Greetings! Scorekeeper here sharing my casually cool chitchat with one of Hollywood's fastest and most furious composers. Brian Tyler is insanely busy these days. He knocks out feature film scores quicker than I can write articles for Ain't It Cool. His distinct orchestral sound has earned him a spot among the upper echelon of composers. Known primarily for his unique brand of action scoring, Tyler has penned more than fifty feature film scores including THE EXPENDABLES (2010), MIDDLE MEN (2009), EAGLE EYE (2008), RAMBO (2008), ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007), BUG (2006), THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT (2006), and SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998).
...but Brian Tyler is not only a popular film composer...he's also an avid AICN reader.
This past week, Brian and I made several attempts at scheduling this interview. Last Monday night we had a loose phone appointment so I passed the time by watching my newly acquired ALIEN (1979) Blu-ray. He dropped me an email letting me know he was going to grab a bite to eat and then we could talk. I replied back that I was watching ALIEN on Blu and that I would be here whenever he was ready. I immediately got a response..."theatrical or director's cut?"
Approximately ninety minutes later I received another email asking how ALIEN was going? I told him I was almost done. Ripley was preparing to blow the beast out of the escape pod airlock and asked if he could call me in about ten minutes.
With most composers as busy as Brian Tyler, I would've turned the TV off immediately and fielded the call right then and there regardless of what I was doing. I knew Brian would be mortified if he interrupted my ALIEN screening. You see, he gets it. He's a geek like me and totally understands
that watching ALIEN on Blu-ray is a near-religious experience.
Ten minutes later, after the credits had finished scrolling, I received my call from Brian and we immediately started talking about all things ALIEN...
ScoreKeeper: Thanks for letting me finish up ALIEN.
Brian Tyler: Of course! I wouldn't want to rob that from you. I went through the whole set myself recently.
SK: Oh, you did?
BT: Yeah, I watched all the director's cuts and theatrical cuts and all the special features. You know, it's interesting. That's the one that I'm not sure about...
SK: You’re talking about ALIEN?
BT: Yeah, the director’s cut versus the theatrical. I love the theatrical and I love the director’s cut. I don’t know, there’s not a huge difference, it’s just…
SK: Well, I can’t recall if I’ve even seen the director’s cut. I got the set just before Christmas and I just now opened it up. I figure I should start with the theatrical cut since that's the one I'm already familiar with and then I'll watch the director's cut next.
BT: It’s nice!
SK: It looks and sounds absolutely amazing!
BT: ...and ALIENS looks awesome! The extras are pretty cool on all of those too. They did a great job on them. It certainly has some of the most interesting composer interviews I've ever seen. If you take Jerry, James, Elliott, and Frizzell's interview...the way they talk about it all is pretty interesting and honest, you know?
SK: Yeah, I can't wait to dive into those. The thing that strikes me most about ALIEN when I watched it again is how many scenes were not scored. So much of it is so stark and void.
BT: It took it’s time and had nice pacing. The whole opening sequence where you see all of those things turning on and the close ups of the control panel. Nowadays a studio would just say, "No! Just get rid of it."
SK: I was thinking that exact thing myself when I watched it. Kane doesn't stumble upon the egg until a good half-hour into the film. I'm thinking, "That would have happened in the second or third minute if it were made today."
BT: For sure!
BT: It's something that really becomes difficult for what we do. You are trying to almost weave that back in, like in reverse. When I am doing a film, there are very few moments that I find I am able to not score. It's also stylistically the movies I do. I score a lot of sci-fi and action films so it's tough.
SK: Are there ever moments where you feel like you want to fight to leave music out?
BT: Oh yeah! I do all the time.
SK: We tried to talk last night but you were slaving away over FAST FIVE (2011).
BT: Yes, official business.
SK: Where are you in that project? Were you needing to deliver a batch of cues?
BT: Oh yeah, it’s in full force. It releases pretty soon.
SK: So are you done with it?
BT: No, right now I’m in the process of scoring the movie and we have a few weeks left and then I'm going to conduct it. We've been recording all along because they're so many kinds of instruments in this film. The movie itself is so different from all the other ones. It requires a lot of different kinds of music.
SK: Are you treating it like it’s its own film or are you still thinking of this as an extension of the previous movies?
BT: It's bringing everyone together cast-wise but they're a little older now. You can actually go into much more serious drama. You couldn't do that if you went back a few FAST AND FURIOUS movies because they were too young and you wouldn't take them as seriously in terms of the subject matter.
