Tyler Bates & Tim Williams Discuss Their Score for Pearl [Interview]

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Ti West’s X and Pearl have quickly made up two-thirds of a surprise hit franchise. I remember missing the teaser for Pearl at my press screening for X way back in March of this year but was still excited at the idea of more from this franchise. 

Pearl serves as a prequel to one of the two characters that Mia Goth plays in X and puts Goth in the spotlight once again. While a drastic change of pace from X, Pearl still serves up the gore that its predecessor did and even has a post-credits tag for the third film in the trilogy, MaXXXine, which West has not shot yet.  

I spoke with composers Tyler Bates — who worked on X — and Tim Williams about their score for Pearl, which is very reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s an incredible feat and read on to hear more about their working relationship/friendship, recreating that vintage sound and their favorite scenes in the film. 

The Hollywood Handle: Congratulations to both of you on Pearl, you guys are part of something so special with this unique franchise that kind of just came out of nowhere. Tyler, I just wanna start with you really quickly because I know you also worked on X. Once Pearl was being planned, were you instantly asked to return?

Tyler Bates: Yeah, Ti [West] talked to me about Pearl before we actually even got into the scoring of X. We did The Sacrament together many years ago and it was almost a surprise to him in a way that there would be this prequel. But he had a little bit of time on his hands in New Zealand setting up X so he and Mia [Goth] wrote Pearl together. He told me that he was going to share that with A24 and they loved it, greenlit it [and] they shot [it] back-to-back [with X]. 

So, the concept for X was something that worked out that an artist, Chelsea Wolfe — who I was working with at the time on a record — had expressed that she wanted to get involved with film. Ti and I were talking about a vocal-centric concept [and] I thought, Chelsea would be a tremendous artist to work with on that particular score. And really before that one was done, Pearl came at me and I said, “Look, man,”  because he [West] was in a real hurry and I had a tour coming up, I said, “You know, I’m really gonna need to work with Tim [Williams] on this,” and he said, “Well, if you say Tim is great, Tim is great.” So then they met and he loved Tim of course and the two of them established a really great working rapport. I told him [Williams] about it in its nascent stages and then once he knew what the concept was, I think it seemed pretty appealing. And then knowing that Ti was going to deliver to us a locked picture to work [with], I can’t express how valuable that is to a composer and how much that opens the opportunities for us to really delve deeply into our work, knowing that the goal posts aren’t gonna move because especially [with] music like this where there’s so many voice-leading moments in the music. And then modulations, once you start changing the picture away from the music, it becomes very, very difficult to maintain the integrity of your initial statement or idea and have it flow freely. 

So in the past, I’ve at times had scores kind of knocked out of round [and] when I go back and listen to ’em, it’s just because the melody might have been in 6/8 [time], but all of a sudden there’s a 7/8 bar in there and it’s like just adding an extra word to a sentence or subtracting one, so this really a great opportunity and Tim and I both share a love for this classic, Hollywood Golden Era music. Honestly, I wish I could do it the majority of the time. Sometimes people have seen some of my work like The Devil’s Rejects and 300, the more brutal stuff or the action movies, and think that I wanna just break things and smash things, but actually this more lyrical approach to music — especially rooted in the longer line, melodic statements — is something that I really love. 

Tim has definitely mentioned John Barry and a couple of interviews and we both love John Barry. Like, that’s the quintessence of that writing for me. But even further back from when I was a kid, not even knowing that I was listening to Maurice Jarre or something [thinking], wow, that’s just amazing. And Tim dove into it with me and did a great, great job. He beat me to it with the main theme. I mean, he presented it as an idea and I’m like, “That’s kismet, man — I think that’s beautiful. We should share that with Ti.” So, we’ve tag-teamed throughout our lives, working together and that was awesome. 

A still from Pearl. Photo courtesy of A24.

THH: Lots to unpack there, but Tim, I’ll ask you then, it sounds like you guys have a relationship prior to Pearl. So how did you guys meet?

