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Name: Adam Bernard
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About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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Bear McCreary Provides The Soundtrack To Your Favorite TV Shows
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Composer Bear McCreary’s name graces the opening credits of some of the biggest sci-fi shows on TV. He is Comic-Con royalty, and his latest project, the BBC America show Intruders, has him working alongside The X-Files producer Glen Morgan.

The owner of an Emmy, and multiple ASCAP awards, McCreary’s resume includes the aforementioned Intruders, as well as Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Da Vinci’s Demons, Outlander, Eureka, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Defiance, just to name a few.

Even with a schedule that involves composing for multiple shows simultaneously, McCreary found time to speak with me about his process, what started him on the composing path, and which show has the most secretive conditions. He also went in depth regarding Intruders, and the unique challenges the show poses when it comes to creating the music.

Adam Bernard: I was reading your blog and noticed that you recently had a daughter. Congrats! Is this your first time being a dad?

Bear McCreary: Thank you. Yeah, it is, so this summer has been crazy. It’s been crazy, but it’s been great.

Adam Bernard: I imagine you create some pretty amazing lullabies, and mood music, for the kiddo.

Bear McCreary: {laughs} You know, it’s funny, between me and my wife (Raya Yarbrough), who is a VERY good singer, I think she’s definitely getting a little more harmonically diverse lullaby background than most kids. I’ve even had her sleeping in my studio while I’m doing cues for The Walking Dead. (It’s) this very dissonant, kind of scary, stuff, and she’s just bouncing in the little swing, and totally asleep.

Adam Bernard: That’s awesome. When you’re not composing music for an infant, your name is gracing the opening credits of many people’s favorite shows. How did you initially land in the world of composing for television, and film?

Bear McCreary: It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do ever since I was a kid. It was my passion starting from when I was five years old. I just loved movies, and movie music. I would sneak into the movie theater with my little Fisher Price cassette recorder, and hold it up to the screen and record the music so I could go listen to it later. Only when I was six, or maybe seven, did I discover that you could buy the music from the movie separate from the dialog, so I didn’t need to make my little goofy bootlegs.

I spent all my spare time in high school writing music. That’s all I’ve ever done, write music. The only difference between then and now is that at a certain point people started paying me, and before I knew it I was a professional.

Adam Bernard: But before you were a professional you were a six year old bootlegger! Those Fisher Price recorders were big and brightly colored. How come no one stopped you?

Bear McCreary: I used to stick ‘em under my jacket, and try to hide ‘em.

Adam Bernard: The bulk of your professional work has been with sci-fi, and action oriented shows. Were you a fan of these kinds of shows growing up?

Bear McCreary: I was. These are the kinds of series and movies and books and comics that I grew up reading, and consuming. I loved the genre, and I still do, so it’s very exciting for me to be able to contribute back to the genre.

Genre storytelling, in and of itself, it’s something I’m very passionate about, and I’m very lucky in that I get to work on shows that I am a fan of. In many ways it’s the trick for me to be able to work so hard, because in my life I don’t get time anymore to go see a lot of movies, or just watch shows that I like, I don’t get to consume media as much as I used to, so for me the only way I get to enjoy a show is pretty much by working on it.

I’m a huge fan of everything I’m working on, and I get to see the new episodes, and I can’t wait to see what happens to my favorite characters, the only difference is after I’m done watching it I get to take it home and work on it for however long I have. It’s a different kind of experience, but at the end of the day it’s all about loving these stories, and it’s exciting to be part of them.

Adam Bernard: Are there specific challenges to composing for sci-fi versus other genres of shows?

Bear McCreary: I find sci-fi is the most liberating of all genres, because there are no rules. For example, my score to Battlestar Gallactica was predominantly Japanese taiko drums, Middle Eastern percussion, ethereal Middle Eastern vocals, minimalist 20th century influenced orchestral writing, and a little Bob Dylan and rock and roll.

Who is gonna tell me that I can’t do that? What rule am I breaking by doing that? It’s a sci-fi show, and it takes place in a time that is not clear, in a place that is not clear.

Conversely, a show like Da Vinci’s Demons has sci-fi elements, and it is an adventure show in a very traditional sense, but it takes place during The Renaissance, and it’s about people who are real. It’s about people who even had their own music written for them in their lifetime, so I felt obligated on a show like that to acknowledge, and incorporate, those materials that are historically, and geographically important.

Ultimately they’re both fun. I love the liberation of getting to do whatever I want on a sci-fi show, and I also love being able to dive in, and research the music of an era, and incorporate it into my score. It’s a different mindset, but I love them both.

Adam Bernard: You’re not gonna have a lot of heavy synths in The Renaissance era.

Bear McCreary: No, you’re not, although I do use them. I do use a lot of modern sounds, I just make sure their function is to reinforce the Renaissance instrumentation, the instrumentation that’s more organic.

