Filmmaker Gus Van Sant and composer Danny Elfman talk of their collaborations
January 24, 2018
Filmmaker Gus Van Sant met musician and film score composer Danny Elfman a little more than 22 years ago through a mutual friend, Caroline Thompson, who was Elfman's girlfriend at the time.
The meeting ignited a pairing that resulted in at least seven films — including their first project together, "To Die For." Their latest project, "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," features Joaquin Phoenix as quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, that premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Other films the two have collaborated on include "Promised Land," "Restless," "Milk," "Good Will Hunting" and the 1998 the remake of "Psycho."
Van Sant and Elfman talked about their working relationship during a New York Times Talk panel discussion that was moderated by Times contributing writer Logan Hill at the Sundance Film Festival's Cinema Cafe on Saturday.
The filmmaker said he never thought Elfman would want to work with him.
"Then I found out through Caroline that he was actually interested," Van Sant told a standing-room-only audience. "So we concocted 'To Die For.'"
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Elfman, who has scored more than 100 films since his days in the rock band Oingo Boingo, said the first thing they needed to do was see how each other fared artistically.
"Especially with music, you don't get a treatment version," Elfman said. "When you have a writer, you might get a treatment for a story and then flesh it out for a full script, but with music, you're going on trust until the person is hired on the project and you hear the music."
So the first thing Van Sant did was to give Elfman free rein to create music on a couple of scenes.
"[He] made a few different versions of ideas that he carefully wanted to walk me through and show me what was different about them," Van Sant said. "I remembered saying, 'Why don't you take the movie and make the score and I'll see you [later]."
That's how directors and composers, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herman, worked in the old days, Elfman said.
"They didn't do demos," he said. "So Hitchcock never got to hear scores until it was with the orchestra in the studio, but I am from the school where the director is involved with every decision. My style of writing is to look at a scene and come up with a number of options."
That process especially worked with "To Die For," which is a comedy and crime drama staring Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon.
"I like to [think of] the directors as if they are in an optometrist's chair," Eflman said. "You can go, 'A or B?' Or 'One or two?' And focus in on the score."
The composer said he left it up to Van Sant or his assistants to select the choice.
"I'm indecisive about everything. I can think of every reason why this one or that one works," he sad. "Unless it's a superhero movie where there is a superhero's or villain's theme, where everybody knows it needs to be this kind of thing, the odder the film is tone wise, the more you can do with the music to get people locked into the mindset."
Van Sant and Elfman's new project, "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," is based on a memoir of the same title by late cartoonist John Callahan, known for his darkly comedic style.
Callahan was an alcoholic, and after a terrible car accident, which was caused by his friend who was driving, ended up in a wheelchair.
"For this type of movie, I'm not going to write character themes," Elfman said. "[However] there are some themes that repeat, but they aren't his theme."
The composer has noticed an evolution with his collaborations with Van Sant over the years.
"With each film he's gotten much more confident of wanting me to try more stuff," Elfman said. "Before he was very shy, but now, he'll say, 'Do you mind if we take all the cues and put them in completely different places?' And I'm fine with it because it actually makes it more interesting. I like being pushed."