ScoreKeeper With Composer Tyler Bates Re: 300, WATCHMEN, And Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN!!
Published at: Feb. 22, 2007, 7:57 a.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here fresh off the battle fields of Thermopylae toting the undying words of he who scribed music for King Leonidas, Queen Gorgo, and the 300 Spartans who defended their land from the invading Persian army.
Having nurtured his name carving out creepy cadences for films like DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004), THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), SLITHER (2006) and SEE NO EVIL (2006), Tyler is further reshaping his reputation as a diverse musical magician with his new score for Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007) based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. By the composer’s own admission, his second cinematic collaboration with director Snyder is the most substantial film he has worked on to date. But that certainly won’t last.
As King Leonidas aptly put it….We’re in for one wild night.
ScoreKeeper: Tyler, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Has the media blitz on 300 (2007) been keeping you busy these days?
Tyler Bates: Oh, it’s been pretty crazy. There’s a lot happening across the board. It’s all been good.
SK: I first saw 300 back in December and it surprised me a little bit. I wasn’t previously familiar with the book so I went into it purely as a cinematic experience. I ended up liking it quite a bit more than I thought I would. When I first saw the trailer I wasn’t particularly sure how I would react to it having not known the book.
TB: Yeah, me too. (laughing)
SK: I’d like to go forward by taking a few steps backward. Developing a great relationship with a director is one of the most important things a film composer can do to be successful. Having scored your second film for Zack Snyder and possibly heading towards your third, it seems you definitely have developed a great collaborative relationship with him. How did you and Zack first start working together?
TB: Initially we started working together when he was interviewing potential composers for DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004). I was actually the dark horse in the mix. Everybody whom he met with – which was pretty much everybody in Hollywood who had scored big horror films – I was really the only one who came in with no horror experience even though I’m a huge fan and my music is typically dark in nature.
I had the opportunity to read the script and since I had no music to show Zack I compiled a CD of obscure music that I thought tonally might have some relevance to the film. Zack showed me the first eight or nine minutes of the film and I had some ideas as to what I would like to do with it.
I think perhaps I just conveyed a certain amount of verve specifically for the film as opposed to presenting myself as somebody who does this kind of thing. Something obviously spoke to him because it was a number of weeks before they actually hired a composer. From what I heard my name kept coming back up when Zack would talk about music. He gave me a shot.
When it came down to it I said, ‘Look, if you hire me I promise you I will not screw up your movie.’ (laughing)
SK: (laughing) That’s a good way to put it.
TB: Yeah. It’s a tall order. I know with these titles, DAWN OF THE DEAD, HALLOWEEN (2007)…with all of these the audience is so intensely engaged in what it is and what it should be and what it was. You really need to deliver something if you want the film to garner respect from the core audience.
DAWN OF THE DEAD was a great experience. It was quick. It was Zack’s first film so the landscape was a little bit different. Weekly I would play music back to him and several producers and it went very smoothly.
Two months after that Zack called me in respect to 300. I didn’t even know what 300 was. Like yourself, I wasn’t familiar with the novel. So I went over to his place and took a look at the book with him. He said, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking about doing. We want to put together this presentation and I think we’re going to film the pages of the book and create an animatic with the narration of the overview of what the movie will be. I’d like you to develop music for it.’ With that he didn’t tell me tonally what he wanted. He just said here’s the gist. Go from here.
SK: I’m very curious about that first reaction a composer has when first introduced to material for a film. Usually it’s in the form of a script or footage from the film itself, but in your case it was the graphic novel. What were some of the first inkling thoughts that went through your brain when you were first introduced to 300?
TB: When I saw the book I was already aware of the Battle of Thermopylae, but I saw that it was an impressionistic interpretation and not a literal interpretation of it. I figured that would give me license to do what I think is most natural for me as a composer which is to create a hybrid. Not necessarily a traditional score laced with the usual suspects like the duduk and other middle eastern instruments which we have come to expect on any kind of epic ethnic oriented film.
I got to work and I thought immediately of Azam Ali’s voice. I had such an in depth experience with her up to that point because her and I were writing music together anyway. I knew her capacity as a singer and I knew we could go much deeper than most vocalists that are applied to a score like this.
When you think 480 B.C. what instrumentation would really be most common? I would imagine percussion and voice.
SK: Upon getting familiar with the book and having conversations with Zack about the film did you then immediately start writing or did you wait for the film?
TB: No, I started writing right away because I scored this animatic that Zack put together to present to studios to hopefully get the film made. So I did that and we had Scott Glenn, the actor, come in and do the narration. It turned out really well. Zack was like, ‘Wow, man! I feel like that is the sound of the movie.’
