Musician and composer Tyler Bates has been making music for movies and television for many decades, but his work has become far more prominent working with the likes of Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde), Chad Stahelski (John Wick), and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween).
A few years back, Bates came on board to score filmmaker Ti West‘s yet-to-be-named horror trilogy that began earlier in 2022 with X, continued with Pearl in September, and will conclude next year with MaXXXine. All three A24 films star Mia Goth, although she plays a dual role in X that becomes far more interesting as we learn more about one of the characters in Pearl.
The scores for the two films are very different from each other, as X involved a lot more sound design and female vocals (provided by Bates’ musical collaborator, Chelsea Wolfe), while the score for Pearl is reminiscent of an old-school Hollywood production, with lush orchestral passages that veer far away from anything one might expect from a modern genre film.
Bates also has a thriving career as a musician, music producer, and recording artist himself, so he has a busy schedule and we’re grateful that he was able to make some time to hop on Zoom and speak to Below the Line for the following conversation.
Below the Line: How and when did Ti reach out to you about scoring X and Pearl, and were you aware of his plan to make two — now three — movies back to back?
Tyler Bates: Years ago, Ti and I did The Sacrament, which was around 2013-2014. We had a great experience working together and stayed loosely in touch over the years. He got in touch with me about X. It was during COVID, and he was in New Zealand setting X up. As we delved deeper into that conversation, he let me know that he and Mia Goth wrote a prequel to X and [were] hoping that A24 would be receptive to making [Pearl] sequentially, since they already had the sets and the crew, and it would be not only cost-effective but really creatively advantageous to have that sort of continuity.
So, lo and behold, a couple of weeks later, he gave me the word and sent me the script, and I was absolutely blown away by Pearl. X I thought was great, too, and it was a tremendous opportunity just because of [the] timing. I was working with Chelsea Wolfe, and Ti and I were talking [about the] concept [of] X, and that led to maybe somewhat of an experimental, avant-garde, vocal-centric-type score with atmospheres and unsettling sounds that might prick your brain a little bit. That’s the dumbing down, I guess, of our conversation [laughs].
Pearl, I thought, was very interesting because A24 had told him that they were not only into it, [but] they wanted to release it the same year as X, which is a pretty rare occasion for a director to have two films released in the same year, especially with the same studio. And then, Pearl came out beautifully, I thought, and that’s when MaXXXine was introduced. We weren’t done with Pearl yet when Ty mentioned the prospect of MaXXXine, and sure enough, that was greenlit as well. I thought it was cool that they were able to drop a little Easter egg or advertisement at the end of Pearl to let you know that the story is not complete yet.
I think Ty is such a fantastic creator. He’s really put the work in to become an excellent technician, as well as an artist, so he can, I think, most articulately express what he has to say as an artist, as a writer, as a director, and [as] an excellent editor, and I can tell you that because, as a composer, when beyond my subjective taste, you can tell when you’re writing music for a film that’s well-edited because the music just joins the picture naturally. It’s rarely a fight to make the music simpatico with the picture and to find its place in the overall sonic landscape of a film. With these movies, that aspect was simple. Obviously, the creative challenge is always a high mark, and Ti is so invested, that as a composer — and I imagine any of his collaborators — we all really dig as deeply as we can to help him truly manifest his vision as an artist.
All that stuff, I think, is really rewarding. The Sacrament was just a taste of that. X was a huge leap from that because it was apparent how much Ti had grown in that time, and then, our relationship as collaborators and friends had [also] grown [that] much more close. The dirty work was easier to get into it, but I can’t say enough about how cool of an experience it’s been to have those projects, especially coming out of the bizarreness of the COVID lockdown era, if you will. That was really great to experience with Chelsea Wolfe on X and my friend, Tim Williams, [who’s] my co-composer on Pearl. He’s fantastic, and we’re like brothers, so it’s always fun to get into it with close friends.
BTL: What was the timing like, as far as writing and recording the music for X versus doing the same for Pearl? Was there any crossover? I’m just curious when you actually started on Pearl…
Bates: The green light for Pearl — I mean, the actual green light — turned it into a last-second, “We need to get it done now” kind of project. X, we had a bit more time to cultivate the sound and an opportunity for Chelsea and I to establish that side of our working creative relationship. We’d worked on music in a song format prior to then for the Dark Knights Death Metal soundtrack I did over COVID. That one was much more drawn out, I think, because Ty was shooting Pearl during the editorial process of X, and we’d already begun scoring writing samples of music prior to filming. Obviously, the dailies that were shared with us would inform that writing, and we’d continue to develop our conceptual ideas. That was definitely drawn out a lot more, but Ti literally just dug into Pearl, edited it, sent me a locked picture, and said, ‘Hey, we need this now.’
