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Arts & Entertainment

Working With Directors

Danny Elfman

Lesson time 6:59 min

Collaboration with directors is a subtle art form that Danny has cultivated for more than 35 years. He offers advice on how to talk to your director, present your ideas at playbacks, and receive feedback.

Danny Elfman
Teaches Music for Film
Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman teaches you his eclectic creative process and his approach to elevating a story with sound.


[MUSIC PLAYING] - When you're talking with directors and listening to directors-- because if you're smart, you're really doing more listening than talking, because you really want to hear what they have to say. You really want to do it with illustrating, because some directors have a really kind of deep musical knowledge, and some know nothing about music. Of course, I always hope for the directors that know nothing about music. It's much easier to communicate, because if they have been to Juilliard, if they've studied music, it doesn't mean shit when they're telling you about music that doesn't exist. It's still all subjective. You're talking about music that does this and music that does-- and if they start talking about a specific style of music or composition, most likely they're leading you down a rabbit hole that's going to go nowhere. And you're going to end up doing that, and then having them go, no, no, that's not what I mean. I meant like this. All that really matters is you listen to their feeling. How do they feel about it? And that needs no musical sensibility. How do they feel? Your job is to translate their feelings about their movie into music. And the directors I have with a vast musical knowledge or with deeper musical knowledge tend to be actually more difficult. Warren Beatty comes to mind, because he's actually a musician, and he could play piano, and he could talk about a scale, talk about playing it in this key versus that key. I usually-- you know, I've had half a dozen directors who can talk that way, and I just listen to them. But when they talk about keys and stuff like that, it doesn't mean anything to me. You know, when it-- when somebody starts talking about this should be in such and such a key, because such an key feels that way, that's bullshit. And when classical reviewers are talking about a composer composing in a certain key, that's also bullshit. I mean, there is no key that feels sad, and there's no key that feels happy. You can turn any key into anything you want. So ideally, the director is not giving you very specific musical notation ideas, but if they do, you've got to listen, be respectful, and try to understand the gist of what they're saying. But then get down to what you really care about, is what's going to make them feel what I want them to feel at this moment. [MUSIC PLAYING] Very important-- your first meetings with the director, and especially when you're playing the director music for the first time. It's like, in this moment, you have to find a balance. You have to reach deep inside of yourself. It's-- you have to make the director feel several things. One is that you're calm and in control of the situation. Two, very important, you have-- they have to feel that you're listening to them, that you're really listening. And then when they have questions for you, you don't want to get defensive and start getting nervous and trying to come up with answers that f...

About the Instructor

From The Simpsons theme to the soundtracks of Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Danny Elfman’s compositions are original, memorable, and exuberantly weird. Now the Oingo Boingo founder and four-time Oscar nominee shares his unconventional (and uncensored) creative process. Step into Danny’s studio and learn his techniques for evoking emotion and elevating a story through music.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This is an amazing class, I LOVE Danny's style and advice.

Best one so far! I'm going to watch it again.

Loved it! I'm not a music composer but I love Danny Elfman so this class was really great to hear how he works. I think this would be vastly helpful for anyone in that field and even though I don't think I'll be writing music for films anytime soon, his creativity and passion inspired me.

Danny's class is a true inspiration. As someone who loves composing film music but never really made the leap, you've inspired me to go for it.


Antonia T.

Listen. Be open. Make it your own. Change. Listen. Fantastic lesson. Thanks!

Suzanne W.

Communication is difficult at the best of times. I imagine that working with another creative is even more challenging. Listening to the "feelings" makes sense as that is what they are expressing creatively through a film. The hardest thing would be knowing exactly what their feelings are concerning their project. We all express ourselves differently. Tough task. Good advice. Another place where ego needs to take a back seat.

Quinn J.

In Samuel L Jackson's lesson he also brings up the idea of coming in with more instead of less. Options are important!

simon B.

This makes a lot of sense. The feeling and what is wanted to be is what is imagined to be but reality is a different thing and that's only after a language barrier has to be adequately breached. Having some real tangible vision of what is a way to achieve what is wanted is a totally different mode of thinking musically. Creative thinking is not the same as imagination although creativity without imagination does not work either. Imagination alone is not sufficient for real creativity but it's a prerequisite and necessary foundation for it.