In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: For decades, Danny Elfman has been behind some of the most distinctive music created for film and television, a body of work that’s both impressive in its magnitude and surprising in its variation—all while still retaining a sound that is unmistakably his. Even more astonishing is where it came from: the former leader of the confrontational cabaret act turned ska-tinged new wave act Oingo Boingo, whose earliest aspirations were to stage the bizarre performance art pieces immortalized in Elfman’s film debut, Forbidden Zone. In the years since, Elfman has become one of film scoring’s most sought-after composers, thanks largely to his work with director Tim Burton (an extensive collaboration we covered in this previous interview). For this Set List—which can only begin to scratch the surface of his long list of credits—we tried to look at both the major milestones and a couple of the forgotten corners of an unusual, unusually prolific career. Elfman’s latest score is Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which was released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 14.
The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo, “You Got Your Baby Back” (7-inch, 1976)
Danny Elfman: Oh my God! [Laughs.] Okay, you’re going way back.
The A.V. Club: Well, the fact that you wrote a novelty song about Patty Hearst might be of some interest.
DE: I don’t even remember what my motivation was other than being silly. That was like, at the height of silliness. I had a cabaret/musical/theatrical troupe. At that point, we rarely did anything with a contemporary, current feel—meaning beyond 1938. Almost our entire repertoire was pre-1940, and our original stuff was in the style of way earlier stuff. And this was a rare, rare venture into the second half of the 20th century as a style to work in. Even if it was a very dated style in the ’70s to do something in the ’50s, for us that was a huge leap from where we stood, which was 1933.
AVC: What were you hoping to accomplish with a record in that era?
DE: Nothing. I never really set out to accomplish anything. I wrote it as a joke and somebody said, “Hey, let’s record that.” So it was a joke that made it to vinyl.
Oingo Bongo, “Capitalism” (from Only A Lad, 1981)
DE: In Oingo Boingo days, things were a little simpler to grasp where I was coming from. Because in Oingo Boingo, I was really just functioning as a brat, and I liked to provoke. A lot of people hated us, and I kind of liked that. So I wrote that as another little way to provoke reactions. Nobody at that point was doing counter-left-wing rock ’n’ roll that I was aware of, and even though I consider myself very left, I wrote something that was very satirical of the left—for no other reason than being a brat.
AVC: The National Review has since named it as “one of the best conservative songs ever written.” How do you feel about them co-opting it?
DE: I didn’t know that. It was written completely as being facetious. “Little Girls” wasn’t written from the perspective of a pedophile either. They were both written as in-your-face facetious jabs. If anything, it was right-wing in the way that they may embrace Stephen Colbert as an icon of the right—if you didn’t look or listen to hard. That was coming from a similar motivation. I don’t think Stephen Colbert is as right-wing as he appears—one can assume. “Capitalism”—I was thinking from a very similar sort of point.
AVC: It’s odd, because that one song still contributes to plenty of Internet arguments over your personal politics.
DE: I just basically make fun of everybody, and I didn’t see anybody as being protected from that. So even if my politics were left, I still would really mock political correctness and kind of organized left-wing politics as frequently as I would the right. To me, all organized, political groups have a sense of absurdity to them. It’s open to be mocked or satirized. If anything, I consider myself part of nothing, and any organized group was fair game to mockery, from my vantage point.
Danny Elfman, “Gratitude” (from So-Lo, 1984)
DE: I can’t even remember what I was thinking at the time I wrote it. It certainly wasn’t political. Probably a lot of what I was writing came from a somewhat—I felt at that moment—surrealistic relationship I was having. But I don’t think I wrote it about a breakup or something specific. “Only A Lad” and “Little Girls” and “Capitalism” would come from reading an article in the paper, and I would just get irritated and write a song. But most of my stuff, like “Gratitude,” didn’t come from a specific situation that I can recall.
AVC: This song was used in Beverly Hills Cop.
DE: On the soundtrack, right. And that was my first placement on a soundtrack, I believe. I knew Marty [Brest, director] really well. Marty was a friend of mine, and music I wrote for him was in his AFI student film years earlier. So I was kind of around him for this whole debacle that happened for him, where a movie he’d been working on for quite a long time—the producers dumped him on the first week of shooting and left him kind of destitute and depressed. And all of a sudden, Beverly Hills Cop popped up and he grabbed it. And at the time, I wasn’t a composer, and I think it was through our record label—Kathy Nelson at Universal—there was connection about getting a song on the soundtrack. So it was just a random thing among friends.
