Danny Elfman on Tim Burton, DUMBO and Film Composition


When Walt Disney Studios tapped Tim Burton to direct the live-action retelling of DUMBO, Burton’s whole creative team climbed aboard this Casey Jr. train. This includes Danny Elfman, frontman and songwriter of Oingo Boingo and now legendary film composer in his own right. Elfman’s filmography spans nearly 3 decades, with his collaboration with Burton beginning in 1985 with PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. Since then the Burton / Elfman filmography spans 17 films, including EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, BATMAN, BATMAN RETURNS, PLANET OF THE APES and now, DUMBO.

In a rare treat at Disney’s DUMBO press conference held on March 10th in Beverly Hills (my birthday!), not only did we hear from the actors, producers and director, but also composer Danny Elfman. He shares quite a bit about his composition process, his collaboration with Tim Burton and just how he feels about scoring really, really sad moments. And since this is DUMBO, well, there are quite a few.

When I wrote Dumbo’s theme, I wrote it as a bittersweet sad theme. Because that’s always what makes me excited. And the sadder it is writing it, the happier I get as a composer.

~Danny Elfman

What’s the process like between you and Tim Burton at this point?

Danny Elfman:  This is our 17th film and I still never know what to expect from Tim at all. His mind is strange and interesting. And I learned many years ago never to take for granted what I think he’s going to want. When we start a film, he’ll say very little about the music. We have a thing called a spotting session where we go through the whole film top to bottom and break it down into all the musical parts and give them all a name and a number. If the movies is two hours, it will be two and a half hours. Real quick. When there’s music to hear, then he’ll talk. Then I’ll do a lot of ideas and I’ll get the sense. Oh, okay. This one is the one you’re responding to. So this is something that we’ve learned together.

I’ve done over 100 films. And most of my favorites are Tim’s movies. But I won’t say that many of those weren’t without great challenges. If I like the result, whether it was a slam dunk easy thing or really took a long process to find – it becomes irrelevant to me. It’s only the end product that matters, it’s all you remember later anyhow. It’s kind of like having kids. If you remember the first year, you never want to look at another kid again. But then they’re so cute and it’s so great. You forget all that part. Then you go’ yeah. Kids are great!’ I find film scores to be somewhat similar. In the middle, I often say ‘I’ll never do this again. I’m done’. And then at the end, if it came out well, then I go ‘yeah, sure, I’ll do this again. It wasn’t so hard. Was it hard?’ I don’t remember!

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) Rick Heinrichs; Colleen Atwood; Danny Elfman; Ehren Kruger; Justin Springer

How did you score DUMBO in particular?

Unlike any other film I’ve done with Tim, I knew way in advance I was going to be working on DUMBO. Now I didn’t know a lot about Dumbo because I didn’t see it as a kid. But I remembered a baby elephant loses his mom. That’s going to be bittersweet.   And I had a musical idea. I went and I wrote it, played it, finished it, and put it away. And I’ve never done that before with Tim beforehand. A year later I came back. And that’s Dumbo’s theme right now. So it was kind of a unique moment that I hadn’t experienced.

When Dumbo flies, the theme is triumphant. How did you hear that particular theme and compare and contrast it with other triumphant scores you’ve done?

ELFMAN:  When I wrote Dumbo’s theme, I wrote it as a bittersweet sad theme. Because that’s always what makes me excited. And the sadder it is writing it, the happier I get as a composer.

I do try to put my themes to a bit of an acid test. Which means when I have a melody I like, can I make it triumphant? Can I make it quirky? Can I make it silly? I’ve got to put it through each of these things. Whatever it is going to be asked to do, I need to know that it will do that. I don’t want to find out when I get there ‘that oh my God, this music just doesn’t want to get big or triumphant.’

As for Dumbo’s theme, I didn’t know at that point there would be quite as much triumph. Very early on, Tim said, ‘I like that. Whenever Dumbo is in the air, do that thing.’ He was very specific. Once I hit on that once, Tim really caught onto that moment. The word he used the most in the score was “soaring”. He really wants to make sure that Dumbo soars.

And I go, ‘but don’t we want Dumbo to be heartbreaking? When he leaves his mother?’ Tim countered, ‘Yeah, yeah, that will be fine. But he soars!’ There will be one element of the thing that he’s really focused on and the rest of it will be, ‘that’s fine. You’re doing fine. It’s all fine. Sad stuff is all fine.’

But the thing that excited me the most was that there’s going to be some heartbreak in there. That’s really where I get my jollies!

What is the difference between composing music for film vs. writing your own music?

ELFMAN: I started out as a film composer, I didn’t start out writing orchestral music for myself. I had never heard an orchestra play until I heard PeeWee’s Big Adventure. I literally had never stood close to an orchestra or dreamed that I would. So my upbringing was film music. I always intended when I was a teenager to work in film, not music. I didn’t take lessons and I didn’t play any instruments. The two things in film I never expected to do was act because I knew I couldn’t act and music because I didn’t really do music. It’s just weird that it worked out that way. I wanted to be an editor or a writer or a cinematographer. Anything but music. So that’s what I ended up doing.

It was really over the course of these years writing for orchestral scores that I began to feel more of a need to write outside for concert stage. And mainly because when I started doing Elfman/Burton shows, we started touring these all over the world doing full concerts of essentially 15 scores reduced down. And I saw that there was this hungry, large audience that were coming to see orchestras play.

I felt that there is a world that can bring classical music listeners and these film fans together. That there were two separate audiences but they shouldn’t be. So I got motivated to write concert pieces that would possibly bridge these audiences. I remember when we were at the Lincoln Center playing. And this guy was there from the Met. He was going God, I would kill to get this audience into the Met. Because our audience tends to be a younger, very energeticand frequently in costumes. So I found a bridge between these two worlds which I love very much.

Meeting Danny Elfman

It was an honor to hear Danny Elfman talk about his composition process. Later that day in the press area, I had just took a big bite of a Dumbo cupcake when I saw Elfman walk right by my couch through the press area. I jumped up and luckily my husband, Richard, was there to say, “Excuse me, Mr. Elfman?” Because I was a bit tongue-tied. He turned right around and was so gracious as I haltingly told him how much his music has meant to me over the years. We took a picture and that marks the 2nd film composer I’ve met on my birthday! It really is the best gift ever.

For those of you who are dying to see DUMBO, I also managed to tell Elfman that the first three minutes of the soundtrack and film, referencing “Casey, Jr. Comin’ Down The Track”, is absolutely my favorite moment of the film. Those first three minutes are worth the price of your movie ticket! Walt Disney Studio’s DUMBO soars (see what I did there??) into U.S. theaters Friday, March 29th. Check out this heartwarming film with your family and make sure to bring tissues!

For more behind-the-scenes stories from Tim Burton, costume designer Colleen Atwood, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and so many more, check out my article on Adventures By Daddy.

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