How Tim Burton Is Different From Every Other Director Danny Elfman Works With

Dumbo on a platform ready to fly in Dumbo 2019

The collaboration between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman is one of the great director/composer relationships in modern cinema. The two men first came together for Pee-wee's Big Adventure back in 1985, and while they’ve both worked with other filmmakers in the time since then, that does nothing to undercut the fact that they’ve made 17 features together (18 if you count Henry Sellick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas). Clearly it’s a special relationship for both men, and as I recently learned during an interview with Elfman, it’s one that is unique in some very key ways.

Specifically, it comes down to the amount of time that Danny Elfman and Tim Burton actually spend talking about the work. When working with other filmmakers, having discussions about music and the proper approach can take multiple days of analysis, but that just apparently isn’t the way that Burton functions. As I learned from the legendary composer during the recent Los Angeles press day for Dumbo, going through a score discussion with the director apparently barely takes more than an afternoon. Said Elfman,

The spotting sessions we do, where we go through the whole film and talk a little bit about each piece of music, Tim is quicker than any director I've ever worked with. I'm working right now on a film where the spotting session will take two days. We did half of it last week, and I do half of it tomorrow. And with Tim, if it's a two hour movie, the spotting sessions are two-and-a-half hours. If it's an hour and 45 minute movie, it's two hours and 15 minutes.

That’s pretty intense, but one could argue that it very much speaks to the power of the collaboration between the two men.

When I followed up by asking why it is that Tim Burton is able to plow through those spotting sessions, Danny Elfman’s explanation was simple: he doesn’t like to dissect, and instead is more interested in just jumping around and just expressing where it is that he wants specific cues. Music is apparently a detail of the filmmaking process that he doesn’t put a tremendous amount of thought into – but Elfman also made it clear that part of that extends from the fact that there is a lot of trust in their collaboration:

He doesn't want to talk about it. It's just like, 'Okay let's start the music here. And then skip to the end of the scene.' He skips to the end. 'I think this is a good place to come out.' And then he might have like three words. He goes, 'Keep it kind of understated here. Okay, next.' It's like, 'Oh yeah, make sure you play the something here. Okay, next.' He doesn't analyze. Some people get very analytical, and they really want to talk about the psychology of a scene, and Tim doesn't. He's like, 'You know, there's music. You'll find it. When you find it, I'll know it.'

What’s extra funny about this, though, is that it’s not exactly a recent development that began with their work together on Dumbo. This whole conversation was accessed when I asked Danny Elfman about the evolution of his relationship with Tim Burton since they first started working together in the mid-1980s – and the four time Oscar nominee explained that things have basically been the way they are now since the very beginning. Said Elfman,

It's still more or less the same, other than he's much more sure of himself and what he likes and doesn't like then when we started, obviously, in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and he was just like, 'Oh, great. Music. Cool.' And now he's much more selective. But other than that, the process is really similar. He doesn't talk about the movie a lot, and he doesn't talk about the music a lot.

It’s pretty incredible to learn this when you consider the power of their work together – but also clearly a situation of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Audiences can now hear the latest score from Danny Elfman in theaters everywhere, as Dumbo is now playing in wide release. And for those of you interested in playing it at home, the MP3 album is available now, and CDs will be released this Friday, April 5th.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.