“I guess when somebody's into shrunken heads you hear about other people who are too.”
For a composer whose work is so identifiably theatrical and full of urgent, irresistible emotion, Danny Elfman is surprisingly mellow in person. Welcomed into his outwardly nondescript Silverlake, California studio, Elfman crossed the floor to meet his guest in bare feet, cargo pants and a well-worn t-shirt, offering a sparkling water as he asked an assistant for an early coffee. The ordinariness of his demeanor was slightly betrayed by the building’s cavernous space, occupied in every corner by collectibles and bits of ephemera, from an original Jack Skellington armature perched high out of reach to a wall full of copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, protected in mylar sleeves and arranged chronologically. And then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, Danny Elfman asked to show off his shrunken head collection.
That juxtaposition between the quietly identifiable and the shockingly melodramatic has served Elfman as a composer for almost 40 years, creating some of the most vivid scores of that era in so many of the genres that FANGORIA readers call home - albeit not horror, Elfman would later insist. (Don’t worry. We get into this later.) His collaboration with Tim Burton, which began in 1985, is not only the best latter-day equivalent to the iconic teaming of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, but has become a standard-bearer for the close, sometimes contentious, but always fruitful partnership between two complementary but fiercely individualistic artists working together to create something bigger and bolder than themselves. And yet, like with so many other of the most vivid and unique elements of his career, Elfman discovered the appeal of talismans and curios - including a mummified monkey’s paw, which he carefully but proudly placed in my hands within the first ten or 15 minutes of sitting down together - all by himself, and simply by opening himself to the possibilities of a world that often hides its weirdness behind a façade of understated normalcy.
For more than 90 minutes, Elfman recently spoke with FANGORIA about his illustrious and multifaceted career. The occasion for the chat was, by Danny Elfman standards, perhaps surprisingly mundane: he’s ventured onto social media, and wants to alert his legion of fans about the wealth of material, including insider information about his work space, he hopes to post on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. But because nothing about the composer is “routine,” Elfman spoke freely and passionately about the fits and starts, triumphs and disappointments he’s faced since he started giving moviegoers music that would serve as the scores to their fandom, and even their lives.
FANGORIA: When did you start collecting shrunken heads?
Danny Elfman: 25, 30 years ago. The first one was when I was touring with the band in New Orleans. There was an antique collector where I got a number of great things, and he showed me my first shrunken head. And then it was actually Jonathan [Davis] from Korn about 20 something years ago; I got a call from him out of the blue and he goes “I heard you were into heads,” and he introduced me to a collector in Toronto. Billy Jamison was his name. He's gone now, unfortunately, but I got four or five more heads from him. Tim Burton got one from him too. It's a small world, so I guess when somebody's into heads you hear about other people who are too.
FANGORIA: Have you always nursed that curiosity in occult artifacts?
Elfman: In fact, yeah. When I was 18 years old, I was planning a trip through North Africa, India and Asia back to LA, like a year thing, but just totally got sidetracked. I ended up being hired as a fiddle player with a French musical theatrical troop, and through them I got interested in these fetishes, like the one on that shelf there in Mali where they frequently traveled. I became infatuated with Mali, where I started seeing the ‘magic women’ in the marketplace and she would have powders and rooster claws laid out. Once this woman sees me looking and without saying anything, she picks up this object and she says “pour vous, monsieur?” and it's a mummified monkey's hand, which in that part of the world is strong stuff. It was mummified in 1971, so it's old. But that kind of started my collecting and then a second object I found on the streets of Bonica, which is still one of my rarest objects, was this carved skeleton and it was like nothing I'd seen. It was very not African. And in fact it was very South American, Latin American, a grinning skeleton finger, but it's carved out a one solid piece of bone. And it's big. And I still haven't figured out. But that started at 18, and by the time I was back I already had a first half dozen things and it just never stopped, because I’ve got three places and they're all filled with stuff and I'm one running out. It's like, God, I need more shelf space, more display space. It's crazy.
