Emmy Award-winning composer Bear McCreary is one of the leading and most innovative musical composers today, with his work currently featured in Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons and Black Sails, as well as the AMC series The Walking Dead and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He works in the mediums of film, television and video games, always bringing something new, interesting and different to the table.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, he talked about the differences in process for all of the projects he’s working on, composing a main title theme versus the score for weekly episodes, changing his style to fit the narrative structure of the project, collaborating with the showrunner, being attracted to the challenge of a project, why he’s in it for the long haul, when it comes to the TV shows he works on, how much he can take on, at one time, and when he realized this was what he wanted to do with his life. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
BEAR McCREARY: The fun thing about working on a show like that, where the themes in the music evolve so closely along with the characters, is when the characters move into new environments and form new relationships, the music can evolve and grow along with them. It’s very different then a procedural approach to television, which is trying to maintain the status quo and trying to make episodes sound similar. It’s really the exact opposite approach where each episode is meant to evolve and change. So for me, I frequently enjoy the second season of a show more than the first because I really enjoy, having created all these themes, getting to play around with them and take them into new places. And I think the audience now has an expectation and an understanding of how some of these things work, so it’s fun for them to pick on these variations.
When you started working on that show, where did you begin? How challenging is it to write music worthy of someone like Leonardo Da Vinci?
McCREARY: That was my first and an overwhelming thought, getting started, which is not necessarily the mental state to be in, if you want to get an idea going. But that was definitely where I started. The first thing I wrote was the main theme, which functions both as the main theme for Leonardo and as the main title for the show. Once I had that figured out, the rest of it grew more organically.
Is there a different process for composing a title theme versus composing a score? Are there more discussions about what everyone is looking for when it comes to a title theme because that’s what will always be used to represent the show?
McCREARY: Yeah, the main title is challenging because you have to find something that captures the essence of the show in a relatively short period of time. There’s a lot of pressure with that. You want to create something that is memorable and that will stand the test of time and that people will enjoy listening to, over and over and over again. But one of the things that I really enjoy about it is that it’s featured a little more prominently. I enjoy melody, and it’s a chance to write really melodically and come up with something that can become a useful tool that you can use in the score. Shows that use pop songs in main titles are at a disadvantage, unless it’s stylistic to the show. Something like The Sopranos is a good example of that. You introduce this theme to the audience and subconsciously, they’re going to remember it. So, when you get to bring that theme back in a new form, it’s something where, whether or not the audience realizes it, they’re aware of it and their brain remembers it. To me, it’s a really powerful tool to have, as a composer and just for a show to have in its narrative toolbox.
Are there specific challenges to writing a modern-sounding score that serves the show, but also stays true to the era’s musical history?
McCREARY: Yes, and Da Vinci’s Demons is one of the better examples of that challenge. It’s a very modern show. It has a lot of cinematic style. It’s told in a very contemporary way. But at the same time, it’s a timeless story. It’s an adventure story that takes place in the Renaissance. Those are all things that I wanted to combine musically to help set he tone. So, you hear a lot of Renaissance instrumentation. I think that instrumentation speaks for itself. It’s instruments and, in some cases, even melodies that are appropriate to the period and to the location. But, it’s also combined with a lot of modern synthesis and contemporary orchestral writing that really grounds it in a modern cinematic language. It’s finding that balance that was the greatest challenge.
What is the collaboration with David S. Goyer like? Is he somebody who comes to you with a lot of notes, or do you feel like you’re on the same page, most of the time?
McCREARY: I would say that we’re on the same page, very frequently. I think David S. Goyer is definitely a visionary writer and filmmaker. One of the things that I really enjoy about working with him is that he’s able to communicate his vision, but also give the people that he works with room to bring their own voice to the project. One of the things I really like about working with David is that it’s not that he doesn’t have notes, but his notes always make the score better. He has an almost supernatural ability to hone in on areas where I’ve having trouble because I wrote something but wasn’t quite sure what it should be. Even though he’s not able to articulate musically why, he’s always able to say, “I don’t quite understand what the music is doing here. I want something that makes me feel this way.” And it’s always a section where I really needed some input. In that regard, it’s a very collaborative process that it very rewarding for me.
