Interview with Bear McCreary
The guy problems of fawn-eyed rom-com star Anne Hathaway in the American big city and nowhere town. Asia’s pesky buildings that get in the way of a man in a big monster suit (or at least in the good old pre-CGI days). Never shall these two movie worlds, or protagonists meet – especially in the case of a composer whose lovers usually get split asunder by Cylons, Walkers or nasty British soldiers. But there’s got to be a first for everything for Hollywood, and Bear McCreary. In this case, it’s “Colossal,” wherein Hathaway’s woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown through a series of bad luck relationships goes back home to sort her wreck of a life out – only to discover that her angst is controlling a major, monstrous wrecking ball in the form of a creature terrorizing Korea’s capital of Seoul. Gradually breaking through her alcoholic, guy-fueled haze, Gloria takes control of her life by making the beast half a planet away do some unexpectedly silly things (or at least the kind of wincing stuff Godzilla did back in his drunken, dancing Elvis period).
However, when you at first listen to Bear McCreary’s glorious, city-stomping score, you might think he’s playing the continuing adventures of the can-do heroine who just blew up a space invader at the end of “Ten Cloverfield Lane.” Such is the rousing orchestral weight and emotional mystery of “Colossal,” which gradually tips its hand to the more intimate, ironically dramatic story at hand from the eccentric mind of director Nacho Vigalondo. But then, the idea of taking a small view at a gigantic genre twist is often a spin on Nacho’s offbeat Spanish films as “Timecrimes,” in which a time paradox unwinds in someone’s home, and “Extraterrestrial,” where an invasion is waited out in an apartment. McCreary’s score for “Colossal” makes you realize the scope is just a bit bigger, and intimate at that. Alt. score faves like acoustic and rock guitars blend with bombastic symphonic foot-smashing, an angst-ridden cello finds an accompaniment in blasting brass, and tender piano builds to cosmic revelation worthy of Gozer the Gozerean. It’s witty and emotionally stratospheric scoring that has it both ways, often playing the straight, musical creature to a wacky, well-realized idea in a way that only expands McCreary’s catalogue of genre music, while showing the different, dramatic paths he’s equally capable of.
Indeed, it’s likely that the collected works of this protégé of Elmer Bernstein would stack higher than Godzilla if you put together the likes of “Battlestar Galactica,” “Black Sails,” “Outlander,” “Agents of SHIELD,” “The Walking Dead” and all of the other hit shows to his credit. Yet it’s McCreary’s forays into movie theaters that provide some of his best work, from the wondrous “Europa Report” to the metalhead demon busters that comprise the “Knights of Badassdom” or the eerily haunted beauty of “The Forest” and “The Boy” (we can even throw in some dance moves of a “Step Up” picture in there). But given its own tonal connection to the riveting, exceptionally constructed bomb shelter break out of “Ten Cloverfield Lane,” “Colossal” comes across like the tip of an iceberg to just how many genres McCreary is capable of in a movie, and score that delightfully, and movingly has its way with two unlikely ones.
What’s your for the giant monster films of yore, and how do you think their scores played into that?
I have always loved a good giant monster movie, and have tremendous respect for the legacy of the genre. “King Kong” was certainly the first giant monster movie on a large scale, and featured one of the first recorded scores in the history of film. So, in a way, every film with music owes a debt of gratitude to giant monster movies!
What was it like working with Nacho, especially given how unique his genre films are?
Nacho quickly proved himself to be as distinct as his films. I was inspired by his film, and even more inspired by his creative leadership. His grasp of the story, the themes, and their interaction, was as detailed as any filmmaker I’ve ever collaborated with. He was fun, funny and clear in articulating his vision.
We’ve never quite seen a “Kaiju” movie like “Colossal.” How would you say it subverts the genre? And was that a big appeal for you to do the score?
It subverts the genre by being a different film entirely that happens to take place within that world. I think the film is character drama, wrapped up in a love letter to the “Kaiju” genre.
