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Tyler Bates Talks Watchmen Score

We recently had a chance to speak with Watchmen score composer Tyler Bates about his work on the film. Here is our full interview with him:

I've heard the score and I admit that I am wholly impressed. I heard that you and Zack Snyder were looking at 80’s movies to get the feel of their soundtracks. I think you captured that feel, especially the fell of the Blade Runner score. What were some of the scores that you listened to, and how did you decide what direction you were going to take the Watchmen score?

Tyler Bates: Well, actually Zack and I never consciously listened to anything in particular, obviously, we had a dialog about the songs that he had selected for the film and overall what he was thinking, and usually about discussing, just take that for what it’s worth and do your thing. The thing is Watchmen is definitely an expression of what the 80’s could have been or maybe a distortion of the 80’s reality pop culture and politics; all that stuff. There are moments in the score where it definitely reflects that and you would probably say Blade Runner, because you hear us playing an CS-80 keyboard, which is pretty famously associated with that film but that’s pretty apparent in Jan Hammer's work and Frank Zappa, so there’s a whole pod of influence at least as far as I’m concerned. My associate Wolfgang [Matthes] has played a lot on a particular track you’re thinking of. But, No it’s just fun, I love the 80’s culture, I love a lot of the 80’s music and I think that even though the majority of the score is not embodying that element there definitely are a lot of those moments in non orchestral aspect of the score.

The first track — “Rescue Mission”— is that played during the tenement fire rescue?

TB: Correct.

That has a very classic superhero vibe to it — like the 1989 Batman soundtrack. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching the development of the film so close — and knowing Snyder was deconstructing superhero films — I couldn’t help but listen to your score thinking that you’re deconstructing super hero film scores or 80’s film’s soundtracks.

Tyler Bates

TB: I can tell you for sure that there were no conscious efforts to relay or convey any one film.
Even Terminator movies and stuff of the 80’s were pretty kooky and cool to me. I’m not really into super hero movies and not a huge graphic novel guy, so, my real information, or insight into Watchmen, was reading the graphic novel a couple of times and then it was my natural inclination to embrace and express some of the classic feeling of 80’s music of pop culture.

It’s like you said, Blade RunnerBlade Runner just spilled over into pop culture all together so, I think it was one of those early movies that song and score sort of had a similarity to them as far as how people perceived their musical experience with that film. There are just a lot of movies like that. Like Manhunter is another movie that actually has a vibe or Miami Vice — you know, the TV show. Thereare a number of things — even To Live and Die In L.A. has that vibe.

Now did you sit down before composing and listen to some of those soundtracks or watch some of those movies?

TB: No. The soundtracks were not that much of interest to me. The movies are of interest to me as a fan of the movies, and basically understanding the syntax of what those movies are. I’ve listened to so much music in my life and been exposed to such a wide range of stuff that I’m not really interested in listening to soundtracks. Even if, in the music, yourself or anyone draws a parallel to anything else it would clearly be subconscious. I’m not going to sit there and reference a score it’s just not the way I work at all.

No, I certainly didn’t mean you listened to them while you were composing.

TB: Most of the non-orchestral stuff in that movie is the bi-product of experiments that were conducted live in my studio with our MOD modular systems and other synthesizers with Wolfgang and I playing back and forth on one another and just copying a vibe, that’s more what it’s about.

So, you just pretty much locked your head into that 80’s soundtrack mentality so to speak.

TB: Yeah, a little bit. Just pop music in general, even some of the orchestral writing is associated in form or structure to pop music than classical music. That’s intentional on my part.

Another one of my favorite tracks is one of the last tracks “I Love You Mom”. To me that had such a great sort of Mark Knopfler 80’s guitar vibe to it.

TB: It’s kind of a sort of bitter sweet theme music, and Zack wanted something human feeling at that point. Guitar can have a lot of artifacts in the tracks when recorded. Like, fingers touching and scratching on strings and other sounds like that can connect on a more intimate level than other instruments, so that’s what we were trying to capture with that piece of music and hopefully it’s the case. [laughing]

Definitely. I’m a huge fan of movie soundtracks and I do listen to them quite a bit.

TB: You could probably teach me a fair amount on them then.