Have you ever had instances where you have the opposite problem, and you get notes back that you know don’t sound right, but you have to do it because you’re essentially an employee?
McCREARY: Being a composer is a little like being a painter. Sometimes you hire a painter because you want a beautiful painting for your wall, and other times you hire a painter because you want them to paint the wall the color that you want them to paint it. I’ve been very, very fortunate. The kinds of projects that people hire me on are the ones where they want something unusual and interesting. Obviously, that can be part of the job. But one of the things that’s fun about working with guys like David S. Goyer, and Jonathan Steinberg, the showrunner of Black Sails, is like this too, is that, even when I get a note that, at first, is frustrating and makes me think, “That’s not the right idea,” I go to my studio and play around with it and very quickly realize, “Oh, they were right.” At the end of the day, the process of collaboration makes the music better, which in turn makes the show better, and that’s what our common goal is. Everyone has a unique perspective on things, and ultimately we’re combining our efforts to tell a story. You really do rely on the vision of the producers to be able to guide everyone in the same direction. So, I usually look at notes as a really useful way for a producer to communicate their vision, which is ultimately what your job, as a composer, is.
What was it like to learn about this instrument (the viola organista) that is a cross between a piano and a cello being constructed and played more than 500 years after Leonardo Da Vinci conceived of it? Were you immediately thinking about how you could get your hands on it and use it on the show?
McCREARY: Yeah, absolutely! I knew about that about a year ago, and was already working on that. It’s incredibly exciting. It’s something that, for a future season, there’s definitely room to incorporate that into the score and perhaps even into the narrative. One of the things that’s so exciting is that Da Vinci was a real-life figure who was a visionary. He was able to imagine all of these things, but he didn’t have the resources to build them. The guy that built this instrument based on his sketches was coming from the same place that David S. Goyer and Starz were coming from, in the conception of this show, which was, what if he had those resources? What if he lived in an era where he could have built those things that he imagined? In many ways, it’s life imitating art, imitating life again. It’s a wonderful time to be exploring this historical figure. And as a composer, all I do, all day, is look for new sounds that can be used to tell a story. That’s a sound that already has a story built into it, so it’s very exciting.
What is your typical process for scoring each episode? Do you watch the episode before you compose it, and are you always thinking of music that could work for a specific show that you’re working on?
McCREARY: It’s a little bit of both. Primarily, I really need to see the show, or the given episode, before I can really make concrete musical decisions. Sometimes it’s good to think about it in advance, but other times it can lead you down paths that may ultimately be antiquated. Until you cut it together, you just don’t know what you have. Someone writes it and someone directs it, but actors, cinematographers, lighting and editing all have a huge impact. It’s only when you cut together that first rough cut that you can look at it and go, “Okay, this is what we have. These are the strengths, and these are the weaknesses.” There are elements that the contributors can bring that can really have a huge impact on the music and reveal a new layer to the story that might not have even been in the script. It’s not until it’s cut together that I can really look at it and realize what it means.
What ultimately gets you to sign on to score a show?
McCREARY: It’s the challenge. I look for something that I haven’t done before. There was a point, relatively early in my career – and I guess I’m still relatively early in my career – where I started with Battlestar Galactica. I did a lot of science fiction, and I’ve done a number of post-apocalyptic science fiction environments. I’ve also worked on Caprica and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. They’re fun and fascinating shows. But when I got the call to do Da Vinci’s Demons, which is a historical drama and a historical fantasy, it was something that I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to do, so I knew it would push me into new places, creatively. That was really challenging and really fun, and ultimately really rewarding. That’s what I look for the most, in a new project. I want the opportunity to learn a new kind of music. I didn’t know anything about Taiko drums when I started Battlestar, but I know a lot about them now. And I didn’t know anything about Renaissance music. Music history was not my strongest subject in school. I brought a music history consultant in to work with me on the score and teach me about the instruments and about the way music was used, not because I adhere rigidly to those rules, but you have to know what the rules are before you break them. So, it’s been really great. It’s really changed the way I think about harmony and melody, and I’ve evolved, as a composer, for having done it. That, alone, made it very appealing to me.
