Musician Tyler Bates Talks Composing for Primal, Day Shift, Pearl, and More

Recent years have seen a number of filmmakers earn massive opportunities with big-budget films after getting their starts in smaller indie projects, with directors like James Gunn and Zack Snyder becoming major forces in cinema. This trajectory isn’t limited just to directors, as musician Tyler Bates got his start in Hollywood on small and obscure projects before being enlisted to craft scores for some of the most successful movies in Hollywood. Making matters all the more interesting is that Bates was an intrinsic component of projects from both Gunn and Snyder, having served as a composer for Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, and Guardians of the Galaxy. More recently, Bates has worked on projects like Netflix’s Primal and the upcoming Day Shift, as well as Ti West’s horror film X and its upcoming prequel Pearl.

Over the course of his decades-spanning career, Bates has worked in a variety of genres, from horror to fantasy to sci-fi to anime, while having also collaborated with diverse filmmakers, from Rob Zombie to Chad Stahelski to the aforementioned Snyder and Gunn. More than just being a singularly focused musician, his collaborators regularly reunite with Bates, demonstrating the ease and excitement shared in his collaborative process. caught up with Bates to look back on his trajectory as a composer, unexpected experiences, and his recent work on Primal, Day Shift, and Pearl.

“It was pretty unwatchable.”

(Photo: Jim Louvau/Netflix) You’ve had such an impressive career, you’ve had so many diverse projects that you’ve been involved with, but to go back to the beginning and when you’re starting out as a musician and you are getting into these first opportunities to score films, how much of that was, “Well, I love music and this is going to pay me,” versus, “Now I’ve got my foot in the door. This is where I’ve always wanted my career to go,”?

Tyler Bates: Definitely wasn’t that. It was — my first scoring opportunity happened on, God, what was it called? One of those, it wasn’t Maniac Cop, it was something close to that. But maybe it was that the second one. Anyway, the producer I knew gave me a call, they needed some score cues that were very rock-centric. I was in the studio doing an instrumental guitar record at the time with a friend. We were all there, musicians were there. I just wrote up some charts with some timing notes, just because they pointed out to me that there needed to be some timing notes and to make the tempo accordingly.

I did that and the producer was Cassian Elwes, who then gave me my first crack at a feature film. It was pretty unwatchable, the movie that he had me score. I do appreciate the first opportunity, though, but at the time I did that, I was still really pursuing my career in bands and also writing with other artists and producing records.


Creative Collaborators

What do you think would surprise people most to learn about your process? Whether it be your process or just the entire concept of film scoring, because I feel like a lot of people, they might notice the effectiveness or they might love the music, but they just don’t entirely know how it goes from enlisting a collaborator and working with the director and the filmmaker and the editor to actually bringing that music to completion?

Outside of the literal task of writing music for a picture, one, you need to have research in some way on your subject matter, being the material. Even if it’s all fiction, there’s still research to be done. If you’re working with a new director or even just new producers, even if you’ve worked with a director before — a new editor, it’s really important to understand the sensibilities of the people who are your creative collaborators. We may think we’re creating something that is cool, but it’s not appropriate if the other people creatively invested can’t identify with what we are creating musically to support the storytelling.

It’s really important to understand those sensibilities. That’s what I think gives composers a modicum of confidence when they’re working Friday nights and through the weekend and they’re making some executive creative decisions in the score that maybe, I guess, outside of the conventions of what might be anticipated for movies. If you want to take a risk, it certainly helps if you have an understanding of the sensibilities of those people involved.

But writing factors in in so many aspects. For instance, you can be inspired by a script. I was given in advance the script to Dawn of the Dead. I wrote a couple of cues to help me get the job. Luckily, it worked out that way, but I didn’t know who the actors were and the character roles. I had not met Zack Snyder at that point. Not only did I need to get the interpersonal stuff, become familiar with the interpersonal stuff with Zack and Niven Howie, the editor, and the producers on board, Eric Newman and Mark Abraham, but I also had to write for each of the actor’s voices so that I could frame their voices appropriately in the material.

Sometimes an actor may be a little too heady in their performance, a little too overzealous, and I have to do something to maybe temper that just a little bit, almost interfere with the performance enough to back them into the scene a little bit more. Then other performances may need just the opposite, you might just need to give it a little support in a different way, so that the performance comes across a little bit more confident than it may have been captured.

