Interview: Composer Bear McCreary Discusses ‘The Music Of Monsters’, His Career & Influences, Including Battlestar Gallactica, Child’s Play, God of War, & More! (SDCC 2019)

Bear McCreary

Last month at San Diego Comic-Con 2019, an exclusive group of journalists was invited to an extended interview with one of today’s best working composers – Bear McCreary. McCreary was attending the convention to promote his work in Godzilla: King of the Monsters with a panel titled “The Music of Monsters: Kaiju Concerto With Composer Bear McCreary.” While the interview was intended to focus on his more recent work (he’s composed five scores in 2019 alone), the discussion quickly turned to a wide range of topics about his vast filmography – both past and present.

Throughout his already-illustrious career, McCreary has proven to be not only diverse but also supremely prolific in the range of his work. In the interview, the composer discusses his scores for Battlestar Gallactica, Child’s Play, God Of War, Outlander, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and more. Throughout our discussion, the composer also touches on his diverse range & influences, the variety of instrumentation that he uses, how collaboration with different filmmakers affects his work, in addition to a host of other topics about McCreary’s creative process. So without further adieu, here’s our full interview with Bear McCreary!

For our exclusive interview focused on McCreary’s remake of Blue Oyster Cult song, “Godzilla” for the King of the Monsters, click HERE.

(Note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)

This is a fan question, but can you discuss your percussion work on Battlestar Gallactica?

Bear McCreary: Well, back in 2003, the notion that you would take a property like Battlestar Galactica, and use percussion instead of an orchestra, predominantly as the score was – I don’t want to say like, like groundbreaking or revolutionary – but it was, it was a risky thing. I mean, at that time, the only chances that had really been taken in science fiction music were in the main title sequence to enterprise – (sarcastically) which I don’t know anybody who really likes that. So there was this sense that like, it’s very dangerous to play around with that formula.

But shaking up the formula is what Battlestar Galactica was all about, so the sort of idea of having a big bombastic space opera orchestra was thrown out the window. And this is by the producers, even before a composer was hired, they knew they didn’t want that. They weren’t sure what they wanted in its place. So you had this like a vacuum that could be filled with anything. And we found that percussion – especially Taiko drums and Japanese percussion, but also Middle Eastern percussion – added this really cool rhythmic tribal quality that played against the technology of the images. And I think that became the defining sound of the score.

Let’s talk about the range in your music, between all of your projects. Is there a part of yourself that you put most into your work? 

Bear McCreary: That’s a really great question. I feel like there’s a part of me that goes into all of it. And that all of it represents a side of my personality. That might have been the end of my answer, like three months ago. But actually, after scoring Child’s Play, it might be that. I mean because Child’s Play – unlike anything else I’ve ever scored – is performed almost entirely by me. Layering, by layer by meticulous layer. Singing all the vocal parts, playing all the little toy pianos. And hurdy-gurdy, and accordion, and slide whistles, and kazoos, and even action figures. It’s very tactile and it’s very direct. It’s like, right out of my brain into this weird score.

As a result – I wasn’t thinking about it this way – but it’s very personal. Because it is literally not filtered through any other performer but myself. Even when I write this evocative string piece, I’m not a violin player. So the violin section, they add something and they make it their own. A with Child’s Play, there was nothing. For better or worse, all that weird sh*t is me.

You use a variety of instruments in your scores. When you compose a score, do you hear the different instruments in your head?

Bear McCreary: The short answer is yes. It’s very difficult for me to write music in a vacuum, without knowing what the instruments are going to be like. Whatever the instrument is, it has its places where it speaks very strongly and places where it’s weaker. And especially as I always – not always, but I frequently gravitate toward ethnic instruments and world instruments that are extremely limited. Take bagpipes, for example. I mean, there are literally notes that they can’t play. There are melodies that they can’t physically play.

But when I learned what those things are – I can go okay, this is the strength of this instrument – and then I write with that in mind. It helps inspire me. Whereas the other way around – if I go, here’s my tune, I guess I have a flute play it – it might work, or it might not. Do you know what I mean? So it’s helpful for me to, to pick some of those sounds early on, and then base my ideas on that.

