Red Stewart chats with composer Will Bates…
Will Bates is an English composer who has been working in the film and television industry since the late 2000s. Though known initially for his compositions for documentary features, he has since earned praise for his work on acclaimed television shows like The Magicians and The Path. His most recent scores are for the Hulu exclusive series The Looming Tower and NBC’s musical drama series Rise.
Flickering Myth had the chance to interview him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
I want to talk about your recent work on The Looming Tower, but also your filmography in general because it’s absolutely impressive. I’m seeing things on your IMDB page that I’ve watched but never realized it was the same person.
Oh thank you, that’s cool to hear.
In the last few years you’ve been doing a lot of television. What’s the difference for you as a composer between scoring for a streaming service like Hulu vs a basic cable channel like Syfy?
It’s really in the service of the story. I tend not to think too much about where it’ll end up, if that makes sense. It doesn’t make a huge difference for me. I guess when it starts to make a difference is when it gets released, like this whole thing of three episodes coming out at once on Hulu versus the weekly nature of cable TV. Generally, it means that the workflow is spread out a little bit more when it’s broadcast weekly, whereas with The Path and The Looming Tower, it was always a bit of a crunch to get those two done. So I guess in that respect it’s different, but to me it’s always about the work and the story.
No I understand. But what about the budget? Because I know streaming services tend to have a bigger budget due to their subscription fees, whereas cable is mostly relying on advertisements.
Yeah, on my end it doesn’t really make a huge difference. The big thing financially is the residuals. Royalties are obviously better on cable shows because I feel like most of the performing rights organizations haven’t quite figured out how to collect on streaming yet. I know that they’re in the process of trying to do so, but royalties generally tend to do more with international sales. For example, Chance was broadcast on Sky in the UK whereas it was on Hulu over here. So I would get royalties based on the international rate, not necessarily on the domestic.
Oh that’s very interesting. I didn’t realize that streaming services haven’t been adapted to the established standards yet.
Yeah, like I said, I think this process is still sorting itself out. But as far as I know, the moment is still a little bit nebulous.
So you mentioned The Looming Tower, and that’s the biggest project you’ve done recently. But one thing I noticed in your career is that you’ve worked on a lot of documentaries. And I was wondering, given that The Looming Tower is based off of a nonfiction book and depicts real-life events, is there something about the genre of nonfiction that appeals to you personally as a composer over fiction?
I tend to treat documentaries in the same way that I treat narratives. To me, it’s still the cinematic approach. And funny enough, I’m not sure if you made the connection, but one of the executive producers on The Looming Tower is Alex Gibney, and that was how I was introduced to the project cause he and I have done a lot of work in the past.
But he’s a good example of a documentarian whose approach is quite cinematic, and he’s always encouraged me to be cinematic in my approach to writing the score. And those projects are so interesting to me anyway because there’s so much music and they have to really vary stylistically, and that kind of background and that sort of training is really helpful with a project like The Looming Tower which similarly crosses all sorts of genres. That was part of the reason why I think I was good for the job, maybe.
When you say that he encourages you to take a more cinematic approach, what exactly do you mean by that?
Like using themes, rather than music serving to just be a simple underscore beneath talking heads. Obviously there’s a lot of that, but there’s also a lot of other stuff that happens in Alex’s movies where the score needs to serve more like it would in a traditional narrative. And his movies tend to have a story arc as well, so there’ll be themes for individuals within the story and that theme might change context if the story develops. And sometimes that means taking things and changing the instrumentation or changing the tonality of something.
But he’s a good example of a filmmaker who’s quite drawn to melody and more traditional, more cinematic score writing, which has been really exciting for me. I think one of the first documentaries I ever did was We Steal Secrets [The Story of WikiLeaks] for Alex, and that was almost like scoring an action movie. We’ve done much weirder, esoteric scores since then, but that one was a good way for us to get to know one another, and I started to understand his approach to filmmaking.
It’s very interesting that you’ve developed that strong relationship with someone, because generally composers who work on television shows don’t really talk much to the director so much as the producer. Is that correct from my understanding?
