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Composer Danny Elfman is settling the score with 'Planet of the Apes'

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2001

MALIBU, Calif. -- When work is stressful and he thinks about ending it all, composer Danny Elfman hangs himself in his studio.

But the loops go around the mischievously macabre musician's hands, not his neck. And as he dangles, he's thinks of ending his career, not his life.

''The work is very consuming. It's maddening,'' Elfman said, shaking his head of short-cropped, red hair. ''I can't tell you how many times I've said, 'I never want to do this again. This is killing me.' Ultimately, at the end I finish and say, 'All right, I'll do it again.'''

After more than 15 years in the movie business and surviving early critical derision to become one of Hollywood's top composers, Elfman finally thinks he has had enough -- maybe.

Stretching on the gymnast rings hanging in his studio was one way he relieved tension during the frenetic last-minute race to score ''Planet of the Apes,'' his latest collaboration with director Tim Burton.

''Sometimes, I'll just go upside really aggressively ... sometimes 'll just hang and stretch my back out,'' he said. ''It's great for when you're sitting 12 hours a day.

Staying still is something Elfman can't bear, said Burton, who worked with the composer on such films as ''Sleepy Hollow,'' ''Mars Attacks!'' and Elfman's personal favorite, ''Edward Scissorhands.''

''I think creative people need to be able to be creative, and that's Danny,'' Burton said. ''If you saw his band's original stage act, they mixed it all. Music, drama -- it was very theatrical.''

Burton said he felt a kinship with Elfman since neither had worked on a big-budget picture before they teamed up on 1985's surreal comedy ''Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.''

At the time, both felt like outsiders, he said. It became a common theme in much of their later work, particularly 1993's darkly comic animated musical ''The Nightmare Before Christmas,'' about a Halloween skeleton who wants to take part in Christmas.

''There's something funny and amazing about Danny,'' Burton said. ''His music is so strong it seems like a character in any movie he does.''

Elfman credits Burton for being one of the few directors who give him ''a long leash.''

''Tim is usually pretty open to any kind of new thing or sometimes even crazy stuff I would never even run past some directors,'' Elfman said.

When he works with other directors, Elfman complains that too often half the job is composing and the rest is selling the director on the idea.

''Film work is a very interesting art form, but it's very impure. You can only write for what's on the screen,'' he said. ''I have to mix it up with something that has fewer restrictions.''

Elfman, who's written music for some 60 movies, wants to compose a ballet. He wants to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia. He wants to record a solo rock album. He wants to write screenplays, and maybe direct and produce some independent movies himself. The divorced father also would like to spend more time with his two daughters.

That doesn't leave much time for his day job (or rather, night job -- since he does most of his composing after dark.)

''It's not uncommon for me to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week with maybe half a day off if I can,'' Elfman said. ''When I'm deep into scoring there's no going out and meeting friends for dinner. There's no going to the movies. If a friend of mine is having a birthday party, I'll have to send a note.''

''Planet of the Apes'' was invigorating, but it also drained him.

''Whether I stop doing film music or just trim it way back, I don't know,'' he said. ''Right now I'm in the trimming-it-way-back stage.''

The pulsing score featured numerous complex themes of throbbing percussion, most of which Elfman performed himself on his private collection of tribal instruments.

''The main titles include 48 tracks of my own stuff,'' he said. ''A lot of the time, I'm outnumbering the orchestra.''

The soft-spoken Elfman, best known for his darkly triumphant ''Batman'' score, the retro bombast of ''The Simpsons'' theme and the achingly sad lullabies of ''Edward Scissorhands,'' is not the madman character his fans might expect.

The ex-frontman for cult-rock band Boingo (formerly Oingo Boingo) which broke up in 1995, Elfman speaks in a near whisper inside his chilly home studio, which is decorated with a menagerie of bizarre bric-a-brac.

A shrunken head adorns a table near his keyboard. Beside it rests a long-dead stuffed cat curled up in an eternal nap. Broken bits of baby dolls play peek-a-boo on shelves and above picture frames.

Such decor may be a subliminal reminder of the ''ultimate deadline'' for the composer, whose work is often at its most lighthearted when the on-screen theme is grave.

''Those of us who do this, do it because we're good at being creative under pressure,'' Elfman said. ''Everybody always wants more time to do everything, but the reality is you get what you get.''

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On the Net:

''Planet of the Apes'' official site:

http://www.planetoftheapes.com



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