Composer Bear McCreary is, as always, in the middle of many projects. He’s finishing scoring the fifth season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and he’s about to begin scoring Season 4 of Outlander. He’s also completing scores for two features that haven’t yet been announced. Those projects, presumably, are different from the three upcoming 2018 films that are already displayed on his crowded IMDb page. Shortly after I spoke to the L.A.-based McCreary last week, an office email mix-up resulted in a message about scheduling a spotting session being sent to me, as if merely talking to McCreary by phone was enough to send moviemakers flocking my way.
McCreary’s music has recently been featured in God of War, The Walking Dead, The Cloverfield Paradox, and Happy Death Day; in the past two years, he’s also worked on Black Sails, Colossal, and 10 Cloverfield Lane, among other projects. In the 14 years since his big break on Battlestar Galactica, the 39-year-old McCreary has created the soundtracks to dozens of TV shows, movies, and video games, many of which he’s blogged about in great detail. Most of his well-known work—which sometimes features his wife, singer-songwriter Raya Yarbrough, and often incorporates musical instruments and traditions from around the world—has been concentrated in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. As much as any other contemporary composer, McCreary is the sound of sci-fi. But in recent years, he’s also branched out into other areas, eager to avoid being pigeonholed as someone who’s best suited to certain genres.
Below, we discuss McCreary’s composing idols and origins, how the projects he chooses reflect his tastes, his aversion to being typecast or developing a distinctive style, his composing process, his God of War score, and more.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
You grew up listening to film scores the way that many people might listen to pop music. How did that happen? Was there one score that turned something on inside you, or was it kind of a cumulative process?
Somewhere in between. I don’t recall there being one score more than a few others, but certainly among the very first scores that caught my ear were Back to the Future by Alan Silvestri, The Empire Strikes Back by John Williams, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure by Danny Elfman. Maybe even, really far back, The Secret of NIMH by Jerry Goldsmith. These are all composers that I started to follow, and certainly by the time I was 10 or 11, I was finding whatever movie I could find just to hear the music by one of my favorite composers. I was definitely following their careers the way that all my peers would be following an actor or an athlete. Every Monday I would be like, “Did you guys hear that new Jerry Goldsmith score this weekend? Oh my gosh. Did you hear the French horns? Wow.” [Laughs] That was just my upbringing, so maybe it was just destiny that I would end up doing this.
Do you remember a moment when you transitioned from appreciator to creator? Some sports announcers say that they would watch sporting events and narrate them to practice. Did you do that for films?
I did, for many years. I started really trying to write my own music when I was about 11, and I had been taking piano lessons. I was doing a lot of piano arrangements of my favorite film music, and that’s all I ever wanted to play when I would work with my piano teacher. I would want to learn cues from Star Wars, I’d want to learn the theme from The Simpsons, I would want to learn anything that I could either transcribe or find an arrangement of. I started trying to imagine music in the style of my heroes, and I would just start writing themes for different genres. I would write music that sounded like action music or science fiction or horror. When Tombstone came out, I was like, “I’m going to write a Western.”
But I would say that the real turning point for me [was] when I was 16. I almost had a crisis, where I just had to know if I could do it—if I could score a film, if I could come up with something interesting and develop it over the length of a movie. And I didn’t have a movie. I grew up in Bellingham, Washington. I didn’t even know any aspiring filmmakers. So I spent a couple of months and I wrote a script with a friend of mine, and I storyboarded out every shot and just completely visualized the movie, and it was a crazy, kind-of-fun science-fiction adventure/comedy in the vein of Indiana Jones.
The end of my junior year of high school, I just started writing the score and sequencing out on my keyboard. I started with the main title, went into the first cue, and I spent a year and a half scoring the entire movie all the way through the big finale and then the end-credit suite that was like seven minutes long. I wrote a 75-minute film score, and that was what gave me the confidence to know that I could actually do this.
Between doing that theoretical film score and all the other things I’d been doing—playing in my own rock band and playing in high school band and jazz band and stuff like that—I got into USC out here in Los Angeles and was part of the film-scoring program. I had a relatively huge body of work. I don’t know how good any of it was, but to the man who became my mentor, Elmer Bernstein, and clearly the admissions at USC, I think it was clear that I was insanely passionate about this, and everything unfolded from there.
Being prolific doesn’t seem to be a problem for you.
Exactly. [Laughs] I have carried that with me since then.
How closely does the content that you tend to compose for mirror the content that you tend to consume?
