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Holy inspiration! Danny Elfman composed Batman movie score by shutting himself in an airplane bathroom

By Benjamin Bullard
Danny Elfman

When inspiration strikes, it can occur at the most inconvenient time — just ask Danny Elfman. When the idea came to him for the score to director Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the Oscar-nominated composer was kind of indisposed (to say the least). But, like a pro, the iconic musician — who’s scored some of the most memorable movie tunes of the past 30 years — didn’t let that stop him.

Speaking recently on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast, Elfman recalled the tale of how the idea for the Batman theme visited him at a hilariously inopportune moment, taking shape in his head in midair while on a commercial airplane flight. Not confident with the idea of humming it all out on a portable recording device while sitting among strangers, he took himself — and his still-forming Batman idea — to the bathroom, where he could work (and sing) in relative privacy.

“That hit me at the worst possible time,” he recalled. “On the way home, the thing f***ing hits me. And it was like, ‘What do I do? I’m on a 747. How do I do this? I am going to forget this all. I’m going to land and they’re going to play some f***ing Beatles song, and I’m going to forget everything.’”

After ensconcing himself in the creatively conducive comfort of the airplane’s toilet, Elfman was able to save the basic Batman idea and commit it to audio. But cranking out musical inspiration in a plane privy wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, he said, because the concerned flight attendants began taking a special interest in his activities after he kept running back and forth on repeated visits to the bathroom.

Maybe they thought he was sick…or, as Elfman joked, maybe they thought he was doing something in there that isn't exactly allowed on an airplane. But either way, the plane’s crew had no idea that Elfman was stacking more musical ideas onto what went on to become a signature film theme of the entire 1980s.

“I couldn’t do this with the guy sitting next to me,” he explained of his back-and-forth bathroom approach, “…ten minutes later, I am back in the bathroom, and I open the door — and this time there are three flight attendants. And they were probably going, ‘What the f*** he is doing so frequently? You can’t do that much blow. You can’t shoot up that often. What is he doing in there?!’ Piece by piece, [I] was working out the Batman score in my head.”

Aside from being a funny misunderstanding, it’s clear from Elfman’s account that he’s willing to drop what he’s doing and rise to the occasion, no matter the circumstances. That’s apt, since it sounds just like Bruce Wayne’s own superhero strategy of instantly heeding the Bat-signal at the first sign of distress. And it gives us a new anecdote we’ll carry along with us the next time we see Jack Nicholson suited up as the Joker or Michael Keaton behind the black mask — framed by Elfman's bathroom-crafted Batman score.