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'Avengers: Age of Ultron,' 'Furious 7' composer Brian Tyler explains the secrets of iconic themes

by Michelle Lanz and Mike Roe | The Frame

Composer Brian Tyler attends the Furious 7 Los Angeles Premiere Sponsored by Dodge at TCL Chinese 6 Theatres on April 1, 2015 in Hollywood. Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Dodge

Brian Tyler has composed the music for dozens of movies, TV shows and video games, including current box office smashes "Furious 7" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

Writing heroic themes for "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

While some directors prefer music that stays in the background, Tyler likes to write themes and create music with melodies that stick in your head.

"If you're going to have music there, you should have it," Tyler said, "and have something that says something."

Whether the movie is a drama or about superheroes, the important thing is capturing the characters, Tyler said. With "Rise Together" for "Age of Ultron," Tyler created a classic, epic feel.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Rise Together

"The characters of the Avengers, since they have this superhero background, I think there's a grandeur that you need, a heroism," Tyler said. "And so the music is much more about pageantry and a march, and there's a slight militaristic aspect. I tend to stay away from that, but I felt that that, combined with a choir, would make them feel larger than life. And certainly, this is when they're 'rising together,' so you need to have that unifying heroic theme with them."

Tyler had some high-level help on parts of the "Age of Ultron" score — Danny Elfman, the guy behind plenty of big movies, including other superhero scores like "Spider-Man" and, of course, the 1989 "Batman."

"The movie is such a large canvas that there were parts that really benefited from his kind of voice," Tyler said. "But also, it needed to all fit together and hang together seamlessly, and that was something we worked really hard on doing."

Amid all the action, "Age of Ultron" also finds time for quieter, more contemplative music.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Farmhouse

One piece in the middle of the film is "Farmhouse," as the Avengers get a chance for a breather. Another was "Vision," creating a theme for a brand new character.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Vision

"We really wanted to go for something that was underneath and delicate, and had kind of a wispy nature to it, in a sense — and almost towards the romantic," Tyler said. "I feel that the difference between someone like him and Thor is just with the character. He's a new character, he's a creation, and there's something kind of wonderful and interesting, but mysterious."

Tyler says that they had to keep telling the orchestra to play quieter and quieter, trying to say more with less for Vision.

The Marvel Studios theme

The Marvel Studios theme

Tyler was also tasked with creating the opening theme for all Marvel Studios films. In just 30 seconds he had to create something iconic. Despite the huge sound, he initially sat down and wrote it on piano.

"What I wanted to do was, since I knew there was very little time for the listener or the viewer to really hone in on what's there musically, I needed something that could be played a little bit more simply as a melody," Tyler said. "Then all the orchestration — you know, I wrote these string lines that are actually, have kind of a fantastical, more complex nature to it. That just supports a melody that is more of a whistler."

He was braced for a back-and-forth with Marvel over such an important piece of their cinematic universe, but Tyler said that they saw it the same way he did, with the main melody staying the same.

"And then we honed other parts of it, and as the graphics were being done we really wanted to hit little moments with some sparkly shimmer and get it more specific."

Temp music origins

One way that Tyler has landed a number of jobs is having some of his music used as temp music when other movies were being put together. His scores for "Frailty" and "Children of Dune" proved particularly popular in the temp stage.

Frailty theme

"[Temp music is] how I came to know the folks over at Marvel. Many, many films have turned out that way, and it's always fun to kind of see how music that you wrote for something else gets fashioned into something new."

Another piece of music that keeps coming back over and over is a piece he wrote for "The Hunted," scoring a helicopter shot over Portland.

"That piece of music keeps on getting re-temped into new movies I'm doing, and it always happens to be an overhead helicopter shot going into a city. And I think it's like five or six times now. And it just happened again on the movie I'm doing right now. Somehow it sounds like riding-in-a-helicopter music. I don't know how."

His music for the movie "Annapolis" ended up getting used as temp music on one of the early Marvel movies.

Annapolis music

"They felt, 'Gosh, this kind of sounds maybe like it could be Marvel. It wasn't quite there. I think it needs to go into another gear.' But once I met on 'Iron Man 3' and we talked about the idea of where we wanted the character to go, I think they kind of put two and two together."

Taking over a musical franchise

Tyler has been brought onto several franchises after they already got started with other composers, included the "Avengers" and "Fast and Furious" franchises. He even took over "Rambo" from hero Jerry Goldsmith, writing the music for the 2008 return to the franchise.