Would you ever consider leaving a show before its run is done, or do you feel like there’s always something you can do to keep it fresh for yourself?
McCREARY: It’s not something that’s crossed my mind yet. I’m a big fan of the shows that I work on. In that regard, I feel very lucky that I get to get up every day and work on exciting shows. With that said, if you look at the shows that I take on, I tend to do shows that have very complex narratives. There is no better example than Da Vinci’s Demons. Season 2 was very bold and epic, and we went to new places, both figuratively and literally. For me, in a way, it is a new show. It’s very much a situation where I’m expanding and doing new research and learning about new kinds of music and writing things for new characters. These are the kinds of shows that are not like procedurals, where once you’ve done one episode, you’ve done them all. It’s a much more cinematic and narrative experience, which makes it richly rewarding. So, I’m always in it for the long haul.
How was your approach different for Black Sails?
McCREARY: Black Sails, in many ways, has some similarities with Da Vinci’s Demons in that it’s a historical drama that takes place in a very specific time period, in a very specific part of the world. Therefore, I use instrumentation that comes from that time period. But compositionally, it’s the opposite of Da Vinci’s Demons. Where Da Vinci’s Demons is very elegant and structured and very carefully thought out, and the themes are planned and built in a very intellectual way, Black Sails is all about the grit and the dirt and the raw emotion and the filth of the world. The instruments that you hear on that score are not modern. You don’t hear orchestra. You only hear instruments that existed in that time period, and instruments that are small enough that they could realistically be carried on a boat. It’s raw. I limit the number of takes that we get with the musicians. You hear mistakes. Literally, there are wrong notes, and there are people improvising. There’s still thematic structure. It’s not a complete jam session. But it’s not the sound of Erich Korngold or Hans Zimmer, of the composers that have done swashbuckling pirate shows, in the past. We really tried to make it as gritty, realistic and raw as possible. This was something I had never done before, and it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. When you hear the main title for Black Sails, you can hear that it sounds nothing like Da Vinci’s Demons. When I listen to it, it’s hard to believe I even wrote it because it’s so contrary to the way I normally work, but that made it immensely rewarding.
You’re composing for Black Sails, Da Vinci’s Demons, The Walking Dead, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Defiance. How much can you take on, at one time, and still be able to make everything sound different and unique, and keep it all separate?
McCREARY: That’s the ever-evolving question, in my career. When I was doing Battlestar Galactica and I had the opportunity to do Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, I knew it was an opportunity that wouldn’t come up twice. I grew up on the Terminator films, and the showrunner and I really felt the same way about the first two films. We adored them. But I thought, “Can this be done? Can I possibly do two shows?” It’s really a matter of finding the bandwith in your life. These shows are so inspiring. It would be difficult if I were doing three cop shows that all took place in the modern day, or three medical shows, or three reality show. Those have their own challenges, and I have mad respect for the guys who can churn out huge amounts of music in those genres. But for me, I actually find that variety refills my well. The Walking Dead doesn’t have a lot of music, but it takes me to very dark places. It’s an oppressive experience, getting inside those characters’ heads and feeling that bleak desperation. In a way, it’s very refreshing for me to be able to go from that to Renaissance Florence and play in an environment that’s much more adventurous and sweeping, in a heroic way. I think it’s actually my strength, as a composer. Having all of these things going keeps me excited about each of them because I don’t burn out on anything.
When you work on something like The Walking Dead, that is so many seasons in now, does it make things easier because it’s so firmly established, or is it more challenging to find ways to shake things up a little bit?