Tim Williams: So I moved from London to LA and in England, you sort of meet your neighbor and they’re like: I’m an accountant, [or] I’m a lawyer, or something fairly respectable [smiles]. And I turned to my neighbor. I said, “Oh, what do you do?” he said, “I’m a film composer,” [and] I was like: Wow. LA is very different [and] I was like, “I’m a film composer, too.” 

We both had studios in the backyard, so we’d have the sound of what I was working on (very loudly) flowing over the fence and Tyler would have the sound of what he was working on and it was wonderful. He said, “Oh, I have a project coming up. Would you be interested in helping me out with orchestrating it?” and that was sort of 2005.

Bates: I just wanna let you know that I wanted to work with him as a way to get him to stop calling the cops on me for all [the] stuff that was coming outta my studio [laughs]. We did meet at the end of our respective driveways; we lived next to each other and we were each getting the newspaper back when people used to actually subscribe to this thing made of paper and [they would] deliver the news of the day to your driveway. I’m sorry, Tim, please continue. 

Williams: Yeah, so I called the cops frequently and said, “This guy beside me, he’s making a ton of noise…

Bates: [laughs]

Williams: …So he said, “Well, why don’t I just hire you? And that’ll solve that problem” [smiles]. But yeah, we’ve had an incredible friendship and [I’ve] just been honored to work with Tyler on so many films in varying capacities. This film, in particular, is very special because it was really leaning into a style that we both adore and we had that opportunity to kind of sit down and think about creating themes and with the character of Pearl, you have someone who had huge dreams like we all have — we all have dreams [about]: What we could be; What are our hopes? [What are] our aspirations? — and we wanted to create something that really reflected that yearning, that sense of who she wanted to be, but then take that idea and then have it match the emotional journey she goes on where things do go south and do start to turn. We wanted to take that theme and present it both emotional and sad moments, [along with] in crazy moments and really sort of support her — Mia Goth’s — just insanely amazing performance, you know? 

When those films come along, they’re just wonderful to work on as composers. They just give you that rare opportunity to really try and create something special. 

THH: Before we really dive into the film, I like to do this whenever I have a paired interview. Since you guys know each other so well, I don’t know who wants to start, but I like to have people compliment each other. So can you guys compliment the other on something they brought to the project or just to your friendship/working relationship?

Williams: I mean, for me, Tyler is absolutely one of my main mentors, you know? I moved here and my background was [as] a concert pianist [with] a musical theater background, and I had done some film, but not a lot. And I think when I met Tyler, he’d already done something like 30 films or something crazy, and there was just a way of writing for film and tools and approaches that was something that I really hadn’t been exposed to. I’d done some film school, but not on a “nuts and bolts”-level, and that for me was just kind of being a fly on the wall for a lot of Tyler’s early work — it was such an incredible education.

I tell everyone, I learned way more in the first couple of years of being in Hollywood than I had in any music school, any training I had, it was like being thrown in at the deep end of going: Wow. There are some really incredible things you have to be aware of and some really great approaches. And apart from that, Tyler’s quite an amazing guitarist. bassist and an incredible music producer as well. What he’s able to achieve sonically is incredible. So for me, it’s just been a huge gift to have that influence and really learning for me and then a longstanding friendship. 

When you live in Hollywood, there are some people that you are a little cautious of. And then there are people that are genuinely wonderful people — and Tyler’s one of those people where our [because of] friendship and everything we’ve been through, you feel like a brother at this point. 

