Danny Elfman has scored more than 100 films since making his debut on Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1985. The prolific composer has written music for comedies and dramas alike, as well as action flicks (Mission: Impossible) and fantasy films (Edward Scissorhands), animated classics (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and superhero movies (Tim Burton's Batman movies and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies). If there is a unifying theme to his oeuvre — of what makes a quintessential Danny Elfman score — he hasn't the faintest idea.
"I think most people would go with 'quirky' or 'dark' or 'weird,'" he says, "but I hope that the body of my work shows much more than that. But, then again, it's really not for me to say, is it?"
Elfman has earned four Oscar nominations for Best Original Score, earning dual nominations in 1998 for Good Will Hunting and Men in Black. (At the time, the category was split into Best Dramatic Score and Best Musical or Comedy Score, with Elfman nominated in each.) He was then nominated in 2004 for Burton's Big Fish, and again in 2009 for Gus Van Sant's Milk.
"What gets me most excited about doing a score is when I have even some possibility of doing something I haven’t ever done before, or if the film itself seems like it offers any opportunity of moving out of my comfort zone," Elfman explains.
This year, he added two more scores to his filmography: He reteamed with Sam Raimi on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and was tapped by Noah Baumbach to compose the music for the genre-defying adaptation of White Noise. Of the latter, he says, "It's always challenging doing a score to a film with such an unusual tone. Hard to define. But that's exactly what makes it interesting for me."
Below, Elfman shares with A.frame five film scores (technically six, due to a tie) that have helped to make him the composer he is today.
Directed by: Robert Wise | Music by: Bernard Herrmann
I think I was 12 years old or thereabouts when I saw the film initially. It was the first time I really noticed film music. And it was the beginning of me becoming a nerdy film music fan (which is what I was at my core).
Directed by: Federico Fellini | Music by: Nino Rota
I could just as easily choose Amarcord, or 8½, or Juliet of the Spirits. I loved the collaboration of Fellini and Rota, and this music had a huge influence on me as a teenager and young man.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock | Music by: Bernard Herrmann
This was another time I was cemented to my seat by the music. It gave me the realization of how powerful a score could be in a movie, and how inventive one could be. It's also another lesson to the simple rule that, when it comes to making effective music in films, there are no rules!
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
A tie between Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. Neither film had an original score. Both featured pre-written classical music, but the way in which each movie used the music was so imaginative. They fit in perfectly and really enhanced the scenes. It made such an impression on me, and also was a great lesson on how important the tone of the music can affect the tone of the film I was experiencing.
Directed by: Sergio Leone | Music by: Ennio Morricone
This is a perfect example of how wonderfully evocative thematic scoring can enhance a film, not to mention how a score can really get under your skin and stay there for the rest of your life.