Composer Danny Elfman’s year: 6 film scores, 6 different styles
Composer Danny Elfman was deep into completing his work on David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” when the director called an audible. Perhaps, the musician remembers Russell telling him, there should be no original music.
Elfman said he tried to stay calm. “Maybe we should sit on that thought for a bit,” Elfman said he told Russell.
If Elfman was frustrated, forgive him, as his time in 2012 was rather limited. “Silver Linings Playbook” is one of six full-length films released this year featuring an Elfman score, and one of three, including “Hitchcock” and “Promised Land,” to be in theaters during awards season. (He also scored Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” and “Frankenweenie,” as well as “Men in Black 3.”)
“This was by far a record for me,” Elfman said in mid-November, just as he was completing work on Disney’s 2013 film “Oz: The Great and Powerful.” “There was a point where I didn’t think I could pull this off. I wouldn’t want to do this again.”
And he certainly didn’t want a completed score to go to waste. Yet Elfman said Russell challenged him to think about the role music should play in a film — or if it should even be there at all.
“With another director,” Elfman said, “I may have tossed up my hands and just said, ‘I can’t handle this.’ I like him personally, though, so I was able to kick back and relax and just let him go where he goes. If there ends up being music, there’s music, if there ends up being no music, then that was my job. My job was to show him that he doesn’t want any music.”
In the end, there was music. “Silver Linings Playbook” was an anomaly among Elfman’s scores. Largely centered on a jangly guitar, a cresting piano and fragile vocal harmonies, it was pop-focused and full of odd little melodies.
And though the composer does not like comedies (“It is a genre that is clearly off my list. I do not do them”), “Silver Linings” hooked him, and that’s because it reminded Elfman of films that no longer exist. “I felt like this was Frank Capra and Billy Wilder. This film connected with a period when I actually did like romantic comedies.”
It was when Elfman began laying down vocal harmonies that Russell fell for the score. “I just did an experiment, and he said, ‘Do more of that.’ Next thing I knew I was laying down all these Beach Boy harmonies. That’s not the best way to describe it. The Beatles? The Beach Boys? It’s a male harmony vocal something.”
References to Capra, Wilder and ‘60s pop aside, Elfman acknowledges an affinity for the past. It’s partly what drew him to “Hitchcock,” a film he wasn’t going to score. He visited the set knowing he didn’t really have the time to take on another project, but having worked on Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of “Psycho,” he was ultimately seduced by the prospect of working on a film about “Psycho’s” behind-the-scenes drama.
“To me, the story of how ‘Psycho’ got made is a nail-biting thriller of monumental proportions,” Elfman said. “There isn’t a more thrilling subject matter for me, but I don’t know if I’m the only person on the planet who will feel that way.”
Elfman had already revisited the work of famed composer and Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, so he instead used a small orchestra and actually played it not too unlike that of an old-fashioned romantic comedy. Violins carry the score, but they’re in a constant give-and-take with French horns and a piano.
“The music is in many elements a comedy, and Sacha [Gervasi] wanted to make it clear that it’s OK to have fun with sections of this movie,” Elfman said. “The heartfelt part needed to be very heartfelt. I tried to create an old-fashioned romantic theme, not from any particular era but in the mold of how a classic romantic theme might be.”
Going forward, Elfman plans to limit his yearly output to three or four films, tops. The saving grace, he said, was the wildly different styles for each score. His compositions, for instance, for Van Sant’s late December release, “Promised Land,” were initially going to be all percussion. They’re not.
“No composer can ever say, ‘I haven’t lost my talent,’” Elfman said. “Maybe I have. But I at least can say I haven’t lost my energy. Others can dictate the talent level.”
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