A Conversation with Film Composer Tyler Bates
Mike Ragogna: Tyler, you composed the music for the new 3D movie Conan The Barbarian. Just how humongous was the orchestra this time out?
Tyler Bates: (laughs) Well, we got creative with layering the orchestra, probably due to some of the restrictions on our resources, but it sounds pretty huge. That comes from years of making the most of what I have to work with in a given situation. I would say the first one I really had to stretch production value was 300--the music budget was probably 1/10th of what they spent on Troy. So, we recorded that in three days. The way you do it is first off, you have to have a great team and you have to come in extremely prepared and understand what your objective is. Fortunately, Tim Williams, who has worked with me for a long time, is really fantastic at helping prepare for that, he's my orchestrator and talent.
MR: Did you conduct?
TB: No, he conducts, I prefer to be in the booth, and his conducting career really started with me also.
MR: How so?
TB: We used to be next-door neighbors, we literally met at the end of the driveway eight or nine years ago. Tim is a fantastic conductor as well as orchestrator, and the reason I like to be in the booth is because I'm listening to the music in a different way. It's a much more critical listening environment at least for me. I can hear intonation and timing and expression, everything is so emotional when you're out with the orchestra. Sometimes, those things can be overlooked. Also, I like to be in the booth with the director and the producers, in case there are any questions or any suggestions or thoughts, that way I can address those immediately.
MR: How much layering of additional synths and extra percussion were added, as opposed to just the recording of the orchestra for the three days?
TB: We recorded no orchestral percussion as far as our orchestra sessions are concerned. All of the percussion is stuff that was programmed or played by Brian Cuccia, and Greg Ellis did some of the work. He's gone back many years with me, especially on 300. He did a big job there, but Brian works with me every day, so we set up his studio with timpani and kettledrums and a ton of ethnic percussion. He spent 24 days consecutively recording that stuff, and it was a pretty heavy load for him, but he did a fabulous job. There was so much happening at the eleventh hour, it took all of our resources to make it happen.
MR: Your resume is pretty phenomenal, you have 300, The Stand, Badass, and the Rob Zombie movies. How did you approach Conan differently then you did the more horror films or more dramatic movies?
TB: One of the most important aspects of the Conan film and the music is emotion, theme, and soul. It has to be soulful. I consider The Devil's Rejects to be soulful even though it's one of the most disturbing scores I've ever worked on. Actually, with Conan, it gave me an opportunity to work with a couple of themes throughout the film and more motifs than I have really done. The score is fairly brutal if you've heard the majority of it, very percussive, and very aggressive on the strings. But there are more emotional and epic moments.
MR: A composition like "Egg Race," for example.
TB: (laughs) These titles, man, so eloquent aren't they? Overall, the sound of the score is supposed to feel primal, but again, epic in scale. And what I wanted to do was instead of go right to the sword and sandals sound--some of which was established in 300--I wanted to create a time period that felt long ago and wasn't too specific, but at the same time, have a contemporary edge to the music. I think we got there pretty well. There are just so many different aspects of what the music is and the creation of the music for this movie.
MR: Were there any challenging pieces for this? Like, they gave you footage and you weren't sure what you were going to put to it?
TB: I think Marcus Nispel really shoots great stuff, so there was nothing that was really a technical challenge as much as it was a challenge to do something that was complimentary to the film or helped take it to another level. I never sit down in front of any picture and say, "I got this," I always feel like I will never know what the hell I'm going to do next. I try to block out the whole lore of Conan, all of the expectations of the hardcore fans, the amazing music that Basil Poledouris did in the past. The only way I could do a good job is to put all of that out of my mind and treat this like it's a new film without that history.
MR: We're also familiar with your music from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Honestly, I thought the score was better then the movie.
TB: That was a heavy-duty situation. At that point, that's when I started experiencing movies constantly evolving and changing all the way into the final dub and the final mix of the film. What it requires to stay up to speed with the film editorially and not just music editing all of your music is you try and hold out 'til the last second 'til you commit to your final music mix so that you can give them the best quality music possible. I'm really happy with the way that one turned out. With some of these movies, the way they turned out at the end, it's feathers flying to pull it off. Then again, I have really great people that work with me and we're really tight, regardless of the intense deadlines and the stress, we have a lot of fun and we laugh a lot and try and make the most of this. You put so much of yourself into every project and so much of your life is spent in the studio, you've got to have some good times doing it.