It’s fun, because it really is an aggressively action packed show at heart, so you really need to be able to drive it forward with a lot of aggressive, modern sounds.

I think a better example of really really historically accurate writing is probably Outlander, where I am really drawing from only source instruments, and source tunes, and I’m writing things in ways that are very historically accurate.

I’m incredibly historically accurate for Da Vinci, too. I guess the difference is I had to take some liberties because Renaissance music itself is so harmonically limited you can’t say a lot with the music of that time period, so I had to push the boundaries further, whereas Outlander takes place in 1743, and that music is just a little more expressive, in general, so I had a bigger palette to work with.

Adam Bernard: Have you come across an instrument from that era that’s been tough to find that you’ve wanted to use?

Bear McCreary: You know, I haven’t, but it’s an interesting question because I’m tending to write for the instruments that I can find. The instrument that I have used for both shows that we’ve mentioned so far is the viola da gamba, which is an instrument that started in The Renaissance, and actually had its heyday in the late Baroque, when Outlander takes place, so it’s appropriate to both series.

I learned about the instrument when I started Da Vinci, and it’s an instrument that sounds a bit like a cello, but much more piercing, and old world sounding. If you listen to the Da Vinci’s Demons main title, that’s the instrument playing, the main theme, the viola da gamba, but on Outlander it has a very different sound because I’m asking the player to play in a more baroque style, and just a different style that feels like it’s 250 years later in terms of musical development. It sounds so different, I don’t even think it sounds like the same instrument that it is on Da Vinci.

Adam Bernard: You mentioned earlier that watching these shows, and then composing the music for them, is the way you get to watch TV now. That means you know A LOT of spoilers.

Bear McCreary: Oh man, I know it all, dude. I’m usually a year ahead of what’s on the air.

Adam Bernard: What kind of “we will kill you if you reveal anything” type of contracts did you have to sign, and how often do friends pester you for information?

Bear McCreary: You know what’s funny, I find most people don’t want spoilers. I will tell you that every company approaches this differently. I can’t actually recall any of the contract language, but I can say that of all the companies that I’ve worked for, Marvel takes that stuff more seriously than anybody else. When you’re working on a Marvel project it’s seriously like you’re working for S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s pretty incredible, the security protocols. It’s really exciting. It makes it feel like you’re working for this top secret government organization, like (we have) state secrets!

Most of my friends don’t want to know (spoilers). In fact, they find that it’s difficult to talk to me sometimes because they want to talk about The Walking Dead, and they can just see the look on my face, and they know that I know what happens.

The biggest challenge I’ve ever had in my life in regards to spoilers was Battlestar Gallactica. When that was airing there was a big mystery about who the cylons are, which of our human characters might end up being cylons. Due to the complications of the writer’s strike, it shifted the production schedule so that the episode that was supposed to reveal that ended up airing a full six or eight months later than it was supposed to, which was already a year after the previous episode.

It was a long time to sit on that secret, and have everybody who works on the show know what it is, and the fans are dying to know, and you can’t say anything. It really drove me crazy.

Adam Bernard: With your resume, exactly what level of “like a boss” do you walk into a Comic-Con with?

Bear McCreary: {laughs} I would say an extremely high level of “like a boss.” I’m definitely on my home turf when I go to Comic-Con, and it’s really fun because I can’t take two steps without seeing someone in cosplay for something I work on.

I see posters, and exhibitions, and panels, for all the stuff I’m doing, and most importantly, I get to talk with people who are fans of my projects. It gives me some perspective.

Most of the time when I go to Comic-Con people recognize me, but what’s really fun is when they don’t. I had a nice long conversation walking down 5th Street with some Walking Dead fans who were in these great costumes. They didn’t realize who I was, and I was able to talk to them about why they like the show, and who’s their favorite character, and what do they expect in the upcoming season. It was really cool to have this completely unfiltered, honest conversation with fans that were not gushing about it because they knew they were around someone who works on it. We were just connecting about it as fans. That really was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that experience.

Adam Bernard: Being that some of these shows happen concurrently, what’s your working process like? Do you dedicate specific days to specific shows, or do you break up your day with them?

Bear McCreary: I break up my day however is necessary. I will say that my life is a different adventure every day, so there’s certainly no pattern to it all, and in order to juggle all these projects you have to be good at multitasking and keeping a lot of plates spinning. I am very careful, though, about carving out my time to be creative.

I usually get up really early, and I also stay up really late. Those hours in the day when the phone doesn’t ring, and emails aren’t coming in, is usually when I can be creative and really write, and come up with ideas that I'm happy with and that I think the showrunners will like, and the fans will respond to.

