A Score to Settle: Brian Tyler

The Expendables composer was a self-described ‘complete outsider’ with an expired Hollywood lineage and no music degree when he moved to L.A. and started knocking on doors. Eventually those doors blew wide open.

Hollywood easily could have discarded Brian Tyler. One of the town’s youngest film composers, 38-year-old Tyler has composed the scores for five films that opened at No. 1 in the last two years, and a few runners-up to boot. Whether because of timing, age, or his own early, subconscious rejection of the film industry, Tyler, a childhood musical prodigy and the grandson of a below-the-line Hollywood legend, found himself in isolation in L.A.—a nobody who knew nobody.  

Get In Media spoke to Tyler, whose grandfather, Walter, served as the Oscar-winning art director of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, as well as The Ten Commandments, Sabrina, True Grit, Roman Holiday, and The Odd Couple, on the Monday morning Tyler discovered his latest gig, The Expendables, opened at a stunning $34.8 million. For the young star who cut his teeth writing incongruously glorious requiems to go with cult schlock like Six-String Samurai, Darkness Falls, and the Bruce Campbell hamfest Bubba Ho-Tep, The Expendables is the latest in a string of crowd-pleasing hits that would make Walter proud—Eagle Eye, three installments of the Fast & Furious franchise, Constantine—and smaller, critically acclaimed fare like the creepy Frailty, the uplifting The Greatest Game Ever Played and William Friedkin’s Bug.

For Tyler, a childhood multi-instrumentalist who toured Europe with his own concerto by age 15, yet secured a history degree in college as “a backup plan,” his sweeping, skyscraping scores aren’t about his lineage or success. He simply wants people to hear his stuff, subconsciously or otherwise.

Get In Media: First of all, congratulations on the No. 1 weekend for The Expendables. Do you go to see the movies you work on?
Brian Tyler: I do. By the time the movie comes out, I’ve seen each scene at least a hundred times. When I work on a scene, I’m writing each part. As I write the violins, I watch the scene. As I write the cellos, I watch the scene again. Once you get done with 80 different people in the orchestra, you’ve seen it quite a few times. You really memorize the movie to the point that the only other people who’ve seen it as much as me are the editor and the director.

GIM: How has it changed your world getting to compose No. 1 after No. 1, as opposed to movies that go straight to DVD, as you did early in your career?
BT: I can’t lie: The whole early-days drudgery of writing music and putting your heart into something that was never seen was frustrating. That goes back further than doing movies. I wrote music and composed film-style music all my life; I wrote concertos and all sorts of things growing up, and one of the most frustrating things for me was I’d write all this music and multi-track myself and I knew that probably 10 or 15 people would hear it. I’d send the demo around and it’d be thrown in the trashcan. There’s something about that that really bothered me. So in scoring films, one of the things I was most happy about wasn’t necessarily getting paid for it, but the fact that when it played in the theater and all over the world, I felt relieved.

GIM: Like there’s a record of it now.
BT: Right, it’s been put out into the world. The fact that human beings were able to experience all this energy I put into writing this music was very satisfying. I’ve always been one to never phone it in. It’s something I’m proud of. If I get hired to do the film, I’m going to treat it like it’s the greatest film of all time while I’m scoring it.

GIM: That served you well early in your career, too. People noticed that there were these epic scores behind films that didn’t require it.
BT: In music composing, you can never think, “Nobody’s gonna see this, I’ll phone it in.” That’s the only way to step up the ladder. My first film, [I was paid] a dollar; one person heard that and said, “Why don’t you do this other film?” Very few people saw that, but someone saw that and brought me into this other one. I could seriously show you a chart with the names that connect from one to the other. It’s probably eight or nine people from the first person I worked for, who doesn’t produce anymore, to Steven Spielberg. And if any of those links in the chain were broken by me slacking off, I wouldn’t have gotten to that last stage, which was scoring Eagle Eye.

