Nora Dominick ’17/ Emertainment Monthly Co-Executive Stage Editor
From the events leading up to the Battle of Culloden on Outlander to the monumental Negan lineup on The Walking Dead, scoring genius Bear McCreary has transformed how viewers experience moments on TV.
McCreary is known for bringing new, innovative scores to some of the hottest TV shows. From the reimagined Battlestar Galactica to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to most notably The Walking Dead and Outlander, McCreary has changed the TV and film scoring game.
His work earned him a 2013 Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music for Da Vinci’s Demons. His most recent Emmy Award nomination came in 2015 for his beautiful score for Outlander‘s inaugural season.
At SDCC 2016, Emertainment Monthly Editor Nora Dominick sat down with Bear McCreary to talk about scoring some of the biggest moments on TV this past season, how he creates moment of anxiety and what’s ahead for The Walking Dead and Outlander.
Emertainment Monthly: Starting with Outlander. How was it scoring the major battle scenes this season?
Bear McCreary: That was my favorite. I’m very well versed in the music of the Jacobite Uprising and I grew up on Braveheart and Rob Roy. So this military storyline that was something that was always very appealing to me. In fact, throughout the first season of Outlander I really had to pull the reins back and keep things in a more romantic, personal language. So, coming back to Scotland after Paris now, the romance and personal story are still there, but there’s this bigger political story and geo-political story. So, being able to draw on that material and make it a little more powerful, a little more military, that was really inspiring. All the weights came off, I could just go for it. I really savored it.
While they, objectively, were not the best episodes of this season, 2×09 and 2×10, “Je Suis Prest” and “Prestonpans,” were my favorite episodes to do of anything ever. That was like being a kid in a candy store. Getting to do the build up to the battle. It’s like the Battle of Helms Deep in Scotland where everyone is waiting in the mist and the drum is just pulsing. I was like, ‘I’m going to score this like I’ll never get a chance to do this again.’
EM: This season of Outlander was essential split into two parts: Paris and Scotland. How did your approach to the score change from season one in order to gain the split feeling for season two?
Bear McCreary: Season one was a lot of Scottish instrumentation and sounds. Those were not appropriate to use fully in Paris. It just didn’t match the story or the visuals, but at the same time we had to keep a foot in that water. So, I just did a crash course on French Baroque music and I knew nothing about it a year ago and I’m a bit of an expert in it now. I researched the performers, the instruments, the performance practice. What did this music sound like? And I incorporated that into the score and I think it’s pretty obvious when you get to the second episode of the season and we get to Paris that the score sounds nothing like the first season except for these little hints of the Jamie [Sam Heughan] and Claire [Caitriona Balfe] theme and a little Scottish instrumentation once in a while, usually when they’re in their bedroom or Murtagh [Duncan Lacroix] is in the scene, but I try to keep it minimal. Then you have all the uprising episodes in the second half, which was a matter of not only forgoing the French instrumentation, not only returning to the season one instrumentation, but actually amping up the military quality. The bagpipes, I’m using more of the Great Highland pipes, the vinyl headed Scottish snare drums that really have that Scottish march sound, I use those a lot more.
So, it’s an interesting journey. You get sixteen episodes that sounded one way in season one and here you basically had seven and six that each had their own identity. I’m excited to see what the future holds. The trick with this show is making it feel cohesive, making it feel like it’s one show about our characters going on their journey, but you have to acknowledge where they’re going.
EM: My favorite score you’ve done came during 2×01 of Outlander when Claire takes Frank’s hand at the airport and Frank’s hand changes to Jamie’s. It was breathtaking and obviously this is a moment not in the novels. How was it creating that monumental piece of score?
Bear McCreary: Thank you so much, that’s so great to hear. That was the culmination of a six minute piece that is my, possible, favorite piece of the season. Except for maybe the war anthem in the second half. It’s what I call the “Frank Symphony.” In that episode, we’re really in Frank’s [Tobias Menzies] POV. We know more than he knows, but we’re not inside Claire’s emotional space, we’re inside his emotional space. We’re feeling his sense of longing, his sense of loss. It’s almost worse for him that she’s right there and he can’t reach her. When he finally succeeds and he’s burning Claire’s clothes, that could’ve very easily felt like a very dark moment because we’re sad. The clothes represent her relationship with Jamie and he’s burning them. It’s like her relationship with Jamie is being burned at the stake. I didn’t want it to come across that way. I wanted it to come across that it’s a happy ending, it’s a bittersweet happy ending. Frank is a good guy. He will be good to her. So, it gets to the airport and knowing that fans of the book are going to be like, ‘Where is this going?’ I kind of new I had you guys. I love those moments where you’re on your toes. She gets the airport and the music is building and building and building. It’s variations of the Frank theme and it just takes on all these new chords and new sounds when we get to New York. I really wanted to trick you into thinking that the whole season is going to be in Boston, like I don’t know what you thought we were going to do, but we aren’t doing it. So that when Jamie’s hand comes out, it’s just a total shock. The way it was shot and staged and edited together and then they let me, musically, totally pivot with this sudden appearance with bagpipes and the Jamie and Claire theme as we reveal him.
