Originally published in SciFiNow issue 105 in April 2015.
From the ominous opening strings of The Walking Dead to Battlestar Galactica’s lush experimental soundscapes, composer Bear McCreary has spent the past decade crafting a unique body of work that has accompanied some of television’s most popular series. Here he discusses his career, genre expectations and how an understanding of the audience’s familiarity with the sounds of sci-fi, fantasy and horror can be a composer’s best creative asset.
Re-launching a beloved franchise is often a daunting prospect – never more so for the creative talent involved. In late 2003, a budding young composer waited on tenterhooks to see how fans might react to the new interpretation of a popular sci-fi franchise, long absent from screens since the late 1970s.
“It’s hard to remember now,” McCreary explains, “but back in 2003 before that miniseries aired, people were very concerned about our Battlestar Galactica. We were coming fresh off of Star Trek Enterprise, which had its moments, but I think fans of the genre were a little dismayed by the main title song because it felt so inappropriate for the genre.”
The revitalised Battlestar Galactica made its debut on the Sci Fi Channel on December 8th 2003 and fans around the world soon found that any fears they might have had were unfounded.
“You had a show that was very dark and very earthy and lost a lot of the trappings that supposedly science fiction genre fans were expecting and creatively the show was a runaway hit. The fact that it didn’t have big triumphant brass in its opening main title scene – obviously, that did not dissuade people from watching it.”
Having worked under the tuition of prolific film composer Elmer Bernstein, for almost ten years, McCreary had garnered a wealth of experience composing for independent shorts, which would prove invaluable assisting composer Richard Gibbs on the miniseries that re-launched the Battlestar Galactica franchise. When the show received a full season order, Gibbs was unable to devote full-time to the series and a fresh-faced McCreary stepped up to the challenge.
“To say that Battlestar was the turning point is to imply that there was a career before that,” he jokes. “I was so immersed in that world that when the lucky break came – and it was a lucky break – I just had the feeling that I needed. I knew the players that I wanted. I feel like there was a combination of being prepared for the lucky break when it came.”
That lucky break kick started an enviable career, with the composer going on to score over 70 episodes of the series. Since then, he has seldom been short of work, working across an array of projects over the course of the last ten years. Each has brought with them their own unique creative challenges, but perhaps the most interesting is the prospect of toying with what a genre might conventionally sound like.
“I think that ‘genre’ is a word that has taken on so many meanings over the past ten years,” he muses. “It’s something that’s a bit of a double-edged sword for me. I love science fiction and fantasy and horror and I think my love of those genres helps me in working in those genres. At the same time, I don’t really know what it means to score music that sounds ‘like science fiction’. You have to acknowledge that fans are coming to a genre piece with certain expectations, but I think that is often best when you subvert those expectations.”
The Battlestar Galactica score’s penchant for experimentation remains one of the show’s great assets, and one that paved the way for other series to break similarly experimental musical ground. Since then, the past decade has seen McCreary’s CV expand considerably to boast the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Constantine and, perhaps most notably, The Walking Dead.
The latter saw McCreary become heavily involved in conversations with the show’s creator, Frank Darabont, and executive producer, Gale Anne Hurd, long before the show was even cast. At the core of their discussions was the way in which the show’s music might define the overall tone of the fledgling series.
“The thing that makes it so interesting is it’s an open ended world. I wanted to do something that was iconic to the world and the environment and the way you feel when you watch it, but not necessarily to write themes that bond you to specific characters. My general emphasis has been creating a Pavlovian response – when you hear those strings coming in before the main titles, you always know that you’re watching The Walking Dead.”
If sci-fi comes with its own set of conventions to be defied, then the musical tropes associated with horror are an even more daunting proposition. With jump-scare clichés and intense string orchestras now the norm, audiences have grown all too well accustomed to the tools in a composer’s toolkit – something McCreary acknowledges has ultimately come to lessen the impact of the music itself.
“The whole genre requires an understanding of its principals more than any other by far, because familiarity breeds comfort. The more often you hear something, no matter how dissonant and screechy it is, the less scary it becomes over time. There was a bit of an arms race in horror scoring in the late 70s and throughout the 80s and 90s where scores kept getting louder and more bombastic. You’d have a hundred-piece orchestra and everybody screaming and scraping and it became a somewhat desperate attempt to continue to scare people, because they just weren’t scared anymore. They were familiar with the tropes and familiar with the sounds.”
What is striking looking back at The Walking Dead’s first tentative steps in to television is just how much the score and its overall effect on the show has progressed since its 2010 debut. From the outset, McCreary and Darabont sought to maximise the emotional impact of the music by using it as little as possible, which has enabled the composer to continue experimenting years later.
