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Danny Elfman on the Surprisingly Lasting Afterlife of The Nightmare Before Christmas

8 minute read

When I called up Danny Elfman on a Friday afternoon and asked what I was pulling him away from, he implored me not to laugh. “A violin concerto,” he said—which didn’t seem particularly laughable—and then, after a pause: “And the soundtrack to Fifty Shades Darker.” But I wasn’t about to laugh at the celebrated film composer, whose 80-plus credits include the scores to Dick Tracy, Mission: Impossible, Men in Black, the early-2000s Spider-Man movies and, most recently, The Girl on the Train. He’s also enjoyed a 30-year partnership with Tim Burton, dating back to his 1985 directorial debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, composing scores for all but a handful of the director’s films. Surely, a film composer as accomplished as Elfman is allowed to have a little fun with the soundtracks to the most popular softcore S&M movies of our time.

These days, when he’s not making music for Anastasia Steele’s steamy exploits, Elfman is preparing to return to the Hollywood Bowl for three live performances, scheduled for Oct. 28, 29 and 30, of his soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas, the 1993 animated classic conceived by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick. Performing his role of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, Elfman will sing live to the film alongside a full orchestra, choir and co-stars Catherine O’Hara, Ken Page and Paul Reubens.

Elfman spoke to TIME about his days as the leader of the new wave band Oingo Boingo, his worsening stage fright and how The Nightmare Before Christmas has endured despite its rocky beginnings.

You’ve said in the past that you’re not a big fan of revisiting your old work. How do you feel revisiting The Nightmare Before Christmas these last couple of years?

I don’t go backwards unless I have a reason to. This all started with the Elfman-Burton concerts. I had a reason to go backwards—I had to create 15 orchestral suites for an evening. One of the producers said, “What about getting up and singing a few songs from Nightmare?” And I said, “Why not?” Then six months later, I called and said, “Did I say I was going to sing?” And they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, let’s change that.” And they said, “It’s too late.” I was like, “Sh-t.” It seemed like the dumbest idea in the world. But I got out there and sang five songs and found I’d enjoyed it. I agreed to continue it. When I can get the original cast involved, it really is fun.

Does it feel like a renaissance of your performing career?

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with performing. When I retired the [Oingo Boingo] in ‘95, everybody always asked me, Don’t you miss that? And I never did. Performers are differently wired. I think the real performer-performers need it and love it. It’s like a fix. With me, it was always something I enjoyed but it wasn’t a necessity. And weirdly, I’ve had stage fright my whole life. I hate being on tour, doing the same thing every night. I realized I just wasn’t wired for that life. I’m enjoying coming out and doing these things occasionally. But if it was ever, “You’re going to do 30 days of shows nonstop in a row,” I probably wouldn’t do it.

Has the stage fright gotten better as you’ve gotten older?

No, it got worse. When I went out at Albert Hall [for the London Burton-Elfman concert in 2013], I found myself frozen at the stage door, literally thinking, I’m going to run down the alley and no one’s ever going to see me again. Helena Bonham Carter was sitting on the floor getting into character. She was going to sing “Sally’s Song,” and she said, “Danny, come on, man. F—k it, right?” And those were the best words I could have heard because that defines my entire career. And I thought, “Yeah, exactly. F—k it.” They don’t tar and feather people anymore. What are they going to do, kill me? And then I just walked out there and I had one of the best nights of my life. It was really a wonderful reminder of the best nights I had onstage when I was with my band, and it was very weirdly emotional.

So let’s go back a couple decades: Tim Burton approaches you and asks if you want to write a musical together.

The great thing about the experience of creating Nightmare is neither of us had any idea how you create a musical. Most animated musicals of that era—this era, really—the songs feel like they come from pop or Broadway. I felt very strongly, and Tim agreed, that these songs should try to find a kind of timeless place that’s not contemporary, even though I knew critics would skewer me for it. My influences were going from Kurt Weill to Gilbert and Sullivan to early Rodgers and Hammerstein. He would come over and tell me a little bit of the story and show me some drawings, and I’d go write a song and three days later he’d listen. We were completely on our own and there wasn’t a script yet, so we just started telling the story in songs. We were feeling our way through it without knowing what we were doing, and of course that always makes for the best experiences.

Besides Jack Skellington, have you ever played another character in a movie you’ve scored?

No, never.

Do you have a special relationship with him?

I do. When I wrote those songs with Tim, I felt like I was writing from my own point of view. I really related to Jack. He was completely Tim’s creation, but the personality as I was writing the songs, I totally connected to. Weirdly, that’s how I felt about my band. When you’re the leader of a band, you’re like the king of a tiny world. I really longed to get out and didn’t know how. So when I was writing about Jack and Halloween Town, in a way, I was kind of writing about myself.

Twenty-three years after the movie came out, does it surprise you that it can fill an 18,000-seat theater three nights in a row?

Yeah, that’s beyond shocking. I didn’t even want to take the Bowl for one night last year because I said it’s way, way too big. They really had to twist my arm to do it. I thought it was ridiculous. So I still am flabbergasted by that.

There’s clearly something that people connect to, beyond just nostalgia. Why do you think that is?

I don’t really get it, but I’m not unhappy that it seems to be the case. We’re talking about a movie that, when it came out, was not successful, and built a following over many years which was, in itself, an extraordinary surprise. Not many movies get a second chance, and Nightmare, fortunately, was one of the few that did.

I saw it in the theater around 2007 when it was converted to 3-D. Can you talk about the evolution?

When it came out, I don’t think Disney understood it at all. They didn’t understand what it was, they didn’t know how to market it. It was so against the grain of everything they knew to be an animated musical. So it kind of came out and died pretty quick. But to their credit, they picked up on a pulse years later that this thing is still alive. And they very smartly came in and breathed life back into it and did more releases. I feel very grateful that they had the smarts to sniff that out.

I wonder if it helps that it’s a holiday movie—or a two-holiday movie, really. To you, is it more of a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie?

I don’t like to pick. I think of it more as a Halloween movie, but it really is about Christmas. Regardless, it’s just that weird thing that sometimes happens where a film continues a kind of cult life after it comes out. I didn’t realize it, and I’m not sure how much Tim did, until we got to Tokyo for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and we went into a bunch of toy stores, because that’s what we do, and there were Jack Skellington and Sally toys everywhere. There was even a club in Tokyo that was Nightmare Before Christmas-themed. And there was kind of a sense that, wow, this thing is really continuing on. It doesn’t die, it doesn’t go away. It’s actually kind of growing.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com