Guardians of the Galaxy Exclusive: Composer Tyler Bates On Crafting the Movie's Musical Identity

Tyler Bates, who composed scores for Watchmen and Dawn of the Dead, has worked with Batman V [...]

Tyler Bates, who composed scores for Watchmen and Dawn of the Dead, has worked with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder on and off for years but one collaborator with whom he's got an even closer and more consistent relationship is James Gunn, whose Guardians of the Galaxy is exploding at the box office this weekend.

The movie, of course, is a somewhat unique one in that its perception has been so defined by the pop soundtrack. While Bates didn't write those songs, obviously, he's been doing his work in the shadow of that -- even though he scored many of the film's key moments early on and the actors performed to them, meaning that many of those pop songs were likely not in place yet at that time.

Bates joined to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy and working with James Gunn.

It's funny how, looking at your very impressive resume, my first thought is, how are you working on Guardians of the Galaxy and not Batman V Superman?

Tyler Bates: Hey, man, things just go the way they go sometimes. I guess there were a lot of factors that came into Man of Steel, none of which I'm apprised to entirely. But you know, the producers involved and their people and I imagine that had a little bit of influence in the way that everything developed, but, I'm just super happy to… [search for words] to work with James on Guardians, we've been collaborators for a long time, so it's really great to work on something that we both had a chance to work on something that we both really had a chance to let loose with.

One of the things I've been told consistently is that the process you're doing is uncommon, in terms of actually already having the score in place for the actors, and I understand it's probably not completed...

Bates: It's because we don't get paid to do that!

So, why did you guys decide to go that way on this one?

Bates: Well, James and I, our friendship had started about ten years ago, on Dawn of the Dead, when it came out, he and I met as he wrote that. And Zack Snyder directed it. So James and I, he'd asked me if I'd work for him on Slither, and he was already in production by the time we got around to it, so I didn't really get a chance to do any writing prior to post-production.

But we really formed a great bond through that. Then after that, I I think, we did a webseries called PG Porn and it was just us having fun. Just silly little comedy bits. Then we did something for Movie 43, and then Super. And with Super, you know, that was a very personal movie for James, I think, and Rainn Wilson is a close friend of his and the part was really written for Rainn and he thought, at least for the end of the movie, let's try and film to the music. And I thought, "Yeah, that's a great idea." The more we can film to original music and not deal with tracks that someone else is playing around with, well, the better.

So we had Rainn come into the studio and he recited the whole epilogue of the film, which is that last three minutes or so. It was the first time James had heard Rainn as the character Frank, and so it was really moving for him, and all of us. It really had a great emotional impact in that the cadence of his voice really suggested the music to me. I knew exactly what I was feeling/aiming for, and he set the tempo for -- his dialogue, the way he recited his dialogue -- but you see, that was a much simpler case. James went to film to the music that I wrote around Rainn's dialogue, he said that it was hand in glove, just filming that sequence. And what they ended up using was that exact dialogue recording and the basic tracks that I composed for him to film to -- of course, we had a chance to embellish them later -- but the basic tracks are all the same. So he [Gunn] said, "Wow, next time, let's do that to a greater extent," and, ha, we didn't know it was going to be Guardians of the Galaxy.

Super was a tiny film, but it wasn't really a surprise to me that James got Guardians of the Galaxy, because he's brilliant, a real comic fan, and a real artist. He embodies all of the qualities you want to have in a collaborator in film as a composer.

When he called me to tell me he got the movie, he said, "Dude, are you in?" and I was saying "Seriously! Yeah, I think so!" [laughs] Of course! [First time he's sounded really happy in the recording.] Then he said, "I would love to shoot you the script, when that's ready, and then you can start to think about the music."

So, that's what happened: he sent me some key artwork and as we developed some of the pre-viz sequences, I worked from those. Then he said, "I want to play this stuff over the PA on the set." I thought, "Hey, that's cool," and I didn't think a whole lot about that, but I did write five or six pieces that he cranked over the set. He had me come visit about two weeks before they wrapped filming and I went into the tent where his monitors are, which he watches what's being filmed, because it was a huge sound stage and he communicates with the actors a lot of the time over microphones, doing multiple takes -- that's coming through a huge PA. Most of the time he's yelling out really funny, obnoxious stuff to Michael Rooker, but…! [Laughs]

Anyway, Chris Pratt was in the tent when I showed up, I mean, literally as I came straight from the airport, and I met [Pratt] there, and he said, "Dude, I just got to tell you, it was just so exciting and exhilarating to shoot through some of these sequences to your music -- it just put us all right where we needed to be to know what this movie is." And I thought, "Wow, that's cool."

Then James thought it would be hilarious if I were a Ravager pilot, so before I had much chance to object he had people from hair and make-up take me off to wardrobe and put dreadlocks on me and scar up my face and give me Ravager garb, and all I can hear are people in back, laughing uncontrollably [laughs]. And he was all, "Cool man, you're going to be a Ravager!" in, uh, maybe a little more colorful language than that.

So when I was on-set with the actors and I -- I don't want to act, I'm just having fun as an extra -- so he plays "Cherry Bomb" really loud on the PA, and immediately it struck me that, "Wow, that is cool," because I even know what the hell we're doing, just by hearing the music.