This movie is a lot of fun. Justin (Lin) did a great job directing it. Not only do you have the car aspect of the film but it really comes across more of a heist action film. They are all coming together to pull off this impossible heist in Rio. There's a different vibe to it. It's not like they get into cars and say, "Hey, you want to race?" There is a purpose to having the ability to drive really well. It becomes a background component of the movie.
There are spectacular car chases but it’s more about pulling off these insane heists. It opened up story-wise in a way that you were not able to do in any of the other films. I think it’s far and away the best of the series. It’s not even close.
SK: I’m a sucker for a heist flick.
BT: Oh man, it’s fun. It’s just really, really fun.
SK: I want to talk to you tonight about two different projects you've worked on. Let's start with BATTLE: LOS ANGELES (2011). I haven't seen the movie yet but I've had your score for a couple weeks and have been listening to it quite a bit. My first impression is that it sounds like your SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).
BT: Right. Absolutely! Interestingly enough, the reference to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is something that Jonathan (Liebesman) and I talked about really early on when he was prepping for the film and working on the script. He wanted to approach the tone of the film like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), war films that took the war aspect very seriously. I think when that happens there is something that is required from the music. It changes the balance of the music from bravado to emotion. All of a sudden you start caring about the people a lot more when it's treated as if it's completely real.
This film doesn’t wink at the audience and say, “Okay, we know we are an alien film.” It’s not that way at all. It’s almost done in a way that’s semi-documentarian. You are getting to know these people and you really feel like you are one of the Marines. All of a sudden, what would happen if you had no idea you were being invaded and you didn't know if it was aliens or what it was. It just hit you!
There's this massive human impact. Certainly there’s a lot of action and spectacle with that, but there’s a lot of action sequences that are done with a chorale type of sound or something that's more "adagio". I think it goes to the core of films like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN where you really care about where you are at and not just the battle.
SK: There are a handful of tracks early on the CD that are very emotional pieces. Cues like, "Marines Don't Quit," "Command and Control Center," "Elegy," and "Redemption." That's about twenty minutes worth of extremely emotional music right there.
BT: Yeah, It’s going to be surprising to people if the only thing they know about the movie is from the advertising and the name of the movie which is emblazoned with the word “battle.” There certainly is room for that but those are all very powerful scenes in the film that are constantly reminding us of the human toll.
Even those melodies and themes drive the action music. When things start revving up and all hell breaks loose, you are still reminded of the humanity by those themes. There really are only the emotional themes and the the action is built around those. It's a different approach than normally would be taken on an action film.
SK: Is it challenging to dig deep and remain at that emotional level for so long?
BT: Yes, it certainly is. The thing about this movie is that you feel that it's in real time. There are these moments where you are reflecting on something that may have just happened. Maybe a friend of yours just died -- I'm speaking as if I were a character in the movie (laughs)...
It’s the way Jonathan filmed it. It’s great. He’s able to make it feel like you are there experiencing it. From the perspective of composing, it was going with the moment and not worrying so much about musical character arcs and things like that. I’m scoring the emotion scene by scene and it just falls into place that way. In fact, it’s hard to split the movie into a three act story arc because it just feels like you’re there. It doesn’t really fit neatly into that category. I think it’s really great in that way.
SK: When you first hear about this movie you instantly develop a preconceived notion of what this film is going to be about. So far nothing I've seen nor heard from the music represents that notion.
BT: (Laughs) No, it doesn’t. I think you are right. You look at that title and you may feel it's a pure disaster film, which it's not. It's not a film where you see every famous monument on fire or falling over. It's not that kind of movie. That's not what Jonathan was going for. I think we have something on our hands that hopefully shows that science fiction can speak to subject matters in a way that isn’t just about spectacle.
There's no question that I think this film may stick with people longer than an alien invasion film typically would.
SK: You've been finished with this score for a little while now. What's it like to have to sit and wait for what is surely one of the first highly-anticipated movies of the year?
BT: (Laughs) I know. I’ve been living with the film for a long time. If you take into account that I started talking about the film with Jonathan a few years ago, it's really been a long time. When I started, 2011 sounded like a completely futuristic date and now here we are. It's just incredible!
It kills me because sometimes there's something I really want people to hear but no one can hear these scores for quite sometime until the movie is released. One of my favorite scores that I composed recently is COLUMBUS CIRCLE (2010) which I don't know when that's coming out. I want people to hear it. I'm done with it and it's driving me crazy because it's so different than these other scores.