McCREARY: It’s a tricky example, doing four seasons of any show, and I’ve only had that opportunity two other times because it’s very rare for television to get there. There’s been a lot of regime change, so I don’t feel like I’ve done four seasons of the same show. I’ve worked with three showrunners on that show, and each person brings their own vision, their own language and their own shorthand. So, Season 4 was Season 1 again. It is a challenge, but not because it’s been four seasons.
When you work on a show like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., do you take the entire Marvel Universe into account for the music, or do you strictly focus on what the show is doing?
McCREARY: When I went into it, I was open to anything. In that case, it was a situation where the show needs to stand on its own. I knew, right away, that the producers wanted something unique because they hired someone who had not scored any of the Marvel movies, which I think would have been an obvious choice, if they wanted that direct continuity. The spirit of the Marvel brand, though, was something that we wanted to keep alive. We wanted it to feel quirky and human because our protagonists are not superheroes, so there needed to be something to set it apart. But it is the Marvel Universe, so we wanted the audience to feel a sense that these stories belong in that broader universe. So, there is a big orchestral approach. In some cases, the orchestral writing is even more traditional, in the John Williams sense, than a lot of the stuff in the Marvel films. But, there’s also a lot of intimate guitar and intimate synthesizer programming that makes it feel very modern. It’s a balancing act. The writers, the actors and myself are still finding that balance. We’re finding that perfect middle ground where it feels like you have enough superhero elements in it and it fits in the Marvel Universe, but you also really need to like these characters. It’s a very different thematic structure than the “With great power comes great responsibility” trope that is frequently the theme of superhero movies.
You’ve done a considerable amount more work in television than you have in film. Has that been a conscious decision? Do you particularly enjoy following the characters on these journeys and composing over the long-term with them, or do you also like what film gives you?
McCREARY: I know I sound like I just get bored super easily, but I really do thrive in all these different mediums. Film and television each have their strengths. There is something very rewarding about working on a film where you can look at it in one sitting and you know what you’re up against. You know whether it’s good or not because you can see that. You know where the characters go. You know exactly how to pace yourself. You know where the climax is, and you know where all the turning points are. You can guide yourself, creatively, along those lines. Television is very different. It’s basically the opposite of everything I just said. You can watch the pilot episode and get a feeling for whether something is good, but certainly, that’s not a definitive rule. There have been plenty of shows that have become fantastic, after the pilot is just okay. And there have been plenty of shows that have a killer pilot, but then only make it to nine episodes. You have to treat each episode as an individual piece. Each one has its own set-up, development and climax. But in the broader sense, you also need to pace yourself.
The rewards for that, though, are pretty amazing. You build a different kind of relationship with your audience. You build a relationship over a long stretch of time, so they hear the score more often. The themes can be more powerful, or more subtle. In a way, the themes can be more effective because you can pay things off over the course of years. The relationship with the audience instead of being two hours, extends over eight or 10 episodes, or 13 episodes, or whatever it is. It’s such a different experience that, in some ways, it can be more cinematic, ironically. And then, the third spoke of that wheel is video games. They are an evolving art form, and I’ve done a number of those. That’s a whole other mind-set. But, it’s all for the same function. With narrative games, television and movies, we’re trying to tell a story. What’s so fun for me is that I get to write narrative, evocative music. The way it interacts with the audience may change from medium to medium, but the ultimate goal does not.
People don’t realize how important and critical a film or TV score is, in capturing and underlining the moments, and they take it for granted because it’s just always there. Was there a point when you started to recognize that yourself, and decided that this was what you wanted to do?
McCREARY: Oh, yeah, I was five years old, and I’ve never looked back. It’s been my passion, my entire life. When I was a kid, I went to movies and my friends and I would walk out of the movie, and they would be talking about the explosions or the spaceships or, later on, the hot chicks. And all I would talk about was how Jerry Goldsmith turned the theme upside down for the bad guy, or hearing the French horns in the main title. I could tell that it was Danny Elfman when I heard the first two notes. Those things caught my ear. In some ways, I feel like I was somewhat predestined to end up working in this field.
The Da Vinci’s Demons Season 2 soundtrack is now available through all digital providers.