Bear McCreary has made a name for himself in Hollywood with his work on Battlestar Galactica, Marvel’s Agents Of Shield, and the Emmy Award-winning Outlander. However, he is probably best known for his original music used in the most-watched cable series, AMC’s The Walking Dead.
With compositions ranging from beautiful and romantic to dark and aggressive, McCreary utilizes his music to elevate every story he works on. Making him one of the most sought-after composers in modern film and television.
Ahead of the eighth season premiere of The Walking Dead, I had the opportunity to talk with McCreary.
We discuss what goes into creating the music for such a high-profile show, how it differs from pop sci-fi genre films, as well as the desire to create music free from nostalgia.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us at Bearded Gentlemen Music!
Bear McCreary: Thank you! I am actually a bearded gentleman myself!
How do you get to work on an episode of The Walking Dead? Do you get a script? Do you see an episode?
McCreary: I find on a show like The Walking Dead, is my experience is best when it can mirror that of the audience as close as possible. So that feeling you get when you watch the show, while events are unfolding, you don’t know where it’s gonna go. You’re excited, terrified, horrified. I wanna be there with the audience.
So I don’t read the script. Unless the circumstance requires it, I like to watch the episode. Now the episode I watch isn’t complete but they’re complete enough where I can watch it and get that same feeling. After I watch it, I can sit down with the producers and I go “Okay so tell me about what your ideas are for this. Let’s talk about the story arc and the themes. In some cases, they gotta tell me things like where things are gonna go so I can sort of plant a seed I can harvest later. But generally, I like to keep my experiences as pure as possible and then get into the details after I’ve had a chance to watch it and feel what the audience is gonna feel. Or at least some version of that.
In the season 7 finale, I noticed music cues with nuances in instrumentation depending on which character group came on screen. There was this kind of majestic sound for The Kingdom. Or a rustic banjo theme with The Hilltop. Do you have certain styles you like to keep with certain groups?
McCreary: I do! That’s a great observation! Good for you. I always like cinematic and generally on The Walking Dead, themes are kind of restrained as opposed to something like I do on Outlander. The main reason is there’s just so many characters. There was a decision made when I was working with Frank Darabont on the first episode. To not write a theme for every character. I mean I couldn’t have anyway, in the first episode there were only 3 characters. So you get the idea. But if I would’ve had a theme for Carol, then one for Daryl, Carl and Rick, by now I’d literally have like 50 themes!
Starting a few seasons ago they started a storyline I was familiar with because I had read the comics. They started establishing these factions. As you mentioned there’s Alexandria, Hilltop, the Kingdom, the Saviors and so on. I thought this would’ve been a good opportunity to start using thematic writing more for these factions instead of the people. For example, that allows us to reference music cues from the Kingdom when there’s a scene with Ezekiel. It adds a little flexibility. So for a show that oddly enough had almost no themes, now has a half dozen or so solid ones to help keep track of where you are. That’s going to be a huge component going forward into season 8.
During season 7 when the Trash People are introduced, the music takes on very 80s synth vibe. Is that exclusive to that group of characters? Or is it foreshadowing the future of your music?
McCreary: In that story arc we really pushed that. Showrunner Scott Gimple, who’s involved in every musical decision I make, and I started talking about pushing that sound to the forefront more. You could actually walk that evolution all the way back to season 3 when you had The Governor. That was the first time I had introduced synths in a really profound way. I started using this very John Carpenter-style synth sound for that character.
Right, The Governor’s theme had that industrial Nine Inch Nails pulse.
McCreary: Yeah totally! When I did that in season 3 it was almost as a rebellion against my own music. Which up to that point had been entirely acoustic? It was strings, banjos, and guitars all performed live. I just thought The Governor was so screwed up and different from Rick’s crew, the only way I could accurately capture his menace was by changing the color. I added this entirely new synth element. And to me, The Governor’s influence has never really gone away. Then it was like the cat’s out of the bag and I could start using these sounds in other places.
