Eye on the Oscars: Music

Danny Elfman is finishing his busiest year ever, with no fewer than six films in the marketplace, including two for longtime collaborator Tim Burton (“Dark Shadows,” “Frankenweenie”) and “Men in Black 3″ for Barry Sonnenfeld.

Three more have arrived in time for awards season: “Hitchcock,” Sacha Gervasi’s offbeat making-of “Psycho” drama; “Silver Linings Playbook” for director David O. Russell; and “Promised Land” for another regular collaborator, Gus Van Sant (whose “Milk” and “Good Will Hunting” earned Elfman score Oscar noms).

“And now I’m deep in ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful,’ ” Elfman says. “It’s been a strange year. If I had thought about it, I never would have done (all those films) but now that I’ve done them, I’m glad that I did.”

“Hitchcock” may have posed the greatest challenge. Elfman visited the set and watched Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren working (as the famous director and his wife, Alma) and, says the composer, “to say I was hooked is an understatement.”

His one caveat: “I did not want to do a mock Bernard Herrmann score,” referring to the real Hitchcock’s musical muse — composer of those iconic shrieking-strings passages in “Psycho.” Gervasi agreed.

Elfman’s score — written primarily for strings and brass reflects the film itself in that it has a “dark-humored, playful” tone as well as “a very romantic one. I went for what I felt was like an old-school romantic theme that could have been from any era.”

The composer, who had already revisited Herrmann’s classic “Psycho” music for Van Sant’s 1998 remake, admits that “even trying not to evoke Herrmann, I was aware that on occasion I still was. Herrmann is so much a part of my musical DNA that I do it anyhow. It was a weird balance.”

Finding the right tone for the quirky characters of “Silver Linings” posed a different challenge. Director Russell “wanted me to go through a journey to understand what the movie is,” says Elfman. “The key was experimenting, being willing to try anything.”

Ultimately, “Silver Linings” needed just 15 minutes of original score, mostly guitar and piano, but with the addition of surprising vocal textures. “On one piece, I happened to lay some vocal parts down, and David just jumped right in and said, ‘Oh, man, let’s do more of that!’ Next thing I know, he’s having me do a capella vocals.”

As for “Promised Land,” Elfman’s initial thought was “Midwest, a simple story, country folks, I’ll use fiddles and guitars.” But Van Sant’s attitude about music, Elfman says, is always, “let’s try something completely different.” He saw all the marimbas in Elfman’s studio and so marimba wound up as a key musical component.

As it turns out, strings, marimba, guitar (and sometimes human voice) predominate.

“Gus is fearless,” Elfman says. “He just likes to try things, and that makes it fun for me. What is or isn’t right can be a subjective thing. With ‘Promised Land,’ it was intimate and small — a chamber orchestra.”

Eye on the Oscars: Music
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