Danny Elfman on Scoring ‘Doctor Strange’ and the Musical Mayhem of That Lunatic ‘Lethal Symphonies’ Sequence

Danny Elfman comes by his “Strange” love naturally. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is the composer’s ninth film with director Sam Raimi and fourth on a Marvel project, but more than that, a kind of controlled insanity has been a part of virtually everything he’s done, going back to Oingo Boingo days, so asking him to make a score both superheroic and super-nuts is not necessarily a tall order.

Variety spoke with him a few days after the opening, by which point it was abundantly clear that any worries he had about about the film being too Raimi-esque for the mass audience were unfounded, just like the reservations he’d held about how his twin Coachella performances would go over at that festival last month.

You have a history with superheroes — Batman, Spider-Man, the Avengers. Is there way in which the music for these films can rightfully be considered a genre or subgenre whose needs you need to at least partly meet? 

I mean, yes and no. Every film has the same core of how you approach it, which is: Figure out the tone of the film, and once you’ve figured out the tone, is it a thematic film? And if so, then go right to the themes and put together the giant jigsaw puzzle — or not. … It’s a tricky question. You tend to, in a superhero genre, follow characters with themes more closely — ever since “Star Wars” — than in a drama where one theme might play over an entire film.

But I never dealt with such a unique characterization, thematically, because my antagonist — rather than being a Thanos or Darth Vader, where you’re clearly just putting a menacing theme — is a woman trying to get her children back! It’s really unique. And so it’s like, OK, I have to come up with something that works for Wanda: It has to be like a nursery rhyme and heartbreaking and childlike. And so there were very interesting challenges that way, but that’s what made it so fun for me.

A common take people have had about the film is that “it’s like the first Marvel horror film.” It really doesn’t seem nearly that clear-cut, but clearly there’s a reason fans ar saying that, with elements of other things people associate with Sam Raimi in there. Of course, there’s going to be a lot of mayhem, whether it’s a straightforward superhero film or tinged with horror. But the fact that it has horror elements — did you play to that?

Oh, totally. But there’s different kinds of horror. You know, there’s horror that’s genuinely scary-scary, and then there’s horror that’s fun. And Sam has always been of the fun horror variety. His horror is like a kind of a fun, crazy, action, ironic horror, frequently. And I knew from the minute I knew that we had Dead Strange resurrected that, OK, I can have a good time with this. And I didn’t know if I was going to get away with it, but Sam gives me a very long leash. And so I went right back to my childhood, and I just scored it as if it was the kind of thing I would grow up on as a kid. I went right for a big Bernard Herrmann kind of attitude, and to my shock and surprise, I got away with it. That just made it really delightful, because I know that world and I love being in that world, obviously.

The sequence where people are most thinking about the music — because there are literally notes appearing on screen — has the music that, on the soundtrack, is titled “Lethal Symphonies.” For film fans with a really, really long memory, it’s kind of reminiscent of the Silly Symphonies cartoon where the jazz world and classical world are at war and we see their dueling notes on screen. Is there any kind of homage going on there?

Well, to a certain extent. When Sam first described going off to shoot that scene, because that happened midway in the production, it was a fresh idea. Honestly, I said to him, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” I just couldn’t picture what it was! And he comes back with this scene and I’m like, “Oh. You’re being literal! I thought you meant, like, figuratively.” Literally notes are flying and coming back. And so there was a lot of experimentation. We really didn’t know quite how to do it, other than we knew that we wanted somehow to involve classical music that might be coming from the page.

And there was an earlier version that had a number of different compositions of different kinds of famous pieces that might be sitting on a music stand or on a piano. And then it was Kevin Fiege in the 59th minute of the 11th hour that came in and said, “Guys, it’s working, but it could work better. Let’s just literally condense it down to Bach versus Beethoven.” And it’s like, “You got it.” I had, like, 24 hours to redo the scene — which was already in that direction, but I just tried to condense it even more to Beethoven’s Fifth versus Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.” And we got that in the dub, just the last possible day before the gates came down and they said, “That’s it, the movie’s finished.” I mean, there was a lot in place, so it was really just realigning certain parts of it and keeping certain parts. And of course, Kevin’s instincts, as one would expect, are correct.

Your association with Sam goes back to “Darkman,” and it was once about as synonymous as your affiliation with Tim Burton. Of the nine films you’ve done, though, this is only the second in the last 20 years. Apparently you guys had a little bit of a falling out with “Spider-Man 2” [Elfman did not work on “Spider-Man 3”], and then you renewed your friendship and did “Oz, the Great and Powerful” together, but that was his last film before this, nine years ago. So there are reasons you haven’t been as jointly prolific lately. What’s it like, sort of getting back on that horse with him now?