I’d describe season 7 of The Walking Dead as an endurance test for fans. You gotta get through it. It’s darkest, most bleak 16 episodes of anything ever. Then the characters run across these strange garbage people and they put Rick in a gladiator pit with this modified zombie right out of a death metal album cover. I remember turning to Gimple and saying “please let me have some fun with this! This is crazy!”. It was like I wanted to give the viewer the permission to smile and be like “this is a release!”. Because that season was so miserable and exhausting for the first 8 episodes, this was a little bit of fresh air where you could breathe for a minute. When you think about it, the visual aesthetics kinda back to like Mad Max and that pulpy look just made want to go for it.
Out of the 100 episodes of The Walking Dead, do you have a favorite piece of music you’ve done?
McCreary: Man, it’s so hard to pick you know? I might give you 2 because 1 would probably be the main title. I know that’s kind of an easy way out, it’s not a very good answer. The main title is so simple where it’s kind of dumb but amazing at the same time? It’s still effective even after 100 episodes you gotta give it points for that. It’s so simple and repetitive but it still gets you pumped to watch the show.
A: It’s very much like Carpenter’s Halloween theme in that sense.
McCreary: I really appreciate that! Thank you! That’s like the golden standard of horror movie music! But it still works and gets people pumped so maybe it is? I don’t know!
Going back to season 3, (spoiler alert), but the scene where Carl has to give his mother a C-section to save her baby and then she dies. That whole scene was probably the heaviest scene the show has ever done. Well certainly up to that point anyway. That scene has a very beautiful, emotional cue and writing that was so traumatic for me. A scene like that should take me a day or 2, but I think I spent maybe 5 or 6 days on it. Just channeling that emotion for 8 hours a day for almost a week just broke me you know? I was so distraught. When I listen to that music, it may not be the best musical cue in the show but I remember how much of myself I put into it and I’m proud of that.
You also composed the score for The Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie. For those who don’t know, it’s a feature-length indie film based on a web series about an opinionated young man who reviews bad retro video games. Do you tackle an over-the-top sci-fi comedy the same way you would for something like The Walking Dead or Agents Of Shield?
McCreary: That’s a very good question. The short answer is that I like to tackle something like that the same way I’d tackle anything else. I want to help tell the story.
The Angry Video Game Nerd movie is so ridiculous but so wonderful and so honest. It’s such an extension of director/actor James Rolfe’s personality and taste, that I had to take a genuinely exciting, cinematic score and just give a personality that was unlike anything I’ve heard before. I got to use all this retro video game synthesis that I was such a fan of growing up.
That movie is just fantastic too. It’s funny on its own but also plays into a little bit of nostalgia.
McCreary: Over the years I’ve made all these custom samples emulating the sounds of NES hardware. I always wanted to be able to recreate those sounds I love but I didn’t really have a place to put them you know? So when working on that movie with James, not only did I have the opportunity to do a cinematic score, but I also had a place to use all those sounds from my youth and write an actual score but use the sounds of the 8-bit Nintendo era, the Sega Genesis, and the Super Nintendo! It was quite literally a childhood dream coming true! I’m grateful to James for that opportunity.
Nostalgia is a big part of everything these days. The show Stranger Things is based on nostalgia and a big part of that show’s success is probably due to its 80s-esque score. Do you think we’re in a golden age of synth scores?
McCreary: We’re living in a very interesting time. In a weird way, we’re either in the golden age or the dark ages and I’m honestly not sure which it is. There’s the case to make that composers like myself, get to reference things we grew up on. Nostalgia can channel passion. But in some ways, nostalgia can be a shortcut past creativity. It’s a crutch that can be leaned on too hard. Not just composers, but filmmakers and even audiences! They reward anything that gives them that little jolt of nostalgic adrenaline.
It’s totally a shortcut to the heartstrings. I wasn’t even alive in the 1970s but I love media from that era.
