The Score: Bear McCreary – From “Battlestar Galactica” to “Terminator”

Bear McCreary seemingly came out of nowhere to invest the 2004 television reincarnation of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA with a rich and imaginative scoring palette. His music for the cable TV series quickly garnered him assignments on the films REST STOP and WRONG TURN 2. He has continued to score GALACTICA as well as TV’s small town fantasy series, EUREKA and, most recently, the Fox’s new TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. McCreary entered film music through an apprenticeship with composer Elmer Bernstein (GHOSTBUSTERS). “I’ve always loved film music, but it’s probably because I’ve always loved music and I’ve always loved movies, so sort of the obvious mix of the two,” McCreary said. “Ever since I was a kid I was always paying very close attention to the music in movies. Whenever I’d go to movies with my friends, all I’d be talking about afterward was ‘Did you hear that French horn line that Jerry Goldsmith used in that one scene?’ All my friends – well, they didn’t know what I was talking about!”

McCreary entered the film music program at USC for five years, where he really learned the craft of writing music for movies by scoring a few dozen student films. “That really prepared me for the ego bruising that you get in the collaborative process, which is not something they can really prepare you for in class,” McCreary said. That experience was enhanced by observing established composers like Bernstein and Danny Elfman during recording sessions, and learning from their behavior. “Watching them in action with these established filmmakers, I realized that the exact same issues I was dealing with on a 12-minute student film come up again in the real world, in the professional world.

After graduating from USC, McCreary picked up several jobs scoring small, independent films. On several of these he worked with composer Richard Gibbs, who brought McCreary along to help when he was assigned to score the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA miniseries in 2003. McCreary wound up writing additional music for that show, and when it became a series the following year McCreary became the solo composer. His richly textural music, drawing deeply from ethnic and world beat music, has graced all the succeeding seasons to date. “In the very beginning all that the producers knew was that they wanted was the opposite of STAR TREK,” McCreary said of his music instructions, which were to compose something as far from the gleaming, brassy sound of Stu Phillips’ original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA score from the ‘70s as possible.

“They didn’t want an orchestral sound. So when I started the series, I had an extremely limited palette – a lot of percussion. I only had a handful of instruments that could play anything melodic. As the show went on I started developing motific ideas that started coming into the texture that represented certain characters. Towards the end of the first season one of the producers turned to me during one of the playbacks and said, ‘Can we get some of that Boomer theme right there? I want to hear the Boomer theme!’’ I thought to myself: we’d never had a discussion that said it was okay for me to start writing a Boomer Theme, but I happened to have done it, and they noticed it, and from that point on I started exploring other possibilities once I realized that this show could develop.”

Initially, budget limitations on GALACTICA precluded the use of an orchestra, but McCreary didn’t want to fall into the trap of using sampled orchestral instruments generated on a synthesizer. He wanted an organic sound, so he crafted his scores out of mostly non-orchestral but real instruments. “This sort of opened up the floodgates for anything non-orchestral that I could find, and LA is a great town to find musicians who play unusual instruments. So it ultimately benefited the show, because I started writing for non-traditional instruments and I still had to find ways for those instruments to speak musically the same way that an orchestral score would – meaning that the drama still had to be there; I just couldn’t use twenty-four horns and sixty strings – I had a couple of frame drums and a duduk! The irony is that by the end of the first season they were asking for some orchestra, and we were putting some orchestral strings back into the mix, but it was in a very different context. The strings, when they come up, suddenly sound special and unique, and when those episodes come up, I think viewers are subconsciously drawn to them because it sounds bigger, whereas if we plastered every episode with strings that effect would be lost.”

The success of his music for GALACTICA engendered additional assignments, one of which was the 2006 horror film, REST STOP, in which a malevolent and mysterious driver threatens a woman marooned at a remote highway rest area. McCreary provided a unique score emphasizing a distorted, evil-sounding banjo, which represented the villainous driver. The banjo “was woven into the score – quite literally,” said McCreary. “Every time this guy’s on screen, you’re hearing the banjo play his theme. I didn’t even realize I was being totally literal with it. I found a way to electrify the banjo and the fiddle and the accordion and get this really gnarly, distorted sound. And later that summer I did WRONG TURN 2. I looked at this story and realized it’s about mutant hillbilly cannibals, and so said, ‘Well, what if we did mutant bluegrass music?’ They thought it was a cool idea, so out came the banjos and the fiddles and the accordion again and we did a second horror film, which actually ended up with a very different sound. And now we’re going in and doing REST STOP 2, which is the third in my trilogy of horror scores with banjo and accordion and fiddle!”

