The Untold Truth Of Danny Elfman

Even if you're only superficially familiar with the name Danny Elfman, there's a very good chance that you've heard and enjoyed many of his works. A quick look at Elfman's official website gives you a general idea of what an absolute titan of aural entertainment the man has been over his long and incredibly storied career. 

For a long time, Elfman has been one of Hollywood's go-to composers when a large-profile project needs music that will both pop out as its own work of art, and elevate the movie as a whole. He's been a particular favorite of director Tim Burton. However, "awesome composer for major motion pictures" is just one side of the man. If you haven't been keeping tabs on Elfman's career and life as a whole, you might be surprised by just what he's been up to over the years. Today, we'll take a look at one of Hollywood's most interesting behind-the-scenes players.

Young Danny Elfman hung out with the cool kids

Fittingly for a guy who became a rock star and a renowned Hollywood composer, Danny Elfman hung around with a very talented crowd in his youth (via the Los Angeles Times). Born and raised in Los Angeles, Elfman made some high school acquaintances who became plenty influential in their own right. Notably, he used to go out with none other than Kim Gordon, who later rose to fame as the bass player of Sonic Youth. According to her 2015 interview at the Music Box (via Timeout), Gordon has remained friendly with Elfman over the years.

Despite his own, considerable coolness chops, Elfman himself has been quick to note that while he did date Gordon for a time, he saw the pair as a bit of a mismatch because she was simply on another level. "We were as different as night and day," Elfman has said about Gordon. "She was always cool — and I don't mean 'trying to be cool.' The kind that you're born with and other people try to imitate. I was the opposite — a hyperactive OCD geek." Apart from Gordon, Elfman's circle of musically-oriented friends included fellow composer Michael Byron and Grammy-nominated percussionist William Winant.

Danny Elfman had an artistic awakening in a traveling circus

When Danny Elfman was 18 years old, he spent a year in Europe and Africa (via the Los Angeles Times). He could already play the violin, and his brother — who founded the art collective known as the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, which would later become the band Oingo Boingo — was in a French traveling circus troupe at the time. As such, Elfman ended up doing his tour while playing in the circus band. "Like my DNA was reprogrammed," he described the year that effectively acted as the origin story of the Danny Elfman the world knows. 

In 2019, Elfman shared an image of the circus group he traveled with on his official Facebook page, and reminisced on the many important firsts this period of his life involved. "My first time running away with the circus," Elfman wrote. "I was 18, traveling with a French theatrical troupe called 'Le Grand Magic Circus et ses animaux trusts.' My very first time performing, as well as my first composition for their opening music." 

The budding musician was determined to keep on the path of weird art after he returned from his travels. To this effect, he joined his brother's collective, and took charge of its musical wing.

Danny Elfman has a strict fitness routine

One extremely notable aspect of Danny Elfman's 2022 Coachella show was that the 68-year-old spent a lot of time shirtless, and as GQ notes, his appearance is markedly different from what you'd imagine a man of his age to look. As you might suspect, his ripped look is no accident. Elfman is an extremely fit man, and has been so pretty much all his life. He follows a rigorous-sounding workout schedule that focuses on cardio (which he admits to absolutely loathing) and core training, with a bunch of weight lifting added in the mix. 

Part of the composer's interest in keeping such a strict physical regime is simply the enjoyment of staying healthy, but that's not all there is to it. His strict dietary habits and training program are designed to fight the heart and back issues that run in the family, and to deal with injuries that he's suffered from. He's also revealed another, fascinating motivation to his training: He has a very specific idea about how he wants to look.

"About 25, 30 years ago, I had a trainer," Elfman told GQ. "He asks me, 'Danny, what kind of body do you imagine for yourself? I always imagine Nureyev or Baryshnikov.' I tell him I imagine myself as a newly retired boxer. He thinks I'm kidding. But no, that's it for me: somebody who boxed and recently finished, with a little bit of extra body fat." 

He uses hate as a creative energy

People who only know Danny Elfman as the composer of the fun opening theme for "The Simpsons" might be in for a surprise when they hear what the man has to say about his creative process. In a 2021 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Elfman revealed that when he moved from Oingo Boingo to scoring, his new colleagues didn't much care for him ... and he loved it. "I thrive on negative energy," Elfman revealed. "I was reviled by every other composer, understandably. I was a jerk from a rock band." 

