The Sound of Success: Hollywood’s Next Superhero
Brian Tyler is having the time of his life. When the composer, multi-instrumentalist, and conductor picks up the phone in his L.A. studio, he sounds thrilled—almost in disbelief—about everything he’s been up to.
“We just finished tracking with the orchestra for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—and that movie comes out in five weeks!” he says when simply asked how he is. “And then I’m flying out to Europe to meet with Joss Whedon about Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s pretty busy around here, but it’s a lot of fun.”
When it comes to big-budget Hollywood, Tyler is the new “it” guy. In 2014 alone, he’s contributed loud, brassy, and electronics-laden scores to action films such as Ninja Turtles, Fast and Furious 7, and The Expendables 3. And there’s no indicator that he’s slowing down: starting with 2013’s Iron Man 3, Tyler has been a house composer of sorts for Marvel Studios, livening up the thunder god’s adventures in Thor: The Dark World and now, of course, taking on the biggest of them all with the Avengers sequel.
But while Tyler is an established industry insider with a BAFTA nomination and Academy membership under his belt, his path has never been completely clear. He has always been fully invested in music, but his passion has translated to a diverse range of interests. Whether it’s composing, other musical pursuits, or activism, he’s always working on something that fascinates him—and most likely having fun doing it.
Tyler grew up a short drive from where he works now—a bit longer when it’s rush hour—in Orange County, California. The influence of the movie business was never far: Tyler’s grandfather was Walter H. Tyler, an art director who won an Oscar for Samson and Delilah in 1949 and worked on Audrey Hepburn vehicles Sabrina and Roman Holiday.
His grandmother, on the other hand, was a pianist, and thanks to her and Tyler’s parents, who were avid rock fans, there was always music in Tyler’s childhood. The rock influence motivated Tyler to pursue drumming, but he was also put through the typical child’s routine of piano lessons. And as he grew more serious about music, he picked up more instruments.
“I definitely had some formal musical training,” he says. “But I’m also self-taught in a lot of things.”
But the future composer had another side: namely, he was a self-proclaimed “nerd,” voraciously reading Marvel comic books and watching genre flicks (he was both a Star Wars fan and a Trekkie). It was this enthusiasm that first got him interested in film scores.
“I would watch a lot of films, mostly science fiction films,” he says. “And the best way to relive those movies after I’d seen them was through the soundtrack. And then it got to where I’d go get soundtracks to movies I’d hadn’t seen, and I’d just make up a storyline to go with it.”
Coming up through high school, Tyler didn’t think he was going to be a full-time composer. He was just enjoying music, pursuing a variety of styles on a variety of instruments and writing for rock bands and orchestras alike. These freelance gigs would get bigger and bigger: As a kid, he played with Slash from Gun and Roses and later shared the stage with Foo Fighters and Elton John.
It’s this broad sonic palate—he’s listed Depeche Mode, Public Enemy, and Steve Reich among his many influences—that has helped him become so in-demand today. His composing style now, while strongly tied to classic Hollywood, has its fair share of bruising rock-style riffs, which sound even more epic when played by the Hollywood Studio Symphony, Tyler’s preferred orchestra of top L.A. professionals.
Tyler distanced himself from the Hollywood scene—and to a lesser extent, music—when he chose to study History and Philosophy at UCLA and Harvard. He never stopped loving music, though. In typical Tyler fashion, he took whatever classes he wanted at UCLA, and while officially a history major, he took so many music courses—everything from Javanese Gamelan to Indian music—that he was forced to drop credits in order to graduate. But even though music remained his passion, his musical life took place largely after hours, through a random assortment of sessions and gigs and camping out in practice rooms. Academic success became his top priority.
“Things like getting perfect grades—if I didn’t get an A, it wasn’t good enough—were very important to me,” he says.
This time away from music could have been a disadvantage in a long run. But Tyler says he has no regrets about his time in academia. His favorite buzzword is “well-rounded,” and even now he makes time to pursue his other intellectual interests.
“It’s kind of funny: Everything’s kind of switched from when I was in college,” he says. “It used to be that music was my hobby, what I was working on at night, and history and philosophy were what I was doing full-time. Now, the philosophy side has become like a hobby for me and music is what I do full-time.”
It was a “hobby” at the time, but Tyler had his eye on a career in music—the history and philosophy were strictly “backups.” He moved back to L.A. after his time at Harvard, confident he wanted to be a musician but unsure of his place in the field. He began cranking out songs, lending his drumming skills to bands and recording sessions. Just as he was a well-rounded student, Tyler became one of the area’s most versatile musicians. But for all his work, chance would soon land him back in the industry he had seemingly left behind several years earlier.
