Exclusive Interview: Batman: Arkham Knight Composer David Buckley

David Buckley, who wrote the music for Call of Duty: Ghost, returns to video games for his second [...]


David Buckley, who wrote the music for Call of Duty: Ghost, returns to video games for his second major go-'round (he did previous work years ago with a Shrek game, but even he says that was a whole different thing) with the upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight. The final chapter in the franchise that started with Arkham Asylum, the much-anticipated game is expected out in about six months and will feature, among other things, an entirely new character created for the video games, who will likely appear in the announced tie-in comic book miniseries that takes place in the world of Arkham. While he was pretty tight-lipped about the specifics of Arkham Knight, Buckley joined ComicBook.com to talk exclusively about his process and to say what (little) he could about the Batman game in particular.


ComicBook.com: Now, it seems as though you pretty much always have a full slate of projects. Are you able to take on some extra work just when The Good Wife is on hiatus, or is it just a matter of just you're always working? David Buckley: Well, I work a lot is the simple answer. The Good Wife was very much in season when I was working on the Arkham Knight score. My inroad into things over here was I worked for a composer called Harry Gregson-Williams and he in turn worked for a composer called Hans Zimmer, so there's a family tree there and amongst other things is this kind of work ethic which has been widely written about. Among other things, you're at the studio seven days a week, you're always occupied. So, yes, I sometimes do look at my schedule of things going on and say "My God, how on Earth do I do that?" But I know it's the sheer amount, the volume of time I spend at work. And it's not just work for the sake of doing work. I do like that The Good Wife is so much different from the Batman game and to the Call of Duty and I like having that kind of variety in my work. It keeps me moving; it keeps me going. ComicBook.com: When I think of somebody like Bear McCreary for instance, he works on two different kinds of shows -- Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and AMC's The Walking Dead -- but they're still a fairly similar skillset in that they're hour-long, network action-oriented melodramas. With your projects being so wildly diverse, do you have a very regimented schedule to segregate those, or is it more what you're feeling like when you wake up in the morning? Buckley: I think there is that. I mean, of course, especially when I'm juggling multiple things, The Good Wife is just an inevitability. I've got to have it delivered and prior to that, I've got to have had a producer or two with an eye over what I've done. So that's sort of predictable inasmuch as there is a firm deadline. But the video game work -- with all of those the time period is longer. Especially with Call of Duty and Batman, there's been kind of a big time slot to get it done but then I'm sort of at the mercy of the developers and where they are at that point. Not only where they are, but also where they need to be in terms of presenting that stuff. So a lot of it is driven by deadlines but a lot of it is that I do have all of this stuff, and what shall I go in for first? And I suppose that is sort of a whim of fancy that, "I really feel like getting into this today, and maybe after lunch I'll get into something dark and moody because I spent the morning doing something more sort of vivacious. I think as well as trying to satisfy my clients it's also trying to satisfy my own sense of variety and not getting stuck in a rut on anything. Spending days upon days of just doing endless action music would just grind me down. I guess from that, I'm lucky that there are a number of things on my plate, often, and so I don't have to get consumed by any one thing. I remember the first kind of solo breaks -- I was anticipating it being a solo break but it ended up being two projects at once. I got a movie called The Forbidden Kingdom and as soon as I got that, at the same time I got an unknown movie called Blood Creek. They completely clashed and I was barely ready to do one movie on my own, let alone two, so I had that kind of baptism of fire of juggling and I guess what that did is it made me realize it's possible if you're prepared to go through hell occasionally. ComicBook.com: It seems to me that a video game would be very time intensive just because of the hours of gameplay involved and you can't use exactly the same cue for all that time. Buckley: I'm not a veteran game composer. I've learned a lot from the two I've done. Well, I did one years ago -- a Shrek video game -- but that seems like a whole different thing now. Yeah, I mean firs tof all compared to the amount of gameplay, the music that I write by ratio is comparatively small. I don't know the amount of hours that you need to spend on single-player stuff in any of these games but for Call of Duty, I wrote three hours of music. That's more than any movie -- I can't thin of any movie that would require that amount of music -- but of course the other interesting thing is the way the music's actually implemented. When I hand it off to the developers, you can give them the complete version of the music but they also have the draft, the percussion, the brass, the synth stuff, so there's actually new life that can be breathed into it so that it's not just endlessly looping with the player getting driven crazy by it. Of course, it also depends on the intensity of where you are in the game or how you're faring in the game. If you're in combat and you're advancing on the enemy then they can kind of control it so more layers are added and you feel that the music's sort of evolving, it's not just on loop. So not only is it me writing this stuff but it's also me writing it in a way that it can be used to that end by the audio team. I don't understand it; it seems like such a different thing in many ways to film, but it's obviously fantastic and it's keeping everything fresh. ComicBook.com: Is it typical, then, that you don't have a lot of hands-on involvement in that aspect of it?


