Soundtrax Special Edition
January 10th 2019
By Randall D. Larson
Brian Tyler’s wondrous mix of elegant, heartfelt romantic music and wildly propulsive old school big band jazz for Jon M. Chu’s delightfully spirited romcom CRAZY RICH ASIANS is one of the latest career highlights from the composer noted for richly thematic movie music for such films as IRON MAN 3, THOR: THE DARK WORLD, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, the NOW YOU SEE ME movies as well as THE EXPENDABLES movies and several actioners within the FAST & FURIOUS franchise. Tyler’s career was also highlighted by the announcement last month that his score for CRAZY RICH ASIANS was one of 15 film scores to make the Oscar short-list, from which the official Oscar nominees for best score will be revealed on January 22.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Brian this week and examine the behind-the-scenes efforts that created the CRAZY RICH ASIANS music, as well as the intricate orchestration of found sound that intensified the tension on the new thriller ESCAPE ROOM, the emotive progression of his score for the documentary THE DEVIL WE KNOW, and the retro jazz and funk of his latest score, WHAT MEN WANT. -rdl
- The Sweet, Splendid Swing of CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Q: With CRAZY RICH ASIANS you start out with a lovely romantic theme that treats the romantic
comedy of the film very sweetly, and then out of nowhere comes this wonderful Big Band Swing vibe! What inspired you or director Jon Chu to have such a Big Band-ish influence on the music?
Brian Tyler: The Big Band aspect came up after Jon had shot the movie. Before filming we’d talked about scoring the movie and we outlined things not knowing exactly what it would look like. I came back after shooting and Jon showed me a rough cut of the movie. It was so epic in terms of its throwback style. On the surface it’s a contemporary romantic comedy. In reality it’s more like a romantic drama with comedy, but there’s a throwback, classic feel, like you’d have in a movie from the ‘50s or ’60s. We were talking about ROMAN HOLIDAY and films like that. The vibrant visual style and the colors, it’s more like WEST SIDE STORY and some of the great musicals from that era. And that was surprising, so when I watched it and we talked about it and we thought, “This movie really doesn’t look or feel like a romcon kind of experience. It feels like a throwback, a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie with romance.” So why not write a score that could have been recorded in the 1950s? When the fun, wild, zany kind of heart happens, a movie back then would break into Big Band music. The studio could have easily licensed old Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich and Benny Goodman tunes, and I think most movies would probably do that. But if you license music from that era, the thing that you lose is that you don’t have themes that connect with the rest of the score. I thought it was great that Warner Bros got behind it and Jon was all for the idea of writing new Big Band tunes that sound like they were from the early ‘50s but have themes that cross over with the rest of the score that I wrote.
Q: I also like the way the film took recent or recognizable pop songs and revised them into a mix of modern and old fashioned Big Band, sung by Asian singers in Cantonese. You’ve done a similar thing instrumentally in your score.
Brian Tyler: That was taking some modern but retro pop songs and giving them an Asian flair. By having them sung that way so you would get pulled into the modernity of what Singapore is, which is a modern city that is very cross-cultural. English is its primary language, and there are so many different aspects of Singapore in particular. The same thing happened when it came to recording the score, in a sense. I merged that culture by using all sorts of Chinese instruments that played along with the orchestra. I would have Chinese flutes instead of Western flutes playing in the orchestra, and I would have er-hu’s play the violin parts. Even within some of the Big Band music I would have some Chinese instruments and all of that provided a combination of things that was very unique. A traditional romantic score with Big Band jazz music and Asian instruments all coming together into one score!
Q: An interesting element of the score we haven’t touched on is the villain of the piece, the Michele Yeoh character. How did you treat her as she began to affect and damage the romance between Rachel and Nick?
Brian Tyler: She played the character of Eleanor so well; it’s a very tough role because you’re talking about threading the needle. She needs to be someone who has some room for redemption, but is so caught up with tradition that she is not willing to accept someone who’s not in their circle. It’s a universal tale which I think is told very well, and I think as the viewer we’re basically Rachel, and we’ve all been there, from the outside looking in, “why don’t these people accept me, what is it about me?” Rachel says to her mother early in the movie, knowing she’s going to go meet Eleanor, “But I’m Chinese,” but her mom says “No, you’re different. You’re Chinese American. You may speak Chinese and you have a Chinese face, but inside you’re American.” The music had to describe that, but there also had to be some semblance of possible redemption in there to make her feel more like a realistic nemesis in the film.
