Corpse Bride - Interview with Danny Elfman and Mike Johnson

Corpse Bride - Interview with Danny Elfman and Mike Johnson
Special report from the Toronto Film Festival - speaking with the composer and the co-director.
Updated: 09-13-2005

Q: The Nightmare Before Christmas has such a cult following. Any pressure in making The Corpse Bride?


Elfman: No. I was really glad. I worked really hard on Nightmare. You know, two and a half years. I wore so many hats on that thing. For it to have found an audience at all was really, really rewarding. Because you’ve got to remember, when it was coming out it considered dead in the water. I mean, the merchandising stopped cold in its tracks after the first preview, and they just had the feeling like, ‘We just want to cut our losses.’ You’re not really happy when at the premiere of a movie everyone’s just trying to cut their losses and run. So kind of getting through that, and over the next decade have it grow into something that… I mean, I was approached at airports and stuff by people. Really weird. I’ve done big movies and stuff — Batman, big movies… Spider-Man — but it was Nightmare stuff that people have [for me] to sign. The following is really hardcore. I just got back from Japan, and there’s Nightmare stuff all over the place. It’s really gratifying.


But no, I didn’t feel any pressure [with Corpse Bride]. I was just glad to have a shot at doing anything in this genre again, because I was afraid that after Nightmare that would be it. There’s not a lot of stop-motion stuff anymore, and I love stop-motion. So anything that can perpetuate stop-motion as an art form and keep it going, I just want to be a part of it. I have a fear of that nail in the coffin, that no one’s going to do this again.


Q: Mike, can you talk about how the work is divided up between you and Tim?


Johnson: It’s very much a collaboration. We never really decided who was going to do what, and where to draw the line, so it was sort of like we’re making the play and passing the ball back and forth. I was there on the set daily working with the crew and the animators, and Tim sort of had an overall guiding influence over that.


Q: Danny, can you talk about the difference between working on  stop-motion animation, and a live-action film?


Elfman: With animated film the music is, by nature, going to take a more important role. It’s a musical, so it becomes a little more important. But other than the fact that the songs have to be written a year before, that makes it a little different, but when I’m scoring it I’m not approaching it any differently than if it were a live-action film. In my head, I’m pretending that they are real characters and I’m scoring it like that. So the story is the story: It has a very fairy-tale like quality, and had they been live-action instead of puppets I think I would have approached it exactly the same.


Q: How do you feel about songs that you’ve written being in theme-park rides? How about Corpse Bride?


Elfman: A Corpse Bride theme park ride. Hmmmm…


Johnson: Ride the bride! [laughter]


Elfman: I don’t know. You know, to me, going to theme parks when I was kid, I would love anything that had to do with skeletons. A skeleton ride would be my #1 ride. Now [families?] don’t think that way, but if that would have been me growing up, anyplace that had a skeleton ride with singing skeletons, dancing skeletons, anything with skeletons… that’s where I would have spent my time. So if anything ever does happen, it would be for a generation of kids that grew up like, probably Tim too, ‘it’s all about skeletons’.


[Question about collaboration.]


Elfman: Well, I’ve collaborated with Tim for 20 years now. We have more or less a method [in] doing it. It’s pretty simple: He talks about an idea, and I go and I create a song or a piece of music and he doesn’t respond until he really has something to listen to. I’ll wager it’s the same with him visually. On a conceptual level it’s kind of hard to talk to Tim. He needs to see, feel, touch, listen to, and respond. So when we’re spotting a movie, it’s the quickest spotting session ever. Literally, I’ve worked with directors who take a day and a half to spot. With Tim, if it’s a 71-minute movie, it takes him 85 minutes to spot that movie. He does not want to talk about it. It’s like, ‘music here, music here, and music here.’ He’ll just come up with stuff as we play it.


Johnson: Tim, as far as the vibration (?) between the music and the visual, it’s very much sort of a back-and-forth thing. Once Danny gives us the song it really helps us to see the picture that we need to make.


