Fresh off the phone, Tyler Bates has good news to share.
“That’s it. We finished ‘Hobbs & Shaw,’” he tells his wife, Lisa, in the kitchen of their L.A. home.
For the uninitiated, “Hobbs & Shaw” is the latest in the “Fast & Furious” film franchise that is set to open Friday. Bates composed the music for the movie, which he’s been working on since March.
“We should break out the Champagne,” his wife says, despite the fact that it’s only a few hours into a warm Saturday morning. Unfortunately, there’s no time for that. Bates has to head back upstairs to his studio to work on another project on his seemingly endless to-do list: “R.U.N,” the latest Cirque du Soleil show that will open at the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in October.
For those used to the dreamy New Age music that populates so many Cirque shows, the addition of Bates may come as a surprise. After all, the former lead guitarist for Marilyn Manson-turned-composer for film and TV action thrillers, at first glance, doesn’t seem to fit the bill. His powerful scores, ranging from the epic, apocalyptic score for “300” to the haunting, pulsating rhythms of “Watchmen,” come from a world on the opposite side of the music universe from Cirque.
Even he was surprised when the call came from “R.U.N”.
“I never expected to work on a Cirque show — it was something that never occurred to me,” he says, settling into an Aeron chair in his expansive home studio in the hills of the San Fernando Valley, with state-of-the-art sound equipment, keyboards, side-by-side monitors, stacks of amplifiers and an array of pedals. On the wall and on stands throughout the room are no fewer than 20 guitars (many custom-made for Bates) and one banjo.
Sure, he’s attended several Cirque shows, he says, “but this is not like any of them.”
With “R.U.N,” Cirque is entering an entirely new space. Forget the acrobats, trapeze artists and clowns. Instead, stuntmen and women, motorcycle daredevils, pyrotechnic performers and freak show artists will occupy the stage, a futuristic set enhanced with computer graphics and live-video projections. And unlike any of the nearly 40 productions Cirque has mounted, this one will be the first to have a narrative story line — written by Robert Rodriguez of “Sin City” and “El Mariachi” fame. And that’s where Bates comes in.
“When we decided we wanted to do an action show, it was very important that we surround ourselves with people who had experience in that field,” said Daniel Lamarre, CEO of Cirque. “We’re talking about two experts in action movies.”
Set in the dark underbelly of a fictional Las Vegas, “R.U.N” is grittier than traditional Cirque shows, drawing its inspiration from graphic novels and action films. The 75-minute story revolves around two rival gangs that face off after a wedding is interrupted and a bride goes on the run. It unfolds in chapters, all requiring a different style of music.
“Each of those chapters have their own look, and the music needs to evolve with the progression of the show,” Bates says. “It’s like a modern amalgam of musical styles from the past 30 years. There’s an ’80s inspiration for a little bit of it. There’s a metal inspiration for part of it. There’s definitely electro influence on what I’m doing.”
“R.U.N” director Michael Schwandt, a co-creator of the TV series “The Masked Singer” who has worked with a variety of figures from Lady Gaga to former First Lady Michelle Obama to NBA star Kevin Durant, wasn’t familiar with Bates or his work as discussions began about possible composers for the show.
“When I started looking, I kept seeing his name pop up,” Schwandt says, “and I said, ‘OK, we just need to call this guy and see.’”
If Bates’ name is not familiar to many, his work more than likely is. The music he’s written can be heard in hundreds of films, including the “John Wick” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, television shows ranging from “Californication” to “The Punisher,” and video games like “God of War: Ascension” and “Killzone: Shadow Fall.” Hard-rock fans know him for his work with Manson, Gavin Rossdale and Bush, Rob Zombie and even David Hasselhoff. And if you happen to be a fan of the Tennessee Titans, you’ve heard the theme song Bates wrote for his favorite NFL team.
“I work under tremendous stress, but my life is interesting every day. There’s always something new happening, especially since I’ve worked hard to diversify,” he says. “I work on movies and TV and video games, commercials and records and help directors put together pitches for movies and whatever it is that needs to happen. I’m constantly looking to see what kind of a new challenge or experience I can have.”
Anyone who has worked on a Cirque show can attest to the challenges ahead. Since it made its debut in Las Vegas 25 years ago with Mystère, the Montreal-based company has been pushing the limits and boundaries of theatrical stage productions in the city. Lamarre says the company is putting about $35 million into the new show — Cirque’s seventh on the Strip — making it one of Cirque’s most expensive productions. The goal is to appeal to a younger audience raised on fast-paced, video-infused entertainment.
Unlike many theatrical shows that begin with a script and then other elements are added, “R.U.N” has been more fluid from the start.
“It’s always been a matter of details being revealed a little bit here and there,” Bates says. “As soon as I have any information, I’ll start making something that spawns a dialogue and a response to it. It’s never been like, here’s the show, now write the music.”
He mentions there are songs — “famous songs” — that he is adapting for the show, and that it will feature several “known vocalists,” but “I’m not at liberty to disclose what we’re doing.” Pushed to share, he grins and says, “I can’t. … I can’t. Someone will kill me.”
Typical Cirque. Many details of the show have been kept under wraps — even from members of the cast or creative team. And though Bates has been privy to many of the “secrets,” at times he’s still had to work from concept rather than concrete plans.
“I didn’t know until this spring that Robert was writing the dialogue,” Bates says. “So when samples of the dialogue started to appear and we started placing them in our initial rough sketches of music for the show, it definitely informed us about the function of music throughout the show in a way that is different from what we understood it to be before that dialogue.”
And that meant reworking the music. But after years in the film and television industry, Bates is used to adapting to changes that come as scripts are adjusted or scenes are edited.
“The thing about Tyler is that I push him out of his comfort zone and he does the same to me,” Schwandt says. “I give him references and give him a direction that is out of the wheelhouse of what he typically does, and he keeps rising to the challenge with grace instead of saying, that’s not what I do, or giving me something that’s the way he wants to do it.”
Bates smiles when he hears that assessment. Then he pauses, pondering that thought, and his expression turns serious.
“I’ll never meet what I think their expectations are,” he says, modestly. “But it’s not like I chisel these sculptures together, and there you go. This is a work in progress. And even when the show opens, I’m going to be available and willing to continue to hone this. We’ll see how the show starts playing. There may be a more optimal way of expressing an idea that music can help with. I’m open to it if it’s required.”
In the next few weeks, he’ll be heading to Las Vegas, where renovations to the theater are wrapping up and the cast is already rehearsing. There, he says, he plans to continue to tweak his score.
“Doing a show like this,” he says, “no matter what your station is in your life, in your career, it’s rare air.”
After “R.U.N” opens, Bates will take a break for the first time in years. With all the projects he’s been juggling, he rarely takes a day off. He’d like to spend more time with his kids before he launches into a new round of projects.
“I’ve already rented a house in a place not in this country for a month. I will have a burner phone, so there’s going to be only a few people who will be able track me down,” he says. “I haven’t slept a hell of a lot in the last decade. I would like to just recharge …”
Before he can finish his sentence, his phone rings. The caller ID flashes “Michael Schwandt.” Time to get back to work on “R.U.N”.