If you look at the shape of my career, it arcs toward the kinds of genres I grew up adoring anyway: science fiction, fantasy, horror. And don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite films and favorite scores are dramas. I grew up listening to To Kill a Mockingbird by Elmer Bernstein, so I always wanted to do all sorts of different things.
But I grew up in the ’80s, and there was just this glut of fantastic genre storytelling. And the beginning of my career was truly marked by Battlestar Galactica, which was a huge, I think, turning point for science fiction on television, if I couldn’t be so bold as to say science fiction in general. That opened a lot of doors in that realm, and then quickly I got Eureka and I got Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and The Walking Dead and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and even Outlander. Even the Cloverfield films emerged out of that well. So I have a lot of opportunities to go back to those scores that I grew up adoring and bring forth that inspiration.
If your big break had come on some other show and in some other genre, might things have played out differently? Or do you think that to some extent, your creative inclinations are best suited to sci-fi or fantasy?
I appreciate you asking that, because I actually do not think that my skills lean toward one genre. In fact, I’ve actually really focused my efforts over the last five years to get away from science fiction/fantasy/horror, because of exactly what you just described. There’s the perception that I’m good at that, and the perception comes with the notion that I’m not good at others. And I’ve really worked very hard to take on other genres just because I love to multitask and I love to do different things. So while I adore those genres and I adore working in them, I certainly think if I had come out of the gate with a cop show or something, if that had been my first job, obviously my career would be very different.
I’m grateful, though, that it was Battlestar. But with that said, I worked really hard to prove to Danny Strong when he was directing a biopic of J.D. Salinger that the Walking Dead/Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. guy was the guy to score his movie, and I did the same with Unrest, a documentary. I did Animal Crackers, a family animated film, and again, when I got it, I really went out of my way to show these filmmakers “I can do this.” One of the things I admired so much about every composer that I listed when I was growing up—Bernstein, Elfman, Williams, Silvestri, Goldsmith—these guys could do anything. It was the score to Ghostbusters that caught my attention for Elmer, but then that led me to Birdman of Alcatraz and The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape and, later on, Far From Heaven. That’s the kind of composer I’ve always wanted to be. And Goldsmith doing Basic Instinct and then Gremlins 2: That, to me, is the dream, to become known for so many things that you just get to be very diverse in your creative output. And I feel like I’m heading that way.
Is there such a thing as a “sound of science fiction” or fantasy? The hallmarks that the audience associates with those genres, or that someone who’s producing a project would expect to hear?
I tend to avoid thinking along those lines. Some of that is habit that’s been built up from my years on Battlestar Galactica. The only edict that came down from the showrunners was, if there are rules and expectations, then we must break them, we must do what people are not expecting, which was the genesis of the sort of ethno-world music–Taiko drum approach at a time when it was very much expected that it would have an orchestral score.
I always just approach stories through the characters, through the character arcs. What is the drama that is unfolding? Whether it takes place on a spaceship or if there’s robots or if there’s knights and elves, that is purely a secondary concern for me. And it usually influences instrumentation a little bit, but it’s not really my way in, and it’s never something I talk with filmmakers about. It’s always asking them what they want the audience to feel: What is the main character’s journey, and what can music do to connect those two things?
So many sci-fi/fantasy/horror films have distinctive scores or themes that everyone associates with them. Do you think there’s a more intimate relationship between the audience and the music in those genres, or does that cross genre lines?
There is some truth there. I think the reason is that certain genres—science fiction/fantasy/horror in particular—often require a larger suspension of disbelief for the audience to even get on the ride. And I think that music generally has to make a bolder statement in order to get the audience’s attention, pull them into the world, make them believe in the world. When you are watching a movie that takes place in the world that we know and that follows the rules of the physical universe that we know, it’s less important.
Of course, I tend to think that if you try to make a golden rule out of it, there’s so many exceptions that it would kind of fall apart. To Kill a Mockingbird is as memorable as Star Wars. I look at James Horner’s output: Aliens is a great score. So is Sneakers, so is Braveheart. At a certain point, it really comes down to composers taking the opportunity to tell a story and get a really great, memorable theme under the hood. My gut instinct is that genre doesn’t matter and that adventure and science-fiction scores get a lot of love, but if you really were to think about and break down what the most beloved pieces of film music are, you’d probably be able to find something in every genre.
You value the opportunity to teach yourself new techniques and learn things from project to project. In what ways did God of War push you, and which project has pushed you the most?
