A composer on the rise, Tyler Bates has come a long way: from small,
low-budget films that barely helped pay the rent to scoring big
blockbusters such as 300 or Watchmen. Cultivated and intelligent, Tyler
Bates was kind enough to take a break from his hectic schedule to answer
all our questions. We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did.
BSOSpirit: Watchmen (2009) has already become the film everyone is talking about. It surely seems to be one of the biggest ones you’ve worked on so far. Hence, we were wondering what where the main challenges you had to face when scoring it?
Tyler Bates: The gravity of the Watchmen graphic novel in the scope of literary pop culture is pretty immense. After working on 300 (2006), I now have a fair idea of how much every aspect of this film will be analyzed and discussed, which is cool but a bit daunting as well. LOL.
That said, my focus is on what Zack Snyder wants, and what I think is best for the film. The imagery in his movies is so evocative that there is always inspiration to explore myriad musical possibilities.
Watchmen is truly an ensemble character piece steeped in the darkest core of human emotion, which I personally relate to more than the conventional “super-hero” faire. It is rich and lengthy, which has resulted in ninety minutes of score in addition to thirteen or so songs, each of which bears some significance in pop culture from the sixties to the eighties. The score is often the connective tissue between licensed music throughout the film, which presents the challenge of expressing a full spectrum of ideas in a cohesive manner.
Hell. What can I say? There is no way to overestimate the challenge of scoring this film in the fashion it deserves. In consideration of the fact that I am rarely satisfied with anything I do, I am really excited about the score for this film!
BSOSpirit: In the light of your experience with this movie, do you feel you’ve grown up as an artist?
T.B: You cannot go through an experience on a Zack Snyder film without growing as an artist. He has created an artistic culture which each of working with him enjoys the challenge of doing our absolute best work.
Zack’s films are complex on a number of levels, and to be successful in the process you need to embrace the challenge of being both innovative and collaborative. There is always something to learn from the perspective of each person involved in making a film. Watchmen registers pretty high on the Richter scale of technical and creative challenges, with plenty of heavy lifting involved throughout, so you know that the journey is going to be intense on a project of this magnitude.
BSOSpirit: The fact that this is a big-budget film has somehow limited the creative freedom you previously enjoyed in smaller productions?
T.B: While we didn’t have a lavish scoring budget by big budget movie standards, I was afforded nearly everything I needed to comfortably create the score Zack wanted. Warner Bros has been creatively supportive in my experience working with them.
BSOSpirit: The comic on which the movie is based is often quoted as one of the best, if not the best one in history. It’s a dark, depressing and dense story that reflects the prevailing mood in the UK during the 80’s. Was the original material a source of inspiration for your score?
T.B: I honestly did not read Watchmen for the first time until Zack asked me to do the movie with him. I was really taken aback by the imagery and complexity of the graphic novel. It really had a profound affect on me. But in the end, I am inspired by Zack’s telling of this story.
BSOSpirit: If you were to describe your music for this film in just one word, what would it be and why?
T.B: Bereft. I thought you said “one word?” LOL.
BSOSpirit: In spite of the fact that this is an unusual superheroes story, have you come up with manifold leitmotivs for the film?
T.B: There is a unified sound to the score, but it does not resemble any superhero-type music that I have heard. I didn’t score this as a superhero movie, however there are a couple of “fan boy boner” moments!
BSOSpirit: Are there already any plans for an album release?
T.B: Warner Records will release the score album February 24th. There is also a track on the B-side of the vinyl 12-inch single that My Chemical Romance did for the film.
BSOSpirit: Time ago we heard that you were thinking of actually writing some music to the film while they were still shooting it. Did you finally get to do it? Is this an approach you often take?
T.B: I did not have the opportunity to write before/during production. I did get started early in the post-production process. Try to make myself available as far in advance as possible. I was able to write music in advance to filming for 300 and Rob Zombie’s Halloween.
BSOSpirit: You already told us you know what a great deal of attention a project like this one will draw among film music fans. Do you ever think of them when writing a score or do you rather focus strictly on what the film needs, regardless of the way fans may perceive your music?
T.B: I would love for my music to satisfy the expectations of everyone who sees a film I work on, but that is not entirely realistic. It is ultimately my job to do the best work I can for the film, and for the director.
