Tim Burton’s Dumbo is soaring into theaters this March. At a press conference in Los Angeles, music composer Danny Elfman discussed how he writes the themes for movies.
THE ACID TEST
Danny Elfman has worked with director Tim Burton on dozens of projects and has created just as many memorable musical themes. When he created the theme for Dumbo, which plays as the baby elephant soars through air, he had a different intention in mind.
“When I wrote Dumbo’s theme, I wrote it as a bittersweet sad theme,” said Elfman. “Because that’s always what makes me excited. And the sadder it is writing it, the happier I get as a composer. But 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. Whatever it is going to be asked to do, I need to know that it will do that.”
DO THAT THING
“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. It’s like put it through all those things. And I learned okay, when it gets big, it’s going to go this way. It’s going to do this. And I didn’t know at that point there would be quite as much triumph. Very early on, Tim was like, “I like that. And whenever Dumbo is in the air, it’s like do that thing.” I go, “Really? Don’t you think we should–” “No. Do that thing.” He was very specific. And it’s like all right. That’s what we’re doing. And so, it’s like once I hit on that once, Tim really caught onto that moment. He really wanted to bring it back.”
Elfman added, “And 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?” “Oh, yeah, you got that, that’s fine. But I really want to make sure he soars.” “But when he leaves his mother…” “Yeah, yeah, that will be fine. He soars.” And Tim and I, it will be like that. 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.”
WHERE I GET MY JOLLIES
And so, for me of course the fun part is not having seen it as a kid, I didn’t have a lot of attachment other than I knew that I saw it. Or actually when I got the call from [Producer Derek Frey] about doing it, I watched it. It’s the first time I had ever seen it from beginning to end. What was crazy was, Pink Elephants on Parade, I know that really well. I don’t know how I knew it. But I knew it. Casey Junior, of course I know that. How do I know that? I didn’t see it as a kid. There are all these elements I was hoping we could bring, wrap in. But the thing that excited me the most was that it’s going to be some heartbreak in there. That’s really where I get my jollies.”