“Frank and I really strove to hit the reset switch,” he exclaims. “If you look at that 90-minute episode at the beginning, there’s almost no music in it at all, because we really tried to bring the bar to a different place; to bring the volume down. ‘Let’s have it be quiet as much as possible so that when score comes in we don’t have to scream at you.’ That made for an effective first episode, but it also set a wonderful tone for the series. If the first episode of The Walking Dead had had a huge blaring, screaming orchestral score I don’t know what I would be doing now, fifty episodes later, to try to keep people interested.”
The show’s distinctive theme tune employs a simple, recurring string motif, played by an ensemble orchestra, which is something McCreary felt would set it apart from the more melodic, synthesised sound that has come to embody horror in recent years. Over time this has evolved on an episode-by-episode basis, resulting in a theme that the audience often hears differently depending on the circumstances portrayed in an episode’s opening moments.
“In the beginning I was going for a very acoustic, Bernard Herrmann-influenced sound. I combined it with a lot of distorted and manipulated instruments from the region – Bluegrass instruments, country instruments, western folk instruments. I used the banjo to represent the threat from the walkers, but it doesn’t sound like a banjo because we ran it through so many effects and distortions that it ended up as this really unique sound.”
Following Darabont’s departure midway through the show’s second season, former producer of The Shield Glen Mazzara took the reins of showrunner before former writer Scott Gimple assumed the role from season four onwards. Having remained a constant creative force since the show’s inception, these changes in creative leadership have provided McCreary with a wealth of unexpected new opportunities.
“Each brings a different perspective, has a different voice and tells a different kind of story,” he explains. “So, understandably, the score has kind of evolved over the years and that’s actually turned in to a real creative asset for the show because it keeps it fresh. It keeps it dynamic and interesting and season five doesn’t sound like season one anymore.”
Under Gimple’s leadership, season four began to explore some of the darker themes of Robert Kirkman’s source material, most notably the latter episodes, which marked a tonal shift to considerably darker territory, even by The Walking Dead’s unapologetically morbid standards. Consequently, the biggest challenge for season five was what McCreary cites as a sense of “long term endurance,” both for the audience and for himself as a composer.
“The story arc was so meticulously planned out by Scott Gimple that in the first episode, he already knows what’s going to happen in the last three minutes of the last episode. Musically, I’m always trying to foreshadow, sometimes to help hide certain pieces of information that Scott doesn’t want you to figure out too early.”
Tactically misleading the audience has therefore become something of an art form for the composer, but juggling the action of individual episodes and the show’s complex overarching narrative is another thing entirely.
“Ostensibly, it’s a show where people are trying to survive being killed on a weekly basis,” he observes. “But in reality it’s a much more complex narrative. You have the micro concern, as I call it, where you have to make the scene itself work and you have to keep ratcheting up the tension – how do you make a piece of music that keeps building without running out of steam? That in and of itself is a challenge. Then there’s the macro concern, where you need the season itself to build on a certain path and grow and evolve so it makes the finale even more satisfying. That’s really exciting.”
In a resurgent Golden Age of television where many of his contemporaries are producing compelling work of their own across a wide variety of genres, McCreary occasionally laments that his hectic schedule often prevents him from being able to check out the work of his peers.
“I’m aware of what people are doing and I’ve heard a lot of their stuff, but the funny thing is I have so little time to watch TV,” he concedes. “I definitely hear a lot of great stuff, but I wish I had more time to really sit down a get inspiration from them. I can barely keep up with watching the shows that I’m working on!”
With a busy line-up of over half a dozen projects this year alone, including new seasons of The Walking Dead, Agents Of S.H.I.E.LD. and Outlander, as well as the upcoming Salma Hayek action film Everly, as ever, McCreary has plenty to sink his teeth in to. But when he isn’t busy tinkering away in the studio, McCreary has carved a reputation among fans for providing valuable insights in to a creative process that often slips under the radar. Having embraced social media early on in his career, it’s something he’s come to value greatly.
“Look, I’m a nerd,” he laughs. “I really enjoy interacting with fans, writing blog entries detailing the scores and the themes that they’re interested in, showing session footage and showing what it’s like working in my studio. I found, especially when I started on Battlestar Galactica, that there were a lot of fans that wanted to know about the score. I love talking about science fiction and music and soundtracks and character themes and in many ways, by becoming a composer I found a community of likeminded people. I just have a real fondness for them and for interacting with them. I’m genuinely excited about all the things that they are, so it’s been a wonderful, unexpected part of my career.”