It’s close to a movie like CHARADE (1963) with a Henry Mancini kind of fun-thriller type score. It would have really been great to have this and BATTLE: LA come out at the same time because they are so completely opposite (laughs), but you can't choose when these films come out.
SK: Is there anything else about your score for BATTLE: LA that you're particularly itching to talk about?
BT: Yeah...It's a challenge doing a movie like this because there is a lot of music. I don't even know how much music there is in this movie. It's pretty much end to end. There were a lot of notes to write but at the same time, conducting a score like this is the ultimate prize because you get to conduct this great orchestra and choir. It's so overwhelming to go through the process of writing it and having it come alive with that kind of scope and size.
There were a lot of things that I was doing that was different for me, like the fact that it has this emotional quality. It’s hymnal, but it’s big and has choir and orchestra. There's an ethereal guitar presence that's strung throughout the score as well which I haven't done before. I’ve done my guitar-type scores, like BUBBA HO-TEP (2002) and those types of things that are off-center. But I've never really brought the guitar into this size of an emotional epic. It's played almost like a guitar-orchestra by sounding very ethereal and is intended to emulate human voices. This was something Jonathan talked about wanting to do early on.
SK: I thought the guitar as a particularly LA touch.
BT: Right exactly. It starts with the one guitar then slowly builds to having these soaring multiple guitar themes with a choir. LA is its own world in a way and it certainly has a bit of that to it. Guitars have always been a part of the LA music scene.
The very first thing you hear in this score is the standard American Stratocaster and that’s something that maybe people weren’t expecting when they popped in BATTLE: LA.
SK: The other project you worked on recently that I was hoping to talk with you about is a score I've been listening to a lot lately. Your music for the video game LEGO UNIVERSE (2010) could be my favorite you've written.
BT: Oh, thank you!
SK: I really love this music. The thing is, I'm not a gamer. I don't know the game at all. Right now it's just the music I'm connecting with although it really makes me want to seek out the game.
Video game scores usually have longer schedules than a film. How did this experience compare to your film scoring experiences?
BT: It is an extended schedule because the development of the game sometimes takes quite a long time. The vision of Lego was that this would be something that would start with LEGO UNIVERSE and it would build worlds in this massive multi-online player universe.
It's totally different than scoring a film because something like this is working with concepts. "There's going to be a planet where things are miniaturized," or "There are planets with pirates on it," or "There's a place where you can ride elephants," or "There's a gladiator arena," and then "There's one with race cars and spaceships and you take a rocket from one place to another and you can go back forth." So every single world or planet had to have different music. You never know where players will spend their time. The levels didn't exist yet so I was writing music from my imagination. It wasn't referencing a scene. The dramatic turns and the ebb and flow of the music really just had to be completely composed from descriptions.
What you are hearing in LEGO UNIVERSE is me letting loose in a way. I'm not really restricted. It was fun too! There are moments of seriousness and darkness but overall it's a ride. It's a romp! It's supposed to be enlightening and hopeful and optimistic.
These are not words that are often associated with scores that I write. It was a different angle.
SK: There's so much color. The orchestration is very dynamic. The themes are infectious and well-developed throughout the game. To me that's the key. It's not always the idea but what you do with it that matters most. I haven't touched a video game in over twenty years. I mastered SUPER MARIO BROS. 1, 2, and 3 in the late 80's and after that I vowed I would never play a video game again. Your music for LEGO UNIVERSE makes me want to play the game (laughs).
BT: Oh good.
SK: Did you not get to see the music with the action of the game until it was finished?
BT: Yeah. Generally they haven’t rendered the scene out and had it in a playable form by the time you really need to start writing. In a sense you're setting the stage for what they are working on. You get descriptions and what the role of the player is supposed to do.
The thing that is different about LEGO UNIVERSE is that there is not a set story. You are not going through it linearly. You hang out in one of the worlds and work on building a little Lego house or go to the store down the road. Everyone is connected in this universe and what everyone is doing affects everyone else. You can keep on doing your thing or interact with other little Lego avatars. You just pick whatever you want just like in life. It's a personalized game.
It’s much more personal than the way a movie’s score can be because you watch the movie and if you love it, you are going to watch it a number of times. Some of these people who are playing this game online are playing it for days on end and they are living in this world. This music all of a sudden becomes a part of their life.
It is a fascinating proposition when a game comes along that I really want to do. There's only so much time in the day so I have to pick my projects carefully but certainly I think that there’s room for some composers to do their best work in this field.
SK: Was this a satisfying project for you?