For example, I’ll listen to John Williams and you can always tell it's a John Williams score even from a 20 second clip. What I liked about your score is it never got stuck in a rut. There was always a different flavor, or a different vibe, or a different transformation, which I really liked about it. I don’t think I’ve heard a lot of scores like that — that pulled from a lot of different sounds or sources, so it was very enjoyable to me on that level.

TB: Thank you. If you look at the movie and the ground the movie itself covers, we’re flashing back to the 40’s or the 60’s, at times we’re in the 80’s we’re all over the place. There are so many different scenarios and so many different kinds of dramatic situations; there are narratives; some crazy action sequences.

That’s one thing that’s sort of typical of Zack’s film making, you’re going to cover a broad scope of situations, emotions, dynamics and in order to effectively express what he wants to express you have to be well versed in many styles of music, not just assimilate them but be cultured in them, and that’s one of the many joys of working with Zack. He gives me the opportunity to really explore a number of different ideas and commit to things a little bit left of center I would say.

A lot of popular songs are on the soundtrack. Did Zack simply pick those songs and say here are the scenes I would like them on?

TB: He chose the songs and when I saw the director’s cut they were in the movie how he wanted them. Obviously due to life and what-not maybe a couple of the songs had changed over time, but, some of them are written into the graphic novel and some of them are his choices and I think that one of the things that he was interested in was juxtaposing these classic songs that we’ve heard a million times with imagery that gives them a new life, that gives them a new way of being interpreted by the listener, by the audience. I think that he effectively did that.

Again, that’s part of supporting the honesty of the graphic novel and its pop culture statement. I would have been pretty easy to just get a bunch of new bands and cover these songs but I think that would have missed the point actually and I thought he was really smart in his choices and how he used everything. It also presented an interesting task to me in transitioning in and out of that music throughout the film.

It sort of grounded the film in the real world having real songs in it, so I think it helped there as well.

TB: That’s what I like about it. My approach to the score was really more about the human emotions of these characters, and that they’re real people and I never got too caught up in the super hero aspect of it. We do have a couple of moments leading up to the tenement fire, and the tenement fire that really kind of echo the super hero theme that could have been [laughing]. But, it never fully gets its legs in the movie, because we never really get a chance to go there with these people. We are obviously with them past their heyday.

I’ve only got to see the movie once, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you did write themes for specific characters that were reprised whenever they appeared?

TB: There are, let’s say, textural motifs that are occurring with different characters or relationships. There is a little bit more of a whimsical 80’s/superhero vibe between Laurie/Silk Spectre and Dan/Nite Owl, that’s kind of like their vibe, and of course Dr. Manhattan, a lot of his stuff occurs with a Phillip Glass piece. Then there’s that time keeping element and the music that’s associated with him, and that’s the nostalgia that is pretty much part of the other characters. Of course, we come to Rorschach and he’s a psychopath and the music associated with him is much more in that headspace.

The track “I’ll Tell You About Rorschach,” from the Gerald Grice/cleaver in the head scene. It’s actually hard to listen to that piece of music, because it kind of makes your skin crawl. I really felt that it grabbed that creepy vibe. That scene is probably one of the most skin-crawliest scenes in the film, and I think you certainly matched the action there adequately, because it does sound kind of freaky and disjointed — you know crazy.

Watchmen score

TB: Part of the challenge is to not only get inside Rorschach’s head. Luckily, since it is difficult to listen to. I pared it down to three minutes on the soundtrack album. My goal was not only to get in his head, but texturally get inside that environment. Being done with an orchestra would have been entirely different and I didn’t want there to be any recognizable musical element that would potentially let us off the hook or bring some false sense of calm or safety in that particular sequence. I just wanted to be with him in his mindset. Obviously, I would imagine if somebody is in that mental state, you wouldn’t be humming a melody. So that was where I was kind of approaching it from.

Watchmen fans can be very critical at times. Some have said of the score, “it should have been a jazz soundtrack,” or “it should have been a more traditional orchestral soundtrack.” Do any of those comments ever filter to you? Is it frustrating to see that when you’re tied to a project that has such a deep and critical fan base that sometimes the fans can be so aggressive?