This is a very time-intensive concept, to write a score like this and then produce it. We just [had] to figure out all the logistics. Fortunately, A24 came to the table and did all they could to assist us in producing the product, if you will, the score, because it did require an extensive amount of orchestral recording, which was certainly not in the budget. I don’t think that was clearly discussed when the movie was greenlit, but then, Ti is a great salesperson for his ideas, and they were on board, and they supported Tim and my effort to bring that score to life. It was great, and [it] happened top to bottom in about three months, tops.
BTL: I’ve spoken to many composers during COVID, and many of them switched to doing more synth-based scores, just because it was easier to do on their own vs. the orchestral scores, which would require hiring orchestras in Bulgaria. By the time you were able to record the score for Pearl, were you able to record in L.A.?
Bates: We couldn’t record in LA, and that has nothing to do with Ti. We composers have no power in that equation. With a lot of the films, there’s an issue with the union contract here in LA, and so, therefore, we have to go elsewhere. On big films, it is not the greatest thing to leave L.A. at the most intense part of your process, to go record orchestra in London, which oftentimes is the case for us. Because there were still a lot of travel issues [and] logistical issues, at the time, we figured Nashville would be the place we would do it. Nashville, basically, has a stronghold on the video gaming music industry because the musician’s union here, the local 47, has not figured out a way to make it work here in Los Angeles. It’s just such a shame because there are so many musicians here who would otherwise be employed if they figure that out. Nonetheless, the people in Nashville really performed well for us. It took a minute but they got the syntax of the score — because it’s not a modern contemporary-style score. It’s an homage to the Hollywood Golden Era, something that Tim really loves, and I really love it, too. Greg Prechel, who helped us out on the score, he’s very familiar with that, too.
It was fun to be ensconced in that, knowing that there are very few movies that would ever even broach that approach to a score these days. The funny thing is that on larger-scale films — you mentioned synthesizers, I love synthesizers, it’s been a huge part of my life [laughs] — but I find it to be even more challenging to create a large-scale score as a purely synth score. There are so many frequencies you’re experimenting with and managing to try and not only work as music, but to work for the film and to complement the dialogue and just fit. With the orchestra, the instruments are all somewhat harmonically-proven. We know that these food groups really go together, so the writing is always a challenge. I’ve run the full gamut of scores, from melodic, orchestral scores to noise. Really, with Rob Zombie, The Devil’s Rejects is one of my favorite scores, but it’s pure modular synthesis, [just] experimental noise, which is fun. Now, that was a lot of work, that movie, but I still love it.
BTL: I love both of these scores for different reasons. Sometimes, I’m in the mood for something like the X score and the mood that creates, but sometimes, I love the big orchestral stuff, too. You seemed to deliberately avoid the Bernard Hermann route and made this gorgeous classic film score, more like Gone with the Wind. If you were to listen to it separately from Pearl, it wouldn’t even seem like a horror score.
Bates: I know [Pearl] has some violence in it, but I don’t consider it a horror movie. I consider it more like a psychodrama. The way Ti makes the movies, it’s not that we need to double down on what we’re seeing necessarily. There’s always a duality to the characters in these stories, a deeper dimension than we may just take at face value. And so, therefore, especially with Pearl, it was never a requirement that the music says, “Ooh, this is scary.” Obviously, there are tense moments, there are emotional moments, and [there are] some moments that are wistful and playful. But yeah, there was no need to do that, and I think that’s the sign of a confident filmmaker — really understanding what the point of the music in the film is all about. It’s not just there, because it adds energy to a scene that would otherwise be dry. There is absolute, dramatic motivation for why the music is there. So, when that’s clear, it’s very much an enjoyable experience for a composer to dig into the storytelling process with the director.
As you can tell, the movie is already just loaded with music by the time you ever see it as a composer. Oftentimes, in my opinion, that comes from seeing one scene at a time and just seeing how music impacts it. It’s almost like it turns the lights on, for emotions and dynamics and drama, but when you watch a movie in sequence, if you remove music from certain scenes when they really don’t need it, it empowers other scenes as far as the role that music can play in that storytelling. Each director I work with has their [own] unique approach, and for me, it’s a Rubik’s cube to try and solve.
BTL: I’ve spoken to Ti a bunch over the years, including earlier this year for X, but I’m not sure we’ve ever actually spoken about music, which is rare for me. How is his knowledge of music? Is he pretty well-versed?
