Interview: 'Going Clear' composer Will Bates

Going ClearHBO

April 06, 2015

To Will Bates, mastermind of music and audio production company Fall On Your Sword, the documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which premiered on HBO this past Sunday, is not just "an expose of the religion and explanation of its workings" but also a film that delves "into the reasons why these quite intelligent people give themselves to this idea."

Having slowly made a name for himself since he launched Fall On Your Sword as a mixed-media musical experiment, Bates is now an increasingly sought-out composer, sound experimenter, and producer with an impressively diverse range of credits across many platforms of fiction and non-fiction storytelling — including music for advertising and art exhibitions. With the new film on Scientology, as well as Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine (which recently premiered at SXSW), Bates is continuing his collaboration with director Alex Gibney — who has a great respect for the use of music in film, and works tirelessly to ensure that music and sound do more than just support the visual narrative.

I spoke with Bates about his score for Going Clear, and about his film scores generally.

What is Going Clear for you as a film? From your perspective musically, what is the film about?

Obviously the movie is about Scientology; beyond [the film] just being something of an expose of the religion and explanation of its workings, it's also delving into the reasons why these quite intelligent people give themselves to this idea. That's something that the director Alex Gibney asked me to do from the beginning: to create what he called "mindscapes," which I guess is a way to start, in an audio way, to explain what's really going on in the philosophy of the religion and what's going on in people's minds to give themselves up to it. It's a very complicated and layered movie.

The music is almost deconstructing itself while it's happening. It has very much a focus on the mechanics of how the instruments are working — like your work on the science fiction film I, Origins. You had similar ways of presenting the instruments where it's not just music that's underscoring and supporting a rhythm, but an active player in the conversation of the film.

Totally. Deconstruction is a really good way of putting it. In a sense it's what attracts a lot of people to Scientology, because really, it begins as this sort of self-help process; the idea [that it's] almost like psychoanalysis, makes you peel layers of your subconscious back and really examine yourself. I guess this is really what Alex is getting at with this idea of "mindscapes." Really get to the crux of what's going on there as a subconscious subject. It's been really interesting to see what that sounds like.

Did you work extensively with the sound design team for the film, or was a lot of the weight for the sound put on your shoulders?

I worked pretty closely with Bill Chesley, who is the sound designer — and on the album we did a couple tracks together. We actually had a really fun session at the end of the process where we combined what he had done and what I had done. But really, I was probably working on the movie a couple months before he came on board and his sound design is probably a bit more literal — even though some of the sequences in the film are crazy abstract and weird.

I think my job was [at] more of a sort of subconscious level in creating this kind of soup of weirdness. There are obviously melodic phrases that appear and there is a very emotional side to this story from the perspective of the people that were brave enough to come forward after they left the church. So, there's a lot of that — but there's also this general sense of unusual musicality that I had to invent a bit of a language for. On the album, I think [Chesley and I] were allowed to go a bit crazier with it. That's always kind of a cathartic experience for me at the end of a process to make an album like that.

Did you get attached to this film because of your work with Alex on the Wikileaks documentary We Steal Secrets, or did he come to you for it because of other work?

It was a combination of the two. We had had such a great experience together with We Steal Secrets and I did one of his 30 for 30 episodes as well just after that — but the editor of [Going Clear], Andy Grieve, is quite familiar with my other work.

He had actually asked me for bits and pieces; it was kind of funny because he didn't tell me what the movie was about, he just said, "give me your weirdest, most minimal, really simple early electronica kind of feeling soundscapes" and he used a lot of those when he was [assembling a temporary score]. A couple months later he called me and said, "all right, I can tell you what this is about." Which is pretty interesting.

So, they got used to using my sounds through the process of cutting the movie and obviously Alex and I worked really well together before and it was just sort of a natural fit. As soon as he told me what this was about, I said, "Hell, yes." It sounded fun and exciting. Alex has an incredible musical sense. He's very focused on how the music should work in his films and it's always very enjoyable; he's very specific, but also lets me experiment, which was really important with this one.

He always really uses music, whether it's source tracks or an original score, that doesn't just underscore. He seems to really want to propel the story with the music.

Yeah, and I think that really reflects his style as a filmmaker. He looks at his documentaries as narratives and they really play in that sense. There's not much of a difference scoring a narrative or scoring a documentary with Alex. His movies have that narrative propulsion that makes it feel more like a cinematic experience. I suppose the big difference is because it's a documentary there tends to be more music than there would be in a narrative. The workload is intense.

Would you say, for you, that's one of the biggest differences between the work you've done in fiction compared to documentaries is just the amount of music you usually produce?

