'Batman' composer Danny Elfman says turning down Prince was 'most stressful gamble' of his career

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music
Danny Elfman (Photo: Tawnya Bear/MasterClass)

Renowned film composer, former Oingo Boingo frontman, and frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman recently launched his in-depth MasterClass aptly titled Making Music Out of Chaos, a fascinating must-see for anyone pursuing a career in cinematic music-making.

However, there’s one life lesson that Elfman says he’s wary of sharing with his impressionable students, when he discusses what he considers to be “the single biggest, most stressful gamble” of his career.

“This is the tricky area when it gets down to talking to students, because I took a great gamble with Batman that I wouldn't necessarily recommend to a student that I'm talking to do the same,” Elfman tells Yahoo Entertainment, referring to his landmark film score that turns 30 this year.

“Which is, I was willing to walk away from the film, rather than compromise what I knew should be the sound of the film. And I had to actually [walk away] for a short period of time.

“There was a period where the producers wanted me to co-write a score with Prince, and I just wasn't willing to do it. I knew what the score was, and as much as I love Prince's music, I didn't feel that his score was going to be the right score sound for the Batman movie.

Read more: 30 years of Batman

“And so, I had to walk away and let that play out, and then got invited back in again.”

Elfman confesses that he “did go through a period of time where I just felt like I'd walked away from the greatest opportunity of my life due to my own stubbornness,” even though “it ended up coming back around and becoming something that helped really define who I was. But it was a gamble that I wouldn't advise young composers easily. … You never want to encourage somebody to hold out for something that ruins their career.

“But at that moment, I was willing to ruin my career. It's like I had a great luxury that many composers don't have, which was a ‘f***it’ attitude towards everything. And I still felt at that point, ‘If they don't like it, f*** it.’ And it just came out of my post-punk upbringing, but it's not an attitude that I think is necessarily a healthy one for people to take into their careers. It's just that worked to my advantage.”

Danny Elfman during "Batman" Los Angeles Premiere at Mann Village theater in Westwood, California, United States. (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)

Batman, directed by Burton, was the first truly massive film production that Elfman had ever worked on, and it was an entirely different experience from films like Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. “Essentially, when a movie is below a certain budget, it flies under the radar of all the heavy concern of a studio. Batman was not at all like that,” Elfman chuckles.

“And I’d never worked on a film that wasn't a comedy — and quirky comedy, at that. That was why there was so much resistance. I don't think the producer or the studio wanted me on the film. They were like, ‘This maybe isn't Danny's ballpark, the quirky comedy guy.’ I understood it, but it was just like a real struggle, because there was a lot of different directions of where the music should go.”

American musician Prince performs in concert, New York, New York, circa 1989. (Photo by Larry Busacca/WireImage)

Elfman reveals that at one time, there was an “early, early version of Prince and Michael Jackson and George Michael — and we would share the score, and I would just kind of be the coordinator. These were the early musings of the producer, Jon Peters, who was really difficult. Selling Jon on the score was an incredibly difficult thing. But I have to say that once he was sold, he was a real champion of the score, and he became a great ally. But it was just really, really tough to turn him in that direction.”

Elfman admits that everybody thought he was “crazy” to turn down a chance to work with Prince, but he says, “I had to stick to my guns. … My feeling at that point was that Prince was a great, great songwriter, but that he probably was not a film composer, and that he would come up with melodies, and I would essentially be turning those melodies into a score. And so, my feeling is that I would end up being a glorified orchestrator, or an arranger, not a composer on the project. And I just wasn't willing to do that.”

Read more: Stars who nearly played Joker

Elfman stresses that he “would have really loved to work with Prince in a different scenario. … If there was a different kind of film, a weird contemporary film with a twisted soundtrack and I could have collaborate with Prince — like, ‘You do the funky-feel stuff, and I'll do the weird orchestra stuff, and we'll find a medium between’ — it would've been great. I would have loved that opportunity. But at that moment, I felt that Batman wasn't it. I already knew in my head exactly the score that I knew would serve the film. And like I said, I was young and impetuous, and I took a gamble.”

Michael Keaton on the set of "Batman". (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Eventually, the doubting Peters did a total 180, once he heard the music the way Elfman had always intended it — so much so that Batman was one of the first films to spawn two soundtracks (one by Elfman, and one by Prince).

“The studio was happy,” says Elfman. “Jon Peters, he came up to me when we were scoring it — because there was not even going to be a soundtrack album for the score; it was only for Prince's songs, and I knew that. And he came up to me, and he said, ‘You know what? This score is so good, we're going to release a second soundtrack.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, right. You're just saying that.’ That had never been done. And he did it! Like I said, it was a tough sell, but once he got sold, he was really excited, and he was a huge advocate, and he personally made it a big deal to get that second soundtrack out. So, he became a really fantastic advocate for the score that he was so resistant to in the beginning.”

Elfman’s Batman score went on to become iconic, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Album or Original Instrumental Background Score; the theme song actually won the 1990 Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition.

Elfman's opening credits were later even used in the title sequence theme for Batman: The Animated Series. He has no regrets turning down Prince, Jackson, and Michael, but he is still aware, three decades later, that things could have gone a totally different way for him.

Read more: Joker theory changes movie completely

“The point is, you can only express how something works in your life and never tell a student what to do,” Elfman says with a laugh.

“Sometimes you're just going to be presented with decisions that are really, really difficult. That's why I'm always conscious as I tell that story to others, because I really don't want to lead anybody down a path and they'll go, ‘Goddammit, Danny Elfman’s advice really blew up in my face! I wish I never knew about that!’"