You can't deny that Tim Burton is a masterful storyteller. The director's managed to do what many can't, creating his own brand of weird and wonderful stories fans have adored for over 30 years. And while Burton might be an expert when it comes to cinematic visuals and crafting oddball characters there's one thing he needs a little help on — making music. Thankfully, the filmmaker found a perfect partner and kindred spirit in the form of composer Danny Elfman.
Elfman's composed music for 15 of Burton's 18 directorial efforts, with the team bringing a signature brand of off-kilter movies to fans. But their collaboration extends beyond that of your average filmmaker/composer pairing, succeeding thanks to a shared love of the weird and a passion for experimentation that's brought some outsider flair to Hollywood.
Elfman's Early Years
Before jumping into the world of movies, Danny Elfman was the successful frontman of eclectic '80s band Oingo Boingo. The band served as a major outlet for Elfman's musical growth, starting in the early '70s with his older brother Richard as its leader. Originally called The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, the group launched as a theatrical music troupe that performed everything from Russian ballet compositions to '40s big band covers. But by the '80s, Danny was leading the group as its singer, transforming it into a smaller act focused more on music than theater.
Though he didn't aspire to be a film composer, Oingo Boingo helped prepare Elfman for his future career. He was one of the band's primary songwriters, and unique instrumentation including rock staples like guitars and bass and atypical offerings like trumpets, accordions and synthesizers forced Elfman and company to come up with some creative arrangements. And while Elfman was working on his wild arrangements, Burton was traveling on a parallel path, honing his filmmaking skills with experimental animation and live-action shorts.
The composer also grew up with another big influence — horror movies. Elfman devoured horror flicks as a kid, just like Burton, and thinks a shared love of horror has really helped their collaboration. As Elfman said in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone:
"We were both horror-film kids. We loved every horror film made in the Sixties and the Seventies. His idol was Vincent Price, mine was Peter Lorre. It kind of defined us for the next 30 years: Evil mastermind tortured doomed souls, both misunderstood."
Coming Together For Pee-wee
1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure marked a major milestone for both Burton and Elfman. It was the director's first feature and Elfman's first Hollywood job (he'd scored his brother's independent film Forbidden Zone back in 1980). The collaboration was started by Burton, who randomly reached out to Elfman to score the movie because he was a fan of Oingo Boingo. As the composer recalled:
"I got a call to meet this young animator on a movie, 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure,' and I knew who Pee-wee was 'cause I'd seen Paul Reubens perform at the Groundlings and I thought he was great. I had no idea who Tim was, of course. Nobody did. When I met him, it was like, 'Why me? Why would you want me to do a score? That's crazy.' Tim was like, 'I don't know. I've seen your band and I think you could do it.' It was kind of that simple."
The musician saw the movie as a pretty big challenge, but in the end decided to hop on board the project because of one guiding life principle:
"I slept on it and decided the single piece of anything that's guided my entire life was saying, 'Fuck it.' Like, 'I hope I don't wreck their movie.'"
The score for Big Adventure isn't the composer's most memorable, but it laid the foundation for his collaboration with Burton. The score differed from the Hollywood norm by blending Elfman's pop-rock sensibilities with a full orchestra, tossing in keyboards and quirky percussive effects with traditional brass and strings. Most importantly, it showed Elfman's ability to brach out into something new, something we'd really see with his third Burton movie.
The Challenge of Batman
By 1989, Elfman wasn't exactly a novice film composer. He'd scored 9 movies, including Burton's Beetlejuice as well as Back To School and Scrooged, but the biggest challenge of his career was yet to come. Of course, that challenge came with Burton's Batman, a milestone for the Dark Knight that resulted in a definitive take on the character thanks to the brilliant combination of the director's moody, gothic visuals and Elfman's dark score.
If Burton was considered a risky pick to direct Batman, Elfman was even more of a gamble to write its music. The composer had really only worked on comedies, something Batman certainly was not. The film required both a brooding but exciting score to set the stage for its atmospheric action, the sort of score Elfman had never created. His most "serious" film up until that point was probably Beetlejuice, which was ostensibly filled with darkness but had a sense of macabre humor that made Elfman's kooky style a good fit.
It didn't help that producers initially had a completely different vision of how to handle the film's music. Batman was originally going to have a pop score from the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson. There was even a period where Elfman was set to collaborate with Prince on the music, though when he and Burton presented an early version of the film's main theme producers decided to go with a full orchestral score instead.
Today, it seems absurd that Batman almost had a pop score — even if Prince's "Batdance" is an awesome track. Elfman's orchestral compositions are a driving force throughout the film, offsetting any reservations fans had about seeing the Caped Crusader brought to the big screen. From the opening credits, the music sets the stage for an original take on the hero thanks to Elfman's uniquely dark march. You'd expect a superhero's theme to be bright and majestic, but the main theme for Batman takes an alternate route by adding a mysterious and brooding vibe to its driving march. Before 1989, the comedic Batman TV show of the '60s was probably the version of the character most were familiar with, but Elfman's music made it clear to audiences that this Batman was something completely different. And the dark vibe that Burton and Elfman created in the film kicked off a new era of Batman, making the character more popular than ever before.
Shifting Styles For Different Stories
Elfman's scores stand out so much because of how they really accentuate the stories they service, and Burton's given him plenty of different challenges. He has a way of perfectly matching the director's films with a distinct musical style that differs from film to film. The change between Batman and 1990's Edward Scissorhands is a perfect example of that.
Epically dark orchestrations worked perfectly for Batman, but would have been overpowering for Edward Scissorhands. So, Elfman adapted to Burton's new tale, crafting a score that retained similar dark touches but with a more ethereal, almost fantasy-inspired feel that suited Burton's twisted suburban fairytale.
Similarly, when Burton set out to bring his stop-motion musical The Nightmare Before Christmas to life, he enlisted Elfman to write all of the songs. Burton didn't actually direct the movie, but Elfman's score still gave it a quintessential Burton-esque vibe. The pair worked extensively with each other to craft songs that fit the film's narrative, and when it came time to bring them to life Burton and director Henry Selick brought on Elfman himself to sing as lead loner Jack Skellington. It was like his career came full circle, combining the performing style he'd perfected alongside Oingo Boingo with composing skills developed over years of working with Burton. And casting the composer in a leading role really illustrates how close Burton and Elfman's relationship has been over the years.
Why The Collaboration Works
After 30-plus years, we've come to expect Danny Elfman music when we see a Tim Burton movie, but that collaboration hasn't always been easy. As the composer noted in an interview with The Guardian:
"With Tim, I've never been unhappy with where we've ended up, but most of the time we've had to spiral around quite a bit to get there. Writing the score is the easy part. Getting into the director's head and understanding their psyche is what's hard. But that's what you need to do. You have to be half-composer, half-psychiatrist."
While the two might jump back and forth between ideas, it's their shared interests that ultimately fosters understanding. They both love horror and the macabre, they both have a passion for experimentation and are both willing to take on bold creative challenges. Before meeting, they each carved out their own niches in respective artistic fields — Elfman with the oddball music of Oingo Boingo and Burton with his distinctive short films — but coming together allowed them to make a mark on Hollywood and pop culture as a whole. Tim Burton's movies would simply feel incomplete without the mesmerizing music of Danny Elfman.
Be sure to check out the rest of our Tim Burton Fanzine for more on the inspiring director and his weird work.