A lot of the movies I work on, the acting is excellent, because you’re talking about mostly big-budget movies or extremely talented indie film directors like Ti West. He’s very, very capable of getting the best out of people around him. I’m fortunate to work with so many extremely talented people.


“The music has to be born.”


When you’re developing a new score for any type of project — TV, movie, horror, sci-fi, superhero, whatever it is — when you’re starting to compose the music in your head, do you compose based on specific notes or do you envision, “This is going to be a piano playing these notes, these are going to be guitars playing these notes,”? Do you conceptualize the instrumentation?

I think it’s overall a sound, a theme, a textural motif. Something that I feel is equally an emotional and psychological response to my experience with the material, whether I’m reading material or whether I’ve been shown some cut footage in an editing room with an editor or just a conversation with the director. I do allow things to steep a bit so that it feels like the music has to be born, in a way, like there’s a combustibility to that expression. Then, once I get going, I can really start experimenting and then I can voice something on an array of instruments and just really have the opportunity to see what feels most natural with various characters in the context of that particular movie or TV show.

Some things, at the get-go, like when Tom Kapinos hired me to do Californication, he just said, “Look, Tyler, you can do whatever you want, as long as you have a guitar in your hand.” That was cool. I knew that, obviously, it wouldn’t simply be guitar only, but I loved the idea that he envisioned it being a trainwreck of rock-and-roll type of score, which was apropos, given the nature of the characters and that storyline. I mean, it’s obviously one mess after the next, but that was a lot of fun.

Then, for instance, something like [Zack Snyder’s] Watchmen, I knew it was going to be a big orchestral score. I knew we would probably even expand the scope of the orchestra with choir, augment it that way, just from reading the script, and I was not terribly familiar with the graphic novel at that point. I mean, I definitely had seen it, skimmed it, but I mean, that is a tome.

I have it here in the studio, it’s a monster of a book, but anyway, I thought of really just the interesting opportunity to traverse this, maybe the period aspect of the material, and then take it to the present, into the future, and continue to toggle between them. I thought that would be very interesting. As I got into it, I distinguished the past with more woodwinds in the music and the future with more synthesizers and guitars and the present was somewhat traditional, but with chord progressions that maybe more aligned with contemporary pop music, or rock music, even though it was primarily orchestra. I didn’t … it was a concept that came to fruition and pieces. It was not a master plan, because I think the movie, for everybody involved, was like a Mount Kilimanjaro of tasks.

It was very polarizing in many ways, because Zack chose to end the film the way he did and the real comic book aficionados, some agreed to his reasoning, some disagreed, but it was great that there was that conversation. Given the gravity of the lore of all these titles that I, these big graphic novel titles I’ve worked on and other things that have been around for a while, I try not to over-research the absolute material. Like for instance, with Dawn of the Dead, I made a point of not going back and watching the first Dawn. I had seen it, but I didn’t go back and re-watch it.

Watchmen, I wanted to stay out of the graphic novel in detail, because I thought that if the impression of that massive encyclopedic book, which is basically like the Bible of graphic novels, if the gravity of that were to permeate my thought process, it might be too distracting for me. I might be anticipating what people would or would not accept or like, and I just can’t work that way. I’m not afraid to create something that will elicit judgment, because everything does. I’ll go with it. I live with it, but I do it from my heart and from my mind, and I’m not doing it to try and approximate what I think other people would like. Obviously, I’m trying to write music that’s the best I’m capable of, but I would say that I don’t pander.

Especially like you mentioned, Dawn of the Dead, obviously would’ve been a good example of, had you gone back to that source material and tried to recreate a Goblin-esque score, you can’t out-Goblin Goblin, so you would just be doomed to fail.


The Privilege of Primal

(Photo: Adult Swim)

With Dawn of the Dead, you had these ideas in mind, but you didn’t know the actors, you didn’t know the performances. Something like Primal, where you’re not necessarily relying on performances, does that come with immense freedom and joy, knowing you can go whatever direction the story and the filmmaking takes you, or does that come with the pressure that your music is going to motivate what the audiences are feeling emotionally?

Well, Primal is interesting. Genndy Tartakovsky, who’s a dear friend, he’s one of the absolute geniuses I’ve had the privilege of working with. I don’t say that lightly. I am ensconced in my life with extremely talented people. But Primal with no music is still extremely emotional. The storytelling is just so good. I don’t know that the average person at first glance would recognize how good the nuances are, the nuance of storytelling is represented in Genndy’s work, but he’s so intuitive, so insightful.