God of War would be up there on that list. God of War was an incredible opportunity for me to, first of all, just learn about Nordic folk music, of which I knew very little. I had done a tremendous amount of research on Outlander and even before, just as a fan of Scottish and Celtic folk music, and really far back in the past, there’s a lot of overlap there, just the way people migrated and took their music with them. You [can] kind of draw a straight line from American folk music back to Celtic back to Nordic, and that was cool. I was really trying to learn about Nordic folk music, what makes it unique, what makes it distinct from similar-sounding folk music. But I also think, even more than that, God of War gave me the chance to work thematically and develop material in a very traditional manner, and something about the very simple story, the Norse mythological setting, there was an embrace of old-school writing that a lot of projects I’ve done just don’t have.
I always write very thematically. I think if you compare that score to a score I just did that I’m immensely proud of, The Cloverfield Paradox, they’re both really big, blockbuster-style scores, but they’re almost opposites, because I think of Cloverfield Paradox as a pretty modern sound. There’s like two themes in it, and they’re presented in a very simple manner, and there’s a lot of propulsion and synths and big, big, big orchestra. To me it’s very much in a modern language, whereas God of War, [which] is produced in a modern way—I think it sounds like music in 2018, I think it sounds killer—it’s just written in a much more lush, old-school way. There’s dozens of character themes that are woven into the fabric of the score in very subtle ways, and that allowed me to revert back to some of those scores that I adored growing up and really think about writing a more traditional-sounding score, even though it’s in a relatively modern language and it’s super aggressive. And in terms of genres, I really hadn’t done a full-on fantasy epic before, so it did allow me to explore a language I hadn’t worked in.
Even with film and TV, you don’t always know exactly what will be on the screen when a certain piece of music is playing, but video games tend to be a little less scripted than those other media. God of War’s big narrative moments are scripted, but there are times when you don’t know what the player will be doing while a particular piece of music is playing. Did that affect your process?
It did, but I also worked very, very closely with the development team, and especially the audio team and the music team there, so that everybody understood what I was communicating with the music. Everybody knew who all the different main characters were [and] what their themes were, so that if something arose that involved one of these characters [and] my music was edited or revised by the team, they knew what to do. So I am confident that the thematic implementation in God of War is pretty stellar. I play a lot of narrative games in the style of God of War, and one area where I find game music less developed than its cinematic counterpart is in thematic writing, because of exactly what you just described. It’s really difficult when you have to let go of the assets to a certain degree. With God of War I scored a huge amount of the cinematics in a very detailed way, so I can say with confidence that I know that a lot of effort went into it.
In terms of the gameplay, we were mindful of what themes were being presented at what point in the game. The combat and stealth music [and] other adaptive music was really the product of the story at the time. What is the relationship between Kratos and Atreus? Who have they encountered? What have they learned? What has the audience learned? Even when you’re fighting monsters, the music that you’re hearing there has had a discussion before it was written. I’m really proud of it. I haven’t yet played the entire game, but having worked on it for nearly four years, I know that the team took thematic development as seriously as I did, and that was really, really challenging and fun, and I think is going to yield a game score that is really thematically unified. I’ve already seen a couple of reviewers mention that they’ve heard this theme a couple of times or have heard it developed, and I just thought, “Wow, here’s a video game reviewer mentioning thematic development.” That’s cool, man. That’s how you know you’ve reached somebody that doesn’t normally hear these sorts of things.
Are the projects that span many years the most satisfying for you because you get to develop those themes and motifs? Or can something that’s much more compact be just as satisfying in a different way?
The shorter-term projects can be just as satisfying, for sure. There’s really pros and cons to both. When you work on something for a long time, and then it comes out and people connect with it like has happened with God of War, it’s a really thrilling experience. But ... in a weird way, it’s like it took so long that I almost just got used to it. So it’s a different level of satisfaction. The game is out and everyone is experiencing it, but the first time I had the inkling that this story would be amazing was almost four years ago. So in many ways I’ve gone through the whole cycle of emotions, and I’m on to the next thing already.
When you work on something that’s fast and in a blink of an eye it’s over—10 Cloverfield Lane is that for me. I was involved with the film for a long time, but the actual writing was pretty quick, and then the movie came out. It’s a different level, because then my psychological energy is still amped because I had just finished this thing and now people are hearing it, so that’s also satisfying in a different way. And with television, the third medium I work in a lot, you do have this totally different level of bond with the audience because you’re in their house every week for years, and I’m a fan of the show just like the fans are, so I get to experience the shows through them in ways that are really satisfying. It’s fun to work in different mediums and experience that bond with an audience in different ways.