Bates: He’s very well-versed in music, but he’s not one to try and impart that upon you. You can have a great conversation with Ti about music. It’s very apparent that he knows what he’s talking about and has well-cultured and researched opinions about music. Doesn’t mean that we have to agree about everything that we love and don’t love, but it’s really great to have a conversation with him about music in great detail. He knows, absolutely, what he’s talking about. He is a true cinephile [who] understands film score beyond John Williams — who, of course, is a brilliant genius of our industry. [But] he understands the stuff at the back of the book because he’s gone to that great length of appreciating and understanding every aspect of filmmaking. For me, it’s empowering, and it makes the experience a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed these two films with Ti, and I really look forward to seeing what we can cook up for MaXXXine.
BTL: When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that you were writing music in advance for Zack Snyder before he started filming Watchmen, and you mentioned that was the case with X as well. Is that also true with Ti, since he edits his own movies? Do you try to do that sort of thing so he has something in advance to cut to or does he just use temp music before you get involved?
Bates: No, what we try to do is create, say, it’s either samples or a suite of music… if it’s a more thematically-driven score, then maybe I’ll come up with one of the primary themes and create a suite of music that shows it in various dynamics and emotional statements. I try to do that. It’s not always possible, depending on my availability at the time the director is ready. Our schedules as composers are never finite. My schedule next year is booked, yet every single aspect of it will have variables that could change the schedule. Sometimes, composers who would rather have an even flow of work will have a busy period, a pause, and then it’s just bedlam, and you’re in triage mode, just trying to make your way through it, because there were a couple of snags in production or animation, especially coming out of COVID. That’s impacted animation greatly. I just finished a project, also with Tim Williams, that was delayed over a year because of issues with animation studios during COVID. It turned out great, but nonetheless, it impacts your schedule. If you try and plan any aspect of your life, you’re almost certainly going to come up against some unexpected interference.
Back to your point, I do try and create something that is the musical language, so that by the time we get into post-production, even if a director is working with temp music, or what have you, we can reference our music, conceptually. Even if we don’t have enough of it to really start temping out the movie, we can reference that as the restaurant we’re eating at for the movie, and work from there, and start building out chunks of score that can then further the discussion. Through that process, you also come to know what actually does work for the movie and what doesn’t, because it’s one thing to conceptualize it prior to filming, but it doesn’t always turn out the way you imagine. Once you film it, the actors, performances, and the timbre of their voices and the way those interact harmonically in a sequence of a movie are variables that have to be considered when you really lay into it. We just stay open-minded and try to solve the puzzle as it comes to us
BTL: I’m curious about working with your two collaborators on these two movies. I know you’ve been working with Tim going back to 300, so let’s talk about Chelsea first. When you knew X was happening, what made you think of her to create that very vocal-driven score for it?
Bates: Especially with singers and vocalists, I do like to work with people who have a career outside of film music and television music because oftentimes, from doing those types [of] gigs over and over again, people oftentimes get trained to not dig down into the deepest depths of their toolkit. They’re more of a last-second color element to a lot of scores. They’re really asked to just deliver the most basic aspect of their talents. With Chelsea, I was really drawn to her music and asked her to work with me on a track for the Dark Knights Death Metal soundtrack I did with DC Comics and Loma Vista records. It was literally a project that came into perspective right before the COVID lockdown, but then it was a saving grace for me, mentally, during COVID.
Getting to know Chelsea, she stated to me how much she loves film and would one day love the opportunity to be involved in a film score. When Ti and I started talking about X and a vocal-centric concept, me knowing how well-versed Chelsea is as an artist and a musician, I just thought she would be fantastic. I believe that she is very comfortable with abstract concepts and inventive in that field as well. Once Ti really checked her out, he thought that would be a great idea, and eventually, we were all on Zoom together, and Chelsea and her music partner, Ben Chisolm, [were] part of the equation, and we had a great time doing it.
BTL: Was that “Oui Oui Marie” song something of hers from one of her records or was that something she wrote specifically for X? [Note: The following response includes a spoiler for X.]
Bates: The original is like an old vaudevillian song that Ti wrote into the script of X, so Chelsea interpreted it one way for a scene, and it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for [for] the scene. The scene is that segment where Pearl dances in the headlights after the demise of RJ [laughs], so Blue Oyster Cult fades, and then “Oui Oui Marie” takes over. We loved the version that Chelsea had done so much, I’d spoken to Ty about it being an end-credit song. That’s where the first impression of that wound up, and then, drawing much more from the palette of the score, Chelsea did the version of “Oui Oui Marie” that is the headlights version in the film. It’s definitely a mixed bag of sounds that we created, and then her performance is very distinctly crafted for that sequence.
BTL: There are a lot of X easter eggs in Pearl and that could be one of them. Are there any other musical easter eggs between the two movies that someone might only notice by listening to the two scores back-to-back?