The way he draws his perspectives, his style has such an impact on how you receive the story itself. Then when we spot those shows, Genndy, he’ll beatbox the whole episode. It’s a conversation and we record each of these spotting sessions and it is so not pretentious. It’s so cool. This started back, I remember we were doing, I think the first thing I did with him was Sym-biotic Titan maybe. He invited me over to his office to show me his initial drawings. I’m sitting next to him and he is like, “You ready?” I’m like, “Yeah.” He brings up a pencil drawing on his computer and all of a sudden he starts giving me the sound effects, and he does all the sound effects just very naturally.

Then this follows suit with each show, but with Primal, again, the thing that’s so freeing with it is there’s never temp music. There’s never any reference to anything in another show or a movie or anything. If he were to have a reference, it would be very tangential. But when we are in an action sequence, he’ll express whether he feels that the statements are big, hulking chords and percussive gestures, or if it’s something more fast and nimble.

He’s cool in expressing that and then saying, “Well, there’s a thousand ways to do this. Do what you think,” and Joanne Higginbottom, who’s worked with me for many years, she and I have had a tremendous time working together on all the shows we do with Genndy. A large part of that is just because he’s such a confident storyteller, confident filmmaker, the material’s great and then there’s never any temp music ever. Even in Primal, after having done a season, there’s never even one of the old pieces of music temped in. Like on a normal TV show, you usually, by a few episodes in, you start hearing some of the music that you’ve written, but this is really amazing.

That’s why his shows are so unique. They resonate so deeply with the fans because they know it’s authentic. It’s not like somebody saw a movie and said, “Oh, I want that in my thing.” They’re trying, it’s almost like they’re trying to take the success of something that already existed and imbue their own film or TV show with it. I think that when you approach it from an original perspective and you do the work to be able to articulate the necessary information with your collaborators to yield the result you want, I think that is what is behind the making of timeless, classic material. The process in movies doesn’t often afford us that capacity, because there’s just so many people involved. Once a movie’s over $100,000, there’s a whole ton of people involved in it. It’s like not even just the studio and the producers and the director and the editors and all that. It’s like, you now have test groups who are impacting what that movie may become.


“These are the rules and you’re going to play by these rules.”

It’s the flip side of this question or another dimension of it, is this took me by surprise and, actually, Rob Zombie as well. I remember the day he called me up and he says, “Hey man, what do you think about remaking Halloween?” I thought about it for a second. I said, “Well, it’s a tall order, but if you’re into it, I’m into it.” He said, “Yeah, would you just start working up your version of the theme?”

I had a menu of sounds for Rob that was created through The Devil’s Rejects. It wasn’t that I was going to do Devil’s Rejects in Halloween, but there are some characteristics that would be applicable to subsequent films with Rob. But when we got out of Halloween, it was very interesting how, even though Rob shot it and Tyler Mane played The Shape, which, Tyler’s like six-foot-nine or something, he’s such a wonderful guy, too. I love him. But anyway, there’s certain rules of Halloween that John Carpenter invented. I don’t know if he really realized he was baking them into that, or it just happened, this kismet that occurred when he made that first movie.

But some of those themes, you just cannot get off of them, we tried. There’s just no way to not do the thing. In the first Halloween we did, because Rob was close enough with the rules of Michael Myers to some of the original material, I’d say 60% of the score was an exact nod to John Carpenter, which I don’t know what his feeling was on it. I mean, Rob said that he kissed the baby, but it was very interesting and odd to do that.

Then, of course, the theme I drafted was only applicable to the end titles, because it was a bit too aggressive for the context of the movie. I love it as a standalone, but it doesn’t serve the storytelling, but it is what got Rob the deal. Rob literally brought a boombox into the meeting when he was meeting with them and he said, “We’ve updated the theme.” He said that the executives were looking at him half chuckling, like, “Yeah, sure.” Then he just hit play. He said that by the time it was done, they said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

He called me immediately after that meeting. He said, “I just had the best meeting ever.” He says, “This is literally what happened,” it was fun to be part of that. But that was just an interesting thing where the material said, “No, you don’t, these are the rules and you’re going to play by these rules and you have a little wiggle room in some spots.”

