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FEARNET Exclusive: Talkin' TV's TERMINATOR (and more) with Composer Bear McCreary

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The epic, ominous and explosive cues that drive the first season soundtrack for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles are just as impressive when separated from the show's visuals. Those ground-pounding sounds are the work of prolific composer Bear McCreary, whose music first thrilled genre fans in his scores for the born-again awesome Battlestar Galactica, and can also be heard accompanying Sci-Fi series Eureka and horror sequels Wrong Turn 2 and the Rest Stop series. For one of the newest names to enter the movie & TV music arena, Bear's already got a seriously impressive resume under his belt, and is quickly becoming one of the industry's go-to guys for horror and sci-fi tunes.

With frequent creative nods to the famous Terminator movie theme by Brad Fiedel, McCreary's score is an explosion of unique percussion objects (including oil drums, hubcaps and tire chains), electronically-treated orchestra sections and synthesized elements which come together to create the gritty, action-packed and surreal landscape of Sarah and John Connor's nightmare world.

McCreary states in the CD's liner notes how he and the show's producers felt Fiedel's themes were an integral part of the Terminator experience, and they sought to recapture that feeling. “I wanted to honor Fiedel's scores, but also to push the boundaries of the potential energy, warmth and depth of the music,” McCreary writes.To this end, he enlisted the vast talents of percussionist M.B. Gordy, and worked closely with electronic artist Benjamin Snipes (from the band Captain Ahab) to create bizarre, gritty synth soundscapes. Another significant contribution came from Terminator co-star Shirley Manson (better known as the lead singer for Garbage), who sings the haunting opening track “Samson and Delilah” from the episode of the same name. The fun '70s-flavored track “Ain't We Famous” is courtesy of Bear's brother Brendan “Bt4” McCreary, who famously lent his voice to a fantastic rendition of Dylan's “All Along the Watchtower” for Galactica's Season 3 finale. The sum of these diverse parts takes the score way beyond a mere tribute to the films and into its own cyborg-like creation.

“This show now has its own unique sound,” McCreary explains. “One that honors the James Cameron films and simultaneously moves into unexplored thematic territory.”To mark the release of The Sarah Connor Chronicles soundtrack album, FEARnet checked in with Bear, who took a break from his busy schedule (which includes scoring the final episode of Galactica) to tell us about his unforgettable contributions to genre music.

You had the opportunity to study under the late Elmer Bernstein. What would you say was the most important thing you learned from him during those years?
The most important thing I learned working with Elmer was realizing that being a successful musician, or artist, doesn’t mean you have to be a miserable person. Society romanticizes artists as overly-dramatic, unstable geniuses who burn out young and die alone and miserable (think Mozart to Kurt Cobain and countless in between). Elmer reached the peak of his craft early and enjoyed a half-decade of respect and admiration from his peers, his friends and his family. He was remarkably generous and warm… and the most talented musician I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. And that really set me straight. I realized that you could be a composer and also have a successful, normal life.

Can you name and describe your first official gig as a film composer?
Well, honestly, it was probably Battlestar Galactica. Before that I’d done almost entirely student films, low-budget indie shorts, etc. Nothing to speak of, really.

Galactica's tribal rhythms and chants are instantly recognizable to anyone who's seen the show. What led you down that thematic route?
The idea to use [traditional Japanese] taiko drums came from director Michael Rymer while he was working with Richard Gibbs on the miniseries. I was writing on that as well, although under Gibbs, so I really wasn’t part of those initial conversations. But Michael and the other producers wanted to veer away from traditional orchestral bombast. The taikos were the launching point for them. Once I got the series, I began to expand the sound further and incorporate other vocals and instruments, music from various cultures and eras.

That multi-cultural percussion runs through so much of your work... would you consider that part of your signature musical style, or is that simply what the material called for?
Honestly, it’s what those projects called for. I’ve always loved using percussion in my music, but check out my score to Eureka – no taikos or thunderous metal percussion there. Still, the sound of the drums on that show is also very unique, so maybe it’s more of a signature style than I think. I have no idea. It’s hard to be objective about it, since I’m only focused on whatever project is before me. I don’t usually step back and look at the bigger picture.

When you came on board the Terminator series, was your first project recreating the famous Terminator theme?
My first project was to find some way of acknowledging it without stating it exactly. For legal reasons beyond my control, we could only overtly state the theme for 5 seconds during the title card. So, I set out to write “Sarah Connor’s Theme” and find a tone that reminded us of the Terminator mythology, but that also spoke more directly of the core of the series.

What was it like working with Shirley Manson?
Shirley was great fun to work with. Her vocal performance on [“Samson and Delilah”] was riveting, and is among the highlights of my experiences on Terminator.

How long on average does it take to complete the music for a single episode of Terminator or Galactica?
As much time as I’m given. Sometimes it’ll be a few days, sometimes a few months. On average, I need about 14 days in order to come up with something I’m truly proud of.

You've frequently collaborated with members of Oingo Boingo. What's your history with those guys, and how much have they contributed to your TV or movie scores so far?
The “B-Boys” can be heard on every project I’ve ever done. I’ve known them for years. From 2005–2007 we did three Halloween concerts, playing a bunch of Boingo hits and Nightmare Before Christmas, stuff like that. I did all the arrangements, conducted and played keyboards while my brother sang lead (Danny [Elfman] was not involved). They are wonderful musicians and a joy to collaborate with… a dream come true for a die-hard Boingo fan like myself.

You've scored some successful horror films like the Rest Stop series and Wrong Turn 2. What's your creative approach to making scary music, as opposed to action themes?
Scary music can be tricky. Audiences are wary of the orchestral noise approach that has dominated modern horror films. With each film I try to find something unique and interesting to cling to. For the Rest Stop series, I used a hideously distorted banjo to signify the evil Driver. For Wrong Turn 2, a complete mutant hillbilly cannibal jugband was my inspiration – so banjos, fiddles, accordions, spoons, washboard… it was all in there. But, in all the horror films I’ve done, the music is often quite beautiful. I try to always write great melodies whenever possible, taking inspiration from the more melodic horror scores I adore: The Omen, Poltergeist and Alien.

Your concert performances of Galactica music have been a great success. Do you plan on doing more? Any chance you'll take a broader approach and include your other scores like Terminator?
Yes, I certainly plan on doing more, but nothing is scheduled yet. As for Terminator music, I’m open to expanding the concerts in the near future to include other music I’ve written. I guess it depends on what I feel like doing and what the fans feel like hearing.

I'm sure you've been asked this before, but when can we hear the complete, uncut version of “All Along the Watchtower”?
Technically, you’ve got it. The version on the record is the “uncut” version that was then edited and manipulated into the version that fit the picture. So, what you really want to know is when you can hear the edited version. It’ll get released eventually, after the Season 4 album.

Finally, a question we like to ask everyone: What's your fear?
Ooh… good question. Being chased by a T-1000. Seriously, could anything be worse than that? The only way to stop them is to conveniently find liquid nitrogen or molten steel.

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