MR: I can't imagine that after having worked on so many films that they don't become kind of too real, you know what I mean? And what's it like working with Rob Zombie?
TB: Yeah, there is no question all of these films take on a life of there own and it becomes your reality for a while, at least for a good portion of every day. The Rob Zombie stuff is always interesting and fun. I love working with Rob, he's very cool and very smart. His stories...some of the imagery can be hard to choke down sometimes, but it can also be a great challenge to come at it with the same visceral force that he does. Every one of these characters you learn more about or the people that play these characters throughout. It has a tendency to seep into your approach to write for them.
MR: So, you're writing for what the director wants for the film, but you also can't help these other elements from creeping in.
TB: Yeah, and there is also the technical aspect of it. If Keanu Reeves had played Leonidas in 300, it would have been a different score--that was talked about at one point. Keanu is really cool, I met him a few times. But just his delivery and the cadence and timbre of his voice, I take that into consideration. I try and integrate the dialog as part of my music.
MR: Obviously, you're overwriting because scenes have been edited. How is it for a composer who writes music for a scene that goes from A-Z, then they take out P, Q, and R. How do you truncate all of that?
TB: That's actually a really difficult challenge. Honestly, it's not as much of a problem in action oriented movies because it's more frenetic. What happens that creates an issue is when a few frames are added here or there to a scene--especially if it's a very rhythmically oriented piece because you have to still hit your cuts--and it doesn't really make musical sense. It's all very difficult to conform your music once you feel it and written it a certain way. There's definitely a scene in Conan where I managed to get it back. It's where Conan is born on the battlefield and we go into the first Conan theme and the theme was originally quite a bit longer. I wrote the first piece in about a day. And to adjust the piece when I got the new cut took me about two and a half days because I was trying to maintain the emotion. Any of those adagios are very difficult to truncate, because one chord is just held long enough to evoke the emotion before changing to the next. When you speed up the sequence of those chords, especially if they are in a format that requires one leading to the next, there is some sort of diatonic structure and you're in a pinch.
MR: What would you say are the major differences between Conan and some of your other scores?
TB: I learn from everything I do and I try and do a better job on every next movie. From my experiences, there is some correlation between 300 and Conan--of course, 300 was one of the films Marcus Nispel discussed with me when he hired me. He was very interested in how I integrated the non-organic matter with the orchestra and the choir. We didn't do as much of that on this because this movie ended up feeling more natural to me. 300 was, especially at the time it came out, a very hyper-stylized movie visually. Some of the cutting...Zach has done a lot of the slow-mo action into ramped speed events, so that elicited more hyper-realistic statements, whereas this movie plays more in a linear fashion as 300 is. That presents its own challenges. When you're playing action in the background and there's a quiet narrative on top of it, there has to be some duality to the music that services both aspects and both dynamics. It ultimately gave us a license to do a lot of different things. I started writing 300 a year and half before the movie was made, so they showed me the comic book and we started developing ideas from the beginning. Zach knew he wanted a big choir, he knew he wanted rock 'n' roll and he got me figuring it out early on.
MR: I want to ask what's your musical background and what was your break into scoring?
TB: I'm a whole lifer. Since I was a little kid, I've just never thought about a life other than in music. I did have one real job that did help prepare me for this business and that was when I was very young, I managed a trading firm in the stock market, which is a strange story. I always played in bands and I was preparing to move back to Los Angeles to work on producing other artists and writing with other singer-songwriters. Before I moved here, my brother was working on a low budget film and they ran out of money for music and they needed a few cues, and I happened to be making a record in Chicago at the time. So, they sent me some timings and some verbal description, I then knocked out a few cues and the producer asked me to score one thing that he was directing, that lead to one thing and the next. I did 15 or 16 movies my first three years doing it. People were gracious enough to teach me as I went because I didn't have any experience with it, I had been in the studio my whole life though. My band then got a record deal and we made a record, went on the road, and then I came back and started scoring again.
