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Legendary composer Danny Elfman used to hate collaborating. Here’s how he’s improving

The celebrated film composer has a new album, ‘Big Mess,’ and he’s bringing what he learned from movie collaborations to his music.

Legendary composer Danny Elfman used to hate collaborating. Here’s how he’s improving
[Photo: Silvia Grav]
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Listen to the latest episode of Fast Company’s Creative Conversation podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

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Danny Elfman doesn’t mince words: He’s a “shitty collaborator.”

At the start of his career as the front man of the ’80s new wave band Oingo Boingo, Elfman admits to blocking out his group’s ideas if they didn’t align with his own.

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“If you talk to other members of my group now, they would all complain what a shitty collaborator I was,” Elfman says in the latest episode of Fast Company’s podcast Creative Conversation. “At the time, I would have gone, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ But in hindsight, I can understand they were right. I was.

“I was hearing the voices in my own head, and I was absolutely obsessed with getting them out,” he adds. “It is the one thing I feel guilty about looking back. I constantly had these demons that were banging at me trying to get out. My only way to deal with it was just like, ‘No, no, no, no—we have to do this this way.'”

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Elfman was forced into learning how to collaborate when he took up composing for film. Over the course of 40 years, he has scored more than 120 film and TV projects, including the iconic ones for Batman, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Edward Scissorhands.

“Part of my job is figuring out how to work with a director because it’s their show—it’s not mine,” he says. “What I learned right away is that it doesn’t matter how much I like some musical idea. If the director doesn’t feel it, it isn’t going to happen.”

That said, Elfman qualifies his work in film as “artistic collaboration,” in that he’s working within the parameters of a director’s vision, as opposed to collaborating on music purely of his own design, “which I still think I’m very poor at,” he says. “I’m trying to get better.”

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Elfman’s most recent test came with Big Mess, his first solo album in 37 years.

“I’ve done a couple of collaborations for this new album, which is a first time for me,” Elfman says. “Another artist came in and did vocals, and I took the vocals and I redid my vocals and put their tracks with my tracks and created this new collaborative version of my song that I’d already done.”

He adds, “At this point in my life to be doing my first musical collaboration, it’s crazy, but it’s fun.”

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Check out highlights from Elfman’s Creative Conversation episode below, and listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

Don’t discount the small stuff

“I did a movie called Milk with the director Gus Van Sant. His initial concept was Harvey Milk listened to opera, so let’s make the score operatic. I went off on my own for about two weeks, and I wrote all this music that was opera inspired. Then I wrote a couple other ideas on my own that were not opera. Gus comes in, and we’re playing and playing and playing. I can tell from his expression, and I’m feeling myself too, it’s just not quite working. And Gus says, ‘What is that little thing you played there in the middle? . . . Can you put it against this scene? I think that’s the score.’ The two weeks of work [I’d] been doing was 90% just washed away in a second. I’ve learned whenever I do some weird improv, don’t discount it. You never know. That’s a collaboration that I was working through Gus’s instincts on a musical journey that simply didn’t pay off, and yet what seemed like an arbitrary piece ended up blossoming into the whole center of the score.”

Letting go of perfection

Big Mess, I never expect to see a dollar from any of this. But it doesn’t matter. It felt good, and it was therapeutic for me. I got a lot off of my chest. I also discovered that I have a new, different voice that I enjoy. That was fun, because I didn’t know what I was going to sound like. I found I could do certain things now in a way that I couldn’t do before. . . . I just have a different attitude and it’s freeing. All of my vocals on this album were recorded in my little room with my handheld mic. I didn’t rerecord anything. I just had an attitude of, do it where it feels right and don’t try to fix it. Because 30 years ago, that would have been the demo, then I would’ve gone [in the] studio, gotten in front of a better mic, and done 20 takes and edited them together. But for Big Mess, I was really just [like], no, you’re not fixing anything.”

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“Danny, what the fuck?”

“I’m at the stage door [of Albert Hall about to perform The Nightmare Before Christmas live] and I’m frozen. I’m going, ‘I’m not going to be able to go through this door. I’m just going to disappear.’ Helena Bonham Carter is sitting behind me. She’s going to do [the character] Sally for that show. She’s getting into character, so she’s like a rag doll floppy on the floor, and she goes, ‘Danny, what’s the problem?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ She gave me the best advice ever. She just said, ‘Danny, what the fuck?’ Duh! It’s like the story of my life has been a series of what the fuck—and step through the door. Whether it’s been starting a band, getting into film, everything I’ve done has been that. I just walked through those doors not giving a shit, and had one of the best experiences in my life.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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