During what has become a legendary career, Danny Elfman has cultivated a reputation as a singular composer who is definitely not afraid of the fantastic and the eccentric. From his long collaboration with Tim Burton (Batman and The strange Christmas of Mr. Jacks among them) to recent projects ranging from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness at Justice LeagueElfman’s filmography is a case study of creative experimentation.
It’s a dynamic legacy that continues with the upcoming release of White noise, director Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s cult 1985 novel, which explores themes of consumerism and hysteria. Starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, the film marks Elfman’s first collaboration with Baumbach, with the acclaimed director fully embracing Elfman’s penchant for sonic adventure. “Noah has a sense of ‘Let’s go to the playground,'” Elfman says Billboard. “It becomes a wonderful creative process.”
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release on November 25, followed by its Netflix premiere on December 30 Billboard met with Elfman to discuss creating a soundscape for the project with advice from Baumbach.
White noise is a very unique film. What made you say yes to collaborating with Noah on this project, and what makes you say yes to potential projects in general?
First, it was like, “Can Noah Baumbach call you?” He is interested in talking about his new movie. So automatically there’s a “yes, I’d like to start that conversation” factor, even though I didn’t know what the movie was. Often, when I say yes to a project, it’s the filmmaker; if it’s one I admire, I’m happy and excited to even find out what they’re working on. Noah is therefore an intelligent and interesting filmmaker, and adapts White noise sounded like a difficult and interesting project that I would love to see how he would go about it.
The first thing I did was read the script, then I read the book. I was so excited because it was completely obvious to me that this was one of those projects that comes along once in a while where there’s no genre to indicate what kind of music it should be. to act. When I started out as a film composer doing these films for Tim Burton like Peewee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Batman and The nightmare before Christmas, all of those movies were pretty much modelless with absolutely nothing to say about what kind of score it should be. I only realized later how lucky I was.
I think that would complicate things for a composer. When you have a blank page and you are given no direction, isn’t that more difficult than when you have a certain direction to follow?
No, it’s the opposite. When there’s no clear idea of how it would sound, that’s where it’s most exciting. If there’s a clear genre idea, it’s a lot harder to work on something where [the director] is fixed on a certain type of music while giving it a personal identity of my own. A clean slate is what I like.
Have there been times in your career when a director said “I need this kind of sound” but you hear something else? How to make the compromise between the two?
It’s the tricky navigation that every composer faces all the time. It’s a tricky dance of presenting your music and your options and trying to get the director’s brain away from that target and towards it. There is no magic way to do this; you do it simply by presenting many options and ideas. You look at what can work for the film and [directors] start saying “Oh yeah”, and you rock them in a slightly different direction away from whatever they’ve been focused on. Any composer with a vast repertoire behind him has done this many, many times. Some directors are really locked into something and it’s incredibly hard to get them out of the way, and some aren’t. Even Tim Burton, who I’ve worked with so many times, it takes a while to get him to where I recommend where we’re going with a score.
So how did you build White noisethe soundscape from scratch?
Noah started challenging me immediately, on our second phone call before I even saw any footage. He said, “What would it sound like if you combined Aaron Copland with an 80s-inspired synthesizer from Giorgio Moroder? Even though I was working on other things at the time, I would hang up the call and couldn’t focus on anything else because the challenge was so appealing to me that I couldn’t help it. The challenges become a bit of an odyssey. “Can you do that? Can you combine this and this and that? I like this; to me it’s just fun, it’s not even work. It slowly evolved into the tonal basis of what we’re working on with the score. On one side we go from an 80s inspired sound based on noir, to the other side really theatrical and classic, and a third side on the character of Babbette [played by Greta Gerwig], which is very simple and minimalistic; simple without winking at the public. Tying them all together was my final challenge.
You have a few directors that you collaborate with frequently, but I guess working with someone for the first time can be a risk because you really don’t know how you’re going to gel creatively and with the process. Do you have a particular way of working or do you go with the flow?
Honestly, I have no other way to work than to be as fluid as possible, and by fluid I mean trying to keep my mind open to avoid going in wildly different directions. When I start a score, there are a lot of experiments; like, I’m just gonna try this and it’ll probably get laughed or thrown around, but why not?
But like you said, it’s always a risk. On the one hand, I like starting a project with a new director because I like risks. Every once in a while, you find yourself faced with a brick wall like, “I can get through this, but I don’t want to repeat this experience. Noah, like Gus Van Sant, is willing to try all sorts of different things. In fact, Gus nudges me, saying, “That works really well, now do something really different.” Noah is different but has a similar sense of “Let’s go to the playground,” and it becomes a wonderful creative process.
What does experimentation look like to you? Are you into guitar, piano, or software like Pro Tools?
I’m at a keyboard, and on this I have a model that has a full range of orchestral sounds, as well as a full range of synthetic sounds, and my own personal percussion instruments, plus sounds that I have excerpts from things like broken pianos. So I’ll start playing. For White noise, I was thinking purely synthesizer-based, so I was programming and programming and coming up with sounds that I thought were really fun and cool. At other times I thought it would just be strings, piano and a solo clarinet.
You said “Composers get lost in a film they’re working on”. How is it going for you?
For me, it’s a different version of what happens to an actor. When they take on a role, they hope to get lost in the role and get lost in the story to be part of it. As a composer, we often hope to do the same; let’s just get lost in the feel and the tone, the pace and the rhythm of the film. If you do this, every game stops becoming a struggle; you just kiss it and go with it where it goes. I’m not going to plan where each scene goes; I want to be trained and often I don’t even block where I’m going every 10, 15, 20 seconds. If it spins, then I’ll spin with it. Just like an actor who understands his character and isn’t constantly trying to find him.