Q: What does the Oscar short-list mean for you as a composer? I know it’s a step toward getting a nomination, but where do you go from here?
Brian Tyler: I’m grateful to be on that list, especially when it’s voted on by our peers. I think it’s great that the film is being recognized – it almost didn’t get made, and so it’s an honor to have done the music and it’s really great to see your name come up on an Oscar short-list.
Q: There’s been word of a sequel going around. Is it too early to say if you’re going to be involved in that?
Brian Tyler: We’ve definitely talked about it, so that’s the plan. We’ve got a great team on this film from top to bottom, and we want to go for that magic again, for sure.
2. The Disturbing Drift of ESCAPE ROOM
Q: You’ve returned to the horror/thriller genre with ESCAPE ROOM. What can you tell me about the film and its musical needs?
Brian Tyler: The thing about ESCAPE ROOM is that it had a unique kind of thriller aspect, but at the same time there’s an element of a classic paranoia film. When you’re sitting down to start writing a score, there’s so many directions you can go. The palette is unlimited in terms of what you can use. There’s all this emotion and intensity and suspense going on, but the idea for me was to limit the instrumentation. I wanted to use analog synthesizers from the early ‘80s, and I wanted to use environmental sounds. There was an element of time running out, so I used a lot of ticking clocks and alarms within the music, and then there was this idea of “the other” that’s kind of soulless, as well. For that I used industrial pistons and gears and power tools and things like that for percussion, and I blended that with live grand piano which reflected the humanity of the characters and worked against those pistons and mechanical sounds. That was really the idea behind the score going into it, before even writing a melody. It was setting it up in a way that can be conceptual and mirror the story.
Q: You worked with one of your assistants, John Carey, bringing him in for the first time as a co-composer. How did the two of you collaborate to develop this score?
Brian Tyler: I’ve known John for a long time. He has a great knack for feeling the way a scene should work. We’re both very interested in the way that harmonies work, how chords are voiced, and what type of inversion chords we’ll get if we do this or that. We get very geeky about the compositional aspect of it. Even when we’re talking about pianos we began thinking of using environmental and industrial sounds; gears and machines and things, it was very much like orchestrating. John’s got a great orchestrational mind. He’s really actually mostly a traditional orchestrational composer and that’s really why I chose to work with him on this. I thought it would be interesting – he’s mostly interested in the John Williams and Bernard Herrmann styles, as I am, but I really thought it would be fun for us to team up and apply those same orchestral techniques to things that weren’t traditional orchestra.
Q: How did you use that sonic structure to develop the suspense, horror, and shock moments in the score?
Brian Tyler: There are these moments of suspense and revelation in the movie, and the thing that I really wanted to work with was the idea of time and tempo and pitch. The tempos in this score accelerate and decelerate a lot. The ticking clock is not steady – it often speeds up and so the tempo and chord changes in the music speed up as well. I felt that there would be an unbalance to the score if I could manipulate the pitch, even within a single cue. All of a sudden the pitch starts falling, and the whole cue starts de-tuning. That does a very weird thing to your brain because if you‘re bending between the notes on a piano, in between quarter notes or even bending the whole cue in between keys, up and down, it gives you a sense of unbalance. It was a way to create a sense of disarray and panic. And then when our characters would strike back and begin winning, then it would actually be quite triumphant. So really all these elements – melody, tempo, pitch – are constantly moving. I felt since the movie is really about solving a puzzle, it’s like these three different things are part of this complex three-dimensional sonic Rubik’s Cube, and the score is always moving and you’re always trying to follow it but it keeps on slipping away from you…
Q: Those bending notes you referred to, is that in effect something like a Shepard Tone or is that something else?
Brian Tyler: Yes, in fact I used Shepard Tones in the score quite a lot. The main theme has them throughout the piece. And then, also, I would subtly detune maybe one of the pitches in a chord progression and it would start drifting downward and then it wouldn’t match the rest of the ensemble. It was all a way to keep the audience off balance and maintain quite an unsettling atmosphere.
