You may not recognize his name or even his face, but chances are, you’ve heard from Brian Tyler before. The Harvard grad is the composer behind some of the more memorable movie scores in recent years, from critical darlings like Partition, to blockbusters like Rambo. This month, Tyler’s work can be heard in the latest installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise — a film that topped the box office just this past weekend. He’s usually found behind the scenes, but we think Tyler deserves a little spotlight, and we asked Casey Bridgers to track him down and find out more about this movie music man.
First, tell us who you are and what you do.
I am Brian Tyler and I am a composer, and I mostly score films. I also play a lot of instruments in my films as well as conducting the orchestra and doing all that. Playing drums, guitar, piano, and percussion…all that stuff.
How did you first become interested in music, and in scores in particular?
The first movie I remember seeing is Star Wars, so that kind of got me interested in how much music can affect the way you see a movie. The music really took me away to another place, and so I started connecting writing music, at a very early age, with movies. At the same time, I was a drummer, and as a kid I played a lot of guitar and drums and things like that, but I started writing music that was kind of film-ic on the piano, which later translated into writing for orchestra.
How many instruments do you know how to play?
Oh my gosh, probably thirty or forty…there’s a bunch. I know bass, guitar, cello, drums, piano, vibraphone, mandolin, harp…I could keep going. I’m not even sure; I’ve never really made a list. I should just walk around my studio and write down all the instruments that are sitting around.
What movie score would you consider your big break into the business?
There’s really a couple. My first movie that was seen was Six String Samurai – a small independent that was a big hit at Sundance. Then my first studio feature was The Hunted for William Friedkin, an Academy Award winner, who directed The French Connection and The Exorcist. That kind of got me in the studio world. So there were two different moments, one for getting in the indie world and one for getting me in the studio world.
Can you describe what your creative process is usually like?
I typically will read the script and talk to the director about what the music ideas in big broad strokes will be. Then I’ll sit down and watch the film once it’s done shooting, and then at that point I’ll watch the film with the director and we’ll do what’s called “spotting.” You just spot the sections where there should be music. Then I start writing themes, just general themes for different characters, themes for different moods; I’ll just kind of go on a rampage of writing music for awhile on the piano or the guitar or whatever instrument just in my head, just thinking what music should be in what place. Like, a movie like Fast And Furious might have rock in some areas and hip-hop in others, and then maybe orchestra and more traditional scores in other places. A movie like Rambo will be grand scenes and big orchestra and things like that. And as I go I just start writing it down. I write all the music for all the instruments. For instance, if it’s orchestra, you’re writing for ninety people. Eventually, I’ll stand in front of the orchestra with all of the music that’s been written out. It’s usually about a few thousand pages of music per movie, for about 80 to 120 minutes of music. Then we mix it all together and we put out the movie and we put out the album. And then I start all over again and do another movie.
You live-track most of your work, right?
I do, even when I’m doing a score that’s considered more electronic. What I like to do is, for instance, if there’s drum loops or programmed stuff, I’ll go in and I’ll live-track the drums and everything first, and then DJ-ify it – chop it up, put it onto vinyl, or do some kind of effect in Pro Tools. Same with keyboards and guitar and all those things – I like to play it manually because I think the human element is so important. I never want to polish out the rough edges and human errors that I think make music cool. So I don’t go into making it too computer-y and making it too exact because I think that makes it end up sounding just kind of soulless.
Do a lot of composers still live-track, or have a lot of them moved to completely digitized scores?
I think it’s both. I think it’s much easier in terms of the scores that are supposed to sound electronic or modern to just do it through digital means. When it comes to using orchestra or things like that, like Danny Elfman does, he live-tracks the orchestra, and I think that’s cool because he keeps the human element alive. If it comes from inside the computer, then I think you run into the danger of reusing sounds that are canned and used by everyone. It can sound a little bit stale. So I think there’s people on both sides. If there were musical political parties, I’m in the political party of live music.
I’ve always heard composers say that if viewers don’t notice the music, they’ve done their job right. Do you think that holds true?
No. I don’t think it’s true, but I don’t think it’s a completely untrue statement. You don’t want to be a distraction. Basically, if you go into a movie and you just play one note super quietly in the background, yeah, no one would notice you, but you definitely did not do your job in that case. I think you’ve done your job as a composer if you’ve gone in and done music that fits seamlessly with the film so that it’s not distracting, but also does its job to enhance the emotion of the theme and can also help tell the story of the movie and enhance the overall experience. Then I think you’ve done your job.
How closely do you work with the rest of the film’s team – the editors, the directors, the actors – everybody else who goes along with the film?
It depends on the film, but very closely with the director. There are studio executives that chime in and let you know what they think of what you’re doing. There are a lot of cooks to please, but your main person is the director. It’s the director’s film and you want to really make sure that vision is served. And often the producers, if they’re creative producers, which I’m fortunate enough to work with, then they’re in the process as well. I do have a lot of friends that are actors and actresses from some of the films I’ve scored, and that’s just kind of by accident. I often am working with a director that I’ve worked with many times before, and so I end up on set just hanging out, and sometimes they’ll stick me in a role – put me in a little part.
What do you hope people will take away with them when they hear your scores and see the films you’ve worked on?
What I hope they take away is just a really memorable experience with the movie. It is kind of cool if they walk away and they’re humming the main tune or main theme from the movie. That’s something that makes me happy. Sometimes at a premiere I will do the infamous “bathroom check,” where you go in and lock yourself into a stall and see if people are whistling or humming the theme to the movie when they’re coming out. And that’s pretty fun because it does happen. It’s quite a kick. Then what you eventually hope they do is go out and buy the soundtrack so they can listen to it themselves and have something away from just a movie that lives on that they can enjoy. That’s really the coolest part, when you hear that people really loved the music and maybe got married to one of your pieces, or they put it on the montage of their high school football game or whatever. When it becomes part of their regular lives, that’s really cool and quite touching at times.
Finally, tell us three movies you think we should see.
A couple of my favorite movies of all time are 2001: A Space Odyssey, This Is Spinal Tap, and Vertigo. That would pretty much keep someone entertained for a long time. As for movies I’ve scored, I can’t pick. You work on them and it becomes something like choosing between children.
- Casey Bridgers