"I really try to take from what's before me and also forge ahead, and so I used, in that case, one of the main themes for the character, and also used some new material, and a new theme," Tyler said.

For the "Fast and Furious" films, Tyler came in on the third installment, "Tokyo Drift," which was outside of what the other films were doing and could have its own sound. Then, with the fourth, director Justin Lin wanted to reset the franchise to make it more about family, telling Tyler, "Let's do it like 'The Godfather.'" 

"So we said, well, in order to do that, we have to kind of start over in a way. So I got lucky on that one — I was able to reset the table."

Furious 7: "Paratroopers"

Furious 7: Paratroopers

For a scene in "Furious 7," with cars dropping from the sky, Tyler says he played the drums and used a classic Moog synthesizer, then merged it into the Hollywood Studio Symphony.

"The further the cars drop out of the plane and get closer to the ground, we felt heightening the tension would be more orchestral," he said. "And the orchestra has a bigger, more epic feel. So it starts small, with more eclectic instruments, grows into the orchestra, and just really wrote it in the sense that you're not falling towards the ground, but the ground is flying towards your face."

Giving directors what they want, not what they say

Tyler says that sometimes a director will ask for something, but he'll know that's not actually what the director means.

"I think the thing that's most useful for me is they say, 'OK, clarinets, violas, whatever — what do you want from the scene? Is there something that when you put the scene together that you want it to be more of? Did you want it to be more sad? Did you want it to be more tense? Is there something going on behind those eyes of the character that you're pushing in on with the camera? And those are the things that help me more than musical notes."

Every element of the music is crafted, with musicians hand-selected. He used iconic rock guitarist Slash on the "Tokyo Drift" score, but he'll do the same thing with the orchestra, choosing the instrumentalists he loves the most.

"They have a distinct flavor that they've learned in a lifetime of identifying themselves musically."

And sometimes, that musician is Tyler himself. On "Furious 7," he says he played more than 20 instruments.

"I played Spanish guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, cello, electric cello, drum set, all sorts of percussion from around the world," Tyler said. He added that he's got an addiction to buying more instruments, always picking up something new from the music store.

Inspired by Rush

Tyler's influences include composers like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman and Jerry Goldsmith, but he also cites rock music as inspiring his scores, including Rush, the Beatles, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Pink Floyd and U2.

"I didn't really distinguish any genres of music growing up," he said. "I think it was just things that I liked to sit down and emulate."

Tyler started with the drums, trying to play Rush's "Tom Sawyer" as a kid, while also tackling Chopin and Rachmaninoff on the piano.

"For me, watching 'Star Wars' was the thing that hooked me into film scores," Tyler said. "The melodies, everything sounded really big. I just kind of pulled it all into one, and those influences have stayed with me to this day."

"Planet of the Apes": "The Hunt"

One piece of music that inspired Tyler was Jerry Goldsmith's "The Hunt" from "Planet of the Apes."

Planet of the Apes: The Hunt

"He takes the orchestra and anthropomorphizes all the different characters and what's going on on the screen," Tyler said. "There's an interesting use of some brass — he takes off the valve — and all these different things that create these strange sounds. You go, 'What the heck is that?' When I was listening to 'Planet of the Apes' as a kid, I really was just trying to deconstruct it and figure it out. And his use of percussion is also something that is so out of the box that it makes it primal and exciting."

Tyler believes a great movie score can stand on its own outside the film it was written for.

"You listen to 'Vertigo' outside of the film, and if you never even knew it was attached to a film, you think 'Wow, what a great melody,' " Tyler said. "It sticks in your head, it makes you feel basically what the film is trying to make you feel."

Video game music

Writing for video games gives Tyler a different challenge: making music that can fit when the player is the ultimate director.

"Whether or not he gets lost in a map, or goes right or left, it completely changes it, so you have to have music that's flexible. In a sense, it never plays the same way twice, because it just depends on how good or bad, or right or left, the actual gamer is."

The next level

What does the composer who's done it all do next?

"I've done various concerts in Europe, but it would be nice to bring it Stateside — I've done a few here," Tyler said. "But it would be great to do something at Walt Disney Hall. We're maybe doing something there, hopefully sooner than later."

Somehow, we think that the guy who composes music for Disney's Marvel will find a way to make it to Disney Hall.

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