There were two moments that I knew that scene worked. The first was at the final mix where there were actually lines of dialogue, nothing important, and the mixers, not even the producers, the mixers when they were doing their first pass were like, ‘No way, man. Cut it out.’ After the playback, the mixers said to the producers, the writers who wrote these words, ‘So does it bother you that we cut these lines out?’ And they went, ‘Wait, we had lines of dialogue there?’ No one even noticed. It was just obvious to everyone involved in the show that no one should be talking right now. Just get rid of it and bring up this orchestral moment. The second moment was at the premiere in New York. Watching it with a couple thousand fans. I had Ron [D. Moore] and Terry [Dresbach] sitting right behind me and I felt both their hands on my shoulder right at that moment and the elation from the crowd at that moment. I knew that it worked. If anything, it might actually be my favorite singular moment in the entire season.
EM: In every TV show you score from Outlander‘s Battle of Culloden to The Walking Dead‘s Negan lineup, you always do an incredible job at scoring the big moments. How do you go about creating those scores?
Bear McCreary: The huge moments are the one’s that are the most inspiring. They’re emotionally draining and difficult, but I’m always excited to get into my studio and do them because those are the scenes that speak to me and ideas come very quickly. Scoring a TV show or a movie, but especially a TV show, it’s a marathon not a sprint. It’s like you’re running miles and miles and miles and most of the time you’re just pacing yourself. The big scenes are when you see the finish line and you just put all your energy into it and you know you’re going to collapse when you are done, but you’re just gonna go for it. I find those moments very inspiring.
EM: Season 7 of The Walking Dead is going to be much different in relation to past seasons. Have you started working on the score yet?
Bear McCreary: I have. In fact the first thing I did was scoring the trailer, the Comic Con trailer. It’s going to be interesting because the world is changing in a very dynamic way. And yet, the score has evolved so much over six years already. The challenge for me this season is finding ways to make the score feel different when it’s already evolved so much. It’s a very inspiring story. The performances are so powerful. That’s another one. The show is already doing so much of the hard work. I get to just be inspired and support this incredible drama. It’s great.
EM: As someone who has read all the Outlander novels, season three will be vastly different. Have you started working on anything? Like Bree and Roger’s “theme”?
Bear McCreary: I haven’t yet. I know that I will. Until I really see the episodes come together. They haven’t cut anything together yet, so it’s a little early. I’m definitely thinking about it and would love for the chance to write them a theme.
EM: From Battlestar Galactica to S.H.I.E.L.D to The Walking Dead, you do an incredible job at building the moments of pure anxiety. How do you go about making a scene even more stressful through the score?
Bear McCreary: You know, every project that you’ve listed are stories that have incredible tension built into it. So, I really feel like I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. The story’s there and you would be on the edge of your seat even without the score, but the score kind of really seals the deal. Speaking of anxiety the project I worked on recently that I felt I really got the stretch that muscle was 10 Cloverfield Lane, which was musically almost nothing but anxiety for two hours. It started off with this very bold and mysterious piece and then once this character, Michelle [Mary Elizabeth Winstead], ends up in this bunker, you basically have 90 minutes trapped in this very confined space with two very intriguing people. That was definitely a challenge because I wanted the threat to always be present and you aren’t even sure what the threat is. It was a matter of pacing yourself.
TV is a similar challenge and on occasion an even greater challenge, where how do you, in the long term, how do you keep zombies scary for sixteen episode season. Alright that’s sixteen hours. We are going on 100 episodes of this thing now. So, you look for ways. it’s like pacing yourself. I take my cues from the writers. The writers have the same issue. There’s episodes that are really driving it forward and then there’s episodes where we are resetting.
The last half of season six of The Walking Dead was very much about making you feel good and hitting the reset switch. There was tension, but it was like, ‘No guys, I think we’ve figured it out.’ I knew what they were doing, I’ve read the comics. I even said to Scott [Gimple] when we were working on episodes, “I hate you man. I hate this because I’m really starting to believe it.’ Rick’s [Andrew Lincoln] like ‘We got this,’ Carol’s [Melissa McBride] good, Glenn [Steven Yeun] and Maggie [Lauren Cohan] are back together and it’s like it’s going to be okay and Scott’s laughing because it’s never good on The Walking Dead, nothing good ever lasts. You know that intellectually, but that’s part of the trick of filmmaking. Making you feel something that you know intellectually isn’t real. You know you are watching a show or a movie, but even within those constraints, you know something bad is going to happen on The Walking Dead or on Outlander.
EM: Outlander this season must’ve been especially interesting because right from the start fans knew that Claire and Jamie’s task to stop Culloden would fail.
Bear McCreary: Outlander was a fascinating one actually because even if you hadn’t read the books, I thought Ron made a very bold move in season two where everyone knows. Everyone knows that it fails. That Bonnie Prince Charlie fails. What is the dramatic impact of that? Now, we are watching them for twelve and a half episodes struggling to achieve something that we know they don’t and yet the tension was there. I can’t even quite articulate why that worked. I thought it was quite daring to let the audience know that. I think the reason he did that was it allowed the emphasis to be on the character arcs and the relationships. Ron was getting the plot mechanics out of the way. He was basically saying, ‘It really doesn’t matter about Bonnie Prince Charlie and whether or not this actually works because that is a device that will put our characters into situations that we care about.’ Putting it at the end, a big reveal, that they failed, there’s was so much going on at the end of the season that it would’ve undercut that.
Ron really is a genius when it comes to all aspects of writing, but for story and structure he has such a nothing is sacred approach. I saw that on Battlestar Galactica too. He would make daring moves that would re-shuffle the deck in such a way that great stories can come out of it. It’s been really interesting watching him adapt this fantastic material, but also bringing his perspective and his TV instincts to it. He sees that in the body of the novel there’s something that can be restructured for the TV series that makes it better for fans of the books and viewers a like.