It could be said that composer Will Bates really hit his stride over the last year after more than a decade scoring for film and television. With the high profile and critically acclaimed 1-2 punch of Netflix’s Unbelievable and Hulu’s Hillary, Bates was attached to two of the more significant television projects in recent memory.
In our conversation, we discuss the different approaches he took to writing music for both shows, as well as the marked similarities and themes that overlapped for each.
Awards Daily: So, Unbelievable and Hillary in the same year. That’s not bad. (Laughs).
Will Bates: It was a great year. What can I say? It’s funny to be having this conversation with you now considering what’s going on in the world right at this at the second. But yeah, I was so fortunate to work on both of those projects and they are strangely related in some way. It was all very inspiring. It was really helpful for the work.
AD: Aside from the strong feminist angle of both, Hillary and Unbelievable both say a lot about what it’s like to be a woman in the modern world. Regardless of prestige or income, there are barriers to being believed and being respected that men simply don’t have.
WB:Exactly. There’s a victimization element, isn’t there? Hillary was so untrusted and and in the end that was the same tragedy with Marie’s story with the with the police and the initial investigation. There’s very strong female characters in Unbelievable as well. Hillary is obviously a very strong person. It was so interesting for me. Sometimes we don’t have a huge amount of control of what projects land on one’s plate. I got to the end of Unbelievable, and the two projects intersected. For a moment I was working on both shows within the same week, which is very weird. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it was kind of like, there are so many women in my life right now–incredible strong ladies. My wife too. (Laughs).
AD: How did you come to each?
WB: For Unbelievable, I was introduced to the show runners by the music supervisor who worked with me on a show called The Path. With Hillary, I think I met Nannette through an editor who maybe worked with Alex Gibney–I’m pretty sure. It’s sometimes so nebulous the way this all goes. I was in New York for about 13 years and Nannette is based there and that whole project was based in New York and I went out there to meet with them a few times.I think that introduction came from my web of New York contacts from back in the day.
AD: Unbelievable is a scripted drama and Hillary is obviously a documentary. Does your approach change for the material based on those distinctions?
WB: In the beginning of the process I tend to treat it very similarly. It comes down to the same moment of needing to find that melody or that instrumentation that’s intrinsically connected to a character. I look at it in a very cinematic way. That’s something thatI learned from Gibney as well: to always treat these things as a cinema and story, and then the process develops. I think the main difference is simply that the documentaries have more music in them. There’s a more practical element when you’re scoring conversations and images from the past. You have to write a lot more music. It is different in that regard but at the outset, it’s very similar. I tend to find a sound, or a I’ll have an idea in my mind of what my process is going to be. And then based off of that, I’ll sit in front of the piano and come up with a chord sequence or melody that I I know will support the weight of a certain character or a certain situation. A moment happens when I discover that thing and then everything kind of unfolds off of that. Doing a show like Unbelievable It was really about Marie and her internal struggle and trying to embrace what she’s going through. Then there’s this other part of the story which is sort of more procedural and kind of a buddy cop story. Whereas with Hillary it’s a lot of archival footage–it’s a documentary. I’m supporting those scenes in a different kind of way, but I’m still referring back to themes.
AD: In Hillary, your music sits a bit lower in the sound mix than it does in Unbelievable. Do you find that true of most documentaries?
WB: It’s a question of style isn’t it? With docs, because there is that feeling that the music is just so constant, it does generally sit a little lower. It’s funny because I feel l with Alex’s docs he tends to blast it a bit more. I’m not really sure why that is. But then working with Nannette and other documentary filmmakers I’ve learned there are different ways that filmmakers use music to support story. Maybe that’s to do with the amount of of dialogue. I think about you know the difference between say Going Clear that had tons of strange animations which allow a lot more opportunities to do weird stuff with music. With Hillary, it was more about getting this emotional support, and finding these themes, and having a way to sort of connect the timelines.
AD: You’re a multi-instrumentalist, but you also use a lot of electronic sounds in your scores. At least it sounds electronic to me, but at the same time, it’s a warm sound. I almost feel like my ears are playing tricks on me.
