Danny Elfman is a huge success, but he doesn’t want you to know it. Humility is a hard thing to hang your hat on when you’ve accumulated four Academy Award nominations, taken home a Grammy, and an Emmy and written some of the most popular theme music of all time, notably for “The Simpsons” and his many collaboration with filmmaker Tim Burton. But that doesn’t stop Elfman from trying.
Sitting in his magnificent recording studio and loft, a hidden gem in one of the sketchier parts of the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, the composer projects the calm demeanor of a man who’s wonderfully secure with where he is in life. “Finally, at this point in my career, I can say I’m in the circus,” Elfman says, and laughs.
His newest work, a collaboration with the seemingly unstoppable Cirque du Soleil, is IRIS, a salute to cinema playing at the Kodak Theater. And while Cirque and the former Oingo Boingo leader might not seem to be the most natural collaborators – Cirque previously turned to music icons like the Beatles and Elvis Presley for inspiration – it’s turned out to be a match made in circus heaven.
As Elfman tells it, his collaboration with Cirque was actually a happy sort of accident. He was in New York, and a friend invited him to see a dance performance. When Elfman arrived at the show, he realized it was a solo piece and started to panic, but his friend assured him that he’d heard it was fabulous. “I was just imaging the worst… and it was this amazing show by this artist Phillipe Decoufle…it wasn’t at all what I was imagining. It was really entertaining, and I came out thinking, God, I’ve gotta work with this guy someday.”
Six months later, a call came in to Elfman’s film agent telling him Cirque du Soleil wanted him to collaborate on their new show. Elfman’s agent asked if he was interested. “I said, ‘who’s the director?’ And they go, ‘Oh, somebody you wouldn’t have heard of, a French choreographer named Phillipe Decoufle.’” Elfman accepted the job on the spot.
For Elfman, the chance to work with the circus was a homecoming of sorts. “I began performing at the age of 18 and did eight years of theater before I ever started a band,” says Elfman. “The first troupe I ever performed with was, ironically, a French musical theatrical troupe called Le Grande Magic Circus, so in a way this was bringing me back full circle. I was a theater street performer for years, I banged out there on the pavement, I blew fire and played trombone and fiddle, and I have a whole part of my life that goes back to that.”
Elfman’s past exploits proved a great way to connect with Cirque’s owner and creative force, Guy Laliberte, who also worked as a fire-breather in his youth. But even Elfman’s past experience didn’t mean things were easy. “There really were moments where I thought it was impossible, I thought the whole thing was a failed idea; and then I’d go to rehearsals, and every time I went to a rehearsal I’d get pulled into their energy, and their heart, and their commitment, and I’d come back all inspired, going ‘this can be done and this will be done, and if they can commit this energy and dedication to what they’re doing, I can certainly do the same.’”
However, the process of composing for circus was new to Elfman. He was used to collaborating with directors, tailoring his music for a single artistic vision, but with Cirque du Soleil, he found himself working one-on-one with some of the performers to give them what they needed. “It was really quite a constant collaboration with Phillipe, and then also with Shana [Carroll, the acrobatic performance designer], and in collaboration with the specific acrobats.”
One of the performers, an incredibly skilled acrobat who does an awe-inspiring routine where she seems to defy gravity while balancing on one hand, came to Elfman with a specific request. “I need something with a pulse,” she told him. So he set to work writing her a piece that would complement her routine. It’s one of the most beautiful, emotional moments in the show.
Elfman found working on IRIS thrilling. “I’ve been to a lot of Cirque shows,” he says. “I never feel that anything can go wrong. They’re beautiful in their mechanized precision, they’ve got these stages that do these incredible things, a million gallons of water, you’ve got the entire stage lifting into the air and turning vertical and 180 degrees and stuff like that, and here there’s absolutely nothing fancy about what the stage does…it’s all human, and you feel that they can fail at any moment. This show is much more circus than any Cirque du Soleil show that I’ve seen.”
Elfman has now witnessed performers slip up in preview performances of IRIS, and he’s also seen the crowd’s thrilled reaction when they succeed on the second try. “It reminds me of when I was in the theater, and we were doing an incredibly difficult musical solo, and my trumpet player had to end with this high note that was really hard, and he missed it. It was the end of the song, and he went for it again, and he missed it, and he went for it a third time, and by that point all of us were having heart attacks backstage, and he hit it—and I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen a bigger reaction in all the years of performing in my group than I did in that moment. That’s the real stuff, and I love that part of it, it’s terrifying.”
The irony of IRIS being staged at the Kodak Theatre hasn’t escaped Elfman. He’s often said that he doesn’t believe he’ll ever win an Oscar, and having his music grace the stage where the annual Oscars ceremony takes place, night after night, is a strange treat. “It’s funny, because I’ve always avoided going to the Kodak,” says Elfman, who now finds that the theater feels like a bit of a second home after going there daily to run the soundboard for the preview performances of IRIS.
“I really don’t like going to awards ceremonies,” Elfman muses. “If you give me a choice between attending the Grammys or the Academy Awards or any of these ceremonies or having a root canal, it would be a tough choice.”