Bates: At the end of the day, that’s really the most valuable aspect of this. We miss a lot of things in life with other civilians, you know what I mean? Because we oftentimes have new reels of film dumped on us Friday night, you know: We need this, this and this for Monday morning, have a great weekend [and] it’s like: Yeah, I’ll be working Saturday night at midnight in my studio. That can be frustrating, but it’s just part of it. Everyone is just trying to make something great with the movie. And one thing that’s been very, very helpful to me through the years is not only Tim’s optimism and solution-oriented mentality but also the support of some ideas when I lacked confidence in my own ideas; really identifying the stronger aspects of something I’m working on and offering me really great insight based on things I’ve done where I might be able to take something because you know, you get “punch-drunk” after a while when you’re knocking out a ton of music under a tremendous amount of pressure with your deadlines and whatnot.

A still from Pearl. Photo courtesy of A24.

Just in general, the selfless support that Tim’s offered and finding his way to make everything we work on. [He] finds his place where he owns his process so that he can confidently bring out the absolute best in our orchestras. When we work together with [an] orchestra, I’m better in the booth. I’m much more [of] a music producer than a conductor. I mean, if Tim had a gallstone attack or something at the podium, I could probably get us through it, but I see the value in Tim’s excellence as a conductor and how much more we get out of the music that I’ve written just by the way that he works with the orchestra.

And that has been very enlightening over the years and inspiring and it’s fun. You know, I love to see the people around me thrive. [It] makes me feel good to work with people I think are very talented and excellent human beings at the same time. So this could go on for hours here, this genuflection about one another [but] we’re very close friends and it’s been tremendous, having this experience working together. 

THH: Well, thank both of you guys for doing that. I always love to do that for people. I think earlier, Tyler, you had mentioned that you did get a finished picture when you guys were scoring Pearl, but was there any difficulty because of how quickly they [X and Pearl] were shot back-to-back? Were you guys rushed at all? 

Bates: Mm-hm. That happened [the scoring process] in a few weeks [and] that’s a lot of music. The one great thing was, once that main theme came into play and Ti really loved it, that main theme is imbued in the entire score for the most part, you know, say for a few cues here and there. So when you have a thematic motif that you can apply to every psychological and emotional dynamic of the movie, it does at least give you this throughline that helps guide you through the music. So that was a great benefit. 

And we’re also talking about a director who’s not kicking the tires along the way. Ti knows what he loves and he’s open to many ways of satisfying that particular idea. But he knows what he’s after [and] why he is after it. There’s not this initiative to just create music and see what happens, you know? It’s more like: Here’s the story. Here’s what we have to say. Here’s how I want to support this character here. It’s this person’s scene, even though the other person is the one that’s handling the majority of the dialogue. Those types of insights coming from a director really help save us time from all the sideways thinking. And they hope they like this kind of thinking and instead we are really [in]  lockstep together and Ti is an excellent communicator. I think that that saved us what could have been the same job over four or five months.

When you don’t have that type of element that’s permeating a process, you gain momentum because you start to really understand [that] this is what we’re doing — this is what he was resonating with him so I can feel confident, it’s Friday night at 11:30, and I’m gonna finish out this cue. I could take this chance here because I know that it fits within the language [and] what our director is really confident and comfortable with as far as supporting his storytelling.

I think it’s aspects like that make the timeframe not as daunting as it actually was on paper, because it was literally weeks, which is a very short period of time to do something [that] is complex as this movie is. This score is melodically and harmonically and the limitations we had to record it and produce it were pretty tight. This is an indie movie, man [smiles]. 

THH: Tim, how did you come up with the main theme? And I also want to ask about how you recreated the “Golden Age Hollywood” sound with the flute and horns section and whatnot, especially with the budget. So if you guys wanna also start thinking about that question as well, feel free. 

Williams: Coming back to the character of Pearl, her main desire is this yearning to be a dancer, and the movie has this gorgeous opening where she kind of goes into her mind and she’s dancing. So for me, that was something that [I] just wanted to express musically; that yearning, that desire and just give it that sort of sweeping, dream-like quality and as best as I could express that sense of the yearning through a language that’s, you know, 60 years old.