MR: What was the band's name?
MR: What label?
TB: Atlantic. We kind of had a good break from the get-go. We were on The Crow 2 soundtrack, and that came out right before our record did. The rock 'n' roll clichés ensued, so I figured it would be more productive to focus my energy on scoring.
MR: How old were you when you started scoring?
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
TB: From my perspective, you really need to get to know who you are as a person and an artist. You need to pursue your own individuality--I don't think the business needs a legion of John Williams or Danny Elfman wannabes. You're going to be best off doing your own thing and developing a style of your own. When I say getting to know yourself, that comes through life experience and your music. If you can create a two or three chord statement that sounds like you, that is you. That's, for me, what I'm always striving toward. I would definitely study business as well. It's a business and you need to have a grasp of that if you want to be successful on any level.
MR: The Donald Passman book is also nice for that.
TB: Yeah, there is Steven Pressfield's great book called The War Of Art. It's a short easy read, but I think it's really fantastic, and helping any artist or entrepreneur about the way they are working, and maybe what they can do to be more honest with themselves. It's not a preachy book. It's actually entertaining and fun, but I've never met anybody who's read it and didn't really praise that book.
This is a very strange time as far as business, and you have to be very inventive as far as being yourself and the way you conduct yourself and what your goals are. I don't know if getting into scoring, yourself, is enough. It might be for some people, I'm not sure. But I think as an end all be all, it might be a difficult end to pursue. I think the business is intense and tough, it's definitely doable, but it's a different business than when I got into it.
MR: What would you say is the movie that is the one that started your career?
TB: I don't know if I can ever respond to that because I don't feel that way, because I don't feel like if I've ever made it.
MR: Maybe 300?
TB: No, Dawn Of The Dead started a thing for me with the whole horror genre stuff, and I think Watchmen probably, for a lot of people in the business, had given them the idea that I can handle a complex film. That was a difficult, complex film to work with, everything about it was very challenging. 300 was cool and The Devil's Rejects is, I think, my most original score. I don't have any perspective on it. I love Badass. It was a lot of fun working on that film, which in a roundabout way led me to doing Dawn Of The Dead. It's strange, you just have to be present and hope you can get lucky with somebody you're working with.
MR: By the way, I think I gave Watchmen one of the only positive reviews and it proliferated on the internet I got creamed for that.
TB: That was nearly impossible to satisfy a broad audience, but Zach knew that going in. I think he did a good job with it, but it's so incredibly difficult to make a movie like that that's going to satisfy the hardcore fans. I think the general public was expecting more of an action film.
MR: I think the disappointment for many was that it was more physiological than action packed. I don't know, really.
TB: It wasn't disappointing to me, it was more a drama than anything. I enjoyed it because it gave me the opportunity to write more emotional music, which is what I'm probably most comfortable or most natural with. I haven't had a tremendous opportunity to do dramas. I have one coming out in October that Emilio Estevez directed and I'm really happy about that. It's called The Way and it stars Martin Sheen. It was shot in Spain, it's a very inspiration film. That was something I would like to work more toward, more personal films.
MR: What are you predicting will come first--Conan The Barbian 2 or another Rob Zombie movie?
TB: Bring them on. I always love the opportunity to work with Rob. I know he's about ready to get started on something else in the fall when he's done touring. Hopefully, Rob and I will get back out at the beginning of next year.
MR: So, when is Conan The Barbarian out?
TB: August 19th and the score is available August 16th.
MR: Thank you so much for your time, Tyler.
TB: Thanks so much, Michael.
2. His Name Is Conan
3. Egg Race
4. Fire And Ice
5. Cimmerian Battle
6. The Mill
7. The Mask/12 Years Later
8. Freeing Slaves
9. Prison Interrogation
10. Monastery Approach
11. Off With Their Heads
12. Horse Chase
13. Death Of A Priest
14. One Way Ride
18. A Kiss
19. The Temple
20. Oceans Of Blood
21. The Dweller
22. Skull Mountain
23. Wheel Of Torture
24. Zym's Demise
25. Conan Returns Home
Transcribed by Theo Shier