Elfman: I should add that there’s kind of two levels of collaboration. The first is writing a song with him, but then there is the collaboration of production. He’ll actually come back to me and say, ‘Hey, can we like shorten 8 beats out of it, can we add two beats here’, and so there’s a lot of that. The song isn’t really finished until production has finished their notes. They take a lot of notes in editing. So that’s the second level of collaboration after the song is written.


Johnson: Mine is a similar process. Tim has a very clear idea in his mind about where he wants this to go, but it can’t always be verbalized very clearly. So we work on storyboarding and getting something together that he can respond to from a visual sense and an emotion sense.


Q: Were there any digital effects in the movie?


Johnson: Yeah, we sprinkled a few digital effects in there for things that just couldn’t be accomplished with stop-motion or would have been too time-consuming to do. You know — fog… fire… butterflies… once in while, the veil. But really we tried to stay as true to the stop-motion tradition as we could. Everything you see on these characters, all the facial expressions, that’s all pure stop-motion.


Q: Danny, what is your favorite song in the movie?


Elfman: That’s easy. I mean, Remains The Day. You know, the Bonejangles piece. But not for the reason you’re thinking, not because I’m singing it. [laughter] It’s because of the instrumental break, that it was always going to be my favorite track. Because they essentially told me: ‘Write a big, extended thing, and skeletons will dance, they’ll play’ and it brought me back to my love of Max Fleisher cartoons. And I thought, ‘I’m never going to get a chance to have a xylophone solo played from one skeleton to playing on the ribs of another, you know, going from guitar to trombone. Mike had said we could do this thing where they transform into different instruments and just kind of go crazy. So I knew ever before I started that that was going to be my favorite. And it was. I didn’t write it for my voice, and I didn’t intend to sing it.  It was my favorite track even before it became my song to sing.


Q: Do you have a full-blown live action musical in your head?


Elfman: I wrote two of them, and sold them, years ago. One sits at Fox and one sits at Disney, so who knows? Maybe they’ll get revived one day.


Q: Does that stop you from writing another one?


Elfman: No. Well, it’s hard to say. I think about it. Perhaps. I wrote a non-musical, the last thing I did, which I’m working on right now. I may switch to yet another musical again, so we’ll see.


Q: What is it about stop-motion that makes it so special?


Johnson: I don’t think there is any technology today that produces a similar effect. I think on a subconscious, emotional level people respond to it differently. It’s just the texture of it, and the tone. There’s something about seeing these real objects moving through space that’s almost like telekinesis or something. It’s very magical and computer animation hasn’t copied that yet.


Q: What’s the non-musical film, Danny?


Elfman: Over the last twelve years I’ve written four scripts: Two musicals, and two non-musicals. Three of them have been in turnaround at various studios. The fourth one I’ve just finished and I haven’t settled it anywhere. It’s a story, oddly, that could have been called Corpse Bride. It’s very weird. I’ve been working on it as long I have Corpse Bride. It’s about a gentleman who lived with a corpse for seven years in Key West, Florida. But it’s a true story. He was named Dr. Von Cosel. It was a huge deal in the 1930s. I acquired the rights to two books almost a decade ago and started writing it about four years ago. When Tim told me about this, I said, ‘Isn’t that funny? I just started working on a thing that also has… a… corpse… bride…’ [laughter] But Dr. Von Cosel’s looked nothing like the Corpse Bride. It was mummified, it was like a paper mache kind of figurine.


Q: (question unintelligible)


Johnson: Well, um, I’ve always worked in stop-motion. That’s the only form of animation I’ve ever had experience in so… One of the interesting things to learn was that Tim’s approach to the final film was much more of a live-action approach. Ultimately, that helped it great deal. He was just, ‘We need to cut this scene here.’ Whereas with me coming from a stop-motion animation background, every frame was hours of sweat and I was just so scared to cut anything. That’s sort of where a live-action/stop-motion contrast helped this film.