Let’s talk about your score for God of War. You composed the theme for Kratos before the project had really been greenlit or further developed. That was almost thrown out, but eventually became the theme for the mother in the story. With that said, have you ever presaged a theme before it came to the actual work of composing?

Bear McCreary: It’s funny that you mentioned this. I haven’t quite put it into word before. But I find that most of the time that I’m really struggling – like when I hit a dead-end that it’s like – I don’t know what this should be. Most of the time, it means I’ve already found it. And I and I abandoned it. Do you know what I mean? And that’s when I kind of go, wait, what was that other thing? That happens a lot. I mean, I’m usually moving so quickly. As I’m writing themes or coming up with ideas, it’s like – ‘okay, there’s that put it away, there’s this put it away.’

I feel like I sometimes get lost in all the ideas. And that sometimes, the first instinct that you embellish or change becomes not what it was anymore. Sometimes that really is what you were looking for the whole time. So, it’s funny how often I forget this, and I hit that dead end. And it’s like – I’m out of ideas here. Then I go, what are the things I never catch myself in the moment, you never know when you’ve got that great idea and you’ve set it aside. You have to wander through, you know. You have to wander through the store for a while before you figure out what you came in for, you know?

Can you talk about the “mad scientist” portion of composing? Do you ever get a chance to make different sounds, by manipulating them and experimenting?

Bear McCreary: That, I think is probably the best description of most of my creative process. I have to have time to do that, or I can’t do a project. And the more of that I do, the quicker I’ll be able to do what everything else that comes next. For example, I remember doing a TV pilot, and I had two weeks to score 70 minutes or so of fully orchestral music. I was like, that means I need to write like five minutes a day, every day. And I just need to start with a theme.

So I spent the first day trying to write the theme and come up with like the experiments, right? I didn’t have it. I spent the second day, the third day, the fourth day, the fifth day. On the sixth day, I came up with something and I was like, ‘okay, I think this is it.’ And I was bordering on a panic attack because it’s like – oh my god, I have to write like 10 minutes a day to finish this. But, with the experiments successfully done, I had something I was excited about. So then I did it. And I was able to go. And I know if I had just started without a theme – without the experimentation, and just start scoring the action – I would have hit a dead end and had to go back and redo it all.

Image via Bear McCreary
Let’s talk more about Child’s Play. It’s obviously very different from Godzilla. How did you come up with using the song “Best Friend” by Harry Nilsson?

Bear McCreary: Well, that one. It’s funny because that one was actually in the trailer. And there was a song we used in the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane. I think, ‘We’re Alone Now’. And that’s one of those times where both of those songs are not in their respective movies. But it’s one of those times when you see a trailer and you realize – oh, my God – the marketing team has found this whole other layer of musical connection. And I think it was all inspired by the idea from the script, by Tyler Burton Smith, to have a song.

From day one, it was written in the Chucky would sing this little song. And I think looking at it now, it’s crazy to think that – when that script was written – I don’t think Tyler ever imagined that at Comic-Con Mark Hamill would accept the Icon Award and sing the buddy song. You know, I mean, as he’s accepting his award, and we never imagined it would take off in that way. But I think all of that comes from this playful idea that the screenwriter really had, which is like, what if the doll has a song? It’s Care Bears. It’s Teddy Ruxpin. It’s, it’s distorting this innocent idea into something more sinister. And whether that’s a song that everybody does know, or you plant the seeds of a new song, it’s the same technique. It’s a really powerful trick.

So you’ve talked a little bit about your creative process on your own. But I’m curious to know what your process is like when you actually go in and meet with the director or a filmmaker, and how that affects the work that you’re doing?

Bear McCreary: Oh, that’s a great question. I mean, that is everything. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but I feel very much I’m writing a score for someone else’s vision. And if the director had the training, skill, and time, they would score their own movie, but they usually don’t. So if they rely on someone like myself to have their vision materialize. So I find input from them is vital. And sometimes it’s not even what they say. It’s like, body language, attitude, and clues. It’s almost its like psychological games, you know?