It’s important to me to have some musical outlet where I’m dictating things, not responding to what’s in the film.
In 1997, Tyler scored a small indie film called Bartender, directed by Gabe Torres. It was the first film he’d ever scored, though he’d had songs of his appear on soundtracks before. Miraculously for such a small film, the soundtrack made its way to the offices of 20th Century Fox, where it was heard by then-head of music, the prolific composer and producer Robert Kraft.
Kraft was astounded that Tyler had scored the film without industry connections (Tyler’s Oscar-winning grandfather had passed away years before.) He introduced Tyler to John Williams’ manager, and the young composer soon found himself a client of the legendary Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency, which represents Hollywood’s top soundtrack composers as well as James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma.
“I’ve definitely had my lucky breaks,” Tyler says, “but I spent time sending out demos too.”
Indeed, even with his new representation, Tyler kept knocking on doors and sending out recordings, trying to make up for lost time by forging as many relationships as possible. Once he broke through in 2001 with Bill Paxton’s Frailty, the big-budget productions began to come more frequently. By 2007, he was scoring the high-octane Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift and the CGI slugfest Alien vs. Predator: Requiem.
Even with a position that “doesn’t feel like work,” and some of the most prestigious gigs in Hollywood, Tyler is still working as hard as he did before—sometimes harder. He says that’s part of the job.
“Because the music is always the last thing to be added to the movie, you’re always in a rush to complete everything,” he says. “You’ve got to get used to doing four, five hours of sleep when time starts running out.”
It’s a hectic schedule, so packed that it’s hard not to wonder if he has any free time. “That’s actually something that a lot of people that are close to me have asked,” Tyler says. The job has been intense for Tyler, and though he spends time on the basketball court, shooting hoops and even playing in a league at times, he’s rarely taken a lengthy respite. At this point, though, he’s finally earned a real break. All it took was becoming recognized as one of the best composers in the business.
“Now that I’ve reached a point where I can schedule things far in advance—in fact, I just got a call to do a movie that won’t come out until 2016—I can also schedule in time when I’m not working,” he says. “I’ve just recently put a couple weeks into my calendar coming up that will be a real break.”
And for endeavors close to his heart, Tyler always has room on his schedule. Whenever he gets the chance, he’s been working on a Deadmau5-influenced solo electronic project he calls Madsonik.
“It’s important to me to have some musical outlet where I’m dictating things, not responding to what’s in the film,” he says.
Tyler has always had eclectic tastes; it may seem accidental, then, that he ended up where he did. But the composer doesn’t want to be anywhere else. He’s meeting too many of his idols and having too much fun.
“It’s just been so trippy,” he says, “to work on these projects I loved as a kid.” He’s speaking of the Marvel movies in particular, but Tyler has also composed for television programs like Star Trek: Enterprise and Transformers Prime, as well as a host of video games (He’s a Gran Turismo, Unreal Tournament and Call of Duty fan, and got to compose for the latter series’ Modern Warfare 3). But when choosing projects to work on, the subject matter is often less important than the team behind the scenes.
“A big thing I consider is the relationship I have with the director,” Tyler says. A film composer will normally work closely with the film’s director during post-production, and as Tyler’s resume has lengthened, he’s been brought in even earlier in the process. At the time of our interview, the composer is just preparing to meet with Joss Whedon, whose Avengers sequel is in the early stages of filming.
Tyler appreciates long-term relationships with directors: He’s worked several times now with Justin Lin on the Fast and Furious franchise, and is now a favorite of Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige. One particular collaborator has now become an unlikely friend:
“I’ve gotten to work with [Sylvester] Stallone, now, a few times, on the three Expendables movies and on the most recent Rambo, which he directed,” Tyler says. “And we’ve become friends, and it’s just so crazy because I grew up on Rocky.”
Tyler’s position is an enviable one, the seeming realization of his boyhood dreams. And while it’s easy to see his life’s journey as a series of lucky breaks, there’s never been a moment when he hasn’t been laser-focused on whatever’s in front of him. It’s just that what’s in front of him hasn’t always been one thing. Tyler doesn’t think the crooked path he’s taken is for everyone; it’s just the way things happened.
“I know a lot of people who went to film school and were successful, so I can’t say that’s not the way to go,” Tyler says. “But for me, it’s always been important to be well-rounded.”
Tyler’s story is evidence that persistent dedication to a craft is not incompatible with diverse interests. Everything the composer has done has been jumped into wholeheartedly, with enthusiasm and, of course, humility.
“I’m all out of words of wisdom,” Tyler jokes. Then he says a polite goodbye and hangs up the phone. Time to get back to work.