December 20, 2010 | By

Even if a composer deliberately moves between genres to test the mind in scoring comedy, romance, action, horror, and sci-fi, it’s still a struggle to treat each project as unique – and that includes developing a sound that doesn’t recall prior works. There’s personal style, and then there’s old habits that can sometimes sneak into the writing process, and affect the development of themes, motifs, and the overall score.

With Battlestar Galactica permanently etched into his brain, Bear McCreary’s manic workload is probably representative of a solid work ethic, but may also be the composer’s own solution to keeping the ideas fresh, the mind nimble, and the desire for new sounds constant.

In our Q&A, McCreary touches upon these subjects, as well as the new CD release of Human Target which gathers some rough material for fans to make their own judgments of early thematic concepts.



Mark R. Hasan: Was the show’s large orchestral design present from the onset?

Bear McCreary: It was. In fact, even before I was hired, showrunner Jonathan Steinberg knew that he wanted an orchestra, even for the pilot(!), and in fact one of the things he fought for and got was we recorded the pilot score before the show was even picked up. [That’s] very unusual for a television pilot, to spend that kind of money up front, but he knew from the beginning that it was an integral part of the character of the show, and the tone of the show, and I think he was right; the show got picked up, and it was really just a wonderful experience.

MRH: The series itself is based on a graphic novel, and I’m curious if the showrunner may have be influenced by some of the early productions. For me, one of the most standout soundtracks written for a comic book series was The Flash (1990) – which is truly amazing.

BM: I can’t speak for John Steinberg, but I’m sure that he’s aware of that. I think his influence was more on the cinematic side, personally. He and I both were sort of not looking at television so much as an influence but movies. We wanted to make an action movie every week, and I think the biggest influence – for the character of the show, and the music as well – would be the Indiana Jones movies, the Die Hard movies, and the Lethal Weapon movies, especially the early ones of those franchises. That’s the kind of balance between action and comedy where it’s action and it’s intense, but it’s also funny and it makes you smile. It’s that kind of seventies and eighties sensibility that isn’t so popular now.

People don’t do this, and in many ways it’s a very different series than something like 24 orPrison Break or any other contemporary action show. It was a little more old school, and the music more than anything else helped establish that tone, and I think helped bring the audience in and say ‘Look, this is what we’re doing. We’re going for this kind of vibe.’

MRH: Maybe it’s just my impression, but I also found the scores have little homages to veteran action composers, like Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, or even Danny Elfman, which I thought was really delightful.

BM: Yeah, if you didn’t catch some of the Goldsmith ones, man… For you to call them small homages is a compliment. Thank you… We grew up listening to Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams and Alan Silvestri and Basil Poledouris who are the five composers I think of. (James Horner and Danny Elfman a bit, too.) This is the sound that made me want to be a composer in the first place, and now I get to go back and play around in this language, and it was a thrill.

MRH: I think Silvestri was a key player in that big sonic action style. Much has been written about Die Hard (1988), and Michael Kamen definitely wrote one of the definitive action scores, but Silvestri had this knack for creating these amazing sounds with huge orchestras and gorgeous brass, but at the same time there was always a sense of humour in his writing, and I also got that in your score. I wonder if that is one of the hardest things to do: you’re writing action music, but make the audience aware that they should be in on the joke.

BM: I got used to is as we went along. It was a real challenge for me in the beginning, especially when you look at the project I’m coming from: Battlestar GalacticaTerminator: The Sarah Connor ChroniclesCaprica.

These are pretty stark series, and in fact with the Human Target 3-disc set that just came out (thank you La-La land Records), there’s some sketches that I put on (I’ve never released my sketches before), and you can hear my struggle with this.

You can actually hear in my first demo for Human Target that the rhythm is all there, the instrumentation is all there, but there’s something in the melodic and the harmonic structure that you listen to and you go, ‘That kind of sounds like Battlestar, that sounds kind of like Sarah Connor. There’s a darkness to it,’ because I couldn’t actually believe that they really wanted the series to go in that full direction.

In fact, I was writing the theme sketches before I even saw the pilot; it was just around when I got the job that I was messing around with some ideas… [When John Steinberg] heard my 6th demo, he said ‘This is good. It feels like an action show, but it doesn’t feel fun. I want the audience to always know that it’s okay to have fun with this show.’ When I heard him say that, I said ‘Okay, I think I know what we need to do.’

If you look at that thirty-second title sequence, you can hear all these different emotional threads that I pull out and highlight in the score: there’s parts of it that feel pretty fun, and when I want the score to be really fun, that’s the part of the main title that I draw from. There’s parts that are more dramatic, and when I want a big emotional impact, I pull from the second part of the theme. I really felt that once I got that theme down, it was like the perfect seed from which the score could grow.