Now in the second Halloween, Rob just deviated so much from the original material that we were able just to make a bunch of noise and smatter the picture with some distortion and crazy frequencies. Ultimately I have such mad respect for John Carpenter for creating something like that. That just, there’s just nothing that can work more efficiently, more appropriately for those movies. It’s like David Gilmore playing “Comfortably Numb.” There’s no note that you could suggest that would make it better. It’s already as good as it can be.

That was really interesting. I found that to be really inspiring. It’s interesting, but there is very little material I think that has that finite of a rule system that is baked into it. It really just tells you if you’re deviating too far, it’s saying, “No, this doesn’t work. You’re missing the story.” The picture would just say that to me when I was working on it. Then I’d call Rob and say, “Look, I think we got to go back to that semitone piano theme.” He is like, “Yeah, okay. Well, if that’s what it is, that’s what it is.” We’ll take our shots when we get them. That was an interesting lesson for me to go through that.


Daunting Levels of Greatness

(Photo: Netflix)

You’ve bounced around to so many different genres and with Day Shift, that film itself touches upon various different genres and blends them together in a unique way. What was it about that movie that got you so excited to get involved? Was it that balancing of tones, was it the story itself, was it the collaborators involved? What really made you want to sign on for it?

Well, Chad Stahelski, who does the John Wick franchise, initially called me about it. He produced it. Then he told me JJ Perry was directing and JJ is one of the star stunt guys that’s worked with Chad over the years. He’s a terrific, terrific guy. One thing about action movies, I think it’s about the heaviest lifting you could possibly do on a movie, because you have to do so much for those types of films, regardless of how well they’re shot and how good they are.

But JJ being a master as he is and Chad being a master, it’s always enticing to do that. I mean, sure, your music never is really heard because it’s under bullets and cars crashing and whatnot, but the opportunity to do a Jamie Foxx movie and then Snoop was in it, amazing. Then JJ’s directing and Chad’s producing, awesome. And then it was a nod to the old buddy-cop movies, like Lethal Weapon and things like that. I thought that would be great.

Then, even though I’ve worked on a lot of violent films, I’m not a violent person. I don’t even watch MMA fights or anything like that, but it was more of a fantasy. Therefore, I thought it could be fun as opposed to really literal violence and given what’s going on in the world, that’s pretty heavy for me to handle. John Wick is certainly heavy, but the artistry behind it and the attention to detail and just the whole culture behind John Wick comes from a very deep place of study and understanding and experience. Chad is a weapons expert. He’s a black belt in multiple martial arts. He’s one of the best that’s ever been in the business. The opportunity to work with somebody of that level of greatness is always welcome. It’s daunting, but it’s always welcome.


“It’s going to surprise the hell out of people.”

I can’t let you go without bringing up Pearl, because I’m super excited for that movie. I know that Ti himself has talked about the different filmmaking approach he took to that because there’s 60 years between the events of X and the events of Pearl. I wondered how you approached setting Pearl apart from and also wondered if you worked with Chelsea Wolfe on this as well, or if that was a solo endeavor?

No, no. This was with Tim Williams and our friend Greg Preckle helped us as well. We were under a very big time crunch and we needed to get the score done before I went on tour with Jerry Cantrell in the spring. Tim and I have worked together a lot. He’s been the lead orchestrator on all of my larger scores since 300 and the conductor. We’ve done some projects together. We’re doing another TV show together right now. He was my co-composer on Pearl, but we knew we were going to be able to visit an older style of a more classic approach stylistically to the score. I thought that was great, because X is such a different approach musically, and this was music that Tim and I love.

We both had some pretty in-depth experience writing from that era, maybe not literally, but certainly of that Bernard Hermann, John Barry school. It was fun to be able to embrace this as a classic film. I think when people see this movie, they’re going to feel it as a classic film. It’s not a slasher/horror movie. It’s going to surprise the hell out of people, but it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen, let alone ever worked on.

Ti is phenomenal. What he’s achieved with these two movies is amazing. Then, I feel extremely proud to have worked on it with Tim, because Tim is one of my dear friends and is a super talented guy. You’ll probably notice in a lot of my credits in the more recent history, I have collabs with like Joel Richard on John Wick, on that series. Joel’s a dear friend of mine and a super talented guy. Joanne Higginbottom who works with me, for sure, I really enjoy that. Chelsea and I have collaborated on a couple of things and we have more in the future that we will touch on. I’m really thrilled that Ti created the opportunity for us to work together on X, but we’ll see where this all goes.

Primal Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix. Day Shift premieres on Netflix on August 12th. Pearl hits theaters on September 16th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.



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