Danny Elfman Discusses His ‘Fluid’ Approach To Creating Noah Baumbach’s White Noise Soundscape


Danny Elfman has built a reputation as a unique composer who does not shy away from the fanciful and unusual over the course of his famous career. Elfman’s filmography is a case study in creative experimentation, from his long collaboration with Tim Burton (Batman and The Nightmare Before Christmas) to current ventures ranging from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to Justice League.


Billboard spoke with Elfman on developing a soundscape for the project under Baumbach’s guidance ahead of the film’s Nov. 25 theatrical release, followed by its Netflix premiere Dec. 30.

White Noise is a one-of-a-kind film. What made you agree to work with Noah on this project, and what makes you agree to new initiatives in general?


First and foremost, it was as if “Can Noah Baumbach call you?” He’d want to chat about his new flick.” So, even if I didn’t know what the movie is, there’s an immediate aspect of “yeah, I’d love to engage in that discourse.” When I say yes to a project, it’s usually about the director; if it’s one I love, I’m happy and excited just to find out what they’re working on. So Noah is a brilliant and creative director, and translating White Noise sounds like a difficult and intriguing undertaking that I’d like to see how he handled.

I started by reading the script, and then I read the book. I was ecstatic because it was clear to me that it was one of those projects that come along every now and then where there is no genre to tell what style of music it should be. When I first started out as a film composer, I was working with Tim Burton on films like Pee-Big wee’s Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and there was no pattern for what style of soundtrack it should be. I didn’t appreciate how fortunate I was until later.


That would seem to make it more difficult for a composer. Isn’t it more difficult to start with a blank page and no direction than it is to start with a specific direction?

No, much the contrary. It’s most exciting when there’s no clear sense of how it’ll sound. When there is a clear sense of the genre, it is far more difficult to work on something where [the director] is fixed on a certain sort of music while yet giving it my own unique personality. I enjoy starting with a blank slate.

Have you ever had a situation in your profession where a director says, “I need this kind of sound,” but you hear something else? How can you strike a balance between the two?

That is the difficult navigation that every composer must navigate on a daily basis. It’s a delicate dance of presenting your music and options while steering the director’s mind away from this aim and toward this one. There is no special formula; you simply give a plethora of options and ideas. When you look at what might work for the film, [directors] start to say, “Oh yeah,” and you lull them over to a somewhat other direction, diverting away from whatever they’ve been focusing on. Any composer with a large repertory has done it numerous times. Some filmmakers are simply stuck in their ways and find it extremely difficult to move on, while others aren’t. Even Tim Burton, with whom I’ve worked so many times, takes a while to warm up to where I’m advocating we go with a soundtrack.

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