He ended up channeling the dislike of his peers into his own work, using it as a source of strength — especially in his work with Tim Burton. In fact, Elfman has said that the peer negativity he experienced was a wonderful thing, since it gave him something to focus on. "I'll show those m***********s," he described the attitude he had when scoring various Burton projects. "Give me your hate. All you m***********s are going to be imitating me in your next score."

This is far from the first time he makes such comments. In a 1990 interview with The Washington Post, he attributed much of the other Hollywood composers' animosity toward him to the fact that he, unlike many others in the field, isn't a formally trained composer. Much to the chagrin of others, this didn't stop him from achieving rapid success. 

He used to suffer from stage fright

Danny Elfman is a pretty famous guy, and before he shifted his focus on his composing work, he spent years as the frontman of Oingo Boingo (via LA Weekly). As such, you'd expect that he's a seasoned performer who's always ready to entertain the masses — and judging by Deadline's notes of the 68-year-old's Coachella gig in 2022, Elfman's certainly not afraid to turn in a massive, weird show.

Nevertheless, the musician doesn't always find performing easy. On the contrary, Elfman has said that while he loves the intensity of live shows, he doesn't really consider himself a confident performer, despite outward appearances. He struggled with stage fright throughout his tenure as Oingo Boingo frontman. "I know this sounds weird, but I was always a hesitant performer," he said. "I was onstage with the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo. I was on stage for 23 years. And at no point in that time did I lose my stage anxiety or stage fright."

Elfman hasn't exactly lost the anxiety with experience, either. He says that when he returned to giving sporadic live performances in the 2010s, the stage fright was much worse. 

Danny Elfman has a long history with Tim Burton

How does a rock star transition from the stage to one of Hollywood's most renowned composers? By fortunate accident, if you ask Danny Elfman (via Variety).

Elfman is famous for his work with director Tim Burton, and the musician is adamant that Burton is the sole reason for his success as a movie composer. Per The Washington Post, Burton was indeed the one who reached out to Elfman, who was somewhat surprised that the then-unknown director wanted him to put together the soundtrack for 1985's "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." According to the Los Angeles Times, Burton liked Oingo Boingo and had seen the band live, and he saw plenty of potential in their odd music. Elfman himself, however, was less than convinced about his abilities as a movie composer. 

"Tim said he was interviewing primarily nontraditional composers, that he had heard my music with the band and thought he heard bits of orchestral or filmatic potential," Elfman described the pair's first business meeting. "I didn't agree with him." Nevertheless, Burton managed to reel Elfman into the movie-scoring business, and it's probably fair to say that the results speak for themselves. 

Danny Elfman fell out with Sam Raimi

Tim Burton isn't the only director Danny Elfman has often collaborated with. The composer is also known for his work with Sam Raimi. The pair has worked together on movies like "Darkman" and "Spider-Man" (via CBR), but the experience hasn't always been as smooth as one might hope. The making of 2004's "Spider-Man 2" was evidently a strained experience, and Elfman's 2005 interview with CHUD (via Indie Wire) made clear that the two had fallen out so badly that the composer didn't return for "Spider-Man 3."

"It's like my connection with Sam got completely severed," Elfman said. "As far as I'm concerned, he went to sleep, somebody put a pod next to him and when he awoke, he wasn't the same person I'd known for a decade. He went from right there number two on my list of favourite directors to the exact opposite of what I look for in a film experience." The creative differences were apparently bad enough that the mere idea of going through the "Spider-Man 2" ordeal again was enough to make Elfman consider throwing away his entire career. "I'd rather go back to waiting tables than to do 'Spider-Man 2' again, to have to have the same experience," he said.

Fortunately, the two eventually managed to make up. Elfman and Raimi rejoined forces in 2013 for "Oz the Great and Powerful," and again in 2022's "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" (via Inverse).

Danny Elfman's strange cult film

Due to his role as a composer and musician, Danny Elfman tends to stay on the audio lane when it comes to movies. In fact, his best-known "role" is arguably the singing voice of Jack Skellington in Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (via Rolling Stone). However, Elfman does have one notorious onscreen role in his résumé. As Rolling Stone tells us, the film in question is the 1980 cult avant-garde movie "Forbidden Zone," in which the future Hollywood music legend plays a grinning, white-clad, manic devil. 

