Where did you grow up?
In New Jersey. I have three siblings and our parents were public school teachers.
What did you want to be as a kid?
I was 9 in the summer of 1977 when I saw “Star Wars,” and thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I didn’t even know what “that” was, but whatever was onscreen, I wanted to be part of. Then I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” “Tron,” “Poltergeist” and others. I began to bring a pocket-size cassette recorder to the movies and taped them; I would listen to them over and over. I didn’t think about it at the time, but looking back, I see that this helped me understand how sound, music and dialog work together; without a visual, you understand how they work. This was my earliest education in music and sound in film.
What kind of music did you listen to?
Prior to “Star Wars,” I loved John Phillip Sousa, Louis Prima, Benny Goodman and classical music. These were my father’s record albums, vinyl LPs. He also had Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” soundtrack, which he bought in Germany. I would ask my dad “What is that sound?” And he would tell me, “That’s a saxophone” or “This is Sammy Butera; listen.” He passed along his love of music to me. My uncle owned an appliance store, and RCA would send him demo records. One was a Dynagroove album of Peter Nero. He was an incredible jazz pianist. His playing was jazzy and energetic, incorporating the orchestra into “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” for example. My sister was blasting Led Zeppelin, while I was in my room playing Peter Nero and John Phillip Sousa. I was definitely not the normal kid of the 1970s.
Did you like school?
I wasn’t the greatest student. I spent the entire day watching the clock until it was 3 p.m., then I would rush home to see reruns of “Dick Van Dyke” or “Adam-12,” and then go make movies. I was trying to figure out how to blow up spaceships, how to make stop-motion movies, live-action, to create elaborate devices — my whole life was dedicated to filmmaking. Part of that was my obsession with film scores. Also, a massive influence was Jim Henson and the Muppets. I learned about timing and comedy and music; they showcased every style of music, from pop singers like Elton John to songs from the 1920s. I always learned something.
When did you start composing?
In high school, I was in musicals. There was a lot of waiting, so I would mess around on the piano. I took piano lessons, and I was one of worst students; I hated practicing. But if you let me make up something on the piano, I could spend hours doing that. I started making up music. I wrote a piece for a favorite book, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one of first things I ever wrote. Then in film school (the School of Visual Arts in New York), I realized one of most important elements in a film was finding the right music. So that began a crazy process on how to do it.