Several months later Zack got the movie greenlit and he did a test shot for Warner Brothers. I think it was a good way for them to establish exactly what kind of film they were getting into as far as the content, degree of violence, filming style, etc. They had made ALEXANDER (2004) and TROY (2004) and Zack was definitely not going to make either one of those movies.
So that gave me an opportunity to score another scene. With that we really refined the sound of the movie because we got to see it with live action. From there, once Zack left for Montreal, he called me a couple of times and asked that I write a couple of pieces of music for scenes in the film and they actually choreographed the scenes in advance to filming them.
So I had the opportunity to write several pieces of music prior to principle photography and then to have some of it filmed to it really gave me a great deal of confidence in how it was going to work ultimately. It was cool! Zack is very much about developing things within the scope of what we’re creating as opposed to reaching outward. Films are not defined by other movies.
SK: I think the ultimate testimony to that is the film itself. It’s definitely unlike anything anybody has ever seen. What kind of director is Zack?
TB: Yeah. Zack wants to make something that is cool. Something that is really enjoyable and really interesting for people and obviously very commercial but in his brand. In doing so I think the way that Zack accomplishes that is he has a great sense for chemistry among people working on his films and what they’re capable of bringing to the table. He really pushes everybody to do their best work which he does in a very enthusiastic way. He’s very subtle, very positive, very success oriented. He wants everybody to feel that they have an ownership stake in what they’re doing in the film. He’s very giving in that way.
As far as music is concerned Zack never cites a given piece of music when he’s having a discussion with me about what he wants to accomplish dramatically in a scene. He’ll say, ‘There are a thousand ways to do this…I want you to do it the way you think is the coolest while meeting the dramatic objective.’
I think he does this along the way with a majority of the people. Obviously he’s not aloof or hands off. You can very much tell it’s Zack Snyder film. If you look at DAWN OF THE DEAD there is a parallel style.
Overall it’s just a lot of fun to work with Zack. He makes you want to do your best work.
SK: Did any of the music that you composed for the test animatic end up verbatim in the film?
TB: Compositionally, yes. But not the exact recording. In the scene where the Ephors consult the Oracle as to whether or not Leonidas should go to battle – it’s that trippy scene where she’s shot wet for dry…underwater when they shot it – that particular music was pretty close.
SK: Earlier you admitted that you were not familiar with the book prior to becoming involved with the film. For every one out there who is still not familiar with the graphic novel and may be on the fence about seeing the film can you introduce us to the story and explain why this film is worth seeing?
TB: First off, I don’t think the “big picture” is really about the comic book. Although I think Zack really used Frank Miller’s graphic novel as the bible to make this film. I think he stayed very true to Frank Miller’s original work but what I think the film expresses is…I think it’s about what you’re made of as a person…what are you willing to do to contribute or stand up to what you think is right. And if you don’t what the consequences of that would be. Very few of us face that in the world nowadays.
If this battle never happened and considering that the Spartans were the first free army – they were all slave armies up to that point – had they never done it America might never have existed. Europe would never have existed as it does today. I think you kind of have to ask yourself, what are you willing to do for the freedoms that you have? I know that’s quite a big statement to make about a comic book film but there is so much heart in the performances and in the screenplay and in the film. I think that it does speak to you on that level.
I don’t think that Zack has any intention of making this a political film. I think this is more about love and commitment and a person’s metal…what they’re really made of. It’s really hard for me to pinpoint it but that’s what it means to me.
SK: With the hyper-stylized visuals in this film I would imagine that it allowed more avenues of possibility in regards to the music. With so much potential to go in such a wide variety of different directions with the music, what was the one thing about the film that you really latched on to that inspired the whole score?
TB: It’s interesting. The heart of the score is Azam Ali’s voice and the percussive pulse that runs through the film. There’s also a great deal of abstract, textural stuff in the film and all that sound is developed between myself and my associate, Wolfgang (Matthes). When Zack was originally discussing the film with me he said he wanted there to be the creation of three worlds sonically as well as visually. With that he gave me the license to stretch out and really explore the possibilities.
One of the reasons I came back to percussion and voice as one of the main aspects of the music is because of the filming style – I’m sure you saw that, as I’ve never really seen battle sequences the way Zack has done them. He goes into slow motion into a headspace and then there’s a ramp speed which takes you back into the live action and then to regular speed.
Coupled with that you have narration. If you get too fancy with melodies it really just distracts from the picture and the narration. If you get too melodically quick during that slow-motion stuff it tends to outrace the action and then it tends to take the effect away. So what we wanted to do was to allow you to take those images in without getting in the way of that while still supporting it with an undercurrent of intensity of what’s taking place.