The peculiar movie is the brainchild of Elfman's brother, Richard, and features stars like Hervé Villechaize ("Fantasy Island," "The Man with the Golden Gun") and Susan Tyrell ("Cry-Baby," "Fat City"). Apart from its cult film value, "Forbidden Zone" is notable not only because it involved two Elfman brothers, but because it marked Richard Elfman's departure from the leading position of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (via the Los Angeles Times). Danny took over, the group shortened their name, and a quirky rock band was born.

Danny Elfman's family life

It makes sense that a comparatively non-traditional Hollywood operator like Danny Elfman would eschew the trappings of high-profile, tabloid-fodder family life. In an interview with GQ, Elfman describes a fairly happy-sounding family life, with giant Independence Day family dinners and water volleyball matches on Sundays. To wrap up the idyllic-sounding existence, Elfman has also showcased his cute dog, Yuki, on his official Instagram account.

In all fairness, though, the simple fact that Elfman has worked in the entertainment industry his entire life means that the circles he runs in are much better-known than those of an average Joe. He's married to retired actor Bridget Fonda, of "Jackie Brown," "Single White Female," and "Point of No Return" fame (via Page Six). The pair married in 2003, and they have a son. Before his current domestic situation, Elfman was married to Geri Eisenmenger, with whom he has two daughters.

His big Coachella 2022 moment was full of potential problems

Danny Elfman re-entered the limelight with a bang in 2022, when he gave the first of his massive Coachella concerts that combined his famous cinematic and TV tunes with Oingo Boingo songs (per Variety). The performance was very well received, but as victorious as it was, Elfman has described a laundry list of potential troubles that could have caused insurmountable issues, from on-the-fly livestream mixing that failed to include all the instruments to technical difficulties with his microphone.

Elfman knew to expect some trouble, because he was well aware of the sheer ambition of the project. "I was joking to a friend before the show, 'Look, we have 30 minutes to set up a show that's never been performed before with 50 musicians on stage. What can possibly go wrong?'" he said. However, he was caught off-guard by a nasty wind that hit his mic in a way that caused him to hear very little of the musicians' playing. This, combined with the fact that he couldn't really interpret how the audience took the whole thing, created a pretty surreal situation.

Ultimately, Elfman just decided to enjoy the moment no matter what happened, which he did. "When you're trying a conceptual idea, you don't know what's going to happen," as he described the experience afterwards. "But in the end, not having a safety net is also extremely exhilarating."

He's suffered from major health issues

Danny Elfman might seem much more fit and healthy than most other men of his age, but as he told GQ, he's had his share of health issues. A lot of it, he says, comes from his tendency to get lost in his work for up to 14 hours a day, which hasn't done too many favors for his body. Over the years, he's suffered from nasty back issues, and has torn the rotator cuffs on his shoulders. 

Not all of Elfman's physical issues have been musculoskeletal, though. In an interview with Variety, Elfman noted that his years with Oingo Boingo damaged his hearing, which wasn't a great thing for a composer with hearing loss already running in the family. This, he says, was a big part of why he quit the band in the mid-1990s and moved away from live performances for a long time. 

"When we were preparing for Coachella, I was using in-ears and realized that could control the level," Elfman said. But like many rock artists, his hearing had been permanently damaged during "that last decade and a half with the band. So that finally is what put the nail in the coffin of Oingo Boingo and touring. I just said, I've got this in the family already, so I'm already working with a deficit, and all I ended up doing was taking 10 years off of my hearing."

Danny Elfman once got a famous composer fired

With his smiling face and inventive tunes, Danny Elfman might seem like a pretty chill, fun kind of guy. However, as the Los Angeles Times tells us, the composer knows what he wants, and isn't afraid to get serious when someone tries to walk over his vision. When Elfman was working on Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice," he ended up clashing with Lionel Newman, an Academy Award-winning veteran known for his work as a conductor and composer, with classics like "Alien," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and "Hello, Dolly!" in his CV (via IMDb). The old-school Newman had been giving orchestral instructions behind Elfman's back — but, as it turns out, Elfman's team only found out about this after the fact. At that point, Elfman had already fired Newman ... because the older man had vocally disrespected him within earshot of the musicians. 

Fortunately, it appears that this clash between Elfman and a member of the Newman composer family — which includes titans like "Toy Story" composer Randy Newman, and holds the distinction of being the family with the most Oscar nominations — didn't cause a lifelong Elfman-Newman feud. After all, Elfman has been known to attend scoring panels with other members of the Newman family, namely "American Beauty" composer Thomas Newman (via Film Independent).