Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness composer Danny Elfman: Kevin Feige wanted a battle between Bach and Beethoven
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness composer Danny Elfman speaks about the workings of scoring music for a Marvel film, explains why composing theme for Wanda was special to him
One of the most exciting scenes from the recent Marvel movie, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, for me, is the duel between the two Doctor Stranges from parallel universes. The background music, fascinatingly, seems appropriate for a wuxia Chinese drama, but captures the existential vibe of this duel. The composer, Danny Elfman, in this conversation, sheds light on the conception of this scene among many, why he loved composing for Wanda’s Scarlet Witch, and his relationship with longtime collaborator, director Sam Raimi.
Could you breakdown the composition of the momentous duel scene for us?
It was very last second because the first version of it — I was scoring it — also combined different kinds of themes of different composers, from light to heavy. Then in the very last moment, I got on a call with Sam Raimi and Kevin Feige (President of MCU), and the latter said he wanted it to be a battle between Bach and Beethoven. I wrote it really fast and just got it into the film in time for release. It was like Doctor Strange Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and evil Doctor Strange Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. It was so much fun.
How has your experience been, working on the themes of end-credits, and the allusion to the genre of horror through Wanda?
The main titles — whether at the beginning or at the end — are the most fun I have in a film. It’s where I really like to explore and cut loose. There’s no dialogue, no sound effects, and it is just a total playground for me. I live for those moments.
Wanda’s theme really was very special for me because it is the first time I have had a villain that I also really adore. She breaks my heart. You know it is a unique situation. Normally, a villain is like Darth Vader and its heavy, and their theme is all about menace, menace, menace. But here, the antagonist Wanda is also heartbreaking. This was a unique chance to create a theme that could be both heartbreaking and sweet, or powerful and menacing. I loved her character. I mean, whenever has there been a superhero villain whose goal is not to destroy the world, but to get her children back? It’s so unique; I have never seen anything like that.
What is it like to include memorable themes by other composers into your score?
It is fun! It is ironic that at the same moment I was finding moment for Michael Giacchino’s original Doctor Strange theme in the new one, and he was having moments on Spider-Man where he was using my original Spider-Man theme in his film. We were doing this almost simultaneously. So, it was kind of a strange world. But I like doing that, engaging in variations. There is also a small nod for WandaVision since Marvel likes these little Easter eggs. There is a third musical homage, which I won’t say, as we are still hoping fans will find this moment.
How do you distinguish between scoring music for a superhero film?
It is different as it gets crazy at times. I was scoring Batman way back when there were no rules because there was no sense of what it should be. The only superhero model we had was Superman then. We decided that we didn’t want to make it sound like the John Williams’ mould, even though we love that and it’s beautiful. So, it was all experimentation and invention. By the time I did Spider-Man, Hulk, and Justice League, there was more context for superhero films. Now, as we come full circle back to Doctor Strange, we thought we will get a little crazy again as this film supports going outside the line a little bit more.
What is it like to collaborate once again with Sam Raimi, and this time, on his first MCU project?
Working with Sam is like a special treat. He is a nice guy, and he is funny. Our meetings together tend to be funny. He turns working together into a fun time and he has always been like that. I do feel comfortable with him. We go back so far, and in fact, I met my wife on the set of one of his movies that I scored called The Simple Plan. So, we are connected in many ways.
My wife and I think of our son as the child of the Evil Dead franchise in a sense (laughs). We are both fans of his and we finally got to meet on the sets of one of his movies. Now, we have our 17-year-old Oliver from that happy coincidence.
A marvellous phenomenon
Meanwhile, Sam Raimi, the director of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, isn’t surprised at all that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has evolved as it has since his original SpiderMan trilogy. “Stan Lee had created a great pantheon of characters and stories that were all interconnected and beautiful to behold. The comic books were really cool and exciting. That’s why I tried to sell Thor at that time, but the studios didn’t understand it. I tried again with The Batman and The Shadow. Hollywood’s history with superheroes was chequered at best,” he says. “I always saw the potential though, even if I failed to realise it successfully early in my career.”
The filmmaker believes he has learned from his mistakes, speaking mainly of Spider-Man 3 (2007), that came out to negative reviews and brought the franchise to a premature end. “My learning is that the audience connects to the humanity and vulnerability in superheroes. These attributes must be present at every moment in the film.”
(With inputs from Sudhir Srinivasan)