FANGORIA: Your tenure with Oingo Boingo is well known. But when you transitioned into film music, were you an active student of classical music or opera?
Elfman: I didn’t know classical music at all. But I knew film and I loved film music since I was about 12. And that was all because of Bernard Herrmann and that started with The Day the Earth Stood Still. And then I realized there was a name to go with the music that I liked - it wasn't just magically there. And I grew up on these Harryhausen films in the ‘60s. So if I saw Harryhausen and Herrmann in the credits it would be my favorite film of the year - Jason and the Argonauts, Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. I hadn't yet discovered Hitchcock because in those formative years, the first movie that came out of Hitchcock's that had a Herrmann score of course was Psycho, and it's the only movie my mom wouldn't let me see in my entire life growing up. So I was yet to discover that my favorite composer was going to become my doubly favorite composer a few years later when not only did I see Psycho, but then saw the rest of Hitchcock's work. And as a teenager I became a huge fan. And so when I got asked in ‘85 to score Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, scoring film had never been something I considered. But I was a fan, so I've often described it like this: if you've lived in LA for a long time and you've seen Laker games for many, many decades, you'd see Jack Nicholson sitting courtside. And it's like, as if somewhere along the way somebody got injured and they said, “Jack, get on the floor,” and tossed him the ball, it was kind of like that.
FANGORIA: What was the process like for you of decoding what instruments or composition could help you tap into certain kinds of specific feelings?
Elfman: I had no idea. I just watched movies and also the fact that there was a career before Oingo Boingo which is less known, which was the Mystic Knights, I considered to be a waste of time because it was all acoustic music, 12 musicians. But that's where I taught myself to write, because I was in my twenties and I was obsessed with the era of 1931 through 1935 or 6 Harlem, Paris and my first instrument was a violin only because I listened to Django Reinhardt and I wanted to learn to play Stephane Grappelli solos. And I learned that if I was going to do it correctly, I had to learn to write it down - that was my ear training. And now a decade later I'm in a rock band, and it's like, what the fuck was that for? Because in a rock band you don't write down music. And then in ‘85 along comes Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. And I went through like this moment of like, it's been about five years since I've written, and I barely knew then. And so I just kind of started, and fortunately for me, Pee-Wee was a very simple score and so it was a great start. And so I was lucky to be at that place at that time and I was lucky that I didn't give a shit about what anybody thought of my work cause I had a day job. Because I really just wrote a score that I didn't expect anybody to like - Tim liked it, but I expected the studio to throw it out. The first images I saw of Pee-Wee was him riding the bicycle in this bicycle race, and it just reminded me of a 1960s Italian comedy. And this whole thing has a timeless kind of retro vibe to it. So I felt like the music should do that, and I just dove right in. So it was a lucky break insofar as that from that moment, every quirky comedy produced in Hollywood was coming to me and I had to get an agent because it's like, this crazy. Everybody wanted that sound. And that's luck. Because if it had happened four or five years earlier or later, it may not have happened.
FANGORIA: When you worked on projects that might more naturally draw on those composers who inspired you, like Sleepy Hollow or Dark Shadows, do you think about it as making your own version of a Bernard Herrmann score - or drawing on those influences?
Elfman: No, I mean there's moments where I've done a piece of music and I go, oh, this is getting Herrmannesque, and sometimes it's on purpose. When I did the main titles of Red Dragon, it was kind of intentionally an homage to Herrmann. Whereas usually it's not so much an homage to Herrmann, but there are certain sounds or things I'll do that get Herrmannesque. I literally can't write for muted French horns, because he owns to me a French horn with a metal mute playing a simple chord in a certain way. So I'm always aware that’s a Herrmann thing. But none of those scores was I intentionally going, this will be a Bernard Herrmann homage, specifically at least. But it's very possible that I would do that subconsciously. So you might be a better judge of that than me cause you might hear a certain work and go, oh, that's very Herrmannesque and I might not even have thought that it was. That's really a judgment better made by a listener than the composer.
