Twenty-nine years after he first worked with director Tim Burton, composer Danny Elfman is keenly aware that it’s unique for a duo like theirs to have such a long and successful collaborative partnership. And as another set of concerts this Halloween weekend in Los Angeles celebrating his music in Burton’s films quickly approaches, the shows remind Elfman once more just how lucky he and Burton were that the right eyes and ears were watching and listening at the right time.
After all, Elfman told me in a recent call from LA, he didn’t even think the score for their first film together, 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (which was Burton’s and Elfman’s directing and scoring debuting, respectively) would even live to see the light of day.
“I could not imagine that I was going to have a career in film composing at that time, nor did I imagine anyone would even see ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ or my score wouldn’t get thrown out,” Elfman said with a laugh. “There were many ‘could not imagine’ instances that went on with that film. When I wrote it I thought, ‘This is a crazy score and once Warner Bros. hears it, they’re going to toss it in a quick second,’ but they didn’t to my astonishment.”
AUDIO: Danny Elfman talks about the art of composing and synching his musical thoughts with Tim Burton’s vision.
Minus the score of “Big Eyes” — which is Elfman and Burton’s 16th film collaboration set for a Christmas Day release — music from the duo’s first 15 films will be performed at “Danny Elfman’s Music From the Films of Tim Burton” LA concerts, set for Halloween night and Saturday at Nokia Theatre, and Sunday at Honda Center. The music will be conducted by John Mauceri with special performances by Elfman, and will feature visuals from several of Burton’s films, including “Batman,” “Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Alice in Wonderland” and many others.
The visuals, however, don’t only consist of clips. Audience members will also on the screens at the shows get a look at some other exciting visual elements put together by Burton and the likes of such collaborators as his longtime producer Derek Frey and photographer Leah Gallo, Elfman noted.
“They put together a thorough visual presentation featuring costumes, images, sketches, production and design stuff, so you get a good sense of Tim’s development of the films,” Elfman said. “They put a lot of work into it.”
Elfman said while the timing of the LA concerts happen to fall on Halloween weekend, the concert will not have a special emphasis on the holiday or Burton’s films that deal with horror or the supernatural (two concerts are also set for the Royal Albert Hall in London Dec. 12). The set list is the same as previous shows because there’s a lot of ground to cover when you’re talking representing every one of their films together over a two-hour-and-20-minute time period, Elfman said.
“The big challenge with this show was fitting in 15 suites given the time limit that we had,” Elfman explained. “I wanted each suite to be representative of the score, not just a hit parade of titles to each of the movies. In fact, I even tried to challenge myself to write original bits in each of the suites, so I could have something recognizable, and something deeper into the score that is less-recognizable, but important if you want to understand the score and hear something you didn’t think existed before the concert.”
While legions of Burton and Elfman’s fans outside of Los Angeles won’t get a opportunity to see the concerts, Walt Disney Pictures is giving them a chance to celebrate one of their collaborations in a big way this weekend with the re-release of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” set to play in more than 200 theaters across the country.
The stop motion animated film and its music have inspired millions of fans in the past 21 years, including Derek Frey, who went on to help produce Burton’s two other stop motion features, “Corpse Bride” and “Frankenweenie.”
“‘Nightmare’ came at a time in my life where I was a big Burton fan and before I worked for Tim. Also, as a huge fan of Halloween, that film took me to somewhere where other films haven’t,” Frey told me in separate interview.
“Even though I worked on ‘Corpse Bride’ and ‘Frankenweenie,’ the whole concept of the worlds of Halloween and Christmas and the character arc of Jack Skellington, ‘Nightmare’ is the stop motion film that resonates with me the most,” he said. “I watch ‘Corpse Bride’ and ‘Frankenweenie’ quite differently, but with ‘Nightmare,’ it’s fun learning new things about the film because I was not a part of the filmmaking process.”
The element that pushed “Nightmare” over the top for Frey, in particular, was Elfman’s music.
“I was a Danny Elfman fan and even bought the soundtrack before the movie came out,” Frey said. “I was really ready for that movie, and I think the musical side of that film is what for me made it very special.”
Amazingly, like “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Elfman’s confidence going into the final phases of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was shaky before the film was released in 1993, even though he and Burton had clearly demonstrated a winning track-record by that time.
Of course, the big difference with “Nightmare” and their previous films, though, was that Elfman was providing the singing voice of Jack (vocals that fans will get to hear once again at the LA concerts this weekend), and that it didn’t enjoy the success — initially, at least — that “Pee-wee,” “Beetlejuice” and the “Batman” films did.
“For me, at least, ‘Nightmare’ was the great disappointment of my career at that point,” Elfman said. “So much work had gone into it and nobody seemed to understand it when it was released. Disney didn’t know how to market it. I remember the one test screening they did was catastrophic because there were a lot of kids there who didn’t get what the hell was going on.”
Time, of course, has righted the ship, and the film is as popular as ever.
“When it became clear the film had a second life, it was just thrilling,” Elfman said. “It was exhilarating, because I just figured at first, ‘Well, that’s life.’ I never worked harder on anything in my life up until ‘Nightmare’ and I really believed in it, and felt, ‘Well, it just never found an audience.'”
Oddly enough, it took Elfman more than a dozen years after the release of “Nightmare” to fully realize the impact the film had, not only on audiences in the U.S., but worldwide.
“I was on a press tour with Tim in Tokyo on ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ when I really realized that it had caught on. Tokyo was filled with ‘Nightmare’ images of Jack and Sally, and there was even a club inspired by the film,” Elfman said. “Every store we went into was filed with ‘Nightmare’ stuff and Tim would say, ‘God, I’ve never seen half of this stuff before.’ So for the film to have this second life is astounding.”
Beyond the numbers, though, Elfman said he’s most moved by the experiences fans share with him about the movie.
“It’s the greatest thing when people tell me, ‘My kid knows all the words from this song and that song from “Nightmare” and he’s only 4.’ That’s just amazing to me,” Elfman said, humbly. “Very, very few films that get a second life, like a ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ or ‘Donnie Darko.’ There are films that get re-discovered, but it’s rare. So the fact that ‘Nightmare’ was one of those few was a wonderful surprise.”