TB: Oh, of course. Even you admitted yourself, you can’t help but draw in what you think is the parallel source of inspiration for the music, when in fact, I’m coming from a place that is a culmination of a lot of things. Everyone tries to pin point what the exact reference point was with music and with film. Of course, Zack’s films are high profile and people do dismantle them and discuss it. If I were to pay too much attention to that it would bother me a bit.

The thing is, I’m a composer, and I work for Zack Snyder on these movies, and my job is to first off, make him happy and to express in music what he wants to say as a film maker. That’s really what my job is and anything above or beyond that is really none of my business. So it’s really not my business what somebody thinks. I appreciate if they get it and they like it, obviously that’s cool, that feels good. But, I can’t work with that in my head. All I can do is do the best work I can possible to make the movie as good as it can be from my prospective, or with my taste and in association with Zack’s sensibilities and his goals.

It seems to me that Zack’s the kind of film maker who isn't afraid to take risks. And the early reviews of the film coming in, say that he’s definitely taking a risk with Watchmen. As a composer whose task it is to write the score for the film does Snyder say to you, “Tyler go ahead and take some risks and just go for it?”

TB: We don’t talk about things in terms of risks, like “oh, we’re reshaping the wheel here”. We just make movies together. Our sensibilities are such that, things can be accomplished, ideas can be accomplished or expressed in a number of different ways. Let’s do it how we think it’s the most interesting and part of my goal is to be part of that signature that Zack Snyder is. He’s not a dreaming director that people put projects together for him and he’s slotted into. He makes Zack Snyder movies, so, we work within the scope of his taste and his philosophy. I think why we are so well matched is because, I think, we like to explore a lot of different ideas and tie it together into a singular expression. I think that’s what makes his movies interesting, especially, if he was thinking at every momen,t “am I taking a risk here?” it just wouldn’t come across as authentic as it is.

Sure. I never meant to say he takes risks just for the sake of them…

TB: We don’t look at it as taking risks, because the general public has this subjective idea of what something should be. When it appears differently or resonates adversely to what they’ve anticipated they are like, “oh” and a lot of movies — big studio movies — do play it safe; they do sort of keep things within a narrow boundary. I don’t know what to say, it’s not a conscious thing, we just enjoy doing it and having a good time working.

There’s a good synergy between the two of you.

TB: The whole thing. It’s everybody in post; everybody is sharing in comradery and supportive of each other’s efforts and it feels really fun to work together.

Is this going to be a relationship where it’s sort of like George Lucas/John Williams where it’s going to be Zack Snyder/Tyler Bates?

TB: I would love for that to happen; it’s entirely up to Zack. As far as I’m concerned, all I can do is put forth my best effort every time we work together and hopefully yield really positive results. To this point we’ve had a really good time working together and I think good things have come of it. I think as long as I’m up for the challenge that his movies present, then we might do a few more.

Are you officially on board for any other Snyder films, like Guardians of Ga’Hoole?

TB: None of us could do it up here, because it’s an Australian film and there’s some sort of tax credit with the government, so he’s working with an all different crew. There are other things that we’ve discussed and I don’t think it would be really appropriate to talk about it.

There’s going to be a video game tie-in with the film — are you composing any music for that?

TB: Yes, there is a video game for the movie and I do the music for it. The music is related to the film, I would say, but the video game experience is much more focused on the action. While there are some similarities in the sonic palate, the video game is more driving and aggressive as far as rhythms are concerned. It’s a different animal. That came off really good, I was really happy with it.

How different is the process of scoring a video game than that of a film?

TB: Entirely different. It’s not linear like film is, so you have to score for different scenarios, different outcomes of the situation based on a player’s performance or their choices. On one hand it’s really cool, because, you do have a greater degree of freedom as far as experimenting with anything actually. At the same time, you have to imagine a number of different ways of seeing, you have to write music that’s relevant to the main idea let’s say, in order to satisfy what the programmers need, or when doing the final, I’m not that well versed in the technical aspect of programming for games, but to provide them what they need to underscore the outcome of various events and choices made throughout the game.

Have you seen the full finished film yet? Did you like it?

TB: Yeah, You know what I love this movie. It’s amazing. It’s actually more than 300, I’m much more able to watch this film as a fan of the movie. It’s probably just by nature the way the music works in the film. I really liked it. I’m really part of being part of the film. I loved the movie probably more than any I’ve worked on.