It’s a juxtaposition of incredible violence but it’s delivered in a very poetic way. I think in order to try to approach it intelligently I didn’t need to sing melodies to the audience. By the end of the film we’re feeling the emotions more on a deeper level. It’s not just in your head it’s in your chest and in your heart.
SK: You touched on a few things that I wanted you to elaborate on. One of them is the general editing style and tempo of the sequences. It is quite the paradox to see such violent and “fast” imagery set in a much slower, more graceful and materialized setting. When composing the score, tempo is such an important part of getting the music just right. Can you elaborate more on how you handled those slow motion action sequences and how the tempo of the scene is reflected in the music?
TB: Generally when it slows down you are in a headspace. It’s not like its in full battle mode. What it gives you time to do is really think about the intensity of going man to man, life for life. When you have quick-cutting stuff you don’t really take it in the same way. In (slow-motion) it resonates more on an emotional level and it seeps down into the core of your psyche.
It’s important for the music not to overstate the case of what’s happening. There is so much thematic material in the film as far as the narration and the music is concerned. In these instances when we get into the slow-motion business we want to be able to allow the audience to interpret for themselves what it means to them. That’s why when it was necessary to continue to keep the tempo up I would drive it more with percussion rather than melody or something more tonal from the orchestra. I kept it a little bit more obtuse in that way.
SK: Instead of using a melodic leitmotif, were there any rhythmic, harmonic, or instrumental associations to any particular character, idea, or event in the film?
TB: One of the criteria for everything that exists musically in the film is to texturally adhere to the picture. When I hear flute or high violin melodies throughout other epic films it really takes me out of it. That’s not how I want to relate to characters especially these guys who are big, brawny guys in their underwear. The last thing I need to do is make them silly.
As far as the rhythms are concerned – like when we first approach the hot gates and the Persian ships are coming up and crashing into the rocks – I tend to leave some space in the rhythm. Some of the grooves are primal almost like a slower hip-hop groove. It creates a space so that it leaves room for sound effects, dialogue, and general ambience. It creates a sound that is foreboding and very powerful. That was some of the things that I thought about at least for the first half of the film.
Obviously when we get into battle mode it gets a little crazier. When we see the Uber Immortal…I didn’t think anything fancy was going to work for that guy. So basically what I felt was this plodding, hitting rhythm that was very blunt. That’s what we felt was going to ultimately work best for that scene.
SK: Among my favorite moments in the film and likewise the score are the scenes that involve Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). It’s a wonderful compliment to the masculinity of the battle sequences. The Spartans aren’t just out there fighting for bloodshed but rather for love of country and family and you really feel that most during her moments on screen.
TB: I was very lucky in that regard to have such a strong female character in the film and I think Lena did an amazing job. When you get to the more emotional beats or poignant moments in the film it can be uncomfortable if it gets a little too syrupy. I never went that way.
I didn’t feel that there was ever a need to overstate the case for her because I feel the acting is so good and the script was very well written. It pretty much says it all especially with David Wenhem’s narration which I think is incredible. The music never quite had to go there. Often times I was playing beneath his narration which is very evocative and emotional in and of itself. I often considered his narration as one of the instruments in the music.
SK: All of what you are describing culminates in what are probably my two favorite cues in the score, “Message for the Queen” and “Remember Us.” Sometimes these more intimate and dramatic moments in a score can be the most difficult. Which were more of a challenge? The complex battle sequences or these more intimate moments with the Queen?
TB: Anytime the picture is a little more naked every note matters to me. Every flute line in that scene is something that I poured over. Azam Ali’s vocals are absolutely stunning there! Azam wrote all of her parts for the film. It wasn’t as though I had her come in and vocalize. We wanted to do something better and more interesting than that.
There is a degree of workshopping that goes on to develop those ideas but definitely the scenes that play as straight drama are more challenging only because the music affects every aspect of those particular scenes so greatly. Anything that you express within the music is going to really tip the movie one way or another. Personally that scene was really tough. The one request I got was that it be poignant without being too syrupy. That’s hard.
SK: Was there anything inherent to this film which caused you to change any of your typical working methods and practices or did you go about scoring it as you usually have in the past?
TB: Well, I do my best to approach each film I do a little bit differently. It’s hard to when you’re doing several zombie or horror movies because there are certain beats you have to hit. You certainly have to rough up the picture quite a bit.
But I just don’t feel like I’m doing my job if I don’t do a thorough job of experimenting with ideas and the creation of sounds and continue to develop those throughout the film. Obviously this is the most substantial film I’ve worked on to date. I’m sure that because of the size and weight of the film visually and the intensity of the characters, it gave me opportunities to really expand the scope of the music that I wrote for it. Often times I’ll do a smaller or more intimate film and the scope of the music is not allowed to be as broad.
