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COVER STORY : A Different Beat

Danny Elfman Pinged From Oingo Boingo Front Man to Prolific Movie Score Writer. Now This Oddball May Pong Into Directing His Own Scripts.

April 18, 1999|JOHN M. GLIONNA | John M. Glionna is a Times staff writer. His last article for the magazine was about the youth soccer craze

The look is pure boyish gloom, a self-conscious I'll-never-finish-my-homework-on-time frown that weighs on his features like a moody piece of music. * Danny Elfman has a film score to write, another major movie for which he must supply the musical soul--subliminal cadences that will flow between the lines, speaking volumes to viewers. But a week into the scoring of "A Civil Action," Elfman is once again reeling toward the analyst's couch.

For the 45-year-old L.A. native, it doesn't matter that he's the most absurdly prolific and crazily-in-demand score writer in Hollywood, with nearly three dozen credits ("Batman," "Beetlejuice," "Dick Tracy" and "To Die For" for starters) in a little more than a decade. It doesn't matter that as the founder, singer and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, the zany L.A. cult band of the '80s, he delivered on deadline countless times.

Elfman's skepticism has been sharpened by critics. Though he earned two Academy Award nominations in 1997 for "Men in Black" and "Good Will Hunting," his work has long been scrutinized by industry peers, some of whom suggest it's not even his. But Danny Elfman is used to being kicked around. He grew up the classic target of neighborhood bullies, a loner who often took refuge in fantastical double features at the cineplex. Even today, wipe away that thin veneer of cool bestowed by careers in rock and the movies and you've still got the uneasy outsider.

So what if he's no John Williams? Elfman doesn't give a damn. He's pulled it off, evolving from a local counterculture icon into a sure-fire hire in a risk-averse industry. And he's done it on his own terms. The out-of-step little boy has gladly grown into the out-of-step artist. "Most people go their way," he says. "I go mine."

Still, dark pilot birds hover above his shoulders. Writing movie scores is no different than performing live. He gets stage fright. With every film, Elfman believes this time the pressure is unbearable. This time he can't deliver. This time he's a liability, a bag of rocks sinking a film project that already has wrapped, already has movie-house trailers in the can, already has its bloody release date etched in granite.

The only thing lacking is the score, the notes he has yet to imagine. And as he frets, the director, the producer and the studio executives drum their collective fingertips on the tabletop, the precious moments slipping past, his deadline closing in. Tick. Tick. Tick.

"Every time I tell myself that I'll never do this again, that I hate this more than life itself," says Elfman, stroking his goatee while slouched in a garden chair outside his home in the Santa Monica Mountains. "But the wheels are already turning. It's inconceivable that I won't finish."

He calls his agent.

"I'm not going to finish," he says.

"Danny," the agent soothes, "you're going to finish."

But, Elfman protests, he's completed only three of the 35 scenes. Sighing, resigned, he begins to plan the party he throws before every project, the downer of a bash where he says goodbye to friends and his daughters. He's a convict being dragged off for a lengthy prison bender.

"See you on the other side," he tells everyone. For three months, until this latest score is settled, Elfman will spend 12 hours a day in front of a video screen, using a remote control to stop and start the footage until he strikes upon just the right musical nuances. There will be no fun, no candlelight dinners with his girlfriend, no long weekends with the kids.

Finally, his angst vented, Elfman retires to his basement musical laboratory. There he gets back inside the head of that Baldwin Hills teen who escaped to the movies and left moved by their music. His mind wanders back into the darkness of his neighborhood theater, where he was first awed by the momentous scores of composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner.

Then he goes to work.

The movie score writer is the alter-ego of the rock singer. Bands lead very public lives. Writing movie music is lonely. Neurotic.

It requires sitting alone in a room plunking piano keys. Elfman likens the job to writing screenplays, of which he has completed three. "A movie starts with a writer alone in a room conjuring something out of vapor," he says. "And it ends with a score composer talking to himself in a little room, conjuring something out of vapor."

As Elfman explains it, a score is musical insight into a character's mind--melodies, backbeats and orchestral explorations that hint at hidden emotions. Scores can tip off a looming crisis, a monster lurking nearby (a bassy thump foreshadows the shark attacks in "Jaws," for example), a marriage disintegrating.

The music also serves as glue, cementing a montage of action. Often scores convey motion, building tension and helping to drive the action. Music may swirl around dialogue--affecting yet unobtrusive. Or it can spring a coup to overtake the viewer's senses, as in the shower scene in "Psycho."

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