Promo artwork for Season Two of the fantasy television series on Sc Fi ChannelLast year, McCreary was engaged to score the second season of the popular fantasy series, EUREKA, about bizarre occurrences happening in the coastal northern California city. McCreary ignored the musical design of the first season (provided by a first-time composer named Mutato Muzika) and came up with his own musical style. “Outside of the theme song, I wrote new themes for every character and really tried to give it a more thematic approach and come up with a defining sound for the show,” he said. “EUREKA was a lot of fun – I got to do everything that I don’t get to do in BATTLESTAR and horror movies – it’s a lot of bluegrass and blues filtered through ’80s new wave. There’s a lot of goofball synthesizers that I would never get to use otherwise. But it’s really fun, and we’re gonna have an album out of that in the summer, which I’m really looking forward to, because it really showcases another side to my musical personality.”

While McCreary continues to score BATTLESTAR, his latest challenge was in composing the music to the new Fox series, TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. In this case, the signature music of the motion picture series, composed by Brad Fiedel in TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2 and enhanced by Marco Beltrami for TERMINATOR 3, was something that both McCreary and the producers wanted to fold into the sound design of the new series, sonically integrating THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES with the film series it derived from. “I wanted to acknowledge the first two films and really make this show feel like it’s connected to TERMINATOR 2,” said McCreary. “Obviously that’s what they’re trying to do with the series itself. The music is a big part of that, I feel. The show doesn’t necessarily look like TERMINATOR 2: you have two new actors; you’re not going to have incredible special effects every episode, so the music is probably the most important thing you can do to tie it in with that franchise.”

In contrast with BATTLESTAR, where McCreary’s job was to ignore the music of the old ‘70s show as much as possible, with TERMINATOR it’s quite the opposite approach. “I’m trying to pay homage to the original scores,” said McCreary. “It’s been great because those scores are such cutting-edge synthesizer work for their eras – the first one and the second one I think are some of the most admirable synth scores ever done. So it’s been great to tackle that sound with the technology that exists today. It’s a much different animal now, to be able to do those kinds of sounds.”

One area where McCreary has drifted away from Brad Fiedel’s percussive, mechanistic-industrial sound design is in his contrasting emphasis upon the human element of the story. CHRONICLES exhibits some of McCreary’s most persuasive melodic writing, emphasizing the drama of the story as it affects Sarah and her son John, the future rebel leader. “That was the one place where I wanted to really deviate from the tone of the first two films, because the emotional side of those films was very cold and very distant, and it worked very well, but that’s not gonna fly for us,” McCreary said. “You have to connect with the characters more if you’re going to invest hours or more of your life in watching a show. So that was something that there really wasn’t anything to draw from and was something that I could invent from scratch. The electric string ensemble came in, and I’m really pleased with how well it turned out. The electric strings play together as a group and it ends up sounding like a very odd string orchestra, almost. But it also still has a very strange electronic quality because they’re being run through electronic equipment, so it doesn’t necessarily sound like an orchestra. To me it’s really fitting for the Terminator mythology.”

McCreary paid special attention to his musical approach in support of the Summer Glau’s character as the automaton sent to protect John and Sarah. “Honestly, I’m kind of avoiding writing too much music for her,” McCreary admitted. “Most of the time I’m playing people’s reactions to her. If you think about it, most of her scenes are either about John wanting to believe in her, wanting to follow her and take her suggestions and become this leader, and Sarah’s mistrust of her and reluctance to give up command of the troop. So those relationships have always been the most interesting to score. It’ll be really interesting as hopefully the show will go on and that’s something that we can further explore.”

With the nine episode of CHRONICLES’ first season completed, McCreary is now prepping for the resumption of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, delayed due to the writer’s strike. He’s also got REST STOP 2 and, hopefully, more EUREKA and a new season of SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES on his plate. “In the meantime I’m putting together a concert of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA music which I’m going to do here in LA in April – I’ll have details up on my site soon. We did that a couple years ago and it was such a success we’re going to do it again.”

A Cylon Centurian from BATTLESTAR GALACTICAWhile the majority of his work in films and television thus far has been in the realms of science fiction and horror, McCreary doesn’t mind the potential typecasting. “I’d rather be typecast than not, at this point,” he said. “I’m just happy to have so much work, and I’m thrilled to be able to work on something as good as BATTLESTAR. I’m just savoring these last few episodes, because I know that when this show ends, it might be a really long time before I get to work on something, whether it’s a film or a show, that’s as dramatically satisfying as BATTLESTAR is. I had a lot of side projects and classical music that I was writing that got put on the back burner when GALACTICA started, so in a way I’m kind of glad that GALACTICA is not going to be a ten year or fifteen year show. So at this point, I’m definitely happy where I am.”

For more information on Bear McCreary, see the composer’s web site.

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