BSOSpirit: This is the third time you’ve teamed up with Zack Snyder. If we are not wrong you two didn’t know each other before Dawn of the Dead (2004) which, again, was one of his first movies. Also, before that film you had no previous experience in the horror genre. So, how did you manage to make such a strong impression on him?
T.B: I am fairly sure that when Zack and I met on Dawn of the Dead, the last thing he was looking for was someone who had “been there and done that", so to speak. Zack has great instincts about chemistry, with regards to his team, and also about people he knows are talented and driven to do their best work at all times. Zack apparently saw something in me because I had not done a true horror film at that point. I promised him that if he hired me, I wouldn’t screw up his film!
BSOSpirit: He surely is a unique filmmaker which, we guess, must somehow have an impact on the way you both tackle the musical aspect of his films. Are you frequently involved early on in his projects? What kind of working process do you follow?
T.B: Typically, I am on-board before principal photography commences. I was involved with 300 during the development stages of the proposal that was the initial pitch to the studios. Once WB became interested in making the film, Zack did a “test-shot,” for which I wrote the main battle theme for the film. Once the film was green-lit, I created battle cadences for the training sessions the actors were enduring each day. From there, I wrote a couple pieces to which Zack choreographed two scenes. One of them was “Xerxes Tent.”
BSOSpirit: 300 marked a departure from well-established musical conventions. Orchestration-wise your score was far tougher than audience expected. Thus, your choice of a more contemporary approach caught many fans by surprise. Yet, this is your most talked-about score to date. Was it clear from the outset that your music was to avoid setting the picture in a particular period of time?
T.B: From the onset of the project, Zack and I talked about films like Lawrence of Arabia, Camelot, and Ben Hur. We discussed the essence of these classic films infused with a “rock” element at some points in the attitude of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Rage Against The Machine.
Zack’s films always ask for a broad musical palate, which needs to be executed seamlessly with authenticity. Because I had the opportunity to begin working early on in the films’ development, the majority of the ambient and textural motifs were developed by the time I saw a cut of the film. And though we discussed the conceptual essence of the aforementioned movies and bands, it takes on a whole new life in the practical environment of writing to the actual picture.
BSOSpirit: As organizers of the International Film Music Festival “City of Úbeda” we always pay attention to the comments and thoughts of film music enthusiasts. One striking fact about 300 is how many non-regular film music fans are fond of this score. What do you think is so special about it as to appeal to a broader audience?
T.B: 300 is pulp to some degree. It is an impressionistic telling of an historical event, and commentary of the societies at the time. It visits nearly every convention of the “sword and sandals” genre imaginable, but in a new way. The musical motifs in many instances have been quoted throughout the history of film and music, so the most important aspect of this score was how these ideas were expressed. It needed to be soulful to effectively support the many emotional twists of the film, even in it’s most brutal moments. I think this is what people have responded to with this music.
BSOSpirit: Another prominent director whose films you’ve been attached to more than once is Rob Zombie. He is quite overt in depicting a certainly disturbing world, so we wonder how you manage to underscore it fittingly. Do you step back from the visuals to rationalize your score or do you rather allow your feelings to permeate your work?
T.B: I don’t think you can approach the films of Zack or Rob from either a purely analytical perspective or visceral approach. Their movies are too complex to subscribe to a singular tack when conceptualizing music for them. I do put myself through the rigors of absorbing the violence as well as the psychological effects of their films when I write music for them. I want to express these events as realistically as possible, unless of course, the events at any given time lie in a headspace or the subconscious.
BSOSpirit: This year we’ll see you two back together with Tyrannosaurus Rex (2009). Have you been talking about it already? What can we expect your music to be like?
T.B: Rob is currently making H2, so we have not discussed his other projects lately.
BSOSpirit: Moreover, you are further involved in Rob Zombie’s comic book adaptation The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009). According to our records, El Superbeasto is a washed-up Mexican luchador who confronts an evil villain by the name of Dr. Satan. Did you enjoy the project?
T.B: I wouldn’t expect any serious interpretations of any genre with regards to ESB. It is a really bizarre and funny film. I always enjoy being part of anything Rob Zombie is doing.
BSOSpirit: Neil Marshall‘s Doomsday (2008) is a very complex score and surely one of the best you’ve written. How was your experience with this film?