On 300 there were times I could hit it as hard as I possibly could and because it wasn’t a horror film it gave me these dramatic opportunities to be more minimalist and to really delve more into the emotional world as opposed to just trying to creep people out.
SK: Was there a particular scene in the film that you were most proud of?
TB: You know…there were many of them that were feats to accomplish. I started this movie from green screen and so as the visual art was developed it would inform the film and therefore I would respond to it musically. I had to revisit the music quite a bit because I was still waiting for visual information.
“Tree of the Dead”…there was this scene with the Spartans walk into this burning village and this little girl emerges from the smoke. We see this huge shadow of the immortals behind her and ultimately a tree of dead people that were hoisted up by the immortals. That one to me was one of my favorite scenes from the film.
I would also say the last three scenes of the film from when Leonidas dies (“Glory”) to the “Message for the Queen” to “Remember Us” where Dillios’ storytelling of what Leonidas hoped to accomplish by their sacrifice rallying the Spartan troops to face Xerxes’ army again a year later. That was all pretty challenging for me because that really turns into a big epic scene and it was written the same day we left to go to London to record the orchestra (laughing)…
SK: Wow! (laughing)
TB: So it was intense! Zack had heard a really nasty sketch the day before and thank god my orchestrator, Tim Williams, lives next door to me. He was coming with me to conduct the orchestra in London so we had to leave for the airport at 5PM and I think that I finished the cue around 12:30 that day and Tim managed to complete the orchestration before we left for the airport. That was written for full choir and orchestra.
Zack and the other producers never heard it until we went to London and the orchestra actually played it. The fact that they all loved it and got teary eyed (laughing) I was like ‘Alright cool! This is my favorite scene in the movie!’ (laughing)
What if they didn’t like it? You always run into that possibility. The great thing about Zack is he does everything he can, in a healthy way, to avoid those kind of situations. I truly appreciate working with him because the surprises are not usually of the negative sort.
SK: So looking ahead at your future…Zack appears to be ensconced with WATCHMEN (2008). Are you officially on board for that?
TB: I have been officially asked by Zack and the studio is expecting me to do it as well.
SK: When would you start scoring that?
TB: They’re going to start principle photography in June and probably conclude the end of September. I’d imagine I’d be on board sometime in August.
That’s one thing that Zack wants to do is to share some of the footage with me early so that I can see the actual actors who are playing the characters written into the script to begin developing some of my ideas. To me the specific actor can change everything about how I perceive a character to be.
SK: How about DAY OF THE DEAD (2007) and HALLOWEEN (2007). Where are you at with those scores?
TB: DAY OF THE DEAD I’m nearly finished with. Rob Zombie is in his third week of filming HALLOWEEN. I’m going to start working on the score next week. I usually go over to his house and watch dailies and talk about it. I’ve been working for awhile to develop a palette of sounds for that just because I had the opportunity to do a version of the John Carpenter original theme but in the Rob Zombie aesthetic. Some of that was developed while working together on THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005). That led to a whole palette of some pretty disturbing sounds.
SK: So the Carpenter theme will definitely be an major ingredient in the HALLOWEEN score?
TB: Yeah. You can’t do that without it. It’s part of the fantasy come to life for me. To not do that would be totally lame.
SK: It wouldn’t be HALLOWEEN.
TB: No, it wouldn’t and while Rob is making a Rob Zombie movie, it’s definitely HALLOWEEN. I think it’s really going to blow people’s minds. I think it’s going to be a lot more intense than people expect.
SK: How does fan expectation factor in to your approach to scoring HALLOWEEN?
TB: You know, I’m not really motivated by that. I’m more motivated by my own personal demons. I love the challenge but I come to it as a fan.
SK: Very cool. Well that wraps up all the questions I had today. I want to congratulate you on your score. It was a pleasure talking with you and I wish you continued success down the road.
TB: Thanks! Have a great day.
The score for 300 will be released on March 6th while the film hits theaters nationwide on March 9th.
Tyler will be on hand at 7:30PM PST on March 6th at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California to autograph copies of the 300 CD.
There will be two separate editions of the score released on CD. The standard edition features 25 tracks of the score while the special edition release of the soundtrack features the same 25 tracks as the standard edition but includes deluxe packaging, a sixteen-page booklet, and three two-sided trading cards.
On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to Tyler for taking the time out to converse with me. With 300 opening in March, DAY OF THE DEAD in June, HALLOWEEN in August, and RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION in the Fall, Tyler is quickly becoming one of the busiest composers in Hollywood.
I’d also like to extend thanks to Wesley Vena and Fernando Aguilar of WBR Publicity for their assistance.
Enjoy your breakfast….for tonight we dine in hell!