FANGORIA: As a fan of so many of your earliest scores it feels like you developed a very identifiable style fairly quickly and cohesively. At what point did you start to identify how to create this sort of gothic mood that people would know you for?
Elfman: I don't know. I wasn't thinking about any of that. To me, it's just like do something that fits this movie. I was struggling to get one or two scores in between each of his scores with the band, and that was hard. Pee-Wee was one, Beetlejuice was five, Batman was 10, it would have been perfect if Edward Scissorhands was 15, but it was 14. But I couldn't have done Beetlejuice had I not been in the studio three more times after Pee-Wee. I definitely couldn't have done Batman if it had been my first or second or third film. Those first nine films I was attempting to, the way I describe it as increasing the size of my toolbox, so there are more tools available, more colors available. And by the time Batman came, it's like I saw it and it was one of those things where it just went right.
FANGORIA: You did Tales From The Crypt, Nightbreed, and Darkman, which is sort of an action-horror movie to me. When did that young cinephile become a student of other composers or scores that inspired you to explore the genre?
Elfman: I always was a cinephile, and the thing is, it's just ironic over my career that I've done so little horror. I was a horror kid. There on that rack behind you, that was my entire childhood. Famous Monsters of Filmland, that's what I lived for. I was definitely a monster kid from the era of monsters and it's what bonded Tim and I when we met. His idol was Vincent Price and mine was Peter Lorre. And of course, so frequently in the films, it was Vincent Prince torturing Peter Lorre. It says a lot about us - Vincent Price, the evil mastermind and Peter Lorre perpetually tortured soul. But it's like anybody who loves a musical art form, you just listen. And I can't really define what it is I was listening for, but I would hear what seemed to work and what seemed to not work, and where the line was between like getting whimsical and getting ridiculous, and when it's okay to be ridiculous. There's all these lines - corny, when it's okay to be corny, when it's not okay. Like in a Sam Raimi film, you can just get corny as hell, because Sam was a corny guy himself, admittedly. So you can get very melodramatic. Ultimately I'm the kind of composer that likes anything that says “Very,” so if it's very dark, very melodramatic, very romantic, very stupid, very absurd, I'm happy as long as I can go in a direction.
FANGORIA: It’s interesting how consistently you found collaborators who fed those impulses in you. The Frighteners is one of my favorite movies, and Peter Jackson has a sensibility that dovetails directly into that. Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, where there are those sort of Gothic and scary and funny and operatic and romantic elements all at the same time. How difficult was it to find those people?
Elfman: They would find me. I mean, I would have a list of if certain people called, they were automatically yes. Peter Jackson because of Heavenly Creatures. With Gus van Sant, it was Drugstore Cowboy, and then My Own Private Idaho. Sam Raimi, Evil Dead, of course - Evil Dead 2, actually, I should be specific. My wife and I joke that our child is the child of the Evil Dead because we were both such fans of Evil Dead 2, without ever having met, that we both offered our services for Army of Darkness because it was a low budget film. So my wife Bridget Fonda did a cameo for nothing and I did a theme for nothing. We just wanted to help that film see the light of day. And we weren't gonna meet for several films later, on Raimi’s A Simple Plan. But Raimi is right on that list, Evil Dead was just a classic film. Guillermo when he called. But I've never pursued a director. I know a lot of composers do. And now in hindsight, if I were redoing my career, I'd probably would be more aggressive hunting down filmmakers. But that's not my nature to approach somebody. And so in hindsight, my career is what it is and it was what it was, but they found me and I was most eager to comply. And the results were mixed. The Frighteners was a difficult film. It was kind of hard to nail down the tone. And in the end, Peter's mate Fran [Boyens], who's his collaborator, was not happy with the way things went down with me. And so I got the boot after that. I tried to move the schedule along a week early because I really wanted to do Mission: Impossible with Brian De Palma. And it just meant like a week overlap, because he was also on that list. And I don't think I was ever quite forgiven for that, but I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed working with De Palma. He was a trip.
