Listen to/Watch entire show:
Watchmen Composer Tyler Bates Transcript Excerpts
Jason Bentley: Were you into comics at all when you were growing up?
Tyler Bates: No, (laughs) Didn’t KISS put out a comic book?
You know, actually I think that’s served me well working on both 300 and on Watchmen only because I don’t have preconceived notions as to what it should be and what the expectations of the material are, so its really just coming down to me working with Zack Snyder and concocting whatever it is that the end result is.
JB: Watchmen is a dense, dense story and leading up to the release there were all kinds of debate on whether a film could contain this story. It was even controversial – I think it changed hands a number times, a few different directors before Zack Snyder took it on. But in this film they take on the traditional notion of a superhero and just tear it to shreds because these superheroes are screwed up. They are screwed up individuals.
TB: Just like everybody else.
JB: Yeah, completely, so it kind of plays with that idea of what a superhero is by dissecting it. How did you approach the music? Did you try to find a theme for the different characters?
TB: Initially, with really most films, I’ll approach it from…I’ll get an emotional and a psychological feeling or approach to the film. Just an understanding of what the material is on that level. Before assuming what people need to feel – that would be the audience for the film – I need to feel that. Even working on crazy horror films, I need to find a way to make myself entirely uncomfortable or even frightened to some extent.
With Watchmen, it was really clear to me that my job with the score as opposed to what the songs provide for the film, was to really support the emotional context of the characters, their psyche. And that include Rorschach’s psychosis. Which was great because, for me, it was mostly steeped in human emotions, but its mostly in a headspace. At one point we somewhat express a full bore superhero theme but for the most part there are hints at what it could’ve been, but it never quite materializes.
That really works for me. I like working with characters who are a bit fractured, who are a little, let’s say, bereft for what their life could’ve been. I can relate to some of that, fortunately a lot of that in my past not in my future, as far as I can see now. At any rate, I can really relate to that and Zack really captured that in the film in my opinion. And speaking with Dave Gibbons, the illustrator for the graphic novel the other night and he also expressed that. He had seen the movie four times and felt it was really emotional beyond his expectations -- which I felt was a great compliment to Zack and somewhat to the score as well.
JB: There’s a really nice theme in the film, it’s more of an optimistic theme. It’s a string instrument I’m associating with the night owl character and the female lead character as well and their relationship. It’s a string instrument and it’s just brief. I have the score cued up and let’s play a cue of your choosing if you want to pick one out. I have the first track cued if you want to go with that.
TB: Easy enough.
Cue from the Watchmen Score
JB: It’s the score for Watchmen. Tyler Bates is our guest in the studio, the composer for this film.
It’s proven to be a challenge to bring a comic book to the big screen. Some have failed, failed terribly. Others have got it down. I think Zack Snyder has figured it out. I don’t know what it is but I think both with 300 and this film, it feels like a comic book and I can’t say that about… I enjoyed Iron Man but I enjoyed it because it’s a cool movie, not necessarily because it’s a great adaption of a comic book. Spiderman, forget it, not even close.
This feels like it has the comic book feel. I’m curious about your relationship with the director Zack Snyder and what you think about having worked with him on more than 2 films.
TB: Three, actually four if you consider Tales of the Black Freighter, which is a companion piece to Watchmen.
I can’t say enough about what it’s like working with Zack. I don’t want to get into too much of the man love – he’s amazing. The thing is, the reason he brings a great comic to life is because he’s a huge fan. Watchmen is something he’s been into since he was a kid. He’s been thinking about this movie for a long, long time and fortunately the stars aligned and he was given the opportunity to do it. I think his choices are made as a fan as much as a director.You can see it, the way Zack is very interactive with his audience. He appears everywhere the fans are interested in seeing him and he is very, very thankful for his opportunities. He just wants it to kick butt. That’s really what it comes down to. He just wants to deliver a great experience for the audience and make a great movie but he’s definitely coming at it as a fan.
One thing about working with him is there’s such camaraderie among all of us who work on his movies because he engages each of us to pursue our artistic sensibilities to the fullest, which is pretty empowering. And the big picture really amounts to a Zack Snyder film which is great. He is very careful about the people he has chosen to work with and collaborate with, which is a great feeling. Everybody is very communicative and I think that helps bring cohesion to the movie. You can tell that his films are made with joy and a lot of pride among everybody involved. I've never even heard a PA on set complain about anything. Everybody is always upbeat, ready to go, and it's a nice feeling.
JB: So he sets that tone.
TB: Absolutely, yeah.