Were you a fan of the graphic novel? Had you read the graphic novel before hand?

TB: I knew of the graphic novel when I heard that Zack was doing the movie, but we were still working on 300, so I didn’t talk to him about it. I just didn’t want to until our work on 300 was finished, and once he laid out his idea for Watchmen and that he wanted me to do it, then I read the Absolute Watchmen a couple of times and got started. I’m a huge fan of that book. I think it’s really amazing and there’s clearly a reason why it’s the only graphic novel on Time magazines top 100 greatest novels of the last 100 years. I get that the writing is incredible, the illustrations are fantastic, and it seems to me to be regarded as the mother of all.

As you read the graphic novel as a composer, do themes or instruments pop in your head as you’re reading characters?

TB: Yeah, you know the Rorschach stuff hit me right away. I have to say a lot of my early ideas changed once I saw the actual actors in the roles, with actual costumes. It takes on a different life. You have one actor as opposed to another playing the same role, although it may be the same script, for me, the way I’m going to play that character is going to suit the specific nature of how the actor handles that role. Definitely things changed and it’s hard to tell from reading the graphic novel what role the score is going to play, as opposed to the songs. What the emphasis of the movie was going to be on, which beats were extrapolated from the graphic novel to the larger beats of the film. A lot of those things obviously became a little bit clearer after I got in to see the movie.

Now you scored the director’s cut which is 3:10. The theatrical release I believe is two hours and thirty-six minutes. You’ve seen the director’s cut, but have you seen the theatrical cut?

TB: Yes, I’ve seen them both. The thing that’s great, is the director’s cut is not just, “I had to get rid of 20 seconds of this scene” and what-not, it feels not like a different movie but definitely an expansion of the Watchmen story as opposed to just more stuff. Then, of course, there’s Ultimate Watchmen which incorporates “Tales of the Black Freighter” and I was really excited to see how that all came together because I never saw a cut of the movie that showed all the stuff that Zack had actually filmed that was the transitional material into the Black Freighter comic through out the film. It works really, really well.

When he does splice the entire film together with the ins and outs with the Bernies, is that something that you have already scored, or is that something you’ll have to come back to when that DVD is put together?

TB: No, I did it already.

So that cut is done with the “Black Freighter?” That’s already been cut?

TB: Yes. It’s all finished at this point. I wrote about ninety minutes of score for this and I produced a song, and did a video game with about sixty minutes of score and “Tales of the Black Freighter” which is about twenty-two. It’s a pretty big project.

When scoring “Black Freighter,” what were your sensibilities on how that should sound?

TB: Well, Gerard Butler narrates the story. It’s definitely much more poetic and literal in a story telling sensibility, so when I had a chance to see some of the more developed animation and hear his voice over, it pretty much suggested to me that we should stay in the scope of his head space and his story telling. I also wanted the music to feel a little bit older in its sensibilities than the music from Watchmen, so when we delve into that comic book that it had its own that it had its own sound but it was still relative to our movie. I don’t really know how to describe it to you very clearly in verbiage, but that was my goal with the music. I think we got there and everybody seemed to be very happy with the “Black Freighter.”

I can’t wait to see that, but what I really can’t wait to see is the Director’s cut. Personally, I feel like I haven’t really seen Zack Snyder’s Watchmen yet. I feel like that 3:10 cut is the honest-to-goodness Zack Snyder film, and the 2:36 cut I saw was just a little bit too truncated to show me exactly what his vision was for the film.

TB: There is certainly a lot of ground to cover. I think considering the length of the theatrical release at this point, I think he really managed to develop the characters in a very thorough way into the degree that we felt them emotionally, it wasn’t just seeing all this great, amazing imagery on screen, I think that he successfully developed the story enough so that we can truly connect to the characters emotionally and I think that is a huge caveat with a movie this large and rich. To do that in two and a half hours is pretty amazing, but none the less, the director’s cut, like I said, it’s not extra stuff it’s a richer, more detailed story. It’s pretty cool.

Snyder said he thinks the three hour and ten minute film “breathes a little more” than the theatrical cut and totally understood what he meant. So, I’m definitely looking forward to it.

TB: I have the feeling that you’ll have and opportunity maybe to see the Director’s cut on the big screen, but we’ll see.

2.28.09 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.com

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