'Dumbo' Composer Danny Elfman Never Saw the Original As a Kid
When you think of the plutonic ideals of creative partnerships, it’s hard not to think about filmmaker Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. The two have collaborated on countless classic films, everything from “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” (the first film for either of them) to “Beetlejuice” to “Batman” to “Edward Scissorhands.” These aren’t only amazing movies with equally impressive scores, but they’re also some of the best work either artist have done. You get the sense that they bring out the best in one another.
Their latest collaboration is “Dumbo,” a magical adaptation of the animated classic that sees the big-eared elephant taking flight for an entirely new generation. (It’s really, really great.) This is the second animation-to-live-action translation the duo have tackled, after 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and for this one, Elfman got to carry over some of the more memorable musical motifs from the earlier film. We got to sit down with Elfman and talked about getting those older themes into the movie, what his process with Burton is like, and just how seriously he’s taken his status as an official Disney Legend.
You've done a lot of really interesting scores recently with electronics and different instrumentation. How did you decide that this is going to be a big, classic score?
There’s no question “Dumbo” is going to be old school in the construction. It's a classic movie and it's also a period movie. There's was nothing about it that says synthesizers, you know? I think that was pretty clear from the get go. And the trick was how to find some way to make it still feel that a fresh score.
And then I did want to do these homage moments in the score, which I felt was very important.
You get to do “Pink Elephants on Parade” and there’s a “Casey Junior” motif.
And then “Baby Mine” was in there, so I didn't have to worry about that one. But “Pink Elephants” was the one piece I was really fond of from the original. And so when he said, “Well, we're doing this scene with these dancing elephants.” And my first thought was: “Pink Elephants on Parade.” And I know Tim doesn't like necessarily doing that. Previously he's not allowed me to … When we did “Batman,” the first thing he said is, “You would never touch the TV theme.” When we did “Planet of the Apes,” we never touched on the original. When we did “Charlie and Chocolate Factory,” never nothing, we are not ever referring musically to anything there.
So this time around it's like think, “Pink Elephants on Parade” is a pretty good tune. And he was like, “Okay, all right.” You know, he kind of grew into it. And then I was a little sneakier with the “Casey Junior” stuff. Because I'd written the whole piece of music and there was no “Casey Junior.” Then I snuck it in at the end and a little bit earlier. But then he added the sequence in the middle. That scene got longer and I said, “This is my moment!” We tunnel scene. I did pure “Casey Junior” for 16 bars and he said, ”Alright.” So I was really happy.
I like it when you do have like a classic theme. It goes back to this period musically of stuff that I really like and the tunes they used to do then. And it was the same with the one I just did – “The Grinch.” I really wanted to have a little bit of the original in there and I just feel like it's correct to do that.
What was your relationship with the original “Dumbo?”
I didn't ever see it as a kid. As a kid, uh, we boycotted the movie if they did an animation at all. I boycotted the theater. So when “Mary Poppins” played, nobody I knew saw it. We all stayed away and went to another theater. We only wanted monsters, period. Science fiction monsters and some action adventure, but preferably action adventure with monsters. We didn't ever want to see what we called “kids’ movies.”
So, you know, animations were “kids’ movies” and we didn't want to see “kids’ movies.” So I went back and I saw it when Tim called me about the movie. And it was odd because I know I've seen sequences from it, I just never saw it all put together. I knew Dumbo loses his mom and that's going to make some good sad music for me and I'm going to be very happy about that. But musically it's like, Oh, of course I knew “Pink Elephants on Parade.” I don't know quite how I knew it, but it was like definitely part of my musical DNA. “Baby Mine” I didn't know as well, but I knew that also, I'm not really going to touch on that one, but “Casey Junior,” it's like, yeah, I know that tune. That's a good tune. It's just a good tune and a on that basis alone, I got to find a way to get some “Casey Junior” in the room.
How has your relationship with Tim changed over the years? Because you've been working together for 33, 34 years …
If they say the 30th for “Batman” is coming up, then it's actually going to be 34, closer to 35. I don't know. it hasn't really changed that much. He's very unpredictable. I never take them for granted in terms of, I know exactly what he's going to like. We don't have a musical shorthand like people think. It's still a process of figuring out what's in his head and he also has to learn what it is he's really for musically out of it. There's going to be an experimental process of trying lots of ideas and figuring out through listening.
When we first see the film together, he'll say almost nothing. Until I had music to play, you know, there's nothing to talk about. And then when I'm playing the music, he can go, “oh yeah, that.” I might get him two, three, or even four choices. Then he’ll listen to it and go, “That one's getting into the right area.” It's through that process that I go, “All right, I'm starting to figure him out in this movie.”
Have you ever composed music that he plays on set?
No. It's always later. However, this was a rare exception of when they first got the call, before I went to work that night on a whatever film I was doing, I had a theme in my head. I got to a thing just from talking to Derek Frey, the producer, about it. And I decided to write it down because I've learned years ago, you never let an idea go. It’s the big fish theory, the ones that getaway are the best ideas you ever had. Always. And I wrote this theme down. I played it, I made a demo, I stashed it away and I didn't listen to it for another year. And I pulled it out. I had no idea what I'd done and I was like, “You know, that's not bad.” It actually became the main theme to “Dumbo.” But that's the first time that's ever happened.
I was there a few years ago when you were crowned a Disney Legend. Have you taken this ambassadorship seriously?
I have not yet been able to take advantage of that ambassadorship. I haven't been to Disneyland since then. If I did I’d get to go, “I am an ambassador!” It hasn't gotten me upgraded on any plane flights or hotels yet to my understanding, to my knowledge. But you never know. When you were an ambassador the diplomatic immunity hasn't protected me from, the last couple of bodies I buried out in the Angeles National Forest. I keep going, “I'm an ambassador, don’t I get immunity for this kind of stuff?” No.
“Dumbo” soars into theaters on March 29th.