BT: Yeah, it was really satisfying. The gaming world has a much more kind disposition than Hollywood does at times. Sometimes in Hollywood you can run into some mean personalities that can make things tough. I've found in the gaming world that there are some really great people. My closest friends are people that I work with mostly on films, because I’ve worked mostly in films, but a lot of these gaming people are really down-to-earth nice folks. That's how it was on this game. The fact they trusted me to just run with it, because they do have to trust you a lot when you are scoring a game, it's so open-ended.
SK: Is there room left for music like this in film?
BT: It’s tough. In film you are constantly second guessed unless you have a very special relationship with someone that can clear the room of the different political voices. That can be hard. There are a lot of people that want to give you their opinion on what you should compose. It's certainly hard enough for two people to agree upon what music should be let alone ten all at the same time.
On games you do have a lot more freedom because it doesn't have that machinery in place to dilute a score down.
I guess my analogy would be to painting. If an artist were commissioned to do a painting for someone and were on their own, they may go this way or that way, but the painting at least would be representative of something that that artist wanted to do. If you had someone do a painting by commission and everyone was deciding what color would be good and everyone got their even say, the painting would just be a canvas of beige and there would be nothing left, just a muddled beige mess.
Sometimes you feel like you are fighting against that in film, you are trying to help them help themselves. In gaming it’s a little bit different because they give you that leverage.
I think there are certain situations -- and I have been lucky enough to have some of those relationships -- where you can go in and write what you want in a film. If you can be protected from the machinery then that's the ideal. That's not a reality every time. I think there is room for that in film music but I think it exists on two extreme ends. There are the really small independents where people are making the film for artistic reasons (and there's not a lot of machinery in place to second guess you) and at the far other end of the spectrum, the super-powerhouses like a Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Who is going to question Spielberg's choice to completely trust John Williams to write the score and not hassle him?
It’s very hard. You are always fighting for wanting to do something that is best for the film every time. There’s no other reason for me to be doing this score than to try to help it. It's the eternal struggle as a film composer.
SK: Is your LEGO UNIVERSE music scheduled to be released on CD?
BT: Yes. It is coming out. I still don’t know exactly the particulars of it yet and there are different people that want to release it. I would love it to be released and we are just waiting on a few things. Lego is a big company and they want to make sure that everything gets done in a way that they retain it. I’m doing my best to put a little bit of pressure to try to get it released very soon.
SK: What do you think of the Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score? Any predictions?
BT: I think it’s a really interesting year. You have a wide range. You have the traditional versus the new. I enjoyed every score. I'm glad to see John Powell nominated and certainly THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) was one of my favorite movies of the year. I thought the music was really effective in the film and of course the other nominees are great as well. I really loved INCEPTION (2010). I loved it as a film and I loved it as a score concept and how it went with the film. We’ll see. I really don’t know who is going to win. That’s a tough one.
SK: I think the "X" factor for me is how well THE KING’S SPEECH (2010) does. If it starts sweeping up I think Desplat definitely takes it.
BT: He’s done great work. I think INCEPTION is pretty amazing in terms of music and concept. I thought it was very cool and I thought Nolan was robbed by not getting nominated.
SK: Again! I know. What’s up with that?
BT: I don’t know man. Look...The thing that explains this more than anything is an overall anti-science-fiction bias. Just look through the ages. This is nothing new. It takes directors like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, or whoever it is to do a historical drama in order to win a golden statue. Certainly all of these directors have done some of their finest work in science-fiction and that's all ignored (laughs).
SK: I’d love to see John Powell win. I really liked his score. I don’t think he will though. My bet is on THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010). I think it has that "hip-factor" that will attract votes.
BT: I think so, too.
SK: Unless THE KING'S SPEECH just starts sweeping up which it most certainly could. I generally like all the nominated scores though. There's not one in there that's a head-scratcher.
BT: Right. Exactly. It seems like a good field. We'll see.
SK: I always enjoy talking to you. We'll have to chat again sometime soon. I know you’re busy so thanks for taking the time to talk and let's keep in touch. It was fun.
BT: Will do. We will be talking soon.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News I want to extend my personal thanks to Brian Tyler for taking a break from his insanely hectic schedule to talk with me for so long. These types of casual conversational interviews are few and far between. I relish them.
BATTLE: LOS ANGELES will be released in theaters across the United States on March 11, 2011. Tyler's score will be released on Varese Sarabande Records on March 8, 2011.
Thanks to Michael McCutchen for his transcription help.
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