Take Child’s Play, for instance. I invited the producers and the director over to my studio to show them the toy orchestra. I had assembled all this fun stuff. And some of the stuff I just set out. I wasn’t going to use it all. But I was just sort of like; let’s see what happens. So the director comes over – and even though there are all these fun toys – he immediately picks up a Colombo, which is an African thumb piano. It’s like; we’ve seen a lot of these. And maybe, this guy from Norway hasn’t seen a lot of them. So he’s like, ‘wow what’s this?’ And he starts playing, and he’s like, ‘that’s really cool.’ He starts playing it, ‘bum bum bum.’ And I was like, ‘gotcha!’

I literally wouldn’t have used this otherwise. And then I was like, that’s Andy’s theme. So I included the toy piano because I knew the director sort of just gravitated toward it. We could have talked for a week, and we would have never talked about African piano. But in that brief little moment, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ I’m going to remember that. So it’s fun. It can be a really fun collaborative process.

So this question might be a little bit nuts and bolts, but how are you coordinating the timing of when you’re writing the scoring for something? What happens if they’re going to re-edit a scene after you’ve scored it? What is the order of events? How much editing needs to occur before you get it?

Bear McCreary: I’m going to try to not get too nuts and bolts, but what you’re describing, what you are describing is the fundamental, technical challenge of scoring. Large films – let me take that back. Any film – even a small indie – it’s the same problem. It’s a little like – the best form of the film to score is the last when it’s done. Usually, that would be about a day. So it’s not even a question that you can wait, because it’s the mix is basically over. So the more time you have, the more you can experiment. But, the version of the film isn’t even sometimes closely related to the one, that’s final. So somewhere in between – the oatmeal is just the right temperature for Goldilocks – that it’s like, the film is close enough that I should start.

So I will make what is called conforms. That is, to conform to a scene that you’ve done to the new version of the picture. And you end up creating this sort of routine where I usually work 16-18 hours a day. And it’ll be like; I kind of divided my day in half. Because what we eventually get to the point where I’m writing some new scenes, but then we get a new picture and I have to conform the cues that I’ve done to that.

In some cases, this is where you have a team that can help you with this. So it’s like, ‘guys – I need you to conform this – make those edits while I’m doing the new doing the new picture’. It can be maddening. But at the end of the day, you piece all this stuff together. So yeah, you have to be really fast and you have to work very swiftly.

Has there ever been a score or theme from a pre-existing film that you think you could do a better version of?

Bear McCreary: It’s a funny question because there’s a lot of stuff like – you know – movies that I would have loved to have done because I love the movie. Then I love the movie and I love what’s there. Do you know what I mean? Like – I would love to score Aliens, but I’m not going to improve the score of Aliens. I think the films that come to mind are films that, in my opinion, were sort of falling into extreme trends of the day. So fantasy films from the 80s scored with a highly synthesized soundtrack – Ladyhawk, Princess Bride, Neverending Story, Labyrinth – they all have a vibe that’s rad. I love them.

But with Ladyhawk and especially Princess Bride, where I think the intent is to make a classical fantasy story. The whole joke is that the kid wants to play video games. And the old grandpa comes in and [uses old grandpa voice] read them a good old-fashioned story. Why that is not scored with a gigantic orchestra is probably because of the year that movie came out. So even though I love that score, it fundamentally almost undermines a part of the movie to me. For instance, when I show that to my daughter – who has no context for 80’s stuff – I imagined she’s like ‘what is this movie? Why does it sound like this?’ Do you know what I mean? So it’s funny, but it’s a personal taste thing.

Let’s jump back to some of your TV work, such as Black Sails and Outlander. Do you visualize where you’re at when you’re writing your music? For instance, do you visualize yourself in Paris?

Bear McCreary: I absolutely do. And in the case with Black Sails, the visual metaphor went one step further. I wanted to only feature instruments that could be taken on a boat and things that would be taken on a boat within that time period. So there’s no big String Orchestra. There’s no brass. It’s a hurdy-gurdy, and a guitar, and mandolin and fiddle. And then I sort of fudged it a little with – there is upright bass in the score. But I was having so much fun that I threw in heavy metal guitars and a drum kit [Everyone Laughs]. The heavy metal stuff is only in the main title because it was just so awesome that I couldn’t resist. But the spirit of it right, it’s like – It’s all stuff that could have been heard on the boat.