AVC: The soundtrack was a hit. Did it help the sales of So-Lo or with Oingo Boingo?
DE: No, not really. It didn’t have any effect that I could see. Oingo Boingo, we kind of grew a local popularity based on doing a lot of live shows, and the only single thing that I ever noticed that made a single jump in attendance and reaction was opening for The Police, for a bunch of shows when we were first starting off. At the end of that, our shows got a lot bigger quickly.
Oingo Boingo, “Weird Science” (from Dead Man’s Party, 1985)
DE: It was a sideways jump. It was the only song we ever had that was on popular radio. And it, again, was a random thing. There were a couple of pieces I wrote that became very popular that I wrote in my car. One of them was “Weird Science.” I got a call from John Hughes talking about the movie, and wouldn’t it be fun, and I literally wrote it [in my head] while I was talking to him. I got home—I live in L.A., so there’s a lot of driving—up in Topanga Canyon, and I probably had a 45-minute drive. And by the time I got home, I pretty much had it in my head. I ran down to my studio and recorded it and sent it out. That and The Simpsons were created the same way. I mean, literally from a conversation that was in my head, I managed to not lose it or turn on the radio and have it erased long enough to get down to my studio and record it.
AVC: When you say you write things in your head, you mean the basic melody?
DE: In that case and in The Simpsons, I heard the whole thing in my head. I heard the arrangements, I heard the brass lines, I heard the bass lines. I had half the lyrics written by the time I ran down my stairs. It was a goof. Any time I’m talking to a director, even now about scores, when they’re talking about it, that’s when I get ideas and hear stuff. It’s not uncommon to screen the movie when I’m talking to a director, and I’ll run out of the room with my iPhone and quickly make some notes, because I don’t want to forget it—especially when I’m at a screening, and I’m liable to hear a piece of music that will come on and erase it. So in both of these cases, I happened to have these conversations and be right in the car and it kind of was instantaneous. It’s usually not that easy.
But “Weird Science” was a goof. I wanted to do it for fun, and John was a nice guy, and while he was describing the spirit of the thing, I got the song in my head. I can’t say it made a huge difference for Oingo Boingo, because on the other hand, it was the only kind of pop tune like it that we did. And I found myself quickly onstage not wanting to perform it, so it was a dilemma after the first year or so. Because it was like, “Oh that was fun, but now I don’t want to do it.” It just didn’t feel like it was really a part of our repertoire. It felt too poppy to me.
And I think the video was what really soured me. I hated the video. It was the only video I did that I didn’t have anything to do with. I was, at that point, getting busy with other stuff, and I had agreed to show up on a set and, you know, lip synch the song. Everything else I did, I was a part of creating it, or I would even co-direct it. But here I just didn’t, and I was horrified. Years later when it appeared on Beavis And Butt-Head, I just figured, like, justice was served. Like they deserved that. That was kind of the nail in the coffin for me. Like, they were right, and I never want to play this song again. But what can I say? I asked for it. The video was pretty in-your-face, pop awful.
“The Breakfast Machine” (from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985)
DE: That was the first piece I really dug into. When I first met Tim [Burton, director], I came home from that meeting with the piece in my head and I recorded it—multi-tracked it—because at that point, I had a reel-to-reel four-track. We didn’t have a studio, per se, and I did all the parts as best I could on this four-track on a cassette and got the job, to my astonishment. And the first big piece of music I dug into was “The Breakfast Machine,” because I knew that would be a real fun one.
I’ll never forget—because I’m not a keyboardist by any shape, I’m just not—suddenly I was there with the producers and Tim, trying to play the music to “The Breakfast Machine” live. And there’s a reason why I couldn’t take a piano lesson or a violin lesson as a kid: because I could never play live in front of anybody one-on-one. I tried taking three or four lessons on three or four instruments and failed. I’d take the violin lesson, learn the piece, then get in front of the teacher and sweat would just pour down, and I couldn’t do it.
There’s a movie called Shine with Geoffrey Rush as a young pianist playing Rachmaninoff, and he has a nervous breakdown, and there’s scenes of him playing this incredibly difficult Rachmaninoff piece and sweat falling on the keys. That was, for me, playing “The Breakfast Machine” in my studio for this small group of people. It was the first and last time I did that. I decided, from that point on, I’d record it and play back—no more live for me, ever. That’s what I remember most about “The Breakfast Machine.” It was really fun to write, but it redefined how I was going to play back music for the next 28 years.