Yeah, there is some truth to that. Because the director generally moves around, or the director of the pilot tends not to be the director of other episodes. That’s definitely the case, and I feel like day-to-day, when you’re kind of in the grind of doing a show, it’s really the showrunner and the music supervisor and the producers who you’re dealing with. On The Looming Tower, Danny Futterman was the guy whom I was really in the trenches with and we were working together to find the tone of the show.
But I also work a lot with another guy named Mike Cahill, and he was one of the reasons I got into television. My first show was a show called The Magicians that he directed the pilot of. And when he and I worked together, he tried as much as possible to get me involved while he was shooting. So he’d be on set and I’d have access to the dailies, and I’d get little clips and get ideas and write sketches and send them back to Mike. And we tried to have a little bit of that time together to collaborate because it’s such a rare thing on television, like you say, for the director and the composer to have any kind of back and forth. So sometimes we just tried to maneuver things so that we could have a few days where I was just writing sketches and sending ideas to him, and then he was sending thoughts back to me. Because generally once the director finishes shooting, he or she will have 3 or 4 days of the director’s cut, and then they’re off onto the next thing.
So it’s kind of fast and furious. I try as much as possible, if I’m working on a pilot, to be involved earlier on for that reason because I feel it’s important to try and get the tone figured out as quickly as you can, and it’s sort of the same with scoring a movie. I try to have the same approach to both genres.
I have to ask, when you are hired for a television show, do you do the pilot and then wait until they film the rest of the series to write the music for it? Or are you doing every episode individually as it’s filmed?
It depends, but generally speaking the pilot gets done first and then there’s a bit of a gap between the pilot and the show potentially getting picked up for a series. Actually, that kind of goes back to your first question, in that that is a huge difference between most of the cable shows and most of the Internet shows: at least the ones that I’ve worked on. The Looming Tower was picked up for series immediately. So as soon as I started working on the pilot I was scoring the whole show if that makes sense. So that is quite a different process.
But then like with another show that I just finished called Rise, which is on NBC, that was more traditional in that the pilot was done and then there were a few months before they went back and started shooting episode two. And on the last day of the shoot I’d start getting an editor’s cut and I’d start working while they were shooting episode three and so on. So it’s almost like I was a month behind them as far as getting stuff ready.
That’s interesting that it tends to vary depending on the project. It goes to show how adaptable you have to be in the industry.
Yeah, it’s true. And generally you just have to just be prepared for things to turn around and change crazy quick.
So you talked about how you had to learn different stuff for The Looming Tower. And Ms. Perez, who connected me to you, said you actually learned how to play some Middle Eastern instruments like the Turkish Ney and the Lyra. What was that experience like for you to learn? How long does it take for a composer as talented as you to learn a new musical instrument?
I mean, I feel like I’ve made a career out of being able to pick up instruments and play one or two melodies on them and that’s about it. There’s no way that I would ever be able to perform live on any of these things or anything like that *laughs*.
But for most projects, I tend to go and source a new sound or a new instrument; something that makes me excited to pursue a new approach. And The Looming Tower was such a great opportunity to try and discern a whole new language almost. One of the things I had to figure out was some Middle Eastern scales and some of the stuff that I could translate from my regular instrumentation, like even using synths but combining it with a Middle Eastern scale, and putting that in the characters and the geographic locations.
But there’s a guy in New York. I live in LA, but I lived in New York for 13 years, and there’s this store that I always go to to in the West Village whenever I’m starting a new project. And it’s sort of this Aladdin’s Cave of weird instruments and I’ll sometimes just go in there and be like “I’ve got this new gig and it’s set here, what have you got that’s from Yemen?” And he’ll actually show me a bunch of different stuff. That was kind of how that started.
The [ney] for me I find easier. I started life as a saxophone player, so generally speaking wind instruments are an easier thing for me to get my head around. String instruments take a little bit longer. In the end, it was like a 4 or 5 note melody that I needed to figure out how to play. I’d write something on another instrument and then try to figure out how to do it on the lyra.
But that’s part of the fun! I feel like all composers nowadays are trying to find that new sound, that thing, and it sort of means that we’re all crazy weird mad scientist collectors of paraphernalia I guess.