Elfman: The band thing actually worked against me when I became a film composer. When I got a first film, I had to, like, unlearn everything I had learned being in a band. I had to go back… for seven years, I did musical theater before I had a band. So when I started Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, I really had to go back in time and try to remember what it was like before I was in a rock band. Writing for a movie is almost the antithesis in a weird sort of way. You have to think 180 degrees in another direction, and so for ten years I was doing both and it was really unsettling. It’s almost like a total brain-reversal every time. In one you’re thinking rhythm and eight bars and four bars and eight bars, and when you’re writing for orchestra you want to un-think that. There’s no verses, no choruses, anything can go anywhere in time and it’s just freedom to move in three dimensions, constantly. I would constantly try to reverse myself from thinking in a band-like way. When I’d hear what I thought were pop-sounding scores, which I really wasn’t fond of when I first started composing, I wanted to compose in the classic style of the masters that I grew up on. Not that I’m as good as them, but that was my inspiration.


Q: With Wallace and Grommet, also a stop-motion animation coming out, what do you think of the possible resurgence of the art form?


Johnson: I think it’s just sort of a lucky convergence of events. It’s really bizarre, actually, that there’d be two stop-motion features coming out within a month of each other. It’s been five years since Chicken Run and ten years since Nightmare. It’s more of a coincidence than anything else, but it’s a really a great thing for stop-motion in general that there is an interest in these projects and hopefully it will spark a greater interest and a resurgence in the technique.


Q: What’s it like working with actors who are not necessarily trained singers?


Elfman: It was very intimidating at first, because I hadn’t ever really done that. In Nightmare, you know, it was — other than Catherine O’Hara and Paul Rubens… we did a trio together, and she had the one song — I did all the other vocals. I didn’t have to really work with anybody else. And now Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, Paul Whitehouse, Jane Horrocks, and Helena… it’s like, it was very intimidating. I didn’t really know how to approach it. Other than Tracey [Ullman]… she’s just a slam dunk because Tracey’s a song and dance person anyhow and she just walked in and knew exactly what to do in ten minutes. But everybody else, I had to sort of figure out how to talk them through it and how to help them, because they weren’t singers, you know. Finally I think I got the hang of it. I was definitely very cautious. I tried to make them feel comfortable in what they were doing. I experimented in having them sing with the music, and then just the melody — turning off the music, and having them sing. I think, with most actors, they’re used to the rhythm of things in a different way and when the music wasn’t running, when the beat wasn’t there, they tended to get much freer. When the beat was there, they tended to get very metric with how they were approaching it. And I was trying to gear them away from that. I finally figured out that by combining the two ways — having them sign along with the track, then stop the track and have them sing again — then finally they became freed up. It worked well. I was able to take some of the track and non-track versions and put it together and make it work. In the end, I was really happy with all of them. Helena was a doll. Albert and Joanna were the ones who were busting my chops [laughs]. They insisted on coming down together, and they’re big personalities, and so when either one of them was in there singing the other one was, like, haranguing from the other side. I was trying to focus, but like, especially Albert, he was joking and Joanna was like, ‘Hello, hello?’ I’m going, ‘Oh my god. Somebody help me.’


Q: How did you make the puppets’ movements so smooth?


Johnson: Well, it really comes down to the skill of the individual animators. We scoured the globe to get the best stop-motion animators that we could. To their credit, it looks…


Q: Is there some kind of calculation you use?


Johnson: No, it’s just giving them the time and the resources to work at that level. It just comes down to their experience and their talent.


Q: Given that Victor is the protagonist of the film and he does play piano, did he ever have a vocal song as well?


Elfman: He had a song, but it didn’t make the final cut. Things got a little long, and his song got cut.


Q: Did Johnny do the vocals?


Elfman: No, we were just… it was getting to that point when the song was cut. Just before he had to go into the studio — probably much to his relief! [laughs]





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Toronto Film Festival, 9/11/05

Staci Layne Wilson Reporting


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