AVC: Were there any specific composers you looked to for inspiration on your first big score?
DE: Oh yeah, absolutely Nino Rota. Clearly. I was very much inspired by Nino Rota, and that was one of the reasons I thought I would never get the score—and then when I got the score, thought it would get thrown out. When I first saw the scenes from Pee-Wee, it was Pee-Wee riding his bike in the bike race, and I was like, “This isn’t an American comedy.” I mean it’s set in America, but it’s almost European in a weird way, and I was just drawn to Italy and Nino Rota. So I thought that would be not understood, in terms of where music was in contemporary comedies at that point. And I did expect that when Warner Bros. heard it, they’d toss it and have someone else score it. So it was kind of a surprise that it stayed in the movie.
“Finale” (from Wisdom, 1987)
DE: It was the first time I tried to do a synth score, that there was no orchestra, no instruments. I knew Emilio [Estevez]—he asked me to do it, and I just tried to write something synthetically. I’m not really sure beyond that.
AVC: It seems like there are elements of Brian Eno, some of Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas score, maybe some Ennio Morricone—am I really off base with this?
DE: No, you’re probably right. I don’t think I was conscious of any of those when I was writing it, but in hindsight, if I listened and listened to those elements, I’d probably agree. You end up with a big cauldron of influences in your brain, and you’re writing and drawing on those things, whether you’re aware of it or not. So subconsciously, yes, but consciously, I don’t know what I was thinking about, what I was actually striving for.
AVC: Wisdom is a soundtrack that’s hard to track down. Have you ever talked about putting it back out?
DE: I don’t think that I could. I don’t have any masters, so I don’t think I would be able to. It was hard enough when I did that Burton/Elfman box set—finding those masters, my God. It was impossible. It was like looking at salt mines for reel-to-reel tapes, which nobody knew whether they existed or not. I never archived anything, ever.
DE: No, I didn’t care. Once it was done, it was done. And when we started to put that box set together, my assistant spent months sifting through cardboard boxes in storage rooms I had here, there, and everywhere of random, original DAT demos she was looking for. Nothing was marked, nothing was organized. It was just dumped in cardboard boxes, in kind of weird little storage rooms to bake in the heat.
AVC: I assume now you have digital archives of your newer work.
DE: Well, of the newer work, yeah. Because exactly, the digital stuff, it’s a little better. But you’d be surprised. I tried going back even to something four or five years ago and I’m like, “Man, it’s on a drive somewhere…” [Laughs.] It’s still surprisingly hard. I’ve never been good at organizing or thinking about that for my own internal filing system when I’m working. It sticks in my head while I’m working on the show, then later I’m like, “What would that have been called? Who knows?” I never listen to my older music, except having to go back on the Burton stuff. That was the first time I ever listened to any of my older stuff.
“The Batman Theme” (from Batman, 1989)
DE: That was the hardest leap. From Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to Beetlejuice was still well into the silly, quirky zone. Batman came along, and nobody wanted me on the film. So that proved to be the great trial of my career, because the studio and the producer—nobody wanted me. Tim did, but nobody else did, and then there was a point where I was asked to collaborate on a score with Prince, and I refused, and I had to leave the project for a short period of time. That was brutal for me while I went off and let Prince do his thing, because I just knew the collaboration wasn’t going to work.
First off, I’m not a collaborative person, and secondly, I just had a feeling it didn’t make sense. As much as I admired his work, I didn’t want it to be that kind of score. I felt it should be an orchestral score, not a pop score. So I had to kind of sit that one out. Then I got recalled in and really had to prove myself, because it was nothing but skeptics. So even after close to 100 films, that still goes down as the hardest experience in my life, because I had to go through a period of time where I felt like I had just thrown away the best opportunity of my career by being stubborn.
I had a pretty big, stubborn streak, and I was just not willing to make that compromise. The fact that it paid off is kind of a fairy-tale story in my career, and I probably had a lot more chances of that not having a pleasant ending for me. In hindsight, I’m still surprised that I made that decision and stuck with it at that point in my career. I did, and I’m glad I did. But I go back and think, “I must have really been kind of fucking insane back then.”
AVC: Did you ever at least talk to Prince?
AVC: You didn’t even take a meeting with him?