JB: I wanted to ask you about your creative process because I read somewhere that you like to write your own 'temp' score, and to explain that term to the audience--typically a composer will come on at the very end of a film production. Maybe in the last 6 to 8 weeks will write the score, so it's the final piece to the puzzle. Prior to that, a music editor will have 'temped', or put a temporary music score in its place, and that is typically drawn from all kinds of other popular different scores, and there are sort of trendy scores, it's sort of a music editor's world. And before a composer is even hired, there's a temp score in place. You don't like to have that to be the case in films you work with.
TB: No why would I? Seriously…
JB: What about the argument that it helps establish the idea, or direction of a scene?
TB: That's great -- let's get together and play music in a room and talk about it and listen to things that we get excited about and things that might suggest the tone. It is a very difficult challenge for every composer to deal with ‘temps,’ especially for films that are genre oriented or action films, or any films where the editing is consonant, lets say, or there are a lot of hard cuts. That's definitely going to mandate the tempo that you have to adhere to in order to make those cuts really happen therefore narrowing the parameters of your creative subjectivity. If you're talking about it in an open room, and if you have enough time, then you can start working up ideas, then you can collaborate a little with the editor. So as they are playing with the cut a bit and forming the scene, they can form it to original ideas. Which has been the protocol when I've been working with Rob Zombie, there is no ‘temp.’ If there is, it's music that I'm writing, in advance to or during production of a film.
JB: So you really have to commit to a film project for a longer period of time than probably most composers do. The danger is that you write 2 or 3 scores by the end of it because of the process.
TB: I'd rather do more heavy lifting and end up with something that's more exacting of what I'm feeling for it and something that feels like it's organic. Again, every composer deals with ‘temp’ issues, and what goes on with ‘temp’ music is beyond our control. We just have to deal with the outcome of it. I think that films are better when a composer is plugged in early enough to see the progression of the movie and to see how the director is actually learning about their own film as they create the film. It definitely changes from the initial verbal synopsis before filming to the time where I'm allowed to see cut footage with actual actors in character roles.
Obviously, we can talk about people on paper but if a character is played by say Keanu Reeves as opposed to George Clooney when I get that film, I'm going to write it differently. Even though the character's the same, the words are the same, costuming is the same, there's a physical sensibility. There's a timbre of their voice, all those things need to be considered when I'm developing a textural palette so I'm not creating an environment that makes them a stranger in their own film. And that can happen if you take it literally from the script. I am a little bit more tactile in my approach with film. I think of it on a textural level and an emotional level first. The themes are actually born later for me, once I really feel the arc of the characters and that's part of the development process of the edit with the director, that's always in development.
JB: We're gonna put you to task and have you perform on an instrument that you brought in the studio this morning, and you'll have to tell us about this. We're going to give you an idea, a story torn from the headlines, and we're going to have you score that idea. We're going to test your creative mettle this morning. Tyler Bates is my guest, and the Watchmen is the new film, he is the composer. I notice that there's a lot of source in this film, big familiar songs--Bob Dylan, Nat King Cole, Janis Joplin--It's very loud. The film is loud, I don't know if it's just that screening room, how loud was that screening room?
TB: It's all good.
JB: It was loud. I was amazed that some of that got approved, like the Nat King Cole cue in a very violent scene and it's 'Unforgettable,' you're never going to be able to listen to 'Unforgettable' again in the same way after seeing that.
TB: But that's the point. On paper you would think, why would Zack want to put all these songs that are so well known, some would even consider trodden, to put in this film when you could at least get young bands to cover the songs which would, in my opinion debase the whole point of the novel, because a lot of the songs are actually written into it. But juxtaposed with the imagery, the scenes where these songs are underscoring it changes their whole syntax in my opinion. ‘Unforgettable’ is incredible, that sequence is absolutely stunning.
JB: It is amazing. Also, that Bob Dylan sequence too is ridiculous.
TB: It was really emotional.
JB: How did that change your process knowing that you're going to inhabit this film along with all of these epic, familiar, legendary songs?
TB: I try not to think too much about the history or folklore of all of these songs. It would get me too much in my head about thinking 'I'm going to debase or defile this whole product, this whole film.' I think that it's good that I don't familiarize myself too much with the graphic novels in advance, of course I did read Watchmen three times which was pretty heavy.
JB: So is that to say that you didn't want to know what songs were being placed?
TB: No I did, I just didn't want to think about it too much. To write music that transitions into 'All Along the Watchtower' is pretty heavy. I have such great respect for the songs in the film, and they're chosen for a specific reason. My job was to definitely support the purpose of those songs, whether they were to pop or my score was to help us transition into them like 'Ride of the Valkyries' is that--we go from score into that. And we're not really sure when we leave the score and we go into that passage. Whereas 'All Along the Watchtower' transitions from a 6 minute cue then it really pops and cleanses our palette, so to speak.