Director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman have collaborated as a directing and scoring duo for at least 17 films, beginning with 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. While many would believe that the long working relationship between the two would mean that they know what they want from each other, that wouldn’t be the case, at least, according to Elfman.
After working together on such contemporary favorites like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, the two join forces once again for Disney’s Dumbo, a live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1941 animated classic. In it, Colin Ferrell play Holt, a former circus star who finds his life turned upside down when he returns from World War I a changed man and is tasked with taking care of Dumbo, a new baby elephant whose giant ears make him the laughing stock of an already struggling circus. Little do they know that the elephant has a special talent that will not only save their circus, but also attract some persuasive entrepreneurs who will exploit that talent for their own greedy needs.
We were recently invited to sit down with our fellow journalists at the press conference for Dumbo. During that time, Elfman talked about his working relationship with the unpredictable Burton, creating new music inspired by a classic film, and more. Check out what he had to say here below.
Elfman, who is probably one of the most recognized composers in film, said that working with Burton is “less simple than a lot of other directors.”
There was no shorthand between the two and Elfman never knew what to expect from his unpredictable director. “I learned many years ago never to take for granted what I think he’s going to want,” Elfman said. The composer went on to describe their working process in which he said they have “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.”
“Talking about it beforehand doesn’t actually get us anywhere really,” Elfman said. “Because he’ll respond. He’ll respond to what he hears.”
These responses yielded the bittersweet music that audiences hear in the film, something that is a bit of a stark contrast to the triumphant music that we would normally hear from an Elfman score. But he did find that creative process very exciting. “I do try to put my themes a bit of an acid test. Which means I have the melody I like. Can I make it triumphant? Can I make it quirky? Can I make it silly? It’s like I’ve got to put it through each of these things,” Elfman said.” 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. That’s part of my process.”
But in creating that new music, Elfman said his approach was somewhat different because he never watched the animated original. He worked on it way in advance, something of which he has never done before. So after he created the music, played it, and then put it away, he came back to it a year later and was surprised by what he put out. “It’s always going to be a really interesting process musically getting to wherever we’re going to get,” Elfman said. “And I just never know where that’s going to be. And usually, it’s something that we have to find in the process. So I think it’s a good way to work actually.”
Dumbo opens in theaters on March 29, 2019.