How much did you want to emulate the sound of “Kaiju” movies with “Colossal?”
It was not a concern of mine in the slightest, to be honest. I did not revisit any classic monster movies scores before scoring this film. I focused on the character arcs and the tension. There certainly are big moments in my score, but those were not the focus of my creative energies.
Given Korea is the setting of its monster rampage, how much of an Asian quality did want to bring to “Colossal?”
I think my score, with its folksy strumming electric guitars and solo cello melody, has a distinctly rural American sound. The large orchestra represents the giant monster and the stakes of the danger, but the iconic sounds of the score are intimate and indie-rock in nature.
How did you want to thematically contrast the characters of Gloria and the monster, then have the music gradually bring them together with their symbiosis – especially give how different the worlds are of the “indie comedy’ and “giant monster” scoring are?
Gloria has a theme that stands out pretty frequently in the film. Her solo cello melody is often supported by strumming electric guitars. Those elements definitely come from the “indie” film world. I used an orchestra to achieve a larger “blockbuster score” sound when appropriate. In fact, the opening Main Title cue is actually a bit of a musical joke: a tense ostinato in the low strings and mounting huge brass fanfare build tension that sounds like it will reveal an epic monster, and instead, we cut to Gloria sheepishly opening a door to her boyfriend’s apartment after having been out drinking all night. At the end of the film, I brought the two sounds together, putting the “indie cello” melody in the soaring full orchestra. It was an epic, fun moment.
Usually films follow on storyline. But what kind of challenge did it pose given “Colossal’s” intercutting between Gloria and the monster?
I chose to focus the music entirely on Gloria. We witness the fantastic events through her eyes, so I generally chose to score her reaction to the events, rather than the events themselves.
Two instruments in “Colossal” that are particularly featured with the orchestra are the guitar and cello. Could you tell us about the score’s ensemble?
The guitars and solo cello were my way of rooting the score in an “indie film” persona. I wanted the score to feel almost schizophrenic for the first hour of the film. Like, some edgy indie rock band scored half of it, and a classically trained orchestral composer scored the other half. Then, as the film progresses, the two musical styles merge to form a coherent vision.
Colossal doesn’t quite prepare for you for its most massive subtext about abusive relationships involving men. As a male composer, did that affect you emotionally, and make it all the more challenging to play the score from a female perspective?
The themes of abuse, both in substances and relationships, run deep in this story, and those themes inspired me to give the score a sense of emotional weight and importance. The film is about how relationships can become imbalanced, with dominance overtaking vulnerability. This is represented in the score with the acoustic solo cello struggling to hold its own against a relentless and overpowering synth pulse. I suppose in that regard, the feminine voice of the score is represented by an acoustic instrument, and the masculine voice is represented by a synthetic instrument.
In its way, minus its indie vibe, “Colossal” plays as a sequel score to “Ten Cloverfield Lane,” one of last year’s best films, and scores, especially in how the music “opened up” a movie that could have been claustrophobic. Could you talk about scoring it, and how you hope to remain part of the “Cloverfield” universe?
I wouldn’t have thought of it until you mentioned it, but there is a musical structure that’s similar to both films, I guess. Both films start off very contained, and build to a huge finale that’s bigger than what you’re anticipating based on the first hour of the film. That story structure obviously has an impact on the requirements of the scores for those films. As for the “Cloverfield” universe, I am always up for whatever JJ Abrams wants me to do.
There’s a fun, bombastic quality to your score. How important was it to give “Colossal” that extra, astounding push without overwhelming it?
This was a huge question, and the first thing I tackled in scoring the film. It was vitally important that the score deliver an epic, soaring finale, without overpowering or destroying the tone of the film. The last 12 minutes of the film, were the first thing I wrote (in fact, I scored the entire 12 minute last reel on spec as a demo to land the job!). Once the final reel was approved by the director and studio, it was an easier process to reverse engineer the rest of the score.
Conversely, how important was it for you to give an insane story like this emotional weight?
