Dan Heath shared a Golden Globe nomination for co-writing the titular song “Big Eyes” with Lana Del Rey for Tim Burton’s film of the same name. He’s also co-written and produced many of Del Rey’s singles such as “Blue Jeans” and “Ultraviolence,” as well as the song “Once Upon A Dream” for the film Maleficient. Heath got his start as Hans Zimmer’s assistant after earning two degrees in film scoring and composition. Here is an edited transcript of our recent conversation:
How were you brought on board?
Lana [Del Rey] came to me and said Harvey [Weinstein]’s asked me to a do song for this Tim Burton movie called Big Eyes about four or five months ago. They wanted a song for the end title and when we had finished they decided that it was too slow and somber and a bit too serious because the film ends on a happy note.
So you did the song first before it moved into the scene it’s in now?
Yeah, it ended up being in the middle of the film which worked really well for the supermarket scene where she’s losing her mind a bit.
Did you have to compromise the song with the switch?
Actually there wasn’t much compromising, once the song had been agreed on and finished the editor actually worked to fit some of the picture to the music which is unusual. I think they actually extended the scene to fit more of the song.
How did Burton describe what he wanted?
It was mainly Harvey who directed us on this one. Originally it was just an orchestral piece, then it was Harvey’s idea to put some drums in to make it more lively. We went back and forth with a few different versions but there were no notes from Tim, he really loved it.
What is it you like about collaborating with Lana?
I love how excited she gets when we’re onto something good and it’s a great buzz. She’s a genius with melody. If i write something and can’t necessarily envision what she’ll do here, she’ll usually come back with something which is above and beyond anything i expected. I’m never disappointed with anything she does. We’ve been friends for ages so we laugh a lot.
How was your collaboration with Lana different from your other work together?
I would say it was but not that much. We did this thing for Maleficent “Once Upon a Dream” which worked around the same way. I played a drone note which she sang the whole melody and song on top of and then I built up the arrangement around that. We did another track together called “Old Money” which was on Ultraviolence that was the same thing. Obviously the lyrics are catered to fit the film so that was different.
How did you know when you had the result that you wanted?
I was happy with the first version, then it ended up getting approved around version 8. I have a hard time saying that’s done. It usually takes me sitting there for a month or two listening to it before going actually it is done. I think it’s a common thing for writers and musicians to feel.
What were the most daunting aspects when you were first given the project?
I think really the fear that nobody was going to like it. That is always on my brain. That was the same thing for Maleficent, the scariest part is hitting the send button and having it go into the ether.
By nobody do you mean the audiences or the filmmakers?
The filmmakers. Ultimately the audiences as well because that’s who you really want to connect with. I love the piece and I want others to feel the same way.
I guess your Globe nomination kind of proves that they did.
Yeah [laughs]. Which is great.
Did anything surprise you while working on it?
I can’t think of anything I was surprised about besides the nomination. I don’t know if it’s lack of confidence or something or whatever but it’s always really surprising and nice when people respond to it really well.
How do you overcome a lack of confidence?
I think I’ve come up with a little trick. Cheesy as though it might seem, if I’m really enjoying the process that tends to eliminate any lack of confidence because I’m connecting to it. That helps with the whole thing until I hit the send button again, it all comes back.
What is your key to a cinematic sound?
Big lush string arrangements using brass, strings, and ambient piano sounds. Also deep low rumbles, dark textures and lots of space for the vocals. Lana’s voice obviously is cinematic. l get a lot of inspiration from some of my favourite composers; Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer.
What is the most important lesson that you learned from Zimmer?
I think one of the most important lessons is the work ethic – Hans works a lot. When I was there I was expected to be there and work a lot. I was serving cups of tea and coffee to start off with then I got hired as an employee and started doing synth programming and building virtual instruments. I got to see how it all went down. Working with Hans has really helped the music I write for trailers as well with the way he blends the electronic with the organic for a big epic sound.
What films inspire you? Do you have a favorite Zimmer score?
Actually, Interstellar and Inception, are my favorite scores by Zimmer. Actually some Tim Burton films like Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands have inspired me. American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption too, those are beautiful scores that Thomas Newman did the music for.
What’s your proudest achievement of your career so far?
This definitely, being nominated for a Golden Globe. But also I got to record a 100-piece orchestra for “Once Upon A Dream” which was absolutely blinding and incredible.
What do you wish to pursue in the future?
Ideally I’d like to cross over into film scores this year or next year. In an ideal world I’d be doing film scores, songwriting and production in either my own stuff or for people that I really want to work with. I still love doing trailer music. It’s really epic and bombastic so in an ideal world it would be those three things.
Doesn’t trailer music ever get repetitive?
It depends, I get to tailor it. Some of the trailer music is formulaic but I also feel that it’s changing a lot. Now when there’s a big ending, they’re putting really quiet sort of ambient music over these intense action scenes which is different to how it was a few years ago. I just did Ridley Scott’s Exodus and I also did the campaign for Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman and The Hobbit.
Do you prefer doing fantasy films?
I would say my ideal would be fantasy, thriller and drama.
Films on a huge scale or would you prefer to do an American Beauty/Shawshank scale?
I would literally cut off my left nut to do a thing like that. That’s just my dream.
Though I guess Big Eyes is kind of on that scale.
Yeah it’s magical. I hope the music comes across as magical too.