DE: It wasn’t about taking a meeting. This was all the producer’s idea. I don’t think Prince really wanted to collaborate with me either, as far as I knew. This was the wishful thinking of Jon Peters, the producer, and maybe Warner Bros. So it was just the way it came down. No, I never did really speak with him. I just knew what the score really should be and held out for that.
It’s one of my funny stories, because instead of being in a car when the title music hit me, I was on a 747 flying back from London, and all I was thinking was, “I don’t have the ability to pick up a napkin and write music.” I’ve never taken music lessons. I can write, but I need a keyboard and some kind of reference to write. And I didn’t have a keyboard. Now I try to travel with a little equipment, and if it ever came up again, I could grab my little mini-computer and play these parts. But at that point, I had nothing—certainly not a laptop. All I had was this little Sony tape recorder, so I kept running into the bathroom and laying down track after track after track, hoping that they would later mean something. I was thinking melody, counter-melodies, rhythms, all this stuff separately, and I kept getting more ideas and running back.
I couldn’t do it at my seat, because I didn’t want to sing into my tape recorder with this guy sitting next to me. And it got to the point where I’d open the bathroom door and there’d be two flight attendants standing there saying, “Sir, are you all right?” And I’d go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” I’d go back to my seat and be back in the bathroom 10 minutes later, and this time there are three flight attendants. And clearly they’re looking at me as some sort of hopped-up junkie who’s just shooting up every 10 or 15 minutes. I’m sure they didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t appear to be sick or throwing up or green around the gills. If anything, I was excited.
But also the bathrooms were incredibly noisy, so when I got home to my studio—as I had feared—the plane erased the entire piece of music from my mind. Because they played landing music, and I think it was something like “Yesterday” by the Beatles, and it was a total memory eraser. I came off the plane and all I could think of was “Yesterday,” and I’m like, “What happened to the Batman theme? [Sings.] ‘All my troubles seemed so far away…’ Fuck! I’m screwed!” And I turn on the tape recorder, and I have about 30 minutes of notes on there—and all I’m hearing is loud engine noise. I finally heard little bits of myself coming through it, and I could catch a little bit of a “bum bum-bum-bum bum” and I’d go, “There’s a bit of the rhythm, okay, I got that.” And finally it all came back to me and I was able to write it down. But I was really relieved, because it almost is the exact main title to Batman.
AVC: So the Beatles almost ruined the Batman theme?
DE: Almost ruined the Batman theme. That would have made me crazy, after all that work, to lose it! Who knows, it might have come back to me in the middle of the night, but it would have caused me some serious distress. But I always knew I’d get caught one day not having the ability to hear pitch in your head and know what that pitch is and write from the air without a reference. But of course, I don’t have any of that in my background. I was like, what would I give to have just a couple of years of music school.
“Grand Finale” (from Edward Scissorhands, 1990)
AVC: With Batman, Dick Tracy, Darkman, Nightbreed—there seems to be this continuation of pounding percussions, trumpets, etc. But when you get to Batman Returns—and especially Edward Scissorhands—you begin hearing this slow creeping, wintry sound of choirs, music boxes, and the like.
DE: Really, that was just going to my other influences—you know, strong Russian influences, bits of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. They’re so deep in my psyche, and as soon as I got to that part of the world, I dipped into the Eastern European part of my musical soul. I always loved writing for voices. I love choral music, so as soon as I had the chance, I started writing for choral choir. Frequently when I’m writing, I’ll hear bits of Lieutenant Kije or Alexander Nevsky or Romeo And Juliet—or, in this case, The Nutcracker. In the same way Pee-Wee took me to Italy, Edward Scissorhands took me to snowy Eastern Europe. It’s just my sense of a fantasy or fairy-tale character. It takes me right back to my ancestral side of my roots, which is Poland and Russia. Even though I don’t know either of them personally, as I started growing up and hearing music from that part of the world, it immediately felt like it was from my own blood.
AVC: Is it more difficult to write a score that’s delicate, rather than something big and pounding like Batman?
DE: Not really. If I find the tone and find the melody, it’s the same process. Writing it down is much easier, and in those days when I was writing it down, we didn’t have MIDI notation yet, so it’s quite the contrary. It’s more enjoyable to have a more sparse piece of music. It’s just less notes physically on paper. The big, aggressive scores—Christ, the score papers would just fill up really quick. It’s just really slow. So it’s the opposite. I’m just moving through more bars much more easily and more quickly that I’m not going, “Okay, four bars at a time: Start at the top, go to the middle, and end at the bottom.” Each bar has got 15 staves to fill out and, with like, Edward Scissorhands, “Wow, a string choir. Maybe a woodwind and a harp.” It was such a pleasure in that regard.