Bates: No, not really. More in the conceptual material that Ti wrote with Mia into the script, which… oh my god, what an amazing year for Mia Goth. I mean, her acting is so fantastic, and then to come on to Pearl with Ti and co-write that with him and then star in that film the way she did was really impressive and inspiring. The Easter eggs were really left up to Ti. I would say I know [even] less about MaXXXine than I did Pearl. I’ve read it. It’s amazing. It’s a totally different kind of experience, but I think people are gonna love that movie. I really am cautious about talking too much about it [laughs].
BTL: I know that Ti prefers keeping things secret, given how few people knew Pearl was in the can before it was announced as part of the Venice Film Festival in August. By the way, who comes up with the names for the cues on the soundtrack? Is that you or Ti, or both of you? There were some funny track titles on there…
Bates: Usually, I will, and then, on X, it was a combo with Chelsea and I, then I’ll submit the program for the soundtrack to Ti and ask for any of his insights because ultimately, he is the guy who has written the material. It’s always interesting to see how someone else actually even responds to the music in that way. I’ve done that in the past. Zack Snyder [and] James Gunn will have some suggestions for the soundtrack titles if they’re inspired to do so. It’s a combination platter with all of us.
BTL: One of the things I’m looking forward to with MaXXXine is the music, obviously. For Pearl, there seemed to be one cue featuring electric piano that felt like it was inspired by The Doors. Was that an aspect of X that you wanted to create without just having needle drops like, as you said, Blue Oyster Cult?
Bates: That’s my favorite Blue Oyster Cult song. I’ve broached scoring porn sequences in films before — not actual porn, [but] near-porn, for sure, especially in my days of doing Corman movies. Even in The Devil’s Rejects, there’s a sequence in there. I’m not unfamiliar with the genre, so I’ve listened to a lot of it. I actually do have friends here in town who just to help support themselves, [and] pay rent and stuff 25 years ago, they were writing cues for porn movies and whatnot. We also wanted the music in X not to be straight-up “waka waka, ha ha,” where you’re laughing at the picture. We wanted it to have some depth and to create a little bit of an emotional space that would hopefully transcend to the audience exactly how we were feeling about it.
Really, if you look at the characters in that film, they don’t look down on it. A couple of them need to cross a river before they do accept it completely for what it is, and I think that’s part of one of the most intriguing elements of X. What it does is it asks us, “What are we really saying when we judge?” I mean, porn is the most mainstream thing on the planet, yet it’s taboo. We’re uncomfortable with our own relationship with it. That’s why we judge it. I think it’s that way about a lot of things in life that we’re not entirely comfortable with because maybe society says it’s not acceptable.
BTL: First of all, porn used to have better music than it does now.
Bates: They did!
BTL: I’m actually not sure if it even has music anymore.
Bates: ‘Let’s forget about it. We don’t have time for music,’ right? Half the music that’s out there in the world doesn’t even have time for music. But yeah, it was all live players back in the day, for the most part, until the ’80s. I think there is something that’s human and soulful about it, even if it seems a little campy [and] kooky and what-not. There are people that got together and played music for those movies, and I think there’s something that is to be said for whenever that happens, where there’s a group of people playing any music together in a recording studio. I think it’s really special.
BTL: Before I let you go, I want to make you the guinea pig for a new question I’m going to ask composers. What was the last great score you heard in a movie? And it can’t be one of your own.
Bates: Nowadays, there is so much good music, it’s hard to even say. I’ve been watching a lot of TV that’s been great. The score for The Old Man is great — that’s T-Bone Burnett and Patrick Warren. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis‘ [score for] Blonde, I thought, was really fantastic. I can go down the line. There are so many good scores out there to TV shows and films these days. Marcelo Zarvos on American Gigolo, great. It’s really good, and he’s very talented anyway. I think you’re gonna find some of the greatest music in the character-study-type projects. I do like horror films too because there’s always a chance to be inventive and also to write some emotional theme that is really resonant. There’s a lot of inventiveness and invention and risks being taken in horror films, and I think more and more in some of the episodic television. Mostly streamers, obviously, you can go a little bit wilder out there, but I think it’s a very inspiring time for music in filmed entertainment.
BTL: I didn’t even realize at first that was Nick and Warren’s score on Blonde even though I know they’ve done a lot with Andrew Dominik over the years…
Bates: Also, what I love is [that] there is a connection to the music that Nick Cave writes for film and his personal music [that] he performs. It’s not a completely different hat. It’s an extension of who he is as an artist, and I think that’s phenomenal that he’s managed to manifest that dimension of his career and still maintain that strong signature of who he is as an artist. Again, I find that to be really inspiring.
Both X and Pearl are available to buy or rent on VOD, as well as on Bluray and DVD. X is also streaming on both Hulu and Prime Video.