Danny Elfman Talks Scoring Tim Burton Films: ‘I Thrived on Negative Energy’

Danny Elfman: Sachyn Mital, (c) 2022 Sachyn Mital, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons / Beetlejuice: Warner Bros.
Published on:

As one of the most brilliant film composers of our time, Danny Elfman has worked on a tremendous number of films; among his scores, he is most well known for his work in Tim Burton’s movies.

Recently, Elfman chatted with the folks over at GQ and talked about the various scores he’s worked on for Burton’s movies. He starts off by talking about his work on Beetlejuice, and it’s while talking about the film’s score that he brings up some interesting insight into what his mindset was like as a young artist.

Elfman talks about what it was like to work with Burton and actor Michael Keaton, the latter who played the titular Beetlejuice. The composer says he had a lot of freedom to do what he wanted and when it came to creating the score, he wanted to create music that captured the energy of Keaton’s performance.

Speaking about the Beetlejuice score, Elfman says (as transcribed by The Pit):

“It was a really deceptively hard score to play; I didn’t realize it at the time. Just the simplicity of [mimics music from Beetlejuice with voice while moving his hand to the rhythm], really strict times. Half the brass section going [mimics more music], off-beats like that. And there’s a tendency to want to let it swing [mimics more music]. It was like ‘No, no, no, no!’ And poor tuba players turning blue [mimcs playing tuba], without a break just like on and on and on.”

The composer then goes on to share that there was an effort to record this score for a “best of” album, but the conductor found the process of playing the score to be frustrating. Per Elfman, he says the conductor and his group started to play the score, but not that long in, the conductor threw the music paper containing the score on the ground. The conductor then supposedly said, “This shit is unplayable.”

And it’s here where Elfman says that, as a young artist, witnessing such negativity was actually a thrill for him. “It’s like, I’m enjoying this,” Elfman says in regard to what took place with the conductor. “I mean, weirdly, this kind of weird stuff was really fun for me. You know, I came from many years with Oingo Boingo, and I was a total brat; I was out to aggravate everybody. I don’t know how else to explain it… I thrived on negative energy. In the same way that, if you want to kill Godzilla you’re not gonna kill him with radiation because he was made from radiation; so you hit him with an atomic anything, he just gets stronger. And that was me with negative energy, both with Oingo Boingo and as a film composer.”

A lot of folks would probably say that thriving off of negative energy isn’t a great practice for creating art, but in Danny Elfman’s case, feeding off negativity apparently worked for him. You can check out the full feature with Elfman and GQ below. When it comes to the Tim Burton movie scores he has made, which one is your favorite?

Danny Elfman reflects on his most iconic Tim Burton scores