Composer Tyler Bates was charged with coming up with a sound to match "300"’s unforgettable visuals. The result is a bombastic score — alternately operatic and metal — that is remarkably fitting for the Spartan war story.
By Brent Simon
Much of the advance attention swirling around Zack Snyder‘s "300" — a stirring, violent and visually audacious tale of battlefield sacrifice — has focused on cinematographer Larry Fong’s rotoscoped, consistently evocative camerawork. And rightly so — the movie’s saturated frames and rich shadows look and feel like a comic panel come to life, and feed "300"’s brawny, heightened tone.
Composer Tyler Bates‘ driving, aggressive music, though, reflects the characters’ physical vigor as well as their steadfast dedication to principle. Rotten Tomatoes had a chance to speak with Bates recently, to talk about his second collaboration with "Dawn of the Dead" director Snyder, his overall career path and the challenges of tackling iconic properties. The conversation is excerpted below.
Rotten Tomatoes: People have strong ideas about graphic novels, and "300" captures things so wonderfully visually. What’s it like coming up with a signature sound to match a project for which image matters so much?
Tyler Bates: You know, my greatest ally is my own ignorance when it came to this gig. Because if I had really been cultured in graphic novels prior to "300" and I was really aware of how intense the following was for this stuff, it probably would have had me too much in my head as opposed to really approaching the film from the perspective of what I think would make it a great film experience. Fortunately that didn’t come into play, but I certainly did learn a lot about the esteem of Frank Miller, and how important his work is. In this case it worked for me to be a little bit on the ignorant side, whereas on something like "Halloween" (note: Bates is scoring Rob Zombie’s forthcoming big screen prequel/re-imagination) I’m already aware of how fans are over that original film, and what they think it should be.
RT: To me "300" has an intriguing mixture of orchestral material and aggro, driving rock sound. There’s a few shots where you could almost slap some guitars in those guys’ hands and it wouldn’t seem to be too out of character.
Bates: That’s funny, because Zack rarely if ever makes a musical reference, even a style or anything. I went and saw some of the filming and was involved before they began shooting the film, but when he first got back to L.A. and we sat down and watched the first assembly of the movie, which was almost all blue-screen, he was talking about creating some aggro-rock thing that would make you want to get into a fight. And you know, I don’t like film rock at all. Usually it sucks, it sounds fake to me. It’s usually done by somebody who’s imitating something current or something good. I thought it had to live somehow within the scope of the actual score, you know? So I waited until the end of the scoring process to do all that, because I wanted it to be informed by the rest of the music — more the primal aspects of the percussion. There are no pure guitars in any of that rock stuff, they’re all affected and recorded in an odd way. And there are no snare drums in all of the rock music as well. That was important for me, because a snare drum for whatever reason makes it sound contemporary in a way that says 21st century as opposed to timeless. I mean, I feel it’s contemporized but I don’t think, hopefully, anything strikes you in determining what time period any of the music is. That was the goal, to be somewhat ambiguous as far as referencing anything literally.
RT: You’d worked with Zack before, so I’m assuming there’s a shorthand that goes with that preexisting relationship, but how much time did you have on "300," and how spread out was your involvement?
Bates: Stylistically, we were always in the pocket. I was fortunate enough to work with Zack on the presentation that he was going out to studios with to actually get the film financed. He created an animatic, he actually filmed the pages of the graphic novel and created a two-dimensional cartoon, so to speak. It was narrated by Scott Glenn and I did music for it. And a lot of the overview of what the music is was developed in that first animatic, and I did other ancillary music for that as well. And then once Warner Bros. signed the film on, we got to do a test shoot, because I think both they and Zack felt it was important to illustrate in advance of the principal photography the style of film that he wanted to make. …And through that I got much more involved in the epicness of the film and the heaviness of the rhythms, the battle sequences, all of which helped to define the scope of the sound.
RT: You took an interesting path to composer. What was the switch that flipped and made you want to pursue this as a career?
Bates: It’s kind of funny, music has been my entire life. While I did have a stint managing a trading firm early in my life, on the stock market, music was always my first priority and career. But I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in ’93. I came out here to produce other artists and ultimately formed a partnership with Lisa Papineau. We formed this band Pet and signed to Atlantic Records and everything was going swimmingly. We toured quite a bit and played with a lot of big bands but there were some rock ‘n’ roll clichés that ensued, and it became less than enjoyable to be in that situation.
…So I’d [scored] a number of B-movies when I first moved out to L.A., just to pay my rent — probably 18 to 20 movies, most of which are not really watchable. But there were a few really good experiences in there, and I felt like if I focused on it and worked on how to find myself within the scope of film music as I felt that I had throughout my life as a performer and songwriter, I had a shot at being successful. I think it was after I did "Rated X" with Emilio Estevez — which was such a great experience, because he’s a great guy and talented director — when I decided this is where I’m going to put the focus of my life as my work.