- The Emotive Eloquence of THE DEVIL WE KNOW
Q: The documentary film, THE DEVIL WE KNOW, details a group of citizens in West Virginia who take on a powerful corporation after they discover it has knowingly been dumping a toxic chemical into the local drinking water supply. How did you develop your ideas of what the music should be?
Brian Tyler: It’s interesting. With a score like this it’s deceptively difficult to come up with a theme that fulfills two different criteria. One is the threat of this eco-disaster that has happened right under our noses, and at the same time there is the hope and human aspect of the event. Those tones typically run counter to one another, but I wanted to come up with a main theme that would capture both. I tried to think of it like the lone voice in the storm. There’s a cyclical kind of minimalist nature to some of the repeated phrasing in the background, which is kind of the dark side of the story, but then the melody that almost overwhelms it reflects the human aspect and the hope for a better tomorrow. I wanted to do it with strings and piano and electronics, in a way that had much more of a chamber musical feel – a tight kind of sound that really affects this true story of something that I don’t think a lot of people were aware of.
Q: Something that a lot of documentaries are doing these days that they didn’t fifteen or twenty years ago is that allowing the music to reflect an emotional semblance, rather than simply serving as an aloof observer to what’s being told in the film. Was it tough to walk the line between supporting the emotional factor of this film versus staying impartial to the story that’s being told?
Brian Tyler: My job is to support the emotion of what’s going on in the movie from scene to scene, as well as the complete tapestry when it’s all put together. I’ve never really overanalyzed it, in terms of how far to push the emotion. I just do what’s honest, to me. I’m not approaching the score from a sense of being worried about a possible negative; I lean into the score and just try to make something that I think is honest and fits the emotion of the movie. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing defense and hiding the music in a corner, because it’s always safer to just do a sustain for a whole scene because how can someone criticize that? I understand that being a temptation but it is something that I’ve completely ignored through my entire career! I really feel that I just want to lean into the scene, and the music, when it’s there, should be saying something. I’ve never been a fan of subliminal wallpaper music. There have been some great moments in films where there’s no music at all. But if the music is going to be there, it should support the scene and speak through the scene, even in a documentary film. That’s a working philosophy that I’ve held to because it makes the most sense to me, naturally.
- The Thoughtful Throwbacks of WHAT MEN WANT
Q: You’ve also recently finished scoring WHAT MEN WANT, which is a gender reversal of the 2000 Mel Gibson film WHAT WOMEN WANT.
Brian Tyler: For this score, initially [director] Adam Shankman and I talked about doing something that was quite different. We were thinking that it probably would be closer to a CRAZY RICH ASIANS style of score, but it actually ends up being a cousin of that. The main character, she’s very strong but also very vulnerable at the same time; she’s struggling with a lot of life decisions when she happens upon this crazy supernatural ability to hear the thoughts of other people. But it’s told in a way that is really relatable. The vibe that I went for ended up being a kind of throwback quartet jazz with saxophone, piano, upright bass, and jazz drums, but much more pared down than CRAZY RICH ASIANS was. This was more of a soloistic type of thing within a jazz idiom. It also goes into a lot of funk and throwback soul music that’s really from the ‘70s as well as a bit of throwback to the 1990s in the style of the music. Some of it we recorded as if we were making a record from the ‘70s or the ‘90s. In that way we weren’t going for the traditional orchestral Hollywood score, this has a different twist on it, a very different vibe, musically. I’ve never done anything like it.
Q: Kind of akin to source-music-as-score except that it’s your original music?
Brian Tyler: Sort of, but they’re all thematically tied together. What’s really cool when you get to do that, it ends of being almost more like a musical, because in musicals you can do modern music, throwback music, whatever, but the thing that remains in a musical is that you have recapitulation of themes. In that sense, this is tried and true of any kind of programmatic music, from operas to Brahms to you-name-it. When you have repeated themes and restatements of musical ideas, regardless of what kind of superficial style that dress the music in, at the heart you want the music to speak and the scenes to speak. That’s something I’m a big proponent of in writing original music that’s thematic, regardless of genre.