Interview with Danny Elfman: On composing music for Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor ride

Composer Danny Elfman with Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor in the background
Composer Danny Elfman with Mystic Manor in the background

I had the privilege of interviewing Hollywood film composer Danny Elfman with a bunch of other media when he went to Hong Kong Disneyland in May 2013 for the opening of their newest land, Mystic Point. (He composed the music for the Mystic Manor ride.)

He had a very quirky, elfin look about him (pun not intended), heightened by orange-tinted glasses, receding caramel hair and fair skin; but he was genial, very modest about his own accomplishments, and lovely to talk to.

I’m a fan of his work — which includes music for The Simpsons, Batman, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Wanted, not to mention his famous and enduring collaboration with director Tim Burton — and was delighted to talk to him and answer some of my longstanding questions about film scoring.

Below are excerpts of our conversation.

On composing the music for the Mystic Manor ride

What kind of imagery were you trying to create with the music for Mystic Manor?

I can’t say what I was trying to do; I just know that I saw the images – the drawings and the paintings – and I just came up with what I did. Just like when I’m doing a movie, I don’t really think about it — I just look at what I’m looking at, and something pops into my head. I was lucky with Mystic Manor because my first idea was the one that stuck — sometimes I have to do it many many times — so it’s considered really good luck if the first idea ends up being the one we stick with.

Where would you say the inspiration for this music comes from?

On this ride, the inspiration came from the drawings. They had these illustrations, so I tried to imagine what it would be like as a ride, and it all came to reality.

Was the outcome something like what you imagined?

Well, I tried to imagine what [the ride] would be like, but I didn’t really know what it was going to be like. I just kind of went with them, and then they would come up with more stuff and more stuff, and I would evolve with them. ‘Oh we need an Egyptian room; now we need a Tiki room, with drums’, and it’s like ‘Great, ok, now we take the same thing and we do a version with drums’; so I really just kept going with them. I would do stuff, and they would come up with more three months later, and then three months later, and then three months later, and I would be like ‘ok, great!’ and just kind of piece them together like a puzzle.

Is there a difference between composing for movies and composing for a ride?

It’s different in the sense that in a ride, it’s all going to be very quick. In a movie I’m really going to take my time; in a ride, every note has to count. Where there might be five minutes for a scene in a movie, I have 30 seconds in this room in the ride — I have to make it all count. So it’s tricky, but I like challenges, so it’s a good challenge for me.

The biggest challenge in the end was how there are 12 rooms, 12 compositions, how they all fit together; because each room connects to the next and the next — you could hear them very often from one to the other — and I had to find a way to make them all work together. That was very tricky, the timings of everything.

At the beginning of the Mystic Manor ride, Lord Henry Mystic's monkey, Albert, unleashes magical Music Dust that brings all the artefacts from his travels to life, causing mayhem.
At the beginning of the Mystic Manor ride, Lord Henry Mystic’s monkey, Albert, unleashes magical Music Dust that brings all the artefacts from his travels to life, causing mayhem.

At which stage do they bring you in to compose the music?

Very early on. There was just nothing but drawings and an idea. They’ve been working on this ride for a really long time, but I probably started this one maybe two years ago.

Is this the first theme park ride you have composed music for?

Yes it is, and I hope it’s not the last.

So is it more fun than what you’re used to?

Yes. Films can take such a long time, and the work is very intensive. And the nice thing about this is I kept coming and going, coming and going, but the work was quick and very collaborative; I liked the people I was working with. With film, I’m usually just working with the director; nobody else. And here I have all these great creative people I was working with, and I really enjoyed them all. It was really fun in that way.

Who were the people you had to work with for this composition of music — the creator, the designer, or…?

It was all of them. There was always like a group of people from the beginning; mostly, there was a gentleman named John Dennis, who was very involved with the production from beginning to end, and Joe [Lanzisero, the Senior Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering – Creative] always was in charge of everything. And so I’ve been working with John, and working with John, and every now and then he says ‘Well we’ll play it for Joe, and see what Joe thinks’, and I would be like ‘Oh my god, Joe’s going to listen, Joe’s going to listen’, then Joe listens and then ‘He loves it, he loves it! Joe loves it!’ So it was all like that.

What feelings do you hope to stir up in visitors when they visit Mystic Manor?

I just hope they will find it really fun. Because it is a ride and meant to be just a fun time, and I tried to make it very classic — like a classic Disney melody and a piece that could have come from any era in time. So it was in the feeling of an old classic Disney movie maybe, just in terms of how I tried to approach it. I don’t know whether I succeeded, but that was my intention.

Personally for you, what was the whole takeaway? How is it different?