WB: I collect a lot of weird old analog synths–I’m in my studio now surrounded by all sorts of gear. It’s kind of an unhealthy obsession maybe with modular synths and old gear from the seventies and eighties. (Laughs). I grew up as a jazz musician. I thought I was going to be Cannonball Adderly until I got to about twenty and then I discovered techno and released a bunch of house and techno records in London. Then I was the lead singer of a band for a while. So, there’s always been this weird mix of all kinds of stuff which I think is been really useful with being a composer. When I use electronics, I’m happy to hear that you’re confused by it. (Laughs). That you think your ear is playing tricks on you, because I think that’s part of what I love is to blur the lines and make it sort of indiscernible where things are coming from. If I’m using synths, I try to have them have as much personality as possible. I might manipulate them and put them through amps and mic stuff from different rooms and that kind of thing. That’s always been important to me: trying to make things that may be thought of as more clinical, and electronic, and cold, and making them have as much organic feeling as possible.
AD: Both scores really traffic in subtlety and restraint. What about the material pointed you in that direction?
WB:Focusing on Unbelievable for a second, we talked a lot in the beginning about internal. That was a really important word for the showrunners and I think that it’s minimal and there are these a serial layers. The idea was always that they should never be more than three or four elements. I always loved the idea of this kind of contrast, this constant juxtaposition of these kind of cold – especially when there’s procedural moments – passages, but there’s always a lightness and everything is kind of contrasted with a feeling of something organic that’s there that expresses her frailty. I used a lot of tape loops that kind of gradually decay as she’s being worn down by this constant interrogation. There are these cycling repetitions you get when she’s being interviewed constantly in that first episode and something that we return to a few times in the in the show. But there is also this melodic thing. It was important that she had a clear melody. There’s a serial element to the score, but it’s pierced by a very frail, delicate melody. I have a an old upright piano at the studio that I was using my fingers to kind of pick the strings.
I used the mellotron, which is an instrument that uses tape loops. Any time that things got too much, It just seemed like it needed to be pulled back. Again the performances are so powerful, It just didn’t need too much. The music is there to describe perhaps something else that isn’t on the screen–just to give it more depth. There was never any need to support the performances because they are so amazing. When we did the procedural stuff, we didn’t want it to be that kind of conventional cop show procedural feeling, with the beeps and whatever. We talked about trying to have this organic way of doing it. I used ta percussionist, Mathias Kunzli, he must have brought in 60 to 70 different bells, and gongs, and like weird sheets of metal, and all sorts of stuff. I arranged it in my studio and recorded these passages of really simple rhythms played with these really weird sounds. They were super helpful for getting that cycling feeling that kind of propulsiveness, but in a way that was hard to kind of place, and was slightly eerie sounding. It was kind of a fun and interesting way of doing it.
AD: The score in Unbelievable is a little more pensive, which I imagine relates to the material. At the same time, I always felt like there was a hopeful undercurrent in the music. So much of the story is so grim already, did you intentionally add those notes of modest uplift?
WB: I think that’s right. That was a clear direction to never have it be weighed down by that sense of desperation. There can be that sense of desperation, but it can’t be totally lost in There’s a scene where Marie is looking at a photograph of herself at the beach during the attack and she uses this as a way to escape. We talked about that a lot–this feeling that it’s almost like she’s thinking underwater to try and escape this constant pressing down. It’s not just the attack but everything that happened afterwards with the institutional indifference. I think that’s part of maybe how she was able to turn herself around and really make the case for herself to get out of this situation. I think without that sense of hope as a source of strength–that had to be in the in the score, because otherwise, it’s just too grim. I think it’s an expression of who she is.
AD: I spoke with the Director of Photography about the attack scene and she sort of echoed your thoughts. That Marie has to detach herself to survive, and the beach sequence is this sort of strange beautiful thing amidst this horror.
WB: It’s something beautiful in the middle of something horrible, which I don’t think is easy to achieve.
AD: I have to say, it took me a while to watch Hillary. I thought it might hurt too much.