The other beauty of the schedules is that television today is different than it was a few decades ago, where the seasons, and thusly production schedules, were pretty unified. Nowadays I’ve got shows on networks, and those schedules are like clockwork. You know for a fact that those schedules aren’t going to change, because they can’t change. On cable it’s much more flexible. Some of these shows, I am finished with them months, if not close to a year, before they even begin airing.

All of the shows that I'm doing on Starz, for example, and BBC America, Intruders included, it’s more like tackling a big movie. With an eight episode, or ten episode, season you’re able to think about the whole thing in one swath. You’re able to look at it as a movie, and tackle it as such, and you get more time, so in many ways it’s not like doing that many network shows.

That’s the way I’m able to carve out time, and be creative, and still give every project that I’m associated with my full attention, and give it a score that I think it deserves.

Adam Bernard: You mentioned Intruders, which just started airing on BBC America. What excites you most about your work with that show?

Bear McCreary: I was drawn to Intruders primarily because of the creator, and showrunner, Glen Morgan. I loved his work on The X Files, and he’s done a bunch of features I’ve really enjoyed. He had worked a lot with one of my favorite composers, a composer named Shirley Walker, who I think is one of the greatest television composers to have ever lived.

When I started talking with Glen I just felt compelled to work with him. Shirley has passed away, sadly, and I felt like here’s a guy who had worked with her, and if nothing else, if nothing else, I can get stories about Shirley Walker by hanging out with Glen.

I got on board the show, and I just fell in love with it. It is so well done, and so well written, and such an intriguing slow burn. As of this interview we’re three episodes in (the fourth episode aired this past Saturday). At about episode four is when it starts just taking off into the stratosphere. In the first three you’re kind of lost, and confused, and terrified. It’s a really cool tone, and it’s the kind of thing you don’t get a lot on TV.

Adam Bernard: When you’re composing, where’s the line between music that helps mold a scene, and music that takes over a scene, and how thin is that line?

Bear McCreary: It’s a delicate balancing act. To me, the task you just described is the most important job, because you can write music that in and of itself is emotional, or scary, or funny, but if it doesn’t support the scene you’re just not doing your job, and it doesn’t matter.

I want the music to be as minimal as possible, so wherever there doesn’t need to be music, we don’t put music, and where music can come in, I try to come in with the smallest footprint possible. That means that when you do need to go for it, and you need to have a big musical moment that does kind of take over, because the drama needs that to happen, then you can be very effective, because you’re only doing it that way when it’s absolutely called for.

A show like Intruders is interesting because it’s so atmospheric, and brooding, and the music actually needs to provide a lot of support, because the narrative is a little tricky to follow, and our characters are very complicated. We do not have any archetypes on this show. There’s no character that’s just the good guy who’s going to save his wife, or the bad guy who’s going to stop the good guy. Everybody has these layers, and making matters even more complicated, the actors are playing multiple characters.

We started having these long conversations, Glen and I, about who we’re actually looking at on camera. We would be looking at the little girl and I would turn to Glen and I’d say, “OK Glen, I need help. Is this Marcus, or is this Madison, because I’m actually not clear, and the music will reflect who it’s supposed to be.” Glen would help guide me and say, “I think it’s Madison until this frame, and at that moment, when she turns her eyes, then it’s Marcus.” I go, “OK, I get it. I’m gonna use Madison’s theme in the beginning, and then I’m gonna use the Marcus theme when she does that little look.”

It’s a really very subtle, fine line, but when you have a showrunner who understands these subtle layers, and encourages you to highlight them with music, it can be really fun, and I do think that the music in Intruders really helps the audience follow what is going on.

Most of the time the job of music is to help you feel, but I think in Intruders the music actually helps you follow intellectually, it helps you understand which person inside the actor you’re hearing speak at any given moment.

Adam Bernard: That is really cool, and it does help, because she looks like a little girl all the time.

Bear McCreary: And this little girl (Millie Bobby Brown) is so amazing. She’s such a phenomenal actress. There are times when she is acting like Marcus, who is acting intentionally like a little girl to get what he wants, so you have these multiple levels coming from a ten year old actor. It’s amazing, and I do feel like the music helps support her, and helps tell her story, and helps the audience follow what’s going on.

Adam Bernard: She mildly terrifies me. I’m not afraid to say that.

Bear McCreary: Oh man, me, too. She’s fantastic. She’s really fantastic. I think she’s gonna be a breakout star of the show, for sure.

Adam Bernard: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add about any of the projects you’re working on?

Bear McCreary: For people watching The Walking Dead, I've seen fans come up to me with their seven to ten year old, or 13 year old, kids who are fans of the show, and they always say, “I cover their eyes (at the scary parts).”

Do not let children watch season five. This is my PSA. The time of that has ended. Do not let children watch this year.


Interview originally ran on Arena.com.

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