Elfman credits some of his aversion to awards shows to his Judaic roots. “Modesty in one’s accomplishments is actually, I’ve learned, a Jewish tradition, and I wasn’t taught that, but it’s like a core part of my belief,” he says. “I can never sit there and go ‘I’ve done a magnificent thing, my child’s the most beautiful child on the planet.’ I just can’t do that.”
Growing up in what he describes as a “not atypical Jewish family that wasn’t particularly religious,” Elfman remembers the religious rituals that dotted his childhood. “We celebrated Passover and the major holidays. I was bar-mitzvahed, like most kids in my generation.”
Elfman’s quick to point out that his Judaism only extends so far, though he’s proud to talk about it, and speaks thoughtfully on the subject. “I’m not a religious person, and I cannot pretend that I am. On the other hand as soon as I became a composer, I was deeply aware of the Jewish cultural roots that are embedded in my DNA.”
Elfman calls Jewish music, particularly Russian, his “constant reference” for his film compositions. “It really became abundantly evident when I was writing “Edward Scissorhands.” There’s nothing remotely Jewish about this film, [but] the theme is totally Jewish… A lot of directors would have gone ‘Well Edward’s not Jewish, why do we have a Jewish sounding theme?’ Tim [Burton] doesn’t think that way, he’s strictly emotional. He goes, ‘Oh, I love this,’ and hence Edward got a theme which there’s no way you can claim isn’t directly related to Jewish musical tradition in Eastern Europe.”
“We have a musical propensity built into our race that surfaces,” says Elfman. “It’s no coincidence that calling an orchestra session on the Fourth of July is hard, but calling it on Passover is harder.”
While Elfman is proud of his Jewish roots, he also knows that some people see him as a less than perfect Jew. “I remember having a cousin once at a Passover dinner at my grandparents who took me aside and just tore into me and said that I’m destroying Judaism, personally. Why? Because my wife’s Catholic. How could I have anything in common with a Catholic?” The accusation hurt both Elfman and his wife, but it hasn’t shaken his connection to his cultural heritage.
“I thought, well, maybe I’m just such a bad Jew, and then I realized later in life that, no, the connection to Judaism is much more than just going to Temple and beyond the bar-mitzvah; it’s something that runs deep.”
Being an outsider, a man caught between worlds, is something that Elfman’s used to. It’s a role he’s relished his whole life. “I’ve always loved the idea of being something of an underdog,” he says. “I was actually a little disappointed when I got my first (Academy Award) nomination. I had like a fantasy of being the most successful composer never to have gotten a nomination.”
When asked about Burton’s retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art that’s now on display at LACMA, Elfman beams. “When I met Tim he was like a kid…I was in a rock band, and he was like an animator kid, and my career was launched strictly because of his, what I thought was an absurd belief, that I could write a film score. Neither one of us could ever have imagined in our wildest dreams that I would end up being played at Carnegie Hall or that he would end up having a retrospective at MOMA.”
The recognition Burton’s received from the art world is still elusive in the film world. When the subject of whether Elfman thinks Burton will ever receive an Academy Award nomination for best director is brought up, Elfman smiles. “I hope for his sake, that, like myself, he doesn’t really care.”
Elfman sees awards as something to be avoided, not sought out. “I don’t take awards themselves seriously. Every award I’ve won has gone straight to my mother’s house. I feel like it’s bad luck to even keep them in my house. I have a hardcore policy of never believing in awards.”
“I actually look at the awards as a religion unto itself as practiced in Hollywood,” Elfman continues. “The Academy Awards is a religion, and I absolutely refuse to practice that religion. That statue is something of a god.”
The subject tickles Elfman. A little twinkle in his eye, he adds: “I have no doubt that were one to be able to sacrifice their own children the day before the nominations for the awards were given out, to end up with that statue, there’d be a lot of missing children on nomination day.”
He laughs half-heartedly, knowing what he’s said is both crazy enough to be humorous, and truthful enough to be sad.
All bashing aside, Elfman still has a deep respect for what the Academy does. “It gets people interested in movies, and I support anything that gets people interested in movies. Nobody would ever see a documentary or an animated short…were it not for their awards”
As for future plans, Elfman currently has four movies lined up. Winona Ryder was just in his studio doing some work for Burton’s upcoming film “Frankenweenie.” “I had to do a pre-record… there’s a piece that Winona… has to sing on camera, that the animated character sings. And you have to record all the voices first, so we recorded Winona here, singing this little song, so they could animate her scene.”
Asked whether he has any plans to turn his cult hit with Burton, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” into a stage musical in time for its upcoming 20th anniversary, Elfman’s quick to sweep the notion aside. “People have talked about that since it came out; I’m not interested. I can’t picture it. I’m not a big Broadway fan. I really like the idea of doing something for Broadway, but when I do something for Broadway, I want it to be really different.”
Elfman plans to keep taking more creative side projects, like “IRIS,” in the future, though. “I have to do something every year that’s not film,” he says. “I’m dying to write a suite of chamber music for piano and percussion.”
Through all his success, Elfman strives to remember what got him where he is today. Whenever he starts to get a big head, he reminds himself to “Never start over-thinking that I’ve done anything too well or too good. Work really really hard, and then always remember that you can do better and never ever brag about how great you are or what you’ve done.”