Have you developed any strategies to get yourself into a certain musical mind-set when you’re working on two things simultaneously that are very different from each other?
I go back to the scores by the composers I grew up admiring. I’ll often make a playlist of music that evokes the feeling of what I want to do. Even if my score ends up sounding nothing like that, it helps me to start a new project. I’ll just have that playlist on my phone and just listen to it for a few days, and then sometimes I have another one to get me into a better mind-set, because I’m usually working on multiple things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other musically. And I find that once I get some steam, once I get a couple of scenes done, once I’ve got a theme, I can actually switch gears really fast.
In fact, it’s actually kind of creatively inspiring switching gears, because if I get burnt out on a horror thing and my ears are bleeding and I’m just like, “I can’t think of anything, I can’t even hear any scary dissonant music anymore,” [I like] being able to switch gears to Outlander, just, “I’m gonna write something beautiful.” It’s like in the act of being productive in a new genre, the creative well on the other side, the horror side, will refill over a couple of days. And I write some beautiful, romantic Outlander music and bagpipes, and then I come back and I’m ready to go.
What’s the minimum amount of information you need to have to know that you want to work on something, and then actually to begin working on it?
For me to want to work on something takes very little. All I need is the idea that I could write something that I’d be excited about. So if somebody comes to me and the elevator pitch involves a genre that I haven’t worked in, or I know that there’s a story there—God of War was like that. [Creative director] Cory [Barlog] told me the story, and he hadn’t even finished his sentence. When he’s like, “Old Kratos and his son are on a journey carrying his mother’s ashes to the—” I’m like, “You can stop there, man. I’m in.” The emotion in that story was so obvious.
But that’s different than what I actually need to write it, because I respond to story and I respond to visuals, so I need one or both of those. The more information I’m given, the more the movie or the television show or the game tells me what it needs. In many ways I shoot myself in the foot; I start too early. If I get an idea and go, “Oh, cool, here’s what the theme’s gonna be,” sometimes I can go down the wrong road. Whereas if I see a scene, if I see a rough cut, if I read a script to a lesser degree, then it becomes instantly clear. I’m not sure why. I think that’s just the way my brain works. So I always prefer to wait until there’s something to look at.
Do you prefer for your music to be in the foreground and take a very active role? For instance, when the music reveals the coordinates of Earth to Kara on Battlestar, it’s almost a character in the show. Or are you just as happy if the music is very unobtrusively setting a mood without the viewer or player even being conscious of it?
I think music always does play a crucial role, but I always want it to be—I don’t want to say in the background, but I don’t want people to be aware of it on their first time through. I want them to internalize it; I want the audience to get the emotion from it, but I don’t think score is meant to announce itself. And if it does, then you’re doing it wrong. It’s a very fine line. I think that score should be bold and iconic, and if you’re very lucky as a composer you can write something that resonates with people after they’ve seen the thing, and it sticks with them and they remember it and then maybe they want to go hear it on its own. That, to me, is all icing on the cake. It’s wonderful when that happens, but really my job is to make sure that you have the narrative experience that is best—that you fire up that game or you go into the movie theater or you turn on an episode and you just get immersed in that world. That’s the real reward for me.
So I am equally as proud of a score like Happy Death Day, which came out in October and was a super-fun, weirdo little horror-comedy score, as I am of God of War. I think more people are listening to the soundtrack of God of War because of its nature and the way it proclaims itself in that story. But Happy Death Day, one of the reasons that movie works is the music is really clicking and helps track the weird tonal shifts, the balancing horror and comedy, and in many ways that was almost more challenging than God of War.
Do you want people to be able to say “Oh, that sounds like Bear McCreary” the way they might say “That sounds like Danny Elfman” or “That sounds like John Williams”? Or would you rather be such a musical chameleon that people are surprised that certain things are by Bear McCreary?
I feel like it’s somewhat inevitable that someone has a musical voice. I think you hire a composer the same way you cast a lead actor, in that that person brings something that is uniquely theirs. When I was growing up, I would know instantly if I was hearing a score by Goldsmith or Bernstein or Elfman. With that said, I don’t find that a trait that I desire in my own career. I don’t want people to be able to recognize my music. I’m almost the opposite: I like to challenge the notion that my voice is so distinct. I tend to smile whenever I see a fan on social media or somebody realizing that the person who did Outlander is the same person who did Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And I see people that will say, “Oh my God, I’ve been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for 100 episodes and I just realized it was you.” I think my voice is inevitable. It’s like my thumbprint; I can’t change it. It is my voice by definition because I wrote that music, but I like the idea of stretching myself so far that it’s not obvious.
