In 1989, fresh off his work on Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, a young composer still largely known for his work fronting the band Oingo Boingo took on a new project writing music for Burton’s latest film, a new big screen take on Batman. It was a bold choice at the time—the songwriter behind “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science” scoring one of the most popular superheroes in comics? Yet, the results were instantly iconic, leading to one of the most recognizable superhero scores ever recorded.
The work made Elfman an early go-to choice when it came to scoring superheroes, but his DC work ended with the soundtrack to Burton’s Batman sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns. Or rather, it did until now. Elfman is returning to the world of DC for the first time in 25 years with the score to this month’s Justice League. It’s arguably the most challenging superhero project of his career, providing music for not one hero, but a full team’s worth.
How did he do it? By building upon some of the existing DC superhero themes that have become so beloved by fans, all while constructing new themes that represent the heroes as a team. The result is what’s inarguably one of the more fun and exciting superhero scores to come around in quite a while.
We recently had the good fortune to sit down with Elfman where we discussed his work on Justice League, his history with DC and his thoughts on scoring franchises. In the process, we were given a new song from the Justice League soundtrack to debut. We suspect you’ll want to listen up…
Photo by Brian Averill
Let’s start with the obvious. How did it feel coming back to the world of DC after all of these years?
It felt really good! It’s like a familiar terrain. It’s funny, I’ve worked on so many other scores where I’ll be getting into a chord thing, and it’s getting Batman-like, and I have to take it out because of the type of scene that it’s up against. When it comes to music and identification, context is everything. Obviously, if I’m in a completely different type of film and it gets into that zone chord-wise, I don’t worry about it. But if there’s a superhero or villain on the screen, then I have to push away from it. So, it was really fun to be able to go there and as that started happening organically, I would just think, “Oh yeah, just let it go!”
Looking at your previous DC work for a moment, did you have any idea when you were writing the Batman score how successful that movie and theme were going to be? At the time, Superman was probably the more popular of DC’s big two.
I had no clue. The pleasure in hindsight, looking back at that score and a lot of the scores that I did over that period, was that there was no template.
There was nothing to go on. When I wrote the scores to Pee-Wee, Batman, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, there was virtually no template. There was no temp score! There was nothing because as you correctly identified, the only superhero we had to work with was Superman and it was very clear that while Tim [Burton] and I didn’t know what we wanted to do, we knew that it couldn’t be that. It was kind of like going in a mineshaft in the dark with nothing to really hang onto in terms of what was a reliable place to start. It was very hard doing those things at the time, but now in hindsight, I realize that those opportunities are pure heaven.
Back in 1988, the superhero genre as a whole was still pretty new in film. That’s definitely not the case now. Did that change how you set about writing the score for Justice League?
Well, yeah. Styles change over the years. Back then I took it into what Tim used to call “the march.” Well, we wouldn’t do that now. That would be corny by today’s standards. So, I wrote stylistically how I would write now, not then, except for a few moments where Joss [Whedon] was very consciously like, “Let’s do the old thing right here!”
There are definitely nods throughout the movie to previous successors. I do use Hans Zimmer’s Wonder Woman theme a couple of times. Joss loves including a few of those moments in the music that you know the fans are going to love. So, there’s maybe, MAYBE one moment that’s dead-on 1989 Batman.
Is it a difficult thing to do as a composer to add existing themes into an original score? And does it push your score in a certain direction?
No, because they’re self-conscious moments. We’re doing this moment here, and that moment there, but that still leaves 100 minutes of music. The bigger challenge in Justice League was that I had all of these characters and I couldn’t just go and start writing big themes for everybody because you can only do so many themes in one movie. How to fit that puzzle together was really the tricky part.
I came up with two heroic themes, one which was just an overall Justice League theme and one which was a team theme. I’m using that more when the team is coming together. I also have an “Anti-Hero Theme” as well as a Steppenwolf theme. But then I tried to provide really simple little hooks for Cyborg, Flash and Aquaman, without going too far. There’s a certain point where you just get a mess of themes, and that’s just going to be a nightmare. So, I tried to simplify those characters to just a few notes, so that there’s something recognizable, and I tried to keep my new thematic action more involved around the entire group as a whole, so it didn’t get too fragmented. But it was still quite a huge jigsaw puzzle of how to do that in a way that wasn’t too messy and served the purposed of the film. So yeah, Justice League was really a challenging film, but I like challenges.
The one song that’s been released so far, “Hero’s Theme,” certainly sounds rousing and uplifting, but it ends with some pretty unique sounds that are almost discordant. Were you signifying anything there, or did you just think it sounded cool?
Oh yeah, that was just me having fun. “Hero’s Theme” is an overall heroic theme for the Justice League, and as I mentioned, there’s also a secondary theme, which represents the team. That’s how the logos start right at the beginning of the film.
It sounds complicated, but when I put it together, I hope it’s not complicated. The problem is that it’s the kind of thing where if you deconstruct it—if I put it on a big board in front of you—you’d go, “Oh my god, this is so complex.” But the trick with scoring in a situation like this is how to make it not feel complicated to a listener or an audience.
You also have an “Anti-Hero’s Theme.” What can you tell us about that one? And is there any particular reason it ends with a callback to the Batman theme?
No, that again was just me having fun. The hero and anti-hero themes I did as wild tracks. They weren’t actually scored to picture. That was just me defining these two elements that I was really digging and having some fun with it. [The Batman callback is] not actually referring to any specific moment onscreen ending with Batman, it was just for my own pleasure.
We’re giving fans their first chance to hear another one of your songs from the score, “Friends and Foes” (above). This is one of the songs that incorporates an earlier, very recognizable DC theme. So why bring back some of these earlier themes in your score for Justice League?
With Justice League, they’re really launching this franchise as a unique franchise—it’s their own world. Often when a franchise is relaunched, they start all of the music from scratch. Most of the time, that’s a decision that may not harm the financial success of the franchise, but it definitely takes away from the longevity or durability of a franchise. The franchise that I always come back to again and again is Star Wars. It’s the oldest musical franchise we have and wisely, it’s the one time they’ve decided not to do that when they relaunched it. It was a really smart thing. Fans, when they hear little bits of the John Williams themes, even when they’re in an offshoot like Rogue One, it provides this great historical context that ties everything together in a really satisfying way.
My feeling coming into Justice League was that DC had great things that were uniquely theirs and to not acknowledge them was to let go of little jewels. To deny that is really just denying the fans. To a fan, hearing that little connection is a heartwarming thing. It gives you some adrenaline and excitement. It’s fun!
It just goes into kind of a belief. You pull from the past and you connect things. The thing that should be the highest regard here is the fans—the people who have been tied to these characters for years and years. Pulling them into little bits of their own past is both respectful, but it’s also acknowledging that we’ve got some great stuff here, and it’ll always be great.
Justice League Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is available digitally and as a CD on November 10, 2017. Click here to pre-order.