McCreary: It comes to a point where you wonder what happened to all the things that were mind-blowing because they were new. What are we gonna be nostalgic about years from now? I’ve also found of my own projects, I’m the proudest of the ones that challenged me the most as an artist and made me want to pull my hair out. Where I’d say “I suck! I can’t do it!” then I’d get through it and realize that I had accomplished something. In those instances, the nostalgia was channeled into something relatively new.
A good example of this is, I did this movie called 10 Cloverfield Lane. The score sorta wears its influences on its sleeve. The sci-fi horror thrillers of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Especially how you said you like stuff from the 70s? Well, the nostalgia for those things wasn’t because I was alive when they came out. I mean I saw them on TV when I was a kid. But I was using that as a starting point and turning it into something new and sort of stand on its own.
I’m very interested in watching pop culture develop and expand. But I hope people still want to make original things. Too much ice cream is still bad for you!
One of my favorite composers is John Barry. When I listen to your scores for Outlander, it reminds me of him. Not so much in terms of style or sounds but for the sweeping cinematic scope. It reminds me of what I love about those old scores without lifting anything from them.
McCreary: That’s very interesting hearing that John Barry comment. It’s just because I really respect Barry’s work but he’s not really on my list of “oh let me think of what John Barry would do”. But subconsciously I might have soaked it in. You know what I mean? Like now that you’ve said, I can totally get how you could say that about Outlander. But it’s never occurred to me that John Barry was an influence.
For me the composers I draw from, or know that I draw from, are the composers that made me want to get into music in the first place and still inspire me to this day. Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, and so many others. You throw James Horner in there and you got all these composers were doing work when I was coming of age in the 90s.
Yeah, just about every movie of that era had an amazing score.
McCreary: It’s like there wasn’t a weekend in the year where a movie would open and it wouldn’t have a soundtrack by one of those guys. You could literally go to a movie every weekend and hear a beautiful score from like John Barry, Goldsmith, or Danny Elfman. It became a ritual! I would go just to hear new music!
That aesthetic is prominently orchestral but not just for the sake of being orchestral. It’s because it’s emotional. Certainly, an orchestra is part of most film scores but I love how modern films embrace other sounds. I love seeing a movie and going “What am I listening to?” I love to do that myself. But I like to think that I’ve always got a foot planted in an old school approach. You know, hearing emotions, hearing melodies. Where the composer is saying “Hey this is emotional. We’re going there and we’re doing it together!”
Do you ever find yourself wanting to come down after a big movie score? Like what do you listen to on your own that’s not a film score?
McCreary: I’ve been listening to a lot of System Of A Down lately. I love those guys and I keep hearing rumors of a new record. So I guess I’m sort of priming myself, you know what I mean? But as far as what I listen to clear my head of orchestral stuff, I listen to a lot Muse, Rage Against The Machine, or even like Queen or Pink Floyd! Music that sort of detoxes the orchestra layers in my brain and clears the cobwebs.
What are you working on right now?
McCreary: Oh man, I’m working on a lot of projects! I got a new movie I worked on called Happy Death Day. It’s so fun! Like Groundhog Day meets Scream. I got a smaller science fiction film coming out called Revolt. My first animated film Animal Crackers opens early next year. There’s God Of War for the Sony PlayStation. I’m really excited for that. Whats really cool is each of these projects are an opportunity to do something different. And that’s kinda what I’m craving right now.
That desire to challenge yourself and do all these different things is what I think makes you our generation’s Goldsmith or Horner!
McCreary: I really truly appreciate that man! I hope that one day I can write a piece of music as good as the worst pieces of music from any of those guys! I take their legacies very seriously and I feel that it’s up to this generation to keep the art form alive.
Okay so The Walking Dead season 8 comes back here pretty soon and you’re 100 episodes in. I gotta ask you. Are you Team Rick or Team Negan?
McCreary: Ah. You know I’m Team Rick man. I’ve been Team Rick for over 100 episodes! But I gotta tell you, I love every second that Negan is on screen. That guy Jeffrey Dean Morgan is just so magnetic. When those two guys are facing off, my God it’s like King Kong vs Godzilla! But if I gotta pick, I’m Team Rick all the way man.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.