One day I'll have to see it again.

J. Robert Parks is back with a double-double-feature: Old Joy and 49-Up (an inspired pairing) and The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. I liked three of the four and fully expect to like 49-Up when I have a chance to see it. A couple of these movies in particular I keep meaning to write a bit more about.

In case you missed it, be sure to see Brian Darr's recent interview with Crispin Glover.

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Danny Elfman

Last year, the American Composers Orchestra asked Danny Elfman to write an evening of music for them to perform at Carnegie Hall, and the result was Serenada Schizophrana, six dense, broadly-reaching movements, Elfman's first orchestral work not written for a film.

When he's firing on all cylinders, Elfman is a great film composer. His detractors accuse him of pastiche, but there's a fine line between a lazy allusion and inspired re-imagination, and Elfman's best scores accomplish the latter. His haunting theme for Edward Scissorhands is largely responsible for creating the sense of mystery and wonder that's critical to a fairy tale about a gentle, pale faced, blade fingered near-mute, maybe more so than director Tim Burton's visual design.

His score for Batman manages to combine the hero's acute melancholia, Gotham's gothic grandeur, and the action's urgent march into a few elegant strains. As proof of the music's effect, I'll point out that when roller coaster designers Bolliger & Mabillard unveiled their amazing new design for an inverted roller coaster at Six Flags Great America in 1992, the music heard by riders as they boarded the train in a simulation of the Batcave greatly enhanced the anticipation and fear of what they were about to experience. Repeat: Elfman's music enhanced the experience of a roller coaster.

(At the time, Six Flags was owned by Time-Warner, the studio that produced Batman; when rival Paramount tried to duplicate the ride's success at their park in Northern California, with a Top Gun-themed ride also designed by B&M, the music and faux dialogue blasting across the "flight deck" didn't do much to improve an otherwise excellent ride.)

And even Elfman's first feature film score, for Pee Wee's Big Adventure, recasts Nino Rota's carnivalesque music for Fellini's 8 1/2 in the same way that Pee Wee's star and writer, Paul Reubens, recasts the characters of children's television: as a springboard. Fellini's film mixes dreams, memories, and reality, but they're always bound together, the dreams helping to make sense of the reality and vice versa. The character and music of Pee Wee, on the other hand, have clear origins, but Reubens, Burton, Elfman, and co-writer Phil Hartman show no interest in maintaining those ties. They let Pee Wee's world drift to wild extremes, never looking back.

If some of Elfman's more recent scores have suffered by comparison to his best work, it's a welcome surprise to see him branch out and try something a shade more serious. The chaos of Serenada Schizophrana is Elfmanesque, no doubt, and he playfully nods to his favorite classical and film composers, but his music has more space to build, stretch out, and resolve itself when it's not serving the needs of a film. His runways are longer, his plane is bigger, but he still can't resist doing a few loops.

I recently talked with Elfman on the phone about the project, from conception to performance to recording, about the differences of writing music for a film and for a standalone concert, and about favorite classical composers.

Here's what he said.


Danny Elfman: You know, it was really as simple as getting a call and — I keep saying my best explanation for why I did it was the three words: they asked me. It was this American Composers Orchestra, ACO, that plays at Carnegie Hall every year and they called and asked, and I just kinda said, "Uhh, OK." [There] really wasn't a terrible lot of thought that went into it other than: challenge, haven't done it, just say Yes. The only part that was different than what I had planned was, when I originally signed up, it was gonna be for a second room at Carnegie underneath the main room. I get the names mixed up. I can't remember whether Zankel Hall is the smaller room?

Robert Davis: Yeah, I don't know either. [It is.]

DE: It gets confusing to me, having been there only a total of two times in my life.

RD: Would that mean a smaller orchestra then?

DE: Well yeah, it was a chamber orchestra, only 300 to 400 seats,
and that's when I jumped at the Yes, 'cause it sounds like off-the-radar, low-pressure fun, you know? And what happened over the course of that year is our concert got bounced upstairs. And then I did a little bit of an Uh-oh, now I'm starting to feel some pressure.

RD: Had you done work at that point or you were still thinking?

DE: No, no, it was— it's kind of a silly long story. I was still months away from beginning anything. It was just something on my calendar, but also what coincidentally tipped me over the scale there was I happened to know, right at that point, something that almost nobody else but my wife knew which is that she was expecting a baby. And it happened to be the same week as our scheduled concert at Carnegie. And I was starting to freak out, because obviously I couldn't be in two places at the same time. And we weren't really telling anybody yet. It was still very early, and you know how sometimes you want to kind of wait a bit?

RD: Right.

DE: So when the offer to bounce it upstairs came, it came with the caveat that it move the schedule back a month, and once again I jumped at the chance. But I wasn't thinkin' about the difference in what it was going to do to my project. I was really just thinking about — whew, off the hook. There's no chance the baby is going to arrive a month late.

So that just kind of took that off. And then as it got closer I decided I better go to New York and see Carnegie Hall. I'd never been there. So I flew out there and this was my biggest mistake for my project because now I know that I'm in the big hall and I kinda know what that means. And I'm starting to kind of feel the essence of

Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall,

you know, with a big echo like a voice saying, "You're playing Carnegie Hall." It sounded like the Wizard of Oz voice.

And when I actually walked around the lobby and saw the original manuscript that they had on their walls of the great composers, I felt like rather than inspiring me it had a catatonia-producing effect, because it occurred to me that I was in the playground of the big boys. And I just wanted to do a little thing.

So I went home and now I was supposed to start work and I found for the first— really three or four weeks, I did almost nothing. I just sat there in a stupor going, "I can't write like Shostakovich. I can't write like Prokofiev. What the fuck am I doing here, and how did I get here?" And I was like angry at myself for putting myself in that position. And then I kind of snapped out of it.

You know, fortunately, in my job I'm used to working extremely intensely in the last second under a lot of pressure. In fact that's kind of all I've ever known, as all film composers do. That's actually one of the main characteristics you have to be adept at is functioning in that environment to carry on in that profession.

RD: Because you're working after they've finished everything, finished cutting the film together, typically, right?

DE: Yeah, we're at the very end. You know, there's 10 weeks to final dub the film and we're coming in, out of the blue, and we have to create, and I have to work with quota of music per day. It's a forced discipline, and I'm not sure that I ever would have gotten anything done if I didn't have a deadline. I mean honestly I'd probably still be working on Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

And so, I think that kind of burned-in discipline that's so embedded now in my brain — 'cause I'm a lazy person naturally — it just kinda kicked in. The switch went off, which is: Get your ass going. You know, you're on a deadline. There's gonna be a show one way or another.

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Just a quick note today: I find that when I look for film information on the Internet, I construct the same queries over and over, trying to mine the sites that I know provide the content I like.

I've tried to bottle that here:

It's a Google search box that limits its results to a select group of useful, high-quality film sites, chosen by me. Some new features at Google make this kind of thing very easy to create. It's not the perfect tool for discovery, but it may be useful. We'll see.

It's an experiment. If you haven't yet, take it for a spin. Please wear your goggles.

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