This was just fun and collaborative. It didn’t have the weight of a big 80, 90 minutes of music in a movie; this is just five minutes. It’s a lot of work for five minutes but still, the intention was just to do something kind of fun, and not take yourself too seriously. But the main thing I took away was I really enjoyed working with the people, and so I keep telling them ‘Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai’. (laughs) [Disneyland is opening in Shanghai in 2016.]

The thing that got me really into doing this ride was they said it was inspired, in part, by a ride that I loved when I was small, called The Haunted Mansion. So it was like a cousin to The Haunted Mansion; and because The Haunted Mansion was a part of my musical subconscious, I really wanted to do something that, if it survived, which I hope it will for many years, it will become part of the subconscious of children in many generations. Maybe if I’m lucky, it will be like The Haunted Mansion and last 40 years or something. And so that’s really the big appeal, that it was inspired by that: that I might do something that will become part of the musical subconscious culture of a generation.

On scoring films

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The thing I enjoy most is when it’s done, if it came out ok, it makes me happy. Getting there can be so much pain, but when it’s done, I always say it’s like childbirth: it’s really painful, but if the baby’s beautiful, you forget about it really quick.

Which has been the most difficult project you’ve worked on?

I’ve worked on so many difficult projects, I couldn’t even tell you which was the most difficult. I’ve done about 80, 85 films, I think — I don’t even know — I guess about a third of them have been really difficult. That’s a lot of films.

What do you do when you have musician’s block?

I’m not afforded the luxury of musician’s block. When you’re on a deadline, you cannot even think about the possibility, because it can’t happen. You just have to ‘Go go go go go’. I think it’s very much like being in war, being on a battlefield, and there’s bullets coming at you, and you just have to ‘Go go go, move forward move forward, don’t stop, move forward move forward’. So you just have to think like that. I used to tell my family when I was starting on a film that I was putting on my samurai armour. I felt like I was going to battle and I was putting on all my armour and my helmet, make sure my sword was working, and go forward. My mental image was always kind of like that — like a warrior going into battle, making sure my sword was the sharpest I could get it, hoping my armour would work and I wouldn’t get killed.

How long do you usually have to compose music for a film?

It could be as much as 12 weeks, or as little as five or six weeks. Usually the most I’ve got has been about 12, 14 weeks maybe. It’s not a long time — feels really quick — and sometimes it’s really short, like three or four weeks, and then you really have to go into double, triple time. But I like to set up 12 weeks whenever I can, so I think about movies as three months, three months, three months. Though sometimes it’s just two months, two months, two months. But I like to think that there’s three months.

Do you usually work on overlapping projects?

I try not to. This last year I have a lot overlapping, but usually I don’t. Usually I try to keep everything apart, but movies have a tendency to be moved. They’re like icebergs in the water. They are not static; sometimes they move, so one is here, and one is here, and you think ‘that’s fine’, but the one behind suddenly starts catching up, and next thing you know they are on top of each other, and you go ‘uh oh, now I’ve got a problem’. They just don’t stay still, so as much as we want them to, suddenly one’s getting delayed, the other needs to go early, and now you’ve got a problem; but in the end, we manage to sort it out.

How do you choose which orchestras you want to work with after you finish composing and have to record it?

I’ve only worked with two orchestras in my life, until next week, when I work with a third orchestra after 85 films. But I’ve only worked in Los Angeles and London. So everything I’ve recorded has been Los Angeles and London, and those two orchestras I know very well. And starting next Monday, I record my very very first score in Berlin. So what we say back home is ‘Knock wood’ – good luck. It’s a documentary film (The Unknown Known, directed by Errol Morris), and there’s no money, so I said ‘well, let’s try recording somewhere else that we’ve never recorded’. I thought it would be fun to try a different city, and I met a composer who said ‘Oh I just recorded Berlin, it went really well’, so I said ‘Ok I’ll go and record Berlin.’ So I’ll see if I agree with him next week, or if I want to kill him. (chuckles)

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I don’t know. I have no idea. I wish I did. I would go to wherever that inspiration place is.

You have a lot of successful projects to your name. How would you rate your success on the scale of 1 to 10?

If I was rating myself, I would say about a 5 out of 10. I have a long way to go to really be happy with what I was doing with myself. Maybe I would be generous with myself and give myself a 6.5, if it was a good day. I always feel like I could have done better.

Are you friends with other composers like Hans Zimmer?

You know, I don’t know many other composers, but I was just with Hans, three days ago, coincidentally. We’re friendly, but we don’t bump into each other very often, because I don’t work with any other composers. We are all like, what you call, lone wolves: don’t travel in packs, travels by itself. Every now and then there’s like a function like what I did three or four days ago, where I run into other composers, but that’s like maybe once a year, and we will talk for ten minutes, and that’s it; I won’t see another composer for another year. So it’s always fun when I meet other composers, but we don’t always get a chance to meet.

For more on Danny Elfman, check out this charming interview with The Guardian, where he talks about his collaboration with Tim Burton.

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