Buckley: I say it's different to movies but in many ways it's not that different. In movies or TV, I have a film score that I hand over to a music editor, perhaps 8 or 9 themes, the barest breakdown of the big cues...and it's sort of like giving your baby away at that point. You send it to the director, you say "this is my version of it," and they say great but then you get to the dub stage and they're going to want to make of it the best they can because of all the new elements that have been added to it; all the foley would have come in -- the additional dialogue, the final sound. Any of these projects, when I'm working on them, suddenly it's all coming to life. Maybe I'll go to the final playback but anything along the way, all I'm going to say is, "Oh, well the music should be louder in that spot" or "I did it this way, why are you doing it that way?" And they don't need it. It's really more "Here's my baby -- do with it what you will." So the video game guys sort of implementing those themes or the film/TV guys who are implementing in a slightly different way, it's all about them taking from me the raw data and then making the best product and you don't need a sort of fussy diva of a composer getting involved in that, in many ways. ComicBook.com: Is the relationship significantly different between those media? It strikes me that with a film, it's much more self-contained and you've got a director who's overseeing it all whereas with TV or games I feel like there have to be many more voices. Buckley: Yeah -- I guess it's a strange old world. Before I moved to the States, I thought that directors were king and everything stopped there. Certainly in TV, I don't even talk to a director. Anyone who shoots any of the episodes I do never has any communication with me. They do their stuff then they hand it over and then TV seems to be a producer's game pretty much. Even though when you look at the credits, a show like The Good Wife has tons of producers, there's only a couple I really deal with. In fact, these days just one: Robert King and his wife, who are the showrunners and created the show. But with a film, I've worked on films where it will be just me and a director sitting in a room or I've worked on films where there's a whole array of producers who also want to get involved. I guess in these sort of paranoid times, everyone's worried about everything and the money men definitely want to pitch up once in a while and check that they're getting what they want. The video games are really interesting. With Batman, it's kind of difficult because their offices are in England and I'm over here, but with Call of Duty, one of the things I really enjoyed was that the developers were very keen for me to go to their very cool studios in Burbank and just hang out with them. They're gamers, so they play this stuff. they've played all these other games in the series and they've lived in this world for years and years and years. When I signed up to do it, they were really happy to hear that I would come and see them and we'd have lunch and we'd chat and we'd talk about general things that we like and then specific things. There's nothing really that tangible in a game when you're working on it. There's no script, per se, or certainly not one that's going to give you the full story arc. They may give me a bit of work in progress gameplay but it's not like a movie where even if it's rough, you'll have something to work with. In a game, it's very much you're trying to piece bits together and understand the full story which you never really do until the game comes about. So the methodology with the game developers is just spending time with them, absorbing as much information as you can and learning the world that they've inhabited for much, much longer than I have. ComicBook.com: Is there a difference when you're working on a game like Call of Duty, where a specific character wouldn't necessarily have their own kind of mood or theme, versus a project like Batman or even The Good Wife, where you've got entrenched characters who influence the world around them and presumably the music? Buckley: I think the process is, something like The Good Wife, and I should start there...obviously since we're on our fifth year and we're about to go into our sixth. One thing that we've tried it to a certain extent but this season more than any is that we've really changed the musical landscape. Themes means different things to different people. The Good Wife is not a show about melody. It's not like, "Here's this character, here's their tune." It would just be a bizarre way of approaching it. I'm sure there are TV shows where that works but in this show it wouldn't be adding anything. If this character comes in and you just play their tune, it's redundant because they're on screen, why do we need to be told they're on screen? It's apparent. Typically it's about something more textural or it's evoking something beyond the obvious. This year in particular on The Good Wife, and I'm excited by it because it's sort of an interesting event, we've adopted a sort of classical or baroque type of sound world for the music and its main role is not really looking specifically at character but looking more at the stories, at emotion, at how we sort of get from drama to comedy without being heavyhanded. It's sort of its own character going on in the background. Sure, it has to acknowledge specific emotions but it's more like the full musical identity that wraps itself around the cahracters and the dramas as opposed to being specific to each character. In terms of the games, one of the things you have to be careful with is that there is a main theme for the game. One thing you have to be careful about, because as you say there is a lot of gameplay, is that you can't just keep playing that theme because it's going to get annoying and stop being what you need it to be. You want to have that brand identity and at key points in the game you want the theme, but you have to be kind of sparing with it and again, that theme in Call of Duty was supposed to sum up the sort of ethos of the Ghosts. As for anything else that was a sort of a musical identifier of the characters of the game, there were sounds for the enemy that were kind of recurring motifs but they weren't really the characters because you don't develop the same relationship as you would in a movie. So you're right that there are big differences there, and there are also big differences between the way anything is scored nowadays and the way they were scored thirty years ago. I think maybe thirty years ago, it would absolutely be that this character has his musical identity. I think now, there's just a different approach. There's instrumentation that might lend itself to a certain character but because we've changed things a little bit this season, it definitely seems that it's more about mood than character and my hunch is that trying to be sort of always on the nose with "Here's this character, here's their musical baggage," after a while it would stop being relevant. ComicBook.com: Is part of the job description in an ongoing series like a film or game franchise or a TV series is to always be breaking your own rules to break up the monotony? Buckley: Absolutely. I think back and having started our fifth season last September, I was thinking, "Okay, this is going to be interesting. We've got a musical landscape, we kind of know what we're doing," and then I got a call from Robert saying, "Why don't we try something? We've got this far, who's going to object?" And initially I thought that sounded like a hard work but after a while I realized it was a lot easier than just living in a familiar path that you've already trodden because this feels unique, it feels fresh and it's much better to keep reinventing than resting on one's laurels thinking that we've cracked it. It's interesting to look at these remakes of big movies or even within a series that scores are doing different things. Superheroes don't just need to have big, brass themes anymore. They can go dark, they can go other ways and still be heroic. And that sort of annoys people who still want John Williams but certainly I admire anyone who's trying to say, "Well, let's break the model." I think really for the continuation of anything, it's vital that people keep reinterpreting it and keep finding new ways to approach stuff because otherwise we'll be making the same stuff over and over again with no relevance.