*Laughs*. No, I mean I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it makes sense that you would have a place where you can go and learn new instruments. I was wondering though. I once spoke to a sound editor, and he told me how over the years, because he does a lot of work, he’s sort of kept a library available of past sounds. Do you have something like that yourself where, if you’re trying to figure out how to do a new soundscape for a project, you can go back and pick a title from this library and get familiar with these sounds?
Sometimes, but I’m one of those people who never really wants to go backwards. I always want to find some new thing. But of course I do have libraries and sample collections that are specific to certain projects, especially if you find out at the end of a project that there’s going to be a season 2. It’s always useful to make sure that everything is archived and that I can open up another thing and tweak it if necessary.
However, I get so connected with certain instruments for certain projects that I tend to just want to go and find something else. Which is also slightly dangerous because it means that my studio is totally ridiculous and filled with stuff *laughs*. But that’s also part of the fun.
But yeah, there are definitely cool things. For example, I own a beautiful Mellotron that I bought right before doing The Path. And for me now, that instrument is just so connected to that show, it’s hard for me to use it on anything else. I have two studios. My larger studio is in North Hollywood, and I feel like the Mellotron is going to end up in a corner for a few years before it’s ready to be dusted off again.
Does that make sense? Certain sounds are just so connected to certain characters and certain stories that it’s hard to go back.
It’s hard to get it out of your head basically.
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.
I have to ask, because I noticed something interesting, which is that you actually did a bit of acting back in the day.
How’d you go from acting to composing?
To be totally honest, I wasn’t really an actor. My father [the late Ralph Bates] was an actor in London, and he was in a show called Dear John, which I think then came to America with Judd Hirsch. Do you remember that show?
So my father was in the original British version, and he played the character that Judd Hirsch played. And I grew up following my dad around on Saturdays, you know going to the theater and sitting in his shows and watching the matinees and going to rehearsals and stuff like that. And I went one day to a script-reading at the BBC television center and it was literally the director of Dear John, and he was like “hey, could you read this part?” and I was like “yeah alright.” And I was 8 years old, so I read the part and the director was like “do you want to do this, we’re shooting it like next week.” And my dad was like “yeah, do you want to do it?” and I was like “yeah, alright.”
So it literally was like that. And I ended up playing his son in the show, I think I was in like 4 or 5 episodes. But that was it. It never really interested me. It was always music I guess. I went to a couple of auditions when I was maybe 10 or 11 and had enough of the taste of it to know that it wasn’t really for me.
But yeah, it’s funny. I don’t know who put it there. Someone snuck it onto my IMDB page *laughs”
It’s pretty hilarious. But, it’s part of my filmography I guess.
So what did inspire you to go into music?
It’s funny, going back again to my parents. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I sang the whole score of Star Wars to my parents, and they were like “whoa, what’s going on with this kid?” *laughs*. So they went and bought me a violin and I ended up learning that for a bit, and then I moved onto the sax. I’ve just always been preoccupied with the relationship of music to picture.
And I’ve diverged somewhat every now and again, like I was in a band for a while and pursued that for some time, or at least dodged success like a group of ninjas around the world for a bit. We did that for like 10 years and it never really went anywhere.
But music’s just always been the thing that I’ve wanted to do, and frankly at this age it’s the only thing I’m good at *laughs*. So I really don’t have much of a choice.
And I just have one final question for you sir: what would you say are your top 3 favorite compositions? It can be either a movie or a TV show or a video game. What have had the biggest influences on you?
That’s a really tough one. I suppose film school wise it would have to be Vertigo and Blade Runner, and maybe Lawrence of Arabia. I know that sounds nuts, but that really changed my kind of understanding as a kid of what film music was capable of doing.
I’m a huge Miles Davis fan. And I think Homework by Daft Punk was a hugely influential record on me. So somewhere between those three. That’s not three is it, that’s like 10 *laughs.*
*Laughs.* No, I love Daft Punk, so that’s a great choice!
Yeah, you can’t go wrong.
Thank you so much for your time Mr. Bates. I know how busy you are and it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I love your work, and I do plan on seeing The Looming Tower. So when I’m watching it I’ll keep in mind the stuff you were talking about.
Yeah, I taught you flute playing *laughs*.
Thanks a lot
Have a good one!
Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Bates for taking the time to speak with us. You can catch The Looming Tower on Hulu and Rise on NBC.