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Elisabeth Bartlett is blogging the festival scene from Cannes to Los Angeles.
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Danny Elfman at the Los Angeles Film Festival

"His work features an undercurrent of faith and malice you just can't shake out of your head." Great film composer Danny Elfman was introduced at the LA Film Festival Saturday night with such ideas as, "His work brings the life of the mind to the screen."

As an 18-year old, Elfman's first performance was in Paris, where he followed his brother. Together they were in Le Grand Magic Circus, an avant-garde musical theater group. "It was a crazy experience that put the performing bug in me," he said.

He's won numerous awards such as a Grammy for Batman, and an Emmy for the Desperate Housewives score, but Elfman doesn't see himself as special. "I consider my whole life to be a series of accidents. I've worked hard to make good use of the accidents, but nothing was planned."

If you asked him in highschool what he wanted to do, he would have said "i want to be in film," but he would have mentioned every other part of film except acting and composing. "Editor,
Cinematographer, Director maybe." Having never played an instrument, he never imagined composing. 

He first got into music by listening to early Duke Ellington recordings, but it was Bernard Herrmann who made him into a film-music fan. When Elfman was 12 he saw The Day the Earth Stood Still and it was the first time he became aware of film music. After that whenever he saw Herrmann's name he knew there would be an added special something.  "I was into Bernard Herrmann in a nerdy kind of way. By my early 20s I was kind of proud that I was this nerdy fan boy. So me becoming a film composer is equivalent to Jack Nicholson playing basketball," said Elfman, who apparently truly believes he is nothing special. Elfman then discovered Hitchcock, and Citizen Cane, Herrmann was behind all of them. 

Elfman's "first time putting image to music" was for his brother's movie called Forbidden Zone. Elfman grew up in movie theaters, he would spend every weeked, all weekend there. "Your ears are trained to the theater," noted the moderator. Elfman and his friends would only see sci-fi, horror, maybe action/adventure, but would boycott the theater whenever there was anything Disney. They had no interest in anything little kids were watching.

"In this particluar time, these theaters catered to the bloodlust taste of boys." Elfman noted how he and Tim Burton have talked about how lucky they are to have grown up in a time when there were less rules. They saw horrific stuff in theaters that you would never see today.

Over the 2 hours at LA Live, Danny Elfman presented hand-picked film clips featuring his favorite scores. "King Kong and Bride of Frankenstein to me invented the art of the film score," he says. Elfman talked about the use of silence and space between the music in movies, and how thinks nowadays there is a fear of letting the audience get bored. "If the music stops for too long there's a fear that the movie died...It's very rare to have very well-spaced music," he says. Elfman compared it to music playing in restaurants, how the restaurant is afraid if it stops, people will stop eating. 

Elfman has been a long time collaborator of Tim Burton. As Tim did Batman, and Beetlejuice, Burton moved his career up, and Elfman was able to move with him. But it took
Elfman a while to get there. In the 70s and 80s he would moonlight scoring films, and do other work during the day. He would finish about 2 scores a year. Now Elfman usually takes about 12 weeks to do a score.

"Each career has a right place at the right time moment," says Elfman. In the 70s film scoring suddenly took a radical turn away from orchestral scores. "A lot of people started doing jazz ensembles and big band. Suddenly big band and jazz and pop ensembles were doing scores, and my whole career then in 1985 began at a period where people didn't know what to do with comedies. Mine was coming along at exactly that moment- the 70s carrying into the 80s." Elfman wrote the score for Pee-Wee's Big
Adventure in 1985 (that's where he met director Tim Burton) inspired by Fellini. "I expected the score to get thrown out," says Elfman. "I didn't take it seriously... The movie came out and literally the next week I was offered for the next couple years every single quirky comedy in Hollywood. It was just this insane moment of a hundred doors blew open at once just because I had arrived at this moment in time when the 70s band element had worn itself thin in comedy, and nobody knew what to do with comedy."

Elfman is deadline- driven. He says he will often have a meeting with the director and he will finish his best piece as the doorbell rings for his meeting. "That's happened to me probbaly 2 dozen times," he says.  

"Many of my films were deadly for the director," says Elfman. "You were ahead of your time," rebuked the moderator.

As for the Simpsons theme, for which Elfman is probably most known globally, "Ironically, I didn't expect anyone to hear it. I didn't get paid for it...It was a one day piece of work for me," says Elfman, who routinely works 12 hours a day, 6 1/2 days a week, for 12 weeks on a film. He probably spent 24 hours total on the Simpsons.


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About Elisabeth

Bartlett Elisabeth
Blogging about the festival scene from Los Angeles

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