Elfman masters a monster: Score one for 'The Hulk'

Danny Elfman knew something was up when his phone rang late one night in March. The always-in-demand film composer was taking time off so he could move into a new house and plan his wedding, to actress Bridget Fonda. The call was from Universal's president of film music, Kathy Nelson, who was in San Francisco, where the studio's top brass had just seen a rough cut of "The Hulk," Ang Lee's ambitious -- and costly -- summer action drama.

It didn't take Elfman long to figure out what Nelson wanted; the studio's biggest movie of the year needed a new composer -- and with the movie's release less than three months away, it needed one fast.

An old friend, Nelson wasn't exactly calling with a hope and a prayer. She knew Elfman was a big fan of Ang Lee and, perhaps more important, that he was available: Fonda had been in a serious car accident, delaying the wedding. If anyone could handle the scope of a film like "The Hulk," it was Elfman, who has scored a slew of larger-than-life movies, including "Batman," "Spider-Man," "Planet of the Apes," "Mission Impossible" and both "Men in Black" films. Nelson also knew the 50-year-old composer loves a challenge.

"Of all the composers I know, Danny's the one with a true extreme sports mentality. He does his best work under tremendous pressure," she says. The next day Elfman flew up to ILM, where Lee was working on the effects for the $137-million film, which opened this weekend, taking in $62.1 million. Elfman knew the situation was fraught with peril. Composers normally have at least 10 to 12 weeks to write a score for a big movie. "I had 37 days to write two hours of score, and there's a point where you go, either I'm going to make it or it's going to kill me," Elfman recalls, sipping an espresso in the kitchen of his new home, a 1920 Spanish-style house that was originally owned by a concert pianist.

After Elfman watched "The Hulk," he had a difficult series of conversations with Lee, who was obviously distressed that the studio wanted to bring in Elfman. Mychael Danna, the original composer, was a friend who'd worked with Lee on several previous films. "It was a very extreme situation," Elfman recalls. "I wouldn't have even flown up there if it hadn't been for how much respect I have for Ang. I had this horrible fear that he'd look at me like this Hollywood hack who'd come in and do a predictable action movie score. After I looked at the film, I went home and had nightmares all night long -- and that was before I realized how little time I had to do it."

The most awkward discussion, according to Elfman, was one in which he essentially told Lee: Even though you don't know me, you're going to have to put a certain amount of blind trust in me to do the right thing. "Because I was flying by the seat of my pants, I told him, 'There's no way I can give you 100% of what you want. To do that would require a lot of exploration and learning about each other, but we just don't have the time.' " (Lee's studio reps said he was "too busy" to talk to us about working with Elfman.)

Elfman has been brought in to replace composers before, as on "Mission Impossible," but his rule is to take a job only if the decision has already been made to fire a composer. "I want to know that if I don't do it, they'll just go on to someone else on the list."

$1.5 million per film

His arrival on "Hulk" went largely unnoticed. The entertainment press obsessively chronicles the hiring and firing of actors, directors or screenwriters on movies, but composers usually get short shrift. Universal's 45-page "Hulk" press booklet, for example, has interviews with everyone from the film's stars to its costume designer and science consultant, but not one word from Elfman.

Still, for music fans, composers like Elfman, Randy Newman and John Williams are distinct personalities, whose original scores are viewed as artwork that often overshadows the movies they adorn. Elfman is among the highest-paid composers, getting roughly $1.5 million per film, plus box office bonuses.

But his real effect is rarely noticed. Gus Van Sant's film, "To Die For," was considered un-releasable after disastrous early test screenings. It was only after the film was screened with Elfman's music, which adroitly emphasized the film's satiric tone, that audiences responded to its sly humor. As Elfman's longtime agent, Richard Kraft, puts it: "Danny is the Red Adair of film music. If there's a fire, people turn to Danny to put it out."

Elfman's lusty, operatic main title music on "The Hulk" is a key ingredient in setting the tone for the movie. "It tells you what the film is going to be about," he says. "And it definitely tells you what the film is not: This is not a lightweight cartoon action movie. Even though it may take 45 minutes before you see what's coming, it's a way of saying to the audience, 'Don't worry, something big is going to happen.' " Danna's original score had more ethereal, world music elements; as Elfman described it, "it was a beautiful score, but not to this movie."

No relationship on a film is as complicated as the collaboration between a composer and a director. When a director works with a cinematographer or an editor, they are speaking essentially the same cinematic language. A director can tell an editor how to cut a scene or tell a cinematographer where to put a camera, but writing a film score is the one thing a director -- with rare exceptions -- has no idea how to accomplish.

"It's really difficult communicating with a composer because I don't speak their language," says Tim Burton, who has worked with Elfman on nearly all his films, including "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Sleepy Hollow." "I end up telling Danny certain broad strokes, and then he'll say, 'Maybe we should go for Gypsy violins here,' and we'll get a mix of our different ideas. It's one of the hardest things to put into words. We end up having conversations that are pretty telepathic."

Elfman is happiest working with directors who don't even try to talk in musical terms. "It just confuses things," he says. When I asked him if directors often say one thing and mean another, he dryly responded: "Only 98% of the time. If they put things in musical terms, they usually say the opposite of what they're feeling -- it's like trying to explain a piece of abstract art. So the composer ends up being an interpreter. I watch their body language, listen to the tone in their voice. You try to hear the essence of what they're saying, not the details."

The dynamic is further complicated by the fact that a composer like Elfman is in demand because he is a singular artist and yet he must be malleable enough to mold his point of view to the vision of the director, the film's ultimate artistic authority. "To work with directors, you have to be a chameleon," he says. "Although I have lines I refuse to cross. I guess you could say I'm a chameleon with boundaries."

'He almost fainted'

Director Brett Ratner, who worked with Elfman on "Family Man" and "Red Dragon," was impressed by Elfman's encyclopedic film knowledge. "He's as much of a cinefile as [Martin] Scorsese. You'd think after all the success he's had that he'd have a big ego, but I couldn't believe how humble he was. When he played me his first cue for 'Family Man,' he was so scared over whether I'd like it or not that he almost fainted."

Nonetheless, Elfman, who is so musically opinionated that he once dragged a reporter out of a restaurant in the middle of an interview rather than listen to another bar of a Muzak version of the Beatles' "Let It Be," won't kowtow to any misbegotten directorial whims. The first "Hulk" score had a sequence with electric guitars that Lee wanted to keep in the film. Elfman put his foot down.

"I said, 'We can't go there, it'll feel like a Wrestlemania commercial.' Finally, after a lot of debate, Ang went, 'Yeah, guitars. Bad idea.' "

On the other hand, Elfman benefited from Lee's prodding him to avoid repeating himself. "The first week was pure hell," Elfman recalls. "Ang listened to the music and said, 'That sounds like a Danny Elfman score. That sounds like 'Batman.' And I went home and said to Bridget, 'He's absolutely right.... Now I'm being challenged to do something that's totally not what I've done before.' "

Elfman laughs. "We ended up getting along great, but Ang would still call me on [stuff]. He'd say, 'That's a 'Danny.' And even though I wanted to say, 'No, that's a Bernard Herrmann, my true hero,' I knew he was right. It was hard because it takes time to reinvent yourself, and we didn't have much time."

Elfman studies his coffee cup. "When I'd play something new for Ang, he always wanted to know where the music came from. And I'd tell him, it doesn't matter if it came from China or Bulgaria. It's what you do with it that matters. If it works, no one will care where it came from."

*

"The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°