FANGORIA: When you think about what happened on The Frighteners or the ongoing back and forth dynamic between you and Tim, how much does that sort of conflict feed positively into your creativity?
Elfman: That's a good question. I don't know if there's a simple answer. Sometimes when a director is challenging you with something that's different than what you think, it can be really good and could force you to do something better than what you first thought of doing. And sometimes it could be restrictive and it's harnessing you down to something where you go, I know what this is, but it's too generic and I'm not happy in this world. So it's a struggle. The question is how to in the course of any certain movie, how do you fight the intense gravitational pull of “generic?” And the bigger the film, the stronger that gravity. Of course, that depends on the director. Some directors just will always like to push outside on their music, but most don't. And at a certain point, sometimes you really feel like you're traveling around this little planet and there's a gravitational pull, but by the time you're done, that planet has grown to the size of Jupiter and there is no escaping this gravitational pull. And that gravitational pull is always the tug towards generic, which you want to avoid. Sometimes it's just a little tug and sometimes it becomes like a huge undertow that you're never gonna escape from. And generic can also mean just doing what I've already done before, which then becomes generic because after I've done something a number of times, there are other people that do what I do better than me. So that's always the trick. And there's different challenges for every era in filmmaking, but right now in this particular era, that's the big challenge because the biggest films out there, and especially the genre films have a real strong pull towards generic or it feels like music that's heavily, beautifully orchestrated music that leaves you with nothing. It's not doing its job. It feels like it's lazy. To me that's called lazy composition. It didn't do anything wrong at any point over any scene, it did just what it was supposed to do. But I come out of it and I go, I'm not taking anything with me. And that's the difference between an a really effective score that did exactly what it supposed to do and a great score. It's supposed to implant something in your soul that you take with you and shouldn't fit in any other movie as opposed to feeling that was a great score that also could've gone in this, this or this. You can actually kind of swap them around a bit and it would have worked really well also.
FANGORIA: As a result of being so passionate about the genre and also having made some of those movies, are there any lessons or shortcuts that you've learned about an effective way to draw out suspense for an audience?
Elfman: No. I mean, there's just a million ways to do it. There isn't ‘a’ way, and there's just when you're composing, you find the thing and when you find it it's like, oh, how cool, this is a good way to do it. I mean, obviously on a purely psychological sonic level, you want to do something that sustains and suspends a moment, and for years and years, whether it be like a long held, kind of weird ambient horrible sound like in Hereditary, synthetically or just be long strings holding, you're basically doing a misdirect. And that's been the object of music in horror from the beginning, the misdirect. The misdirect is the romantic piece of music in Carrie leading up to the hand grab at the end - you’ve misdirected your audience to thinking the movie’s over and then that happens to make everybody jump out of their seats. So the misdirect is trying to lull you into relaxing so when they scare you, you're not expecting it. So there's always been that, but there's still a million ways to approach horror, like all the scores we've just been talking about are so different.
FANGORIA: That said, are you easily able to look at a movie and decide what instrument a theme or piece of music might need in order to communicate a certain tone?