AVC: “Grand Finale” is where the many motifs you’ve set up blend together. How do you go about laying the groundwork so that you can make this sort of big summation?
DE: Well, I think that’s the thing for many genres of scoring. If it’s a good score, it’ll have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you should plant the seeds early on, so you can come back with any kind of impact at the end. You’ll need to plant that early. Those are the lessons I learned from the classic film composers. I learned my craft from the likes of Jerry Goldsmith and [David] Tamkin and [Erich Wolfgang] Korngold. They taught me that you have to do your work, and you have to lay it out and make it all come together at the end.
AVC: It really does.
DE: I lucked out. [Laughs.]
“Jack’s Lament” (from The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)
DE: Well, that was easy. I was writing one song at a time. Tim would come over and he’d tell me part of the story, show me pictures and illustrations he’d drawn, and I’d go off and write a song. I just didn’t know how to start. There wasn’t a script yet—just a story and outlines—so we decided to start with the songs. It was really simple. Jack, in Halloweenland, was me in Oingo Boingo. So I just wrote completely from that perspective. I understood completely where Jack was coming from. I wanted to leave Oingo Boingo, but I couldn’t, so Oingo Boingo was my version of Halloweenland. I was the king of my own little world—as anyone is when they’re the singer-songwriter in a band. I was trapped and couldn’t leave. I don’t necessarily see myself as oozing with “ghost-like charm.” [Laughs.] Jack might. It was more the emotional motivation was similar. There was a strong link between myself at that period of my life and Jack and his ordeal.
I worked harder on that probably than anything I’d done in my life, so I was really, really sad that it didn’t find an audience when it came out. But then, over the course of 10 or 15 years, to see that it really did—it just was a slow-cooking thing—it was one of those really rare things that just took on a life of its own. It was incredibly gratifying. I’ve worked on many things that failed, and that, more than anything else at that point, was something that I really wanted people to find. But when it came out, nobody knew how to market it. Nobody knew what it was. It wasn’t a marketable entity. But to Disney’s credit, they saw that it was developing a following, and they sensed they could nurture that and make it have a second and third life. So really, kudos to them. To say, “You know what? This thing has potential now, 10 years later. Let’s feed it, let’s nurture it, let’s develop it more. Let’s re-release it, let’s do an ‘inspired by’ record.” They really did catch on after the fact. But at the time, it really was heartbreaking.
AVC: Considering Disney’s propensity for franchising, it’s kind of surprising there hasn’t been talk of a sequel.
DE: I’m sure that’s more of a question for Tim and whether he was interested or not. I don’t think a sequel, necessarily, would have been a good idea. Tim’s never told me one way or the other about that part of it. I wasn’t surprised that there wasn’t, but whatever reasons there would be would be in his world.
AVC: Speaking of, have you been approached about Beetlejuice 2? Has he talked to you about that?
DE: No, other than the fact that I just heard about the possibility of it.
AVC: I assume you’d like to come back for that.
DE: Well, I never like to assume anything. It has to become a reality first. I think I might have mentioned it to Tim, and he kind of gave a little look or nod or shrug and was like, “We’ll see.” In my world, nothing is done till it’s done. It’s like, “Well, that’ll be interesting if it happens.”
“Doc Ock Is Born” (from Spider-Man 2, 2004)
DE: [Spider-Man] 2? Really?
AVC: Spider-Man 2 is where you ran into issues with Sam Raimi, correct?
DE: Well, I don’t like to get into negative stuff too much. I’ve had falling outs with people through my life. Tim and I had one, and we finally ended up getting back together and working it out after Nightmare Before Christmas. Sam and I had it on Spider-Man 2. I just felt like, for various reasons, I wasn’t able to get communication from him. It seemed to be coming through messages, and he wasn’t involving himself personally. I was starting to feel disconnected from the project in a weird way, and I started to get frustrated. Spider-Man 2 was an incredibly frustrating project, and I just said, “That’s it.” When I reach a certain point and I feel like it’s not creative for me, I just don’t want to do it—even if it’s lucrative.