Giving a story emotional weight is truly the only thing I am ever concerned about when doing a film, regardless of genre. Without an emotional connection, plots ultimately lose my interest after about 30 minutes. It was the intensely satisfying emotional arc of this film that made me want to do it in the first place.
You’ve been upfront about how you use a team of composers given your insane workload something that’s been commonplace in the industry for years now, though not talked about as candidly as you do. How do you retain quality control, and are there projects where you are determined to be the sole composer on?
Working in modern television requires a composer team to keep up with the massive amount of minutes necessary every week. Because all my television scores feature live players, most with full orchestra every episode, my team at Sparks & Shadows also includes orchestrators, engineers, music editors, copyists, session producers, and employees dedicated to coordination, logistics, project management, sample development, and tech support. Everything is in-house. The operation is massive, but allows me the creative support to spend my every waking minute involved with the creative concerns of my projects.
How do you think “The Walking Dead” has changed in the way where it’s now featuring scenes that rely entirely on music? And given the epic war that’s coming in the next season, how do you see your music for the show growing?
I have been fortunate to be a part of “The Walking Dead” since day one. My score has evolved as rapidly as the show itself, now nearing the end of its seventh season. I am just completing my fourth season with showrunner Scott Gimple, who really appreciates the value and emotional impact of music, and envisions sequences where score will be featured prominently. I am eager to see what happens next season!
With all of the film and television work you’ve done, it’s almost a surprise that you’ll be scoring your first non-genre dramatic movie with the upcoming “Rebel in the Rye,” about J.D. Salinger. What was that experience like, and do you hope to get more “straight” assignments like this?
Working with Danny Strong, creator of “Empire” and an accomplished actor / writer, on his directorial debut was a remarkable experience. It felt like a feat to land a film without time travel, robots, aliens, zombies, pirates, or demons. Scoring “Rebel in the Rye” was one of the best experiences of my life, yielded one of the best scores of my career, and I hope very much to do more films like it in the future.
You’ve also scored your first feature documentary “Unrest,” about a Harvard PHD who’s suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Could you tell us about your approach for it, and the big difference you’ve discovered between writing for features and non-fiction here?
I learned a lot working with Jennifer Brea on “Unrest.” Her film is a chronicle of her personal journey suffering with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), telling both her intimate story and that of people like her around the world. For Jennifer, this film is literally her life. So, approaching it as I would a fiction film proved to be pointless. I rewired my thinking so that I was scoring her life, and thought of the film as a byproduct. The music had to be as intensely personal and intimate as her filmmaking. I am really proud of the film, and excited that people will get to see it on PBS in the near future.
Another forthcoming project is the Blumhouse production of “Half to Death,” a “Groundhog Day”-like movie about a heroine learning how to get to the bottom of her multiple deaths. What’s the trick of scoring a film with repeated scenes, and how do you want to repeat, and the change the music for it?
Oh my, word gets around fast. I’m just getting started on this one. It’s too early to say, but I am looking forward to tinkering with this. I am attracted to the idea of using similar music for repeated sequences, but ultimately, my motto is always “Follow the Character.” It’s more important for me to adapt with the character’s POV. I have some ideas crazy ideas that I’m looking forward to pitching the director soon.
With “Colossal,” how do you think you’ve contributed to movies about giant monsters, as well as millennial relationship problems? And when you think about it, are they the same thing?
I’d love to think that my score checks both of those boxes. That was certainly my goal. We’ll have to see how people respond when the movie comes out.
Colossal is another atypical genre film, and score for you. Do you find these films more interesting than a far bigger, cookie-cutter opportunity that might come your way?
I always enjoy working on projects that challenge me, and make me a better composer for having done them. I like to think that even a “cookie cutter” gig might present cool musical opportunities. But, for now, I just keep my eye out for interesting projects that push me out of my comfort zone.
“Colossal” rampages in theaters April 7th, with Bear McCreary’s score available on Lakeshore Records. Pick up your copy HERE
Visit Bear McCreary’s website HERE