Bear McCreary is the composer responsible for some of the most well regarded and arresting music in genre television, crafting the instantly recognizable themes and scores for The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD, and Battlestar Galactica.
In addition to McCreary’s work in genre television, he has also provided the music for video games like Dark Void and the Defiance MMO, and films like The Europa Report and the freshly released dose of metal and LARPing mayhem that is Knights of Badassdom (which is currently available to watch on various digital and on-demand services right now!).
In this exclusive interview, we talk to McCreary about crafting the metal sound of Knights, how he feels about the film’s late release, separating the sound of Agents of SHIELD from the rest of the Marvel Universe, and dealing with The Walking Dead’s behind-the-scenes personnel changes.
Den of Geek: Talk to me about how you got involved with Knights of Badassdom and also your working relationship with director Joe Lynch.
Bear McCreary: I worked with him on his first film, Wrong Turn 2 for FOX and I remember meeting him — we hit it off right away. Since then, we’ve collaborated on a number of projects in a number of capacities. I scored a segment of Chillerama for him and I’ve scored some commercials for him. But also, he’s acted as a producer for me and produced music videos that I’ve directed. In many ways, he was sort of the one who was pushing me behind the camera to shoot some music videos. So, we’ve had a really great relationship and we’ve collaborated together in a number of ways.
Do you have an interest in pushing past music videos to direct films?
You know, I would love to do something like that. It’s something that I love to do when I have a spare moment and that is not something that I see happening in the immediate future. The fun thing about the music videos is it gives me a chance to play around with the camera and tell a little bit of a story. It’s a lot of fun. I certainly would love to do it more and we’ll see what happens.
Not to give too much away, but can you talk me through the construction of the big song at the end, “Into the Abyss”…
It was called that in the film credits, but in the album I opted to call it “Your Heart Sucks My Soul” because I had actually forgotten that in the opening scene of the movie, the character Joe tells us the name of the song. So when I was putting together the film credits, I had just forgotten that because there was no music in that scene and I hadn’t seen it in a long time. So when I put together the album, I restored the name that the main character describes.
That song was the first track that I wrote for Knights of Badassdom and I wrote it almost four years ago. It was a long time ago in terms of the lifespan of working on a typical movie and it had to be done in advance so they could shoot to it on set so Ryan Kwanten could lip synch to it. So it forced me to kind of very quickly acclimate myself to what the language of the score would be. And while I listen to a lot of heavy metal, I hadn’t written anything in that style at this point, so I reached out to the creator of Metalocalypse (Brendon Small) and I reached out to Scott Ian from Anthrax — these were a couple of the guys that I knew that were really in that world. I just started to talking to them about what I should listen to, how I should write it, how do you get guitars to get that really great deep sound. And Brendon Small ended up contributing a lot of rhythm guitars and a guitar solo on that track, in particular. So it was great, it was a great chance to collaborate with some of my favorite rock stars. And after that song was done and they shot to it, then I had a template. I had an idea how to move forward with the score and really create a sound that’s unique to the movie.
The movie took a long while to get out. Now that it’s coming out, are you happy with the release and do you worry that people are going to discount the film because of its long path?
First of all, I’m incredibly proud of this film. I have always known that it’s something very special and I’m just thrilled that I was able to write music for it. In many ways, this film was conditioned perfectly to allow me to write the kind of music I love most and I got to draw from some of my favorite influences. It was an incredible experience.
I wish it had come out sooner. Of course, there is no denying that had this film been released in a timely manner after the fantastic appearance at San Diego Comic Con in 2011 it would have been better for the movie. But I don’t know, you know I think this movie will find its audience. I think it’s so fun and so appealing that even though the distribution is late, it’s better late than never.
Now, you do a lot of genre work, it’s really seems like a nerd buffet looking at your resume. Is it vital that you have a real connection to the project? It can’t just be work for hire, it has to be the kind of film that you would want to see, right?
You know, most composers would answer this, I think, differently than me and I might answer it differently at a different point in my career and at a different point in my life. But I am very lucky at this point right now that I’m able to choose what I work on and I always look for essentially two qualities in a project that I take on. The first is that it is something that I enjoy watching and that I would be a fan of. And definitely every show and every movie and every game that I’ve done falls into that category, especially the projects that I’m working on right now.
The second one is, it needs to push me out of my comfort zone in some capacity. There was a time after doing Battlestar Galactica, where I had my pick of projects that wanted taiko drums and ethnic vocals. You know, that was like, I was the guy who did that. And obviously I’ve done a lot of science fiction and recently I’ve been branching out into historical drama and I’ve done Da Vinci’s Demons on Starz and Black Sails and Outlander on the same network and all three of these shows take place during a real historical time and place in different parts of the world in different time periods. They’re different feelings, one is an adventure show, one is sort of a sweeping romance, and one is like a pirate political drama. So, you know, it allows me to get creative and it makes me learn something. Going into Da Vinci’s Demons I didn’t know anything about renaissance music and going into Black Sails, I didn’t know about sea shanties and popular music from the 1700s. I know a lot about those things now, so it’s been a really wonderful part of my career. I’m enjoying it.
When you work on something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., how aware do you have to be of Silvestri’s work on Thor and The Avengers? You don’t want to sound too similar, I suppose.
Yeah, this is a question that came up very early when I was working on the pilot and I think the producers had decided even before they hired me — or perhaps this is the reason they eventually did — the producers decided that they wanted to have a sound that was a little different from the film. You know, Coulson is not a character who has had a theme written by another composer for any of the films. He wasn’t so important in any of those films that there is a theme for him.
Beyond that, it would be counterproductive to quote music from Thor or Avengers because, to date, none of those characters have appeared and certainly they are not front and center characters in Agents of SHIELD and Agents of SHIELD has to stand on its own. It has to be an off shoot of that universe, but it’s not just a carbon copy of it. So what that meant was, we needed the score to sound cinematic, it needs to feel very big, so Marvel and ABC gave me the resources to be able to do, essentially, what is done on every Marvel film. We have a full symphonic orchestra every week.
Our largest one, they had a 91 piece orchestra at the Sony scoring stage a few months ago, which is… it’s ludicrous for television to have an orchestra this size but it gives the show a cinematic quality, so the production and the actual sound of the score feels very cinematic. It feels right at home with the Marvel universe but melodically and thematically, it’s its own entity and it emphasizes a little more the intimate, the quirky, and the human aspects of the Marvel Universe.
Working on The Walking Dead, you’ve had three different showrunners, how has that relationship changed from showrunner to showrunner?
The Walking Dead has been a challenge because one of the best things about working in television is getting to build a relationship over time, and I would say that if there was a law of gravity associated with television it’s that subsequent seasons get easier, you know? With each season, you’ve built more of a relationship and with The Walking Dead, it’s very much been a process of restarting every time we bring in a new showrunner. So it’s building the relationship from the ground up and rebuilding that sense of trust on both sides.
So that’s been challenging, but the reward has been, the show is constantly revitalized and I have had to adapt my sound and adapt my approach. And fans, I think, in watching this new fourth season, especially this one that just premiered, are going to hear music that is very different than the music that I set out to score. In many ways, I’ve had to reinvent myself entirely every time we get a new showrunner, so it’s been a challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun and I think fans are going to get a dynamic evolving exciting show as a result.