MRH: With a number of the shows that you’ve been working on, the episodes per season vary between 6 and 18, and I’m curious if a lower run makes it easier for you to both develop the music style for the show, and plot specific points where the score better represents the evolution of characters.

BM: Yes, and actually for me, Human Target is the pinnacle of this episodic growth because I had a showrunner who intimately understands thematic orchestral music.

Let me give you a few examples. In an early part of Human Target, some characters get mentioned, and if you didn’t know better, you would never have any idea how important those character arcs would become, and as I was doing the episode, Steinberg said to me ‘Hey, this little mention here is going to become a big deal at the end of the season… We’re going to find out more and more about [this girl], so can we write her a love theme now?’ and I thought ‘Write her a love theme? We don’t even know anything about her!’

Just because he mentioned that she exists, and because I knew these things were coming, I planned out all these character themes in advance… Although it certainly must have happened, but I can’t think of another time where you heard a character theme stated strongly in a TV show for a character you don’t even see for 5 or 6 episodes.

Those character themes get stronger and they develop, so that by the time you actually see these characters in the last episode of Season 1, when you hear their themes when they walk onscreen, I think even if you’re not aware of the music, it sounds familiar, and you don’t even know why. There’s a familiarity. It’s like ‘I know this person, I know who this person is,’ because you heard that theme 6, 7, 8 times, and that’s something that is so fun for me. That to me is a level beyond just scoring the action in a scene; that’s more about the subtext, and that’s something only music can do, and I was just so grateful to have the opportunity for that kind of really deeply woven character theme approach to a TV series like this.

MRH: I like the fact that you also keep your moving between comedy, horror, psychological drama, and other genres, and your current project is The Walking Dead for Frank Darabont. I’m curious how that is different from your horror film scores like Rest Stop?

BM: It’s different in its approach and it’s ironically similar in its instrumentation. The score to theWalking Dead is built up of several different kinds of families of instrumentation. One of them is a very stripped-down minimal orchestra between 7-10 players that’s kind of like the Bernard Herrmann or Ennio Morricone approach.

Another one is more of a bluegrass approach: it’s got banjos and dulcimer and auto-harps and dobro. These are actually sounds that I played around with in Rest Stop and Joe Lynch’s Wrong Turn 2, so in a way I had already practiced this kind of country-bluegrass horror scoring, and that’s the way it’s similar.

The Walking Dead is not necessarily overtly scary. The tone of the show is very different than a typical horror movie. (I wanted to say horror TV show, but there aren’t many to compare it to.) It’s really a character drama. It happens to be set in a zombie apocalypse, so while I’m setting the tone and creating a lot of great ambiance and atmosphere, most of the time I’m commenting on some character [or] on something beneath the surface – kind of like what I was talking about in Human Target, although it sounds very different on the surface.

In that way, Walking Dead is a really unique opportunity because you’re working with a filmmaker like Frank Darabont who’s crafting a really well put together dramatic story… I think people that might expect the show is just a typical zombie story are going to be really surprised; and then of course fans of the graphic novel know that this story is actually wonderful, and I think they’re going to be thrilled at how loyal to the comic Frank has stayed.

MRH: What was it like working with Darabont, because he’s got an interesting background with horror, haveing done a number of franchise films, and novel adaptations?

BM: The first horror film of Frank’s that I really fell in love with was The Blob (1988), which he wrote, and I just think The Blob is one of those underrated gems of a movie, and especially because of Frank’s screenplay: you don’t know who the main character is, and  you really don’t know who’s going to live and who’s going to die.

Even when I was growing up, I was like ‘This Frank Darabont guy that I like. Who is this guy?’ So to be able to work with him now is exciting, and Frank has a real vision. Frank is a visionary director in the true sense of the word, and it’s great to be able to work with somebody who has a tone in mind and knows exactly what they want to experience, and he may not know exactly the kind of instrumentation he wants, or what the theme should sound like, but he’s really great at giving you guidance and pulling you in a direction. In many ways working with John Steinberg on Human Target was the exact same thing, so I’ve been very fortunate to work with producers and directors that have a really strong musical vision.

MRH: And finally, will there be a soundtrack album to The Walking Dead?

BM: ‘I hope so’ is my short answer. We don’t have any planned release yet, but I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to put one out.


. would like to thank Bear McCreary, and Beth Krakower at CineMedia for facilitating this interview.

Visit Bear McCreary’s official website.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2010 by Mark R. Hasan


Related links:

CD:  Human Target, Season 1 (2010)

Film / DVD: Walking Dead, The – Season 1 (2010)

Interview: Bear McCreary (2009)

BR / Film: Human Target, Season 1 (2010)


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