I think so. I still treat a documentary in the same way as I do a narrative in terms of finding melodic signposts, having leitmotifs for characters, and some kind of thematic developments throughout the film; I still structure my workflow in the same way that I would a narrative. In the end it's to do with volume. When we did We Steal Secrets, that felt more like a kind Julian Assange opera. It was very thematic and really went Wagnerian the way those scenes developed. This movie is different because there are more characters involved; obviously L. Ron Hubbard is very present as a character throughout the film. It's less of a thematically-driven score and more of a tonal mindscape.

It also seems like with We Steal Secrets there was more of a forward propulsion of the narrative, whereas with Going Clear it almost seems like there is a backtracking. Not necessarily a nostalgic look back, but like the narrative presents a halting and the people having to look back through that.

It's kind of inward, in a way. There are a lot of very surreal reconstructions and some really crazy stuff that happens, hence the very bizarre tracks on the album. There are definitely moments of beauty, but there are also real audio assaults at some points.

The track on the record titled "Going Clear" seems the most thematic of the pieces you did. Is that accurate, from your perspective?

Yeah, it is. That piece actually appears two or three times in the film. The version on the album is sort of an amalgamation of the instances when it appears in the movie. I would say that it's something of a David Miscavige theme, if there could be one for him. That's why I chose to label that one "Going Clear." It's a piece we landed on a few times as perfect for certain sequences. There were a couple instances where I wrote pieces for other bits and Alex was like, "No, why don't we do a version of that piece?" It just ended up becoming more of a theme. It's the single.

Can you talk a bit about what it's made of — the instrumentation and development?

A lot of the score with the weird swirly loops is based on what Andy Grieve told me right back at the beginning before he told me what the movie was about and I happen to own a SQ10, which is the old Korg analog sequencer that was designed to work with the MS20, that sort of modular synth. I never really experimented with it, so a lot of those swirly sequences and rhythmic patterns were created using the SQ10; it's kind of like a step sequencer. I would set up my sequences and fiddle with the patterns while they were being played — playing through amps, mics from across the room — so it definitely has an old quality to it.

I made this mostly in the summer and at the time we were building a new studio at Fall On Your Sword. We had literally just put the drywall up so it was a huge echo-y chamber, and I thought this was such a good opportunity. I ran cables down the hall, set mics up and grabbed all sorts of percussion. All the percussive stuff was recorded in that room, I got really attached to that sound. And then, there's also a saw part way through. Can't go wrong with the saw. And then the piano motif. It's definitely one that gradually builds. There's a bit of the film the briefly touches on Cuba, so there was a motivation to have the more Latin percussive flavors in there.

You also used pieces by Tchaikovsky and Chopin — is that right?

That's right. There is also a Ravel in there as well.

What brought those pieces into the mix?

Alex had attached himself to the idea of there being these quite elegant pieces of music that definitely have a classical feel to them. It was something he was playing around with in the [temporary score], but we wanted to do interpretations that were reflective of the material we're talking about — a little bit otherworldly.

Essentially, most of them are duets between the harpsichord and the Theremin. I used a fantastic thereminist by the name of Dorit Chrysler who came over to the studio here and did a couple sessions. That was awesome. I have never recorded a Thereminist before. She had prepared a couple of pieces and it was really cool. I wish I had filmed it, actually.

That last track on the record, "Liebesleid," is a piece by Chrysler; the end titles of the film; and then she is doing Chopin's Nocturne in C# Minor and one of my pieces as well.

With the other ones I initially liked the idea of using an Ondes Martenot. it's like a 1920s, very early, synthesizer. French invention. It's kind of a thing that you put on your finger and you're sort of going up and down a keyboard with your finger, basically making electrical contact with this circuit. It's a very expressive way of playing an electrical sine wave. They are incredibly expensive, very rare, and difficult to get hold of. I liked the idea of having that kind of expressive way of playing and used my midi sax — which I normally have hidden because it's probably the most nerdy instrument I have in my studio — and had that set to a sine wave actually playing on my Arp Odyssey. It was a way of having this quite unusual and weird sound, but very expressive. So, some of the duets with Dorit are me playing my midi sax.

Did you find using instruments like the Theremin, which are insanely difficult to do well, fed the overall sound of what you were attempting, where it's like these elements could fall apart just as easily as come together?

Totally. The other thing that was really important for Alex was that at no time should there be any kind of poking fun. We're not here to judge anyone or anything. There's a real courage in these people speaking out and no one's implicating anyone in terms of their faith or judging them for that. It was very important to me that the score never did that — never poked fun at anything anyone was saying.

So, when using these instruments that was one of the big challenges; the Theremin, midi sax, and harpsichord can sound cheesy, so that was something I was really aware of. Everything had to be played in a certain way and treated very seriously, and that's why I had to have these really great musicians involved like Dorit — and the guy playing the harpsichord is a fantastic pianist by the name of Phaedon Papadopoulos who I worked with on Another Earth and I, Origins as well. I needed someone with real chops: some of that piano playing is beyond my ability, and he nailed it.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.