At the Precipace We Change: Tyler Bates’ Music To Make The Earth Stand Still
Tyler Bates’ has crafted a primarily dissonant, pulsating, and edgy score for the 2008 interpretation of the classic science fiction cautionary tale, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, one that is well in keeping with director Scott Derrickson’s epic of near-cataclysmic destruction while also sharing the film’s sense of humanity and harmony. Bates’ aggressive score carries the film – and we the viewer – to the precipice of annihilation but, musically emphasizing that same sense of shared harmony and a human spirit shed of its cruelty, allows us to achieve redemption.
Tyler Bates came to Los Angeles from Chicago in 1993, where he had grown up writing, recording, and playing in local rock bands. His first scoring assignment was for Adam Rifkin’s low-budget sci-fi thriller called PSYCHO COP 2. That led to additional scoring assignments for movies of the same ilk, mostly independent affairs like TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994, aka: TEENAGE T-REX), BALLISTIC (1995), and Roger Corman’s ALIEN AVENGERS (1996). Bates bounced between film scoring and touring with his rock band, Pet, until being on the road became tiresome and he began to miss the opportunities to create music in the studio. Getting back into film, Bates scored a wide variety of movies: the remade action thriller, GET CARTER (2000), the up-tempo of WHAT’S THE WORSE THAT COULD HAPPEN? (2001), the crime drama LOVE AND A BULLET (2002), and the disturbing DAWN OF THE DEAD remake (2004). His association with Snyder led to his massive score for 300 (2006) and his music for Snyder’s interpretation of WATCHMEN, due out next May.* Bates also has maintained an ongoing collaboration with Rob Zombie, scoring the director’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), his 2007 HALLOWEEN remake, the WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE S.S. trailer for GRINDHOUSE, and the recently completed HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO (2009). Bates has also scored the TV series CALIFORNICATION, James Gunn’s horror pic SLITHER (2006), and Neil Marshall’s post-apocalyptic DOOMSDAY (2008).
After Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and Zombie’s HALLOWEEN, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is the latest and largest big budget remake that Bates has had the opportunity – and challenge – to score.
“It seems like a lot of the films I work on kind of carry that weight!” Bates acknowledged. “The expectation of what the music should be for many of the films I do is probably something that’s next to impossible to satiate for most of the fans, but you can’t let that get in your head. What you have to do is get a feeling for what the film itself is – not what the idea of the film is but what the film itself is, and for one, do the best thing you can for the film, and, two, serve the director’s vision. Really, that’s how I have to approach it.”
Bates came into DAY after Derrickson had been attracted to his previous scores – although perhaps not the ones one might immediate imagine. “Strangely enough, DEVIL’S REJECTS and SLITHER had the most profound effect on him, of my work!” Bates said. “It was cool!”
In this case, however, Bates was up against tremendous competition from the score of the original classic film. The music by Bernard Herrmann for the 1951 version of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is one of the most significant, influential, and iconic science fiction soundtrack efforts of all time. Its use of Theremin (long with the same year’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, scored by Dimitri Tiomkin) was groundbreaking and forever associated the instrument with science fiction; Herrmann’s brilliance in crafting sonic structures and melodic ambiances resulted in a score that is nearly impossible to replicate.
Bates realized he shouldn’t even try. “I can’t think to myself, Oh my god, Bernard Herrmann did the original! I don’t expect to ever exist in a paradigm close to his stature, so I can’t even think about that. I think that would end up setting me backwards. My approach was just to get into it and understand what Scott wanted to communicate, because obviously there is a consciousness about the film and its message that is slightly different than that of the original, which you kind of have to expect, fifty-seven years ago. Frankly, I think most of the people who will go to see THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL won’t even realize that it’s a remake.”
Instead of trying to emulate Herrmann, Bates recognized that he is scoring Scott Derrickson’s interpretation of the Robert Wise classic, which is a different film with a different tone and a different sensibility. “We got this on HALLOWEEN when Rob Zombie and I did that,” said Bates. “People revere an original property and feel that it’s sacred, but frankly, there’s a good story to be retold, as it applies to the climate of the world now. If that’s something beyond the scope of a person’s ability to take in, on a new level, without necessarily using the original as a criteria for whether or not they’re going to enjoy it, then they probably shouldn’t bother themselves with it.”
Bates’ resultant score is a potent and cataclysmic evocation of a subtle and ultimately benevolent invasion of the earth by a higher intelligence. The score characterizes both the epic-level awesomeness of such a concept and the inevitable menace of that visiting presence through a tonality of clearly restrained synthetic power and a pulsing, relentless assuredness of purpose.
It’s not a thematic score, with recognizable themes resurfacing from time to time. The music is derived from an ambient movement that is replicated, developed, looped, restructured, and regenerated throughout the score. It’s the feeling of the cue that is built upon to create the various atmospheres that are culled together to form the cohesive sonic structure.
“The impetus for what the score would be came about from watching them film a couple scenes with Keanu and Jaden Smith up in Vancouver,” Bates recalled. “I came back to L.A. and was just experimenting and trying to create a feeling on my GuitarViol. It was not intended to be the score. I just happened to record this one passage into my computer and a couple months later when Scott came over I played it for him and asked what he thought of it. His eyes lit up and he said, ‘I think that’s the score!’ Well, it presented an incredible problem for me because the actual piece had a sound that I couldn’t replicate; it wasn’t in time; it was a little distorted, and it was harmonically very rich. So it posed some restrictions, but he stuck to wanting me to base the score off the feeling of the movement in this little loop that I created.”