Elfman: Well that's a discussion with the director. I might have certain feelings but the director frequently is going to have a feeling about that, and I think that's where much of the tone, whether it's going to be orchestral or electronic or a combination of rock band instruments, synths and ambient or whatever, it's going to come from a director who already has in their head some sense of “I'd like this to sound otherworldly and kind of electronic.” And maybe in the first few things I write up, every time I play strings they might react in a certain way, so I’ll go, okay, I get it, let's leave the strings out. So when I first start writing for a director, I'm trying to listen to what they're saying and I'm trying a number of ideas and I'll see what hits them as wrong. Because then they might just go, okay, strings with the synthesizers, I like that. But when you use brass, that's all wrong. That that takes me to another world. Great. No brass. Or I don't want it to be lush. I want the strings, but I want small. Okay, great, we'll write it for eight players instead of 30 or 40. And so that's part of the feeling out process you do with the director. It's not really like the composer necessarily to go to a director and go, “I hear an all synthesized retro score.” It usually starts with something that they're saying - “I'm interested in a feel or a mood” - and then you might go, well, how about you synthesizers? And they go, oh yeah. And then you might start referring to some pieces and then the director might go, I'm big fan of a Midnight Express, or I'm a big fan of Friedkin’s Sorcerer, or something like that. And then there's a place to jump off, kind of a common ground. And so it's all in those early dialogues that you kind of set those rules. And occasionally there's a film that the budget is so low that there's no choice. I'll sit down with Gus on his last film, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, and it's like we've got enough money for six players at the most, so it's definitely not going to be an orchestra. I go OK, cool, no orchestra. So sometimes it's pure economic that it's gonna be synthesizers. But I have a rule if I'm going to do a synthetic score, I'll never do a synthetic score where I'm trying to make the synthesizers sound like orchestra, because that's just cheesy. That reminds me of early attempts at television to sound like film. It's like we don't have the money for orchestral, so we'll do a synthetic orchestral, and that's the worst ever. So if we want to go synthetic, I want it to sound to synthetic.
FANGORIA: Speaking of synthetic scores, how well are you able to anticipate the trends or transitions that scoring seems to go through? Those in particular have become tremendously popular over the last few years.
Elfman: Which I’m also so happy for. I mean, it's always going to go through these surges of changes. Like something will come back in a way. I must've in my career seen at least three times when studios go, no orchestral, let's get it more rock and roll sounding orchestral’s getting old. And then like the biggest film of the year will come out with a big orchestral score and suddenly it's like, “it's back again.” And so they keep announcing its death, and there's been this constant desire to get more rock and roll-y, which generally I think is a real bad idea. I won't tell you what film, but there was a big film about 12 years ago-ish in the genre for which we're speaking. And I met with the director and he was like, “when he goes into such and such mode, electric guitars…,” and it's like, oh boy. And we're in the 2000s. And I was just thinking this is so ironic because not only is this outdated, what he's asking me to do, which in his mind is more contemporary. But when I rescored Mission: Impossible in the nineties, Brian De Palma was saying “electric guitars make it sound so old, and outdated.” So the mid-nineties, it was already to his ear sounding outdated, that bad-ass kind of electric guitar and I kind of balked. And then I got a lecture from my agent that the director thought you were really arrogant. And maybe I was, but at any rate, that desire to kind of rock and roll-ize scores usually fails dismally and dates it terribly unless it's the right film. I mean, I love playing bad electric guitar on films as much as anybody. And I don't know if any composers have more bad electric guitar playing in their films as me because it's all over a lot of stuff. The really nice acoustic stuff is always a guitarist I've been working with for years. But the nasty electric stuff, especially if it's out of tune, is always me. You hear that everywhere. Feedback, I love doing that kind of stuff. But I try to integrate it in a way that doesn't ever try to sound bad ass or as that director was saying when he asked for that power chord and I said, I'm all for electric guitars in scores, but orchestra and electric guitars is a dangerous combination if you do it the wrong way because the Superbowl has defined that - sports scoring, Wrestlemania, big wheels, all of these is orchestra with power chords. So you have to be very careful because they kind of own that and he didn't like that response. But the synthesizer thing which you're speaking of, I love that, because I was a big fan of Tangerine Dream and the synth scores of the seventies. And so when I'm allowed to turn loose with synthesizers, I'm really happy. Just two years ago I did an all synth score for The Circle, which I loved doing. And one of my favorites in the last five years was a score for Girl On A Train had a lot of synth in there but some orchestra. But I love it when I can get really nasty with synthesizers because that is definitely a part of my upbringing. And The Circle in particular was designed to be kind of a retro sounding score and I was very happy.