It’s such a pleasure. Honestly, he is the nicest guy, and he’s one of the only directors that will come out of a music presentation session smiling, because he’s making jokes and then I’m making jokes, and now we’re just kind of try to kind of play off of each other’s humor. I know people say this all the time: “Oh, the director is so fun to work with.” But in this case, he really is. And he’s so generous; I would do these ideas and try them out and go, “Ah, this is never going to fly,” and Sam would just go, “Love it, buddy. What do you got next?” “Oh. All right. Better play this for Marvel, too — let’s make sure they’re on board with it.” And because the production got so extended and was so difficult with the pandemic, everything from the shooting to the scoring, I just thank my lucky stars that if I was going to be stuck for such a long time on a movie, that it was both a movie that I loved being on and with a director that I absolutely love interfacing with. I just consider it one of those great lucky breaks.

And I’m so happy to see that fans are embracing the Raimi-isms — and this is what I was never sure about when I was watching it. I told my wife, over and over, “Man, I love it, but I don’t know if it’s going to work for fans.” It’s such a child, a DNA, of two parents, Marvel and Raimi.  And it’s like, will the fans be OK with this? And so, going there Friday night with the whole Marvel crew and watching the reactions of the opening, it really was exciting. It felt good to work on something for so long and see them reacting in such a great way. I haven’t had many of those kind of experiences.

You went out to see it with the public at a theater for the reactions?

Yeah. I mean, I was with Kevin and the producers and Sam and the writer and the editor and literally on a bus, as they were going from theater to theater, and it’s wild.Kevin walks out on stage just before the movie starts, the lights go up. The audience is going like, what the hell? And he goes, “Hi, I’m Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Pictures. Welcome to this screening of ‘Doctor Strange,’” and people are like, what in the world? He says, “I’d like to bring some people on the stage.” He’d bring us all out there and we’d wave and then go off and start the movie. What a connection. At a couple of the theaters, we’d then sit in the back and we’d watch people reacting. They love doing that. They really are connected to their fans. And I’ve never experienced that before.

To diverge from “Doctor Strange” for a minute… We talked to you between Coachella weekends, when you were cautiously OK with how it’d gone, but looking forward to getting it more right the second weekend. How did you feel about the second weekend — and then coming out of it, any updated thoughts now about a possible tour in that career-encompassing vein, and whether that’s possible?

Well, the second weekend of Coachella, at least I was no longer with a sense of doom and dread. You know, the first weekend, I really thought that I’d created something — a disaster — like I was stepping into my own car crash of my own design. It was like, “This is impossible. The show’s never going to come off.” And then actually having seen it come off, I was able to at least sit back and enjoy a little bit more the second weekend, because I knew at least it was possible.

And where we go from here, I have no idea. I mean, it’s such a crazy show, moshing together 50 musicians on stage at Coachella. It was crazy with rock ‘n’ roll, old music, new music, film music, all put together. It was just a concept I’d come up with as a random thing, when I went there and met Paul Tollett, who books it, in 2019.  I pitched it as  a crazy concept, which later I was like, oh my God, what have I done? I think I’ve finally gotten myself into something that I can’t get out of and is never going to work. It was as much stress as I’d ever put myself under, for sure.

The live version of “Nightmare Before Christmas” this past October was so much fun with Billie Eilish and the rest of a great voice cast, at a new location. When your solo album came out last year and we spoke with you then about “Nightmare,” it seemed like you weren’t sure whether it would be kind of a one-off, having taken a break from the tradition. People keep asking us to ask you if you think you’re going to do it again.

I think so. You know, I did reach that point where I go, “You know what? This is fun.” And I only have to do it a couple of times a year, so I’m not sick of it yet. There is that point where I get sick of something, and I’m always looking for my escape hatch,  after being in a band for a number of years and going, “Where’s my escape door here?” But I can see doing it, yeah, a few more times. So I don’t think it’s over yet.

Back to “Strange” — it’s interesting that you took over this franchise from another composer who’d done the first movie, Michael Giacchino, and you use some of his previous theme. And then, in the latest “Spider-Man” film, your original theme is incorporated into that…

The same composer who did “Doctor Strange” did that latest “Spider-Man” and used my early “Spider-Man” theme, yeah. And I was doing “Doctor Strange” and I was using some of his “Doctor Strange” theme. So it was really weird and very ironic that we were doing them almost at the same time. Talk about multiversing. That’s about as much musical multiversing as you can get.

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