Bates managed to replicate that sensibility and develop it into a full score. “It turned out to work out really well and it spawned a number of thematic ideas for the film,” he said. “But my goal was to bring some human spirit to the music, and that was a challenge. Keanu has appeared in so many genre roles of this nature, that I also wanted to feel like it was definitely a new experience with him as an actor in this role, so it was a matter of also creating an environment that I hadn’t quite experienced with him on screen. That took some handiwork and experimentation with electronic development.”
Bates also made sure he included a Theremin in his roster of orchestral rolling stock for the DAY score. “We had to include the Theremin!” Bates grinned. “But it’s not so much a literal expression of the Theremin, as in the original. It’s used throughout the score very richly as far as textures are concerned. A lot of the ghostly ambiances throughout the film are layers of Theremin performances. There’s also some melodic stuff, but you sometimes can’t quite tell the difference between the Theremin and our solo vocalist, Nan Vernon, so it’s been kind of interesting.”
Singer Nan Vernon was called in provide an organic vocal texture – not songs but wordless singing – which is not always obvious when the score is heard; however, the sound of her voice, as with the Theremin, lends a strikingly subliminal texture. “Nan transcends the term ethereal,” Bates said. “It’s not something she has to conjure up; it’s just her state of being! She’s a fan of the original movie so when I talked to her about it she was just very happy to get involved.”
Bates use of Vernon’s vocal recordings, like his incorporation of the Theremin, underscores some of the more emotional moments of the film – as in the scene between Jaden Smith and Jennifer Connelly at the military cemetery. “Nan is able to do that without being poignant,” said Bates. “I don’t think the vocal is ever truly a solo or lead instrument, but she’s definitely enhancing the orchestra in expressing certain counter melodies to what the strings are often playing. She’s definitely brought more of the authentic ethereal sort of otherworldly quality to the music.”
In addition to the pervasive atmospheres associated with Klaatu and the potential danger of his presence on Earth, Bates’ music has characterized the heart of the Jennifer Connelly character through whose eyes much of what transpires is filtered for the audience. This material begins to appear about half way through, as the alien’s decision that “If the human race dies, the Earth survives” begins to acquiesce to the awareness that humanity can, as John Cleese’s scientist opines, change at the precipice of destruction. This musical material is more serenely reflective in its sustained tonality and quiet measures, evoking sympathy and a benevolence of purpose that is contrapuntal to the pervasive dissonance of Klaatu’s or G.O.R.T.’s music, even though both styles are part of a whole in his musical approach.
“For the most part the score is driven by the character of Helen, played by Jennifer Connelly,” said Bates. “She is, as the film begins, unrelated to the story, going through a series of personal challenges, emotionally and whatnot, in her life, so what’s going on with her is already an emotional element in the score. And then she’s also a scientist, so her connection with Klaatu is one of wonderment and awe as well as dread, because I think there’s nobody who understands, more than her, what’s really potentially going to happen in the film. The thing was to try and not necessarily oversell Klaatu as the bad guy. G.O.R.T. is more than threatening presence, and one that we’re not quite certain what’s going on with. The cards are always face down with that character in the film.”
Bates treated G.O.R.T. menacing ambiguity and immense power with layers of dark and heavy atmospheric music. “At one point, G.O.R.T. is restrained in a flash chamber, and before that goes wrong, there’s a sense of some impending doom.” Bates’ recognized that there’s an inherent cliché in underlining the obvious doom and gloom of that scene, but avoided that by including in his harmonic approach the same kind of flowing chords that emphasized the Helen material. “We didn’t want to make a cartoon of this movie, so most of the dynamics are steeped in human emotions,” said Bates. “I’m not really trying to oversell the outer space elements.”
The music for DAY, consequently, begins with the human story and then layers all these other elements on top of that, but without losing the initial humanity. The score works in harmony with that sensibility, with a depth to its sonic textures and progressive structure. One moment, for example, when the scientists are initially gathered and brought to Central Park to investigate the landing of the Orb, burbles of electronics and sustained string harmonies create a sinewy chord of apprehensive inquisition, dramatically but quietly underlining Connelly’s character’s question, “Did you hear that?” As the group encounters the swirling Orb, the music opens into an exuding harmony of synths, strings, and choir that is unmistakably unearthly and movingly powerful. Later in the film, when Klaatu’s Orb rises and all power and movement on the planet stops for a short time and the film achieves its title, Bates’ provides a rising cadence of grandiose eloquence that builds through surging symphonics punctuated by a subtle use of synth stingers and a massive choir intonation, emphasizing the cosmic importance of the sequence.
The score as a whole may be characterized by its overall sense of dissonance and orchestral onslaught, but its lynchpins are these moments that speak to the heart of humanity – Connelly’s music and that of the changed Klaatu, recognizing that, on the precipice of destruction, there is hope for humanity – providing the music’s motivic (if not thematic) unity. Bates develops his score progressively by riffing on these motifs, and culminates it in a very satisfying gathering of atmospheric development that retains the sense of largess coupled with elements of introspection.
It’s a powerful and climactic science fiction score. We can only wait to see what he comes up with for WATCHMEN in May.*
- The WATCHMEN’s intended May release may be in doubt since a court has ruled in favor of 20th Cnetury Fox’s contention that they – not Warner Brothers, which produced the film – owns the U.S. distribution rights. Read more here.