But Oz [The Great And Powerful], when we got back together again, was the opposite extreme. I can think of very few projects that went as smoothly and easily. We just sailed through it. I think people just hit periods and points where shit happens. And I reach a certain point where I get very frustrated and not able to move in one direction or another directly with a director, and I feel kind of disconnected, and stuff is coming from other places. It makes me want to disconnect. I’ll kind of go anywhere with a director if it’s what the director wants and I’m with them, and we’re kind of like, “Let’s try this” or, “Let’s go the opposite direction.” But if I feel like it’s coming from other places, I start to dig in.
So it was just a thing that he went through and I went through, and we ended up getting back together at dinner and talked about it. And at that point, he asked me to do a remake of Spider-Man, which he was slated to do, and I said, “Yes, I’ll do it!” And the next week they canceled. That’s when they basically ended that part of the franchise to redo it with The Amazing Spider-Man. And he just popped back up and said, “Forget Spider-Man! Let’s do Oz.” And I said, “Let’s do Oz. Great.”
AVC: You’ve done the themes for four superheroes: Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk, and The Flash. Do you find it weird that you became the superhero guy?
DE: I think a lot of us go through periods of our career where we start going into genres, and we start getting called into that. So it’s kind of amusing. At the time, I didn’t think too much about it one way or another. I was happy to be working, like all composers. I wasn’t going to complain. Because I was also getting other kinds of films, so it wasn’t frustrating. And even superhero films like The Hulk with Ang Lee—that was so weird that I didn’t feel like I was even in that genre.
AVC: It does seems weird to come from these avant-garde, cabaret beginnings—from something like Forbidden Zone—to being one of the go-to guys for superheroes. Though I suppose all of those particular superheroes have an outcast side.
DE: There’s an outcast side. And also, along with the hero is the antihero, and therein lies the fun writing.
“Mr. Peabody’s Prologue” (from Mr. Peabody & Sherman, 2014)
AVC: This track seems to have bits of Pee-Wee, bits of Back To School in there, almost like you’ve come full circle.
DE: Yeah, both. You’re absolutely correct. There’s a quirky sub-theme that’s not the theme of the movie that happens a few times. It certainly happens at the beginning when you meet [Mr. Peabody], and at the end, where I was able to enjoy tapping right back to my original roots. That’s what Rob [Minkoff, director] and I talked about and was fun to do.
AVC: After 80-odd film credits, do you ever worrying about repeating yourself?
DE: Well, you can’t not, especially when I think it’s more than 80. But whatever number it is, you can’t write 90 things that don’t overlap. Any composer worries about that. We’re always trying to find ways where we’re asked to do something that is clearly something we do or have done well, and there are times where we have to do something new and different and stretch out, and we all hope for those to come along. But at the same time, I’m not going to be a reclusive composer that only works every three or four years. I like working. I like writing. So sometimes that means there’s going to be some sort of repetition. This is what I do, and I like doing it. And yeah, I know it’s not dissimilar to this other movie of a similar genre. But that doesn’t mean that just because I did this one thing, or this one genre, I’ll never do it again.
I think it’s harder when you do something well and other composers start doing it, and it starts to become associated with them and this big hit movie. Then I’m like, “I don’t want to do this thing anymore.” It may be ripped off something I did five or 10 or even 15 years earlier, but now it’s really associated with this project. And I don’t want to do something that somebody did that sounded like me at that point. That’s the bigger problem: Trying to avoid motifs and certain musical things when they’ve been in something that’s very popular, and it might have derived from something I did that was a little more obscure. I have to stay away from that. I don’t want to be seen as copying that and riffing off that if it can be avoided. It’s kind of a tricky dance.
AVC: Is there something specific you’re referring to?
DE: No, just stuff in general, between Batman and Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice and all of these things. Midnight Run. There were so many things in this period that I suddenly started hearing in the fabric of all the stuff around me. That became disconcerting, just in terms of now I want to be careful—not because of what I did, but what this film did. I’m not trying to stir up problems. This is just the nature of the business in a certain way.
AVC: Well, that’s the rub: You’ve been doing this long enough that you’ve influenced generations of new composers.
DE: Well, I’m not the one to say how much I was or wasn’t, other than, every now and then, I’m seeing a movie and I listen to a score and I’m like, “Ohh. Ugh. Hmmm. Okay.” At those moments, I’m like, well, I influenced somebody somewhere, for this moment or this theme or this feel. But you can’t dwell on that stuff. You have to move on. Find new ways to do stuff. That’s what it is.