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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Dumbo composer Danny Elfman on his iconic partnership with Tim Burton

By Todd Gilchrist
Dumbo 1

There are few figures in contemporary film music more iconic than Danny Elfman, and few collaborations more lasting and fruitful than his with Tim Burton. From Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to Batman to Big Fish to Alice in Wonderland, their work has become synonymous with each other's, which is why it's no surprise that they reunited once again for Burton's live-action update of the 1946 Disney animated movie Dumbo. Elfman both pays delicate homage to many of that film's Academy Award-winning themes while striking out in new directions better suited for Burton's mischievous creativity.

Elfman recently sat down with SYFY WIRE for a conversation about his longtime partnership with Burton, and their work together on what marks their 17th collaboration.

In addition to talking about the music of the original movie and what he was particularly interested in transplanting to this new film, Elfman talked about the challenges of keeping their collaboration fresh and interesting, and more broadly, avoiding the impulse to copy or duplicate oneself when you've recorded more than 100 hours of themes and become a cornerstone and inspiration for dozens of composers throughout the industry.

When you and Tim Burton come together, what are the initial conversations that happen to get you guys back into the groove with one another?

It's interesting because although it's my 17th film with Tim, he's still one of the more unpredictable directors. So I never quite know what he's looking for, or ever assume that, "oh yeah, piece of cake, I got this." In fact, less so with Tim than with other directors that I don't have a long relationship with, because he usually evolves a musical feeling about the movie, and it's not something we talk about a lot, but it's something I have to find just the same.

So he'll tell me some of his feelings, but I never quite know what's going to get it for him. And so I've learned with Tim that it's always wrong to go in thinking we've done this a lot of times — piece of cake. It's not going to be that way.

What were your guiding principles coming into Dumbo in terms of the themes from the original, the things that you wanted to preserve and the things that you knew you were going to depart from?

Departure is always the main thing with Tim. This is our third remake, and he usually doesn't want to touch on anything. But in this case, I felt that we should at least pay a tribute or homage to some of the really well-known themes.

The first obvious one is "Pink Elephants On Parade," and there is a kind of a crazy show that Dumbo watches of these elephant bubbles dancing in the air. And so I really had fun with that. That was great. But when we did "Casey Junior," the train sequence, at first he didn't want to touch on it. He wanted it to have its own thing.

But then as it went, I kept introducing little bits of the original "Casey Junior" and eventually he was like, "okay, that's good." So I was able to work in some "Casey Junior" into that sequence, although the bulk of the piece isn't. And "Baby Mine," fortunately that's just flat out on the screen being sung by a character. So that didn't need to have a kind of a sneaky homage, as it were.

Rewatching the original in anticipation of this, "Pink Elephants" sounds to me like music that you would have composed.

Yeah, and in fact, when I started the film it's the only piece of music that I knew. I hadn't actually ever seen the whole movie as a kid, and I watched it when we started and it was interesting because I remembered little bits of stuff. I didn't actually remember "Baby Mine," but I remembered "Casey Junior."

But "Pink Elephants," that was the one that I totally remembered and I was real happy when Tim said we're doing this kind of homage — a surrealistic piece where I could really kind of enjoy it and do my own version of it. So I think that was the most fun I had in the score.

When you are tackling a new project, do you think in terms of scenes or story elements — mischievous or romantic or sweeping — that are in your wheelhouse where you feel an automatic comfort? Or do you just know instinctively, based on your experiences, how to tackle them?

I don't even know what it feels like to have automatic comfort in anything. But I'm happy when thematically anything musically is "very" anything — if it's very sweet, I'm very happy with that. If it's very dark, I'm happy. If it's very mischievous, as you said, if it's very playful, if it's very romantic, all of these, I feel comfortable with. The only time I struggle is when it's just kind of a little bit this or a little bit that, and I'm not quite sure. As I've said frequently to directors, I'm really bad at what's supposed to be the easiest thing in the world — this is why I stopped doing romantic comedies decades ago — which is musical wallpaper. I just don't know how to do it. But once the movie slips into, this is romantic, or this is dark, I'm happy. I'm just as happy going in either direction.

Eva Green in Dumbo

And so in a movie like Dumbo, it's very sweet and I actually really love working thematically in an area that's very sweet — and it's very sad, and that makes me happier yet. Because the sadder my themes get, the happier I get writing them. And of course, I knew it would be sweeping when he flew and stuff like that. And although that doesn't scare me, I don't automatically go, I know just what to do. But at least with Tim, I don't know, because he's going to be very specific. When I'm doing stuff for Tim, I'll do it two or three different ways and play him different options and find in that process of experimenting with him where his center of gravity is going to be.

You've been doing this long enough that people are inspired by you and your work. How difficult or easy is it to escape your own influence and be able to be fully original and not feel like you are relying on techniques you've employed in the past?

It's hard to say. Because on the one hand, when you've written over a hundred film scores, it's incredibly difficult to totally not repeat something that you've done a hundred times. Because that means literally, I've written probably a hundred hours of music, which is a lot of music. But on the other hand, I'll always look for something that I feel like that's just a little bit unique. Or I could just do this one thing, and I know that is kind of reminiscent of this other thing, but it still feels fresh to me.

And so I'm always looking for ways to keep it fresh. But sometimes, the score simply doesn't want to be too fresh in a certain way. You have to go with the demands of the movie. And there's some movies I step into where it just wants to be totally fresh, and it's like, great! I'm totally outside of my wheelhouse, as you were saying. But when I'm in that wheelhouse and I'm enjoying what I'm writing, it's all good to me.

I didn't feel in Dumbo that I was ever doing, "this is the cue from this again, with just... different notes plugged in." So I still felt like it was a fresh score. It was fun. I got to touch on these bits of thematic things that were really enjoyable. And it'd be one thing if it was a movie that I didn't like the original music too and I was kind of forced to refer to it. That's happened to me a few times. But definitely, this was not that case. I was real eager to touch on the themes. And so it was just really a pleasure doing this score.