T.B: Doomsday was loads of fun! Neil is a terrific guy, and a talented writer and director. We worked mostly long-distance, via the Internet, because he was in London and I was in Los Angeles. We did see each other throughout the process, but not as much as each of us are accustomed to in the process of creating the score for a film. That said, we had a great deal of fun during the scoring sessions, which were conducted at Air Lyndhurst, in London. I would love to work with Neil again.
BSOSpirit: The film gave you the perfect excuse to go back to the 80’s and follow the footsteps of John Carpenter’s early film scores. Was it a pleasant trip?
T.B: Sure! Neil and I enjoy a lot of the same music. I love synth scores from the 80’s, as well as the fun over-the-top orchestral business that was common during that time.
BSOSpirit: “Block 41” and “Hospital Battle” are two cues that literally take your breath away: the continuous change of pace, a blend of electronic elements and orchestral outbursts, etc. Now, we wonder: where do you get the stamina to write the additional 80/90 minutes of music once you've finished with these impressive cues?
T.B: I often feel like I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end of a film! LOL. Even if the workload is a tall order, I am energized working with passionate directors’ on great material. We have fun!
BSOSpirit: Unfortunately, in spite of all the hard work Doomsday didn't receive the expected critical acclaim. Neither did the audience seem to support the movie widely. How did you feel about it? Is there a need for self-motivation to still move ahead and keep on believing in the film industry?
T.B: I score films because I love to collaborate with talented people who present tremendous creative opportunities for me. I do this because I want to grow as an artist and musician. I have learned that there is nothing I can do about the commercial success of a film I am involved in, or the impression my music makes upon people. As long as I approach my work with heart and soul, and help my director’s realize their vision, then I am cool with it.
BSOSpirit: We are well aware of the fact that you like to experiment with sounds. Was Doomsday the kind of project that gave you the opportunity to try new things you've never went back to ever since?
T.B: Neil Marshall likes to have fun. I imagine he hired me for Doomsday because he sensed my desire to geek out in my work. LOL. Experimentation in music is not limited to sounds, per se. I think it is paramount in every facet of creating interesting art. But when a director really means business when they ask me to turn a few stones, I am going to accept the invitation to find a new way to express an idea. Sometimes it actually happens!
BSOSpirit: Let's close this interview by speaking about VGs. What's the reason that brought you to write music for such a product?
T.B: Both the 300 and the Watchmen video games were directly related to the films themselves. By having me do the games, it made for a more cohesive relationship between them. It was a good entrée into that world for me. Rise of the Argonauts (2008) was an interesting venture for me. It was nice to create a body of work within the scope of a large concept, yet not necessarily slaving music to picture. It’s a bit of a departure from the film scoring process for me.
BSOSpirit: Now that you mention The Rise of Argonauts, are we to expect any influences from Bernard Herrmann's score for Jason and the Argonauts (1963)?
T.B: Not particularly. After doing 300, I was pretty well ensconced in “sword and sandals” fare.
BSOSpirit: By the way, after watching The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) we wonder why you didn't pay homage to Bernard Herrmann's original score?
T.B: Well, it was not because Bernard Herrman is not one of my favourite composers – he definitely is. This film worked much differently than the original, which made the call for music a bit different as well. Honestly, if I were thinking of how to pay homage to the original, or even think of it as I worked on this film for that matter, I would have been stifled by the notion that I was expected to create a score that would rival or complement Bernard Herrman’s work in any way whatsoever.
BSOSpirit: When did you decide that your regular orchestrator, Tim Williams, was to play a very active role in The Rise of Argonauts?
T.B: Tim is my next-door neighbour and close friend. Through the years, we have talked about collaborating on a more artistic level than our usual composer/orchestrator relationship. There was so much music that needed to be produced for ROTA, that I felt Tim’s involvement as a writer would help maintain a high level of quality, and also be a lot of fun sharing the camaraderie of writing music together.
BSOSpirit: Is there going to be an album release?
T.B: I am not sure. There was talk of one…
BSOSpirit: And just one final question. You have already worked on over 50 films and the count is rising pretty quickly. What’s the secret of your success?
T.B: I try to keep the joy of the work in focus at all times. This begins with a desire to work with exceptional human beings who are talented. I have been through some very hard times, so the understanding of the great privilege of working in the film music business is always close to my conscience. This probably keeps me focused on the more important things in life, including the desire to do the best work I am capable of.
BSOSpirit: Many, many thanks Tyler. We wish you good luck!
Questions by David Doncel & Sergio Gorjón
Interview and translation by Sergio Gorjón