FANGORIA: Because so much of your work is so identifiable to audiences, how much do you actively resist that in your work?
Elfman: It's hard to say. I don't actively resist that. It's just whatever the movie allows, you know? So if I'm on a movie that allows me to go off and new territory, I'm happy because I need that. That's why I started doing concert music finally, because I need that to live, to keep myself going. I have to keep going and if films won't bring me new territory, I'll make it for myself, which is what I've been doing. I’m in my fourth commission the last two years already, and I've got three more.
FANGORIA: How is that a very clearly different creative discipline?
Elfman: Because there's nothing to tell you what to do - anything. In fact, that's the hard part. You can do absolutely fucking anything. And that's hard in a very different way. There's not even like a tone of a movie to establish, like “start from here.” You sit down with nothing and that's terrifying. But that terror is also beautiful for that reason because you end up pushing out of your comfort zone. And out of my comfort zone is where I need to be at least once a year, to stay sane. And so lately that's kinda how I've been achieving that.
FANGORIA: Of the few sort of capital-H horror projects that you've done, do you remember one that felt like the overdue opportunity to indulge those elements you’ve loved since you were a kid?
Elfman: I mean, not really. On many levels, I've never done a horror film. I've done fantasy films that touch in horror, but as much as I love horror as a genre, I've never been offered - well, I have been offered, but I was never able to do a horror film. There was a couple I couldn’t do that I kicked myself.
FANGORIA: But you did The Wolfman though. That's a horror movie.
Elfman: It's romantic movie with horror. But no, it's not a horror film. I would call that a melodramatic romantic or gothic story. And I loved writing that score. I mean, if I'm going to pick a piece of concert music from my film music, The Wolfman is one of my favorites, because Joe Johnston, the director, just let me go. I go, if we're going to be romantic or horror romantic, let me get really just achingly romantic - that's what it's about, isn't it? It's sad. It's a tragedy. But the studio was desperate for what could make this movie go over the top and sell because they realized that a certain point that there's no audience for this movie. So they tried going all electronic and then at the end they kind of patched together a bunch of this original score, really like in the last week before it was released, they went back and tried to use the original again. But the soundtrack I still really love.
FANGORIA: You said that doing Pee-Wee was such an exhilarating experience because you were totally unrestrained - you had no preconceptions about yourself or expectations from the studio. After 35 years, have you earned any sort of latitude to go, “well, I’m Danny Elfman, I know what I’m doing.”
Elfman: No, no, it's all based on the filmmaker. Filmmaker either keeps you on a short leash or a long leash - or both. The studios tend to be somewhat more remote; the only times I see the studios get involved is if there is a director who's not really strong, or powerfully established, and there's conflict in the film and they feel like they want to step in and suddenly get involved. Most of the scores I've done, studios have little or no input. It's still mostly the filmmakers world in terms of the music, until they hit a point when the studio listens and suddenly dad steps in and goes, kids, this game is over. But I've literally had directors tell me that they're unhappy with a piece of music - can you make it more ‘Danny Elfman’?
FANGORIA: Do you know what that means now?
Elfman: I don't know what the fuck that means. It means like something that they're thinking of that I've already done. And that's hard. So if that means Beetlejuice, it's like, well Beetlejuice was Beetlejuice, this film isn't Beetlejuice. So you kinda try to do the best you can, but it's not always helpful. Sometimes what people hear in your music is indefinable. But one of my favorite moments was De Palma talking about themes. He goes, “you did this great theme for Dead Presidents.” And I realize what he's talking about was three bass drums, that essentially was the theme. It wasn't even a melodic instrument. So you never know what's going to stick in somebody's head. It's funny how people will hear things you never would have guessed. When I got hired by Stephen Gaghan on The Voyage of Dr. Doolittle, which I'm on right now, originally it was because he heard the score to The Circle, James Ponsoldt’s film, which is all retro synthesizers. And [Doolittle] is an action adventure comedy with a retro synthetic score, which really had no bearing on that movie, but that was the one that made him want to work with me. So it's a weird world. You just never know.