GIM: As the grandson of a legend, I would think people might shrug off your success as an inevitability.
BT: Well, the distance in time between when my grandfather was working and when I entered was long enough to where there was no one left by the time I went in. My father shunned the film industry. He said, “No way, I’m going to be an architect.” So by the time I came around, I didn’t have any connection to the industry, because my grandfather’s last film was in 1979. By the time I got into the film industry, I was a complete outsider. I came out [to L.A.] and didn’t know anyone.

GIM: Speaking of your grandfather, it seems like the generation that came after him—New Hollywood—by the time you started getting steady work and making your way up that list, it seemed like the connectors on that list were past-their-prime New Hollywood directors—Friedkin, Donner, Spielberg. It seems like it did connect with your grandfather in that way.
BT: There’s a parallel. In a way, when my grandfather was my same breaking-in age, he was a young guy and he went and worked with Cecil B. DeMille. For me to come out and get connected with an established, older director like William Friedkin, in a way there was a parallel. It’s just odd that they didn’t directly connect, because of the directors my grandfather worked with. By the end of his career, the directors he worked with were quite old, as well. At that time, William Friedkin was a young kid. And I caught him at the end of his career. Donner’s even quite a bit older than Friedkin. They’re really the missing link between my grandfather and myself.

GIM: It’s coming back around, too. True Grit is being remade by the Coen brothers, and your grandfather worked on the original. Have you thought about what it might be like to score a remake of something your grandfather worked on?
BT: Oh, yeah. When I saw they were doing that, I thought, “Oh, god, I would’ve killed on that.” So we’ll just have to hunt down Carter Burwell [the composer of almost every Coen brothers film]. I love Carter. He’s awesome.

GIM: Do you fantasize about that, though?
BT: Yeah. I think for good reasons, directors have relationships with composers and I always admire that. But I remember when [Transformers screenwriters] Alex Kurtzman and [Roberto] Orci, my friends I work a lot with now, were writing Star Trek. I’m the biggest Trek fan in the history of the world. And of course when I heard J.J. was directing it, I thought, “Oh, darn.”

GIM: Right, he works exclusively with Michael Giacchino. Did you put in for it, anyway?
BT: I’m sure Alex and Bob put a word in. But I wouldn’t go there with Michael and J.J.’s relationship.

“You could draw a pretty direct line between me knocking on that guy’s door to what I’m doing today.”

GIM: Speaking of Friedkin, you were something of a child prodigy yourself.
BT: I’ve been accused of being a child prodigy. I picked up a lot of instruments when I was very young, and started composing very young. But of course, to anyone who’s ever called that, it’s completely normal to us! “You mean other kids didn’t try to compose concertos?”

GIM: To my knowledge, you fought against that talent quite a bit.
BT: Yeah, it’s interesting you bring that up. It wasn’t so much that I was fighting—I’ve always been a musician at heart—as much as I wanted my music to be heard. I kind of saw going into composing as about as likely to be a success as wanting to be a poet. So going into college, it was a hedge against my own bet. I still wanted to be a composer and musician, and I was going to go for that, but I thought I should probably get a backup degree in something completely different just in case.

GIM: That backup plan was history, right?
BT: Yeah, history is something I love. I would’ve probably gone into academics or something like that. Then, when I went off to Harvard, I studied policy and all that. I was trying to get a bit of practical and also do what I loved. To this day, that’s ended up being my hobby.

GIM: I’ve heard this story that your music hobby kind of got you booted out of UCLA.
BT: Oh my god, how did you know this? Yeah, at UCLA you can’t double-major in two different colleges. In other words, if you’re in letters and science, or studying biology, you can’t be in the arts school. The fact was, I spent so much time in the music department—I was taking world music, theory, Javanese gamelan, Indian music—by the time I got to my junior year, I had already exceeded the total number of units you could take at UCLA before you were essentially forced to graduate with no degree. I think I had 240 units or something like that. It’s a public university, so they want to get you in and out—they don’t want lurkers on campus for 10 years—so I had to petition to drop a bucketload of music courses that I’d taken and gotten A’s in. One of the people at UCLA did me a solid, dropped these classes, and I was able to graduate with my degree in history.

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