And it was very much a sort of reversing the notion that – to sort of counter exactly what I said earlier – fantasy needs to sound like this. Pirates need to sound like swashbucklers from the ’30s. And that music, to people who were on those boats in 1715, would never have even heard symphonic music. So it’s only because of a pretense that those movies were big in the ’30s, and all music in the ’30s sounded like that. That’s why pirate movies sound like they do. So I – and the showrunners as well – wanted to find something that was grounded and gritty. And so I thought, ‘all right, let’s just make a rule for ourselves.” And so it became that if the people in that world wouldn’t have known that instrument, let’s not use it in the score.

Bear McCreary

Let’s talk about scoring for villains. When you write character themes for someone like [actor] Stephen Bonnet or Chucky, is there some sort of redeeming quality you try to bring across? Do you look for ways to redeem them musically?

Bear McCreary: I always look for added layers. And I always look for something to augment what’s already there. Most of the time, if these characters are already intimidating enough, I look for something else. For instance, in the first two seasons of Outlander with blackjack – that dude does not need a minor chord. [everyone laughs] So I always do something else. Sometimes – if for whatever reason production isn’t working – you have to say ‘Hey, this guy supposed to be scary, let me remind you.’ But most of the time you don’t need to do that.

How do you manage the deadlines for TV, which obviously are a lot tighter than Film?

Bear McCreary: Well, you get into the swing of things, that’s for sure. I always sort of pace myself. I know how much time I have to write, and it always gets done. Like I mentioned earlier, I always focus on what I need the most. And usually – as shows go on – once the themes have been developed, it gets faster. On the contrary, I find the deadline in film is always way harder than TV. Because eventually, you know — if you made it to Episode Two, you’ve already done the theme – whereas, with a film, you’re usually inventing it from the ground up every time.

It’s safe to say that you’re a pretty busy guy. Do you find it difficult to juggle the various film and TV deadlines at a particular moment?

Bear McCreary: I find that it’s just hard to just focus on one of them because they’re also fun. But everything that comes along, I want to say no to all of it. At the same time, it’s like, ‘I have to do Chucky.’ It’s like, ‘I have to do Godzilla.’ I get to play around with Norse mythology, or even bagpipes. Every one of these things, I can tell you what the draw was. And if something doesn’t have that, I don’t do it. In a certain respect, I’m a kid in a candy store. So it never feels like, like work in that way.

A lot of contemporary music is heavily reliant on samples. Do you ever use any samples?

Bear McCreary: Overall, I do have a more organic approach. I definitely use samples – they’re a useful tool. But the short answer is – if you hear something that sounds like a real instrument in my music, it is a real instrument. And that in electronic style scores – if there are electronic style elements – I use every tool that’s at my disposal. But I loathe the notion of using short cuts to sort of, tricking people into thinking they’re hearing something they’re not because it never works for me. I will always know fake strings or something like that. And I think I think audiences know what’s fake, just like with cheap CGI. They don’t know why they’re like, ‘Meh, that just looks like a movie from 12 years ago.” They just lose just a little realism if they think that, and I feel the same way about music.

Do you write any music for yourself personally? Stuff that you don’t intend to share with anybody else?

Bear McCreary: I used to, I really did. And I don’t have time anymore. But I want to do more.

This is the last question, but I actually want to make a personal comment and see if you’ll respond. I was deeply moved by Sonatine’s Quest and thrilled with your scoring of her clear, joyous voice.  

Bear McCreary: Well, thank you. That was an example of a thing I did just for myself, actually. So I was wrong. I was inspired when my daughter sang a little score for her favorite picture book and realized that – depending on what was happening in the images – she was doing fanfares, or bad guys, or her heroism, or romance. So it was a fun exercise. I took her samples; I sampled her voice and wrote an orchestral piece to support it. And I did that for just for fun. But then I realized it was I just wanted to post it for fun. I thought, ‘that’s something I can give to my daughter.’

For the rest of our San Diego Comic-Con 2019 coverage, click HERE! To listen to all of the scores discussed in this interview, click HERE.

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