So, I can only imagine what a more emotional themes - to have heard that as far as a point of reference or to contextualize what was going on in any given scene at any given time, it was really powerful. It's really neat to be able to imbibe in that process. And it's uncommon because, generally, they wait until post-production to bring the composers on, and it's not something you get paid to do, but you want to do it. They pay you for your work in post-production as a composer. I wrote on Guardians when there are other things I could have done in the meantime.

Just to put a kind of bow on it, it sounds to me that the reason that A) this is so uncommon, and B) what you're doing with James and Zimmer with Nolan and the like, is because you aren't getting paid until you get involved in a relationship with a director that makes it fulfilling and worthwhile for the composer to go, "Yeah, sure, I'll do that."

Bates: Oh, it is. It really has nothing to do with - at least for me - it has nothing to do with money. James is somebody that I've shared so many experiences with over the last decade, when you do this stuff, with the time spent and the things you work on, and how that impacts your life. It's not just about scoring a movie or having your name on a billing. That doesn't mean anything to me, it's really about the artistic experience and the experience with friends.

I want to do it, I want to have that collaborative experience with James, because I knew once it got to post-production it would be totally crazy and it would not be laid back, and I wouldn't see much of him in the studio, but the opportunity to create the initial DNA for the score, before we had anything in post, it was awesome and were both geeks on this stuff…we get off on it. It's not anything while it's happening that anyone thinks about or knows about except for us, until obviously after hearing stuff -- it was motivated only by trying to do something great and personal and special to us; we hoped people would realize, err would respond to. That's all… artistic endeavor in that regard.

Is there a kind of shorthand for how you can describe your approach to the score? Obviously, I think there would be overt references to Raiders and the overall tone of the film. It feels like, almost inevitably, people are going to be like, "Oh, so it's a John Williams thing."

Bates: Oh no, don't do that to me! [Laughs]

I don't mean as a comparison, I mean that, from your approach did you go with a more orchestral score, a more modern score, because I feel like the gut instinct for people who haven't seen anything except for the trailers is going to be, "Oh okay, [orchestral] is the feel I wanna go for."

Bates: First off, I don't think it's that simple.

Number one, is, I really don't know film scores very well unless we're talking about a movie that impacted me as a kid. You know, I didn't set out to be a composer in my life, it's something that developed over the years. It's a very humbling job.

There are a lot of films like Star Wars and Jaws and Halloween-type movies and things we saw on TV as kids because we didn't have - it was before cable TV, we heard on the radio or something. Just - the scope of those movies and the impact of the music did resonate with me and most of my influences came from jazz or rock. Or classic or even electronic music. So I don't really know scores that well -- I know John Williams because you can't not know John Williams, but I could never even begin to think in this movie, "What would John Williams do?" You just can't -- if you have any degree of humility at all, you can't do that. [Laughs]

So, I didn't think about it that way at all, or I probably would have been paralyzed and wouldn't be able to write anything. What James discussed with me initially, he said, "Look, we're making a space-rock-opera and I want the music to feel post-rock, but deeply emotional, and totally kick-ass and powerful." Usually you would think, if you heard my work, is we're going to have a shitton of guitars and synth-work and all that, and really the majority of the score is the most purely orchestral and choral score I've ever done. Part of it is because I didn't have enough time to develop a lot of the electronica because of the pace at which I had to write and perform music and redraft music as the picture evolved and the visual effects evolved. I started assigning those aspects of the music to the orchestra and choir which is how it wound up more purely organic. However, at times, it has a rock intent about it.

Emotionally, we just wanted to keep this movie in real, deep emotions, with epic themes like the movies we saw as kids. Everybody was writing huge melodies and the movies got insane. Then at the end of the 90's and through the 2000's movies got real serious and hyper-realistic. It seemed like there was a phobia of big thematic music. We're just celebrating this movie and enjoying the chance to express what we feel is fantastic and fantastical. So we're unapologetic about it. [laughs] Hopefully people like it.

I can't think of another film during the time I've been covering media, 15 years, less than a week from release – I've heard nothing bad from anyone at any level. Even when you look back at last year with Pacific Rim, there were so many people who were so incredibly excited about that film and the word of mouth was electric. Then you got down to the last week, ten days when the professional critics were there and started to really even them out. With Guardians the evening-out process has been "Oh, darn, we went from 100% to 97% on Rotten Tomatoes." It's bizarre.

Bates: I can tell you, James Gunn is, I think, brilliant. He killed himself to make this movie great. He
was in "never say die mode" from day one: it was so important to him that this movie be really, really good, and he did it with a lot of humility. He's very down to earth and a huge fan; there was no way he was going to take the opportunity to make this lightly. He has a wonderful sense of humor, but with a very deep emotional palette just in his way of being. I think that's one of the things you cannot say the movie doesn't have. It has a great sense of humor, its emotions are authentic and that's just the kind of person he is. He's great and I think that's an intangible that comes through in this movie is humility matched with his level of artistry is pretty staggering. It's so inspiring.

James pushed me -- the Guardians theme wouldn't have happened the way it did if he didn't push me a little harder to get to that. I don't always agree with everything but I trust him enough that I'm fully invested in pursuing any of his ideas and there are times when we find it that I realize he was onto something. It's cool to work with people who respect you but they challenge you to do your best work.

As a human being, you're not going to find a person who's more solid than James. He's very aware of himself and is always trying to do better and I think that this movie embodies that spirit.