As far as trying to create the sound of that era, a lot of it’s down to the colors that we tend not to use these days in scoring. I’m I love woodwinds, there’s so much you can do with them and even sort of the harmonic language — the augmented fifths and things like that — is a language that has kind of gone out of style. 

But for us [when] approaching this film, it was always a [dilemma] of we wanna score it like we would score any film — hitting the beats, capturing the emotion — but limiting ourselves to the colors and the musical language — the syntax of those golden era scores. Our thing was we didn’t want it to feel pastiche, we really wanted to try and write something from our heart [and] from our soul that was genuine. But it was exciting. It was a lot of fun.

THH: I was just re-listening to the score this morning, and “Dancing With Scarecrows” jumped out. I thought what’s so interesting about that track is that for most of the song, it reminded me of like the old Chaplain films and whatever but then when it reaches its kind of crescendo, or,  climax, was this done on purpose to fit the scene? I can’t specifically remember where it matches up in the film, but was this kind of supposed to match kind of what’s happening on screen if you get what I’m sort of implying it [laughs]? 

Williams: It does. The song itself is “Oui Oui Marie,” and that was a song that Tyler did a phenomenal cover of with Chelsea in X so Ti was like, “Could we take that same song but have it be what she dances to with a scarecrow?” The challenge with that was we had to sort of go back and make sure that the timing of it matched the actual dance. That was really the most challenging part of the scene, creating a beat map that totally matched her movements after the fact and still have that impact. 

But yeah, it ultimately aligns with her, with her movements with the scarecrow and then of course it starts to turn and go really strange when we go into that next part of the scene, the “I married” part, which I love [laughs].

A still from Pearl. Photo courtesy of A24.

THH: Well, that’s brilliant. Now I wanna rewatch the movie and kind of watch that scene again in particular closer. I’ll start with you, Tyler, is there any specific scene in the film that you feel your guys’ score really shines in?

Bates: A strange thing to consider when you watch the movie again is the monologue at the end, right? The music has been very grand and very rich and very impressionistic — at least in terms of how we relate to things emotionally — but the way that there is music there and it’s very much buried in the background [it still] does play an important role even though it functions more as the “din” of that conversation as opposed to an underscore. 

I think that the thing that’s interesting about that is when you consider all of the music that came before that in the film, and the subsequent music at the very end, I think it really lent a lot of power to the score. It was in one moment that you really realized what the score had provided as a character of the film up to that point, because it was absent for part of that monologue. And then as it started to build throughout, I thought it really was a testament to how powerful music can be in cinema if it’s approached with a real sense of purpose. 

THH: And Tim, what about for you? 

Williams: One of my favorite scenes is the audition scene itself, the “Hot-House Rag” [musical number]. And again, that was tricky for us to tackle because the film had been shot and it wasn’t really necessarily shot to the specific music that you hear. So that presented a challenge because we had to reverse engineer the cue and it was also tricky because the film takes such a left turn there where you go into her mind and you have that incredible scene [which] the whole movie’s been building to, this audition. We start with the piano and then kind of build up that arrangement. So that was definitely fun. 

Again, you don’t often get to do cues like that in a film where it’s driven by dance, music and period dance music and something that has to sort of be retrofitted after the fact. So that was challenging, but it was a lot of fun. 

A still from Pearl. Photo courtesy of A24.

Ti was very involved in the arrangement cuz because we did a bunch of different things where we had brass through it all, we had woodwinds and we ended up recording it in different stems so that we could play with a little bit after the fact to end up with what you hear where it kind of grows and grows and grows. And I thought it was quite an amazing scene for a film. 

THH: And I know I have to let you guys go in a minute, but I just have one last question for you. Have either of you guys been called back for the third film in the series, MaXXXine?

Bates: We’re not talking about the future [laughs]. Sorry, Andrew. 

Pearl is in theaters now.


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Andrew Korpan

Andrew Korpan

Film "critic" and entertainment journalist whose work has been featured in Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, /Film and Coastal House Media.
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