WB: Honestly, when that job landed on the table I was kind of like that too. I didn’t want to relive the election. But I watched that first episode you know and felt like, yeah this is important. This is a story that needs to be reminded of to a lot of people, and others need to be told for what may be the first time. As an Englishman growing up in London I think a lot of Brits don’t really understand why she’s been hated so much. It was really interesting for me to get my head around that idea that she’s been the victim of this campaign for maybe 30 years. Longer than just the Obama administration, and obviously there’s everything with Monica Lewinsky. But even before that it seems like it had been going on a long time. So, it was really interesting for me to learn more about what really was going on in terms of the reason why a lot of people are so turned off by her.
AD: There are a lot of different beats in Hillary–lots of ups and downs. Your score reflects those changes in tone. I think considering the subject matter, I was expecting something different.
WB: There are a lot of sharp turns in it. What was really interesting about the way that it was all put together is this whole dual timeline that is constant. It’s almost like one is relating to the other. I think that was something that I had to figure out on that first episode: what is the thread here? There are some melodies that appear in her early by biographic sequences, and I use this music box that’s been kind of processed and let’s say contemporized and is alluded to in other sequences. There were other tools like that that reminded you of her earlier ideals and how she became transformed by the struggles that she was put through.
That was part of the fun, to figure out those U-turns, like when she’s talking to Bernie before the debates and there’s like a gag almost where she’s talking about his tie. (Laughs). I always think about having to support those moments while there’s this sort of larger context of darkness. That’s the job, I guess, trying to figure out those beats. Again kind of going back to the difference between documentaries and narrative: a lot of those sequences are much longer so it’s easier to make those turns than it would be in a in a short form, with a shorter cue. There’s a lot of contrasting colors of organic instrumentation – there’s a lot more woodwind on Hillary. I started out as a sax player, and I play some reeds. There’s a lot of bass clarinet chords and flutes and stuff, with all these weird modular synths. I think that was helpful to humanize her story within a modern context.
AD: You referenced your efforts to tie together the time jumps musically. Can you go a little further with how you did that?
WB: Melody was really the key to it. To be more technical about it, I literally sampled myself. I took some of those melodies from the past and then I sample them and chop them up into bits and then use those to rearrange and create these cues for later on in the present day context. It’s almost like remixing them. Then out of those fragments I was able to kind of build these other new passages. But everything was somehow kind of related to those earlier cues. So, there is something at the back of your mind that is kind of harking back to that earlier timeline. I also did a lot of extreme time stretching. I would take a music box or a chord or a melody – there’s a few different ways to do this with modular rigs and software where you can stretch things to like a week rather than just a few seconds. You can pull things so far apart that it turns into a sort of eerie howling. Some of the atmospheric stuff you wouldn’t know that it was based on those earlier things but it was a useful way for me to build my melodies and my harmonies off of this thing that existed in the past. It was important that there was a defined feeling that this is archival, this is Hillary’s background, and then this is the present day with propulsion and movement. There were conscious choices of instrumentation for each world.
AD: The documentary is largely built around the failure of the 2016 election, but you also want to balance that with the fact that her life has been overall a tremendous success.
WB: Totally. She inspired generations of women to strive through what she achieved. Secretary of State, and the fact that she was on the judiciary committee during Watergate. I didn’t know that. We would go back and forth because it’s all tone. You’ve got to be so careful which side of that knife edge you find yourself on. And of course, it’s Hillary’s show, and she’s involved, and naturally, it’s going to lean towards her perspective. It was important for Nannette to make sure that it was as balanced as it could be. I found myself having to be careful to score those moments like the failure of the election. It couldn’t be seen as too much of a failure because there is also the sense of her incredible life. My way of dealing with that was to think of it more elegiacally. I always think of that last cue. That was tough trying to figure out. I’m talking about where at the end of the show it is ultimately a disappointment for her electorally, but there is a celebration of what she’s achieved throughout her life, and that’s also what the show is about. Elegiac. That was always the jam.
AD: I alluded to what a good year this has been for you with two such well regarded projects. What does it feel like to see the response both shows have garnered?
WB: It’s what everybody wants isn’t it? To feel that there’s some significance to the work and that’s definitely been the case with both of them. I hope to be involved in more things like this, but it’s also a timing thing where it seems like in the context of #metoo, and everything that’s happening in the world, to have these two shows appear at this moment is particularly special.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.