Fear The Walking Dead: Paul Haslinger interview

We chat to film and television composer Paul Haslinger about his work on The Walking Dead spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead...

Spinoffs are always something of a creative hazard for all involved. Aside from the obvious expectations that audiences are likely to have based on the original, the additional pressure of creating something that’s sufficiently different enough to warrant its own identity is a real challenge that many series have struggled to overcome in the past.

For Austrian composer Paul Haslinger, scoring Fear The Walking Dead was never going to be a small undertaking. With The Walking Dead composer Bear McCreary’s instantly recognizable string section already an iconic piece of music in its own right, shaping the tone and atmosphere of its standalone companion proved an enticing prospect.

Having recorded no fewer than 15 albums with Tangerine Dream, including work on the iconic score to Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, he left the band in 1990, departing for Los Angeles. Since then he has carved an impressive career as a solo composer, with a CV that has expanded considerably to include the likes of the Underworld franchise, Death Race and various video game projects.

We recently caught up with him for a brief chat about his work on the spinoff series to date.

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At what stage in production did you initially come to be involved with Fear The Walking Dead?

I was called earlier this year to meet with showrunner Dave Erickson and music supervisor Linda Cohen. Based on this conversation and some music I had submitted earlier, I was picked for the gig. 

Bear McCreary’s work on The Walking Dead obviously has its own very distinctive sound. As a spin-off, series how did you go about crafting something that’s unique to the show as a standalone piece, but still fitting to the universe that viewers are familiar with?

I was not asked to create anything that anybody is familiar with. This show, despite sharing aspects of the original show, aims to stand on its own feet creatively. 

Did you use McCreary’s work as an initial frame of reference though?

Not directly. We’re in a different setting, a different timeframe and a different storyline. It made sense to take an independent music approach. I do of course appreciate McCreary’s work, not only on The Walking Dead, but Battlestar Galactica and elsewhere. He’s a wonderful composer and he knows what he is doing.

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With the new location in mind, The Walking Dead takes a lot of its musical inspiration from its Atlanta setting, using bluegrass and western folk instruments etc. Fear The Walking Dead has a much more industrial sound, which I assume comes from its LA setting?

This is actually the second time I am scoring Los Angeles in the throes of destruction. The first was with Tangerine Dream – Miracle Mile and it never gets old. I don’t think we picked ‘industrial sound’ as a concept. We just tried different things and what you hear in the show seemed to work best. As the story continues, and the characters face the reality and brutality of survival, the music will adapt.

On that note, horror is a genre that tends to come with a lot of familiar tropes where music is concerned – staccato notes, ominous strings etc. Do you feel it’s harder to surprise audiences and keep them on their toes when working in the horror genre nowadays?

It’s a tricky balance for sure. That being said, I am a big fan of the recent string of low budget horror films that take these clichés and give them a new spin or calibration – Snowtown and It Follows being two examples. And out of these twists and turns of something familiar, quite often new things emerge.  

It Follows was particularly striking in that respect. Thinking about your experience on Fear The Walking Dead and the Underworld franchise too, when composing for horror, do you feel that composers have a responsibility to try and subvert audience expectations about what horror should traditionally sound like?

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I don’t think they have a responsibility to subvert any expectations, but they have a responsibility to provide music that a) is effective in supporting the story, b) feels natural to the project and does not feel artificial, showy and pretentious and c) feels true to the time.

Bear McCreary’s score on The Walking Dead has kind of evolved as the show’s story has progressed and its characters have developed, growing progressively darker. Is that something you’re looking forward to as the show goes in to its second season next year?

We’ll see how it develops… I am not writing the scripts, so I’ll follow wherever the story leads. 

While you composed the music for the series itself, Atticus Ross was responsible for the show’s opening stinger. Did you have any contact with him regarding this? How did this come about?

I am good friends with Atticus, and have the greatest respect for his work over the years. We both keep fairly busy, so we typically only run into each other socially every once in a while. The main titles are usually handled as a ‘project within the project’, and at the time I was already busy writing music for the pilot.

Despite the lack of direct interaction, I think one of the appeals for AMC to hire Atticus for the main titles and me for the score was the fact that our musical sensibilities will always match to some degree, whether we work together directly or not.

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There are several moments in the pilot episode that use a kind of soothing synth, which gives a false sense of security. As the show is set pre-outbreak, I got the sense that you and the creative team had lots of fun toying with the sense of naivety that many of these characters would have been experiencing at this stage. 

Yes. We and the audience are ahead of the characters. It’s good fun! 

What were some of the most creatively challenging moments for you on the show?

There is a lot of sound and music in this show, and there are scenes like the various riot sequences and the hospital drive by in episode three, where both sound and music need to feature prominently. Getting these balances right is one of the greatest challenges in this project. 

And we’re in something of a golden age for TV drama at the moment, aren’t we? Music is obviously playing an enormous part in this. Do you tend to pay much attention to what other composers are doing in the field? Who else inspires you in this regard?

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Yes, that’s a fun part of my job: I get to check out other projects and call it research. I do listen to shows and films pretty much like I listen to music in general. I’m always curious. Some of my recent favourites are Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror. I also love what my friends Dave Porter and Mac Quayle are doing on Blacklist, Better Call Saul, and Mr. Robot respectively.

Finally, you’ve also worked in video games as well as TV and films. I’m curious to know what is it, if anything, that you find particularly appealing about composing for the medium of games versus traditional, more linear forms of storytelling?

It is always a thrill to take in the system of a game – all the various levels and the maze of construction, and yet, in the end, I’m asked for the same thing as on any other project: come up with something a little more original than the other games. So yes, the mechanics are different, but the creative quest is similar to any other project.

Paul Haslinger, thank you very much!

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