Along those lines, whether it’s “All Along the Watchtower” on Battlestar or “The Skye Boat Song” on Outlander, does adapting an existing piece of music bring you as much satisfaction as writing something original that is also memorable?
Absolutely. You’re getting to play in somebody else’s sandbox, it’s a lot of fun. It’s so much fun that I try to resist doing it sometimes because it’s such a shortcut to emotion for certain people. You get to skip over the hard part and go for something people know. I’ve often had opportunities to play around with this, or not. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Battlestar Galactica—in our modern media world, every other thing that’s made has an older version of it that you can choose to acknowledge or not, and I enjoy doing that. I really enjoy putting my own spin on a piece of music that exists already, and “Watchtower” and “Skye Boat Song” are two great examples.
So it’s very satisfying, but at the end of the day probably less satisfying, only because for me, the most excruciating, horrible, painful part of writing music is coming up with a tune that is worth a damn. So getting to skip all that and just go, “Hey, this is awesome, Bob Dylan wrote a pretty good tune, I’m just going to use this”—it’s a blast, and I can do it quickly and it’s fun to play around with it, but I definitely feel like I’m visiting my friends’ house, climbing on their jungle gym instead of building my own.
When you work on a period piece, do you feel a pressure to conform to the instrumentation or musical style of the time, or do you enjoy breaking that mold and having something that sounds anachronistic?
I feel very strongly that music should help create the world that the narrative takes place in. I generally loathe music that is anachronistic to a time period. I think that is score announcing itself and trying to be cool at the expense of believability. Not to say that it hasn’t been done in super cool ways. Generally, though, it’s definitely not my approach.
I’ve done three shows on Starz that take place in the past: Da Vinci’s Demons, Outlander, Black Sails. I put a lot of research into the music of the time, finding out the instruments, researching famous songs and obscure songs, and of course there’s a modern underbelly to that. I think my score to Da Vinci’s Demons is the perfect example: It’s very much a modern, cool, adventure score, but on the surface there’s a huge influence of Renaissance music. It features the viola da gamba; it features the scales and the modes that were used in that time. I used a bunch of old Gregorian chants and music from medieval Europe, and most notably the main title is a palindrome because Da Vinci wrote backwards and forwards. You can play the main title backwards and it sounds the same. This is all the level of detail that I put in to make it authentic to the era.
Taking on a project that takes place in a certain time and place gives me a reason to go learn something about that musical world and then see what I can pull in and place in the score and still tell a story. It just gives me a new set of paint, new colors to paint the picture with.
How much of your current recreational listening is still film or TV scores? Any recent favorites?
Yeah! I thought Black Panther was super cool. I just really dug all the talking drums that Ludwig [Göransson] did. You can tell he went to Africa to get those sounds—that was not the sound of session musicians in London or Los Angeles. So that really struck me and inspired me that “Hey, here we go, here’s a blockbuster with an aggressively cool score,” which I thought was neat. I still listen to a lot of film music.
I find also that I listen to a lot of rock and metal. I love the relative simplicity of it and the passion and the rawness of it, so I find that to clear my head, if I’ve been writing really layered, thematic, contrapuntal music, when I get in my car I want to put on System of a Down. [Laughs] Or early Muse or Queen or on the more complex side, even Pink Floyd. I grew up listening to those guys—Oingo Boingo, I was a huge fan. If I don’t detox my brain from soundtracks at a certain point, I go nuts.
Do you have a “white whale” project that you hope to work on one day?
Oh my gosh, so many. It’s tricky. Like, the first thing I think of is Aliens by James Cameron. I would love to do a movie with James Cameron, and in fact I’ve worked with Gale Anne Hurd, who produced that. It seems like a dream come true. At the same time, though, that movie is that movie. A lot of people try to make Aliens, and now that I stop and think about it, I’ve scored movies that are tipping their hat to Aliens all the time. None of them are Aliens.
So the white whale really is that movie, like the ones that really struck me when I was growing up, that came out of nowhere—Aliens, Back to the Future, these kinds of films that make a big splash because they’re new and different. The white whale is the new and different movie or show, and in many ways God of War is that, Battlestar Galactica was that, Walking Dead was that. Now, that’s me looking at the past. Looking into the future, I have no idea what it’s going to be, and I don’t usually spend energy daydreaming, like, “Oh, I wish I could do something,” because whatever I can imagine isn’t as cool as what might be right around the corner.