FANGORIA: So at this point you still feel like you’ve never made an official full capital-H horror movie.
FANGORIA: How can we make this happen for you?
Elfman: Some director's got to call me - when I'm free, because I won't tell you the few things that I can now go in hindsight, God, I was stupid to not do that. But the problem is, and my wife and I have gone over this for years, who's got the most horror stories amongst ourselves of films who've said no to because we are on another film that no one saw. And it's the hardest thing about our professions literally, is to be on a film and already have a feeling that no one's going to see this - it's going to come out and it's going to be gone in a second. But you still have to say no to something that sounds really potentially great because I said yes, I'm doing it. You just can't leave. You’ve still got a director who's depending on you and it might be someone you've come to really like, also, and you just can't fuck them. And I've got a good dozen major if I told you you'd go, oh my God, say that didn't happen. You passed on this for that? But that was there first. Sure. And my wife has a dozen of those too.
FANGORIA: Ultimately, how do you set the barometer for your satisfaction from an experience? Can you do a score for a film that turns out by popular standards terrible, but you're happy with the score anyway?
Elfman: That's happened. I did Girl On The Train, it was panned, got really low notices, but I was really happy with the score. I thought that he let me get really fucked up. There's a couple of cues there that I just loved doing because I would already go a little off, and he was like, “fuck it up!” And I was twanging away on a banjo and laying down heavy synthesizers and doing string quartet through this. And it was just like, I love doing this - no one lets me do this. So anytime I get to go anywhere and say nobody lets me do it, I'm grateful for that. But the film wasn't well received. Nothing I could do about that. He gave it his best shot. I gave it my best shot. The film just didn't come together. So if I'm allowed to do something that makes me go, oh thank you for letting me do that, it's letting me off the leash. Because there's a lot of scores where that just never happened and I can't stand by it and just go, look, this is what the director wanted. And when you're a film composer, you have to balance two impulses. One of them is the artist and the other is the craftsman - because it's both. It's an art, and it's a craft.
And sometimes you are just a craftsman doing your job as best you can and you're going to give it the best craftsmanship you possibly can, but you're not going to bring any new, fresh art to it. And sometimes you're allowed to feel like, I'm not just a craftsman, but I'm an artist as well. That just doesn't always happen. And a lot of great scores in the past, if I listen to Max Steiner's work and Korngold’s work and Franz Waxman's, some of them were just well-crafted scores. And I can hear that, okay, this wasn't the great inspired score. But it's still a great, you know, it's still gonna sound like a Korngold. He was also just a good craftsman. But then there's those moments with Max Steiner where it's like, wow, he got to really express himself here - and you can hear that. But the previous scores where I'm hearing, a good, well-crafted Steiner score, there’s nothing wrong. And it still could be a pleasure for me to listen to it, but clearly he wasn't asked to step out of other works he'd already done previously. And sometimes that's just simply the job and you can't as a composer force a director's hand to go anywhere that they don't want to go. You learn that real early on that you can nudge and you can encourage a director to take chances and do this or that, but they'll either will or they won't. And if they won't, and if you keep fighting it, you're just going to be miserable and you're not going to end up with anything better because you're going to lose the battle. It's their baby, not yours. And so all you can do is try to guide or urge, but then sometimes you're just going to get shut down, and then it’s all right, I'll give you the best job I can and that's the best I can do.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as an editor, reporter, interviewer, emcee, moderator, commentator and pop culture expert. Currently working as Managing Editor for Nerdist, Todd has worked for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Moviefone, The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog, Forbes, Boxoffice Magazine, IFC, Movies.com, The Playlist, Cinematical, and MTV Movies’ blog. A sneaker aficionado, music lover and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, he currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Nemo and Beatrix, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.