Interview: Bear McCreary

Bear McCreary interview
by Earl Green

All rights reserved; unauthorized duplication without the express permission of the writer is prohibited.

Battlestar GalacticaIt seems like only yesterday that a certain segment of fandom was in an uproar about the widely-publicized changes being made to Sci-Fi Channel’s new version of Battlestar Galactica, which premiered as a miniseries in late 2003. Given a green light for 13 episodes of a weekly series in 2004, the new Galactica has gone on to receive critical acclaim around the world – not in spite of the changes, it would seem, but perhaps because of them.

While fandom seemed preoccupied with Starbuck’s gender change and Cylons who appear to be human in the months leading up to the miniseries’ premiere, one of the new show’s most striking changes was a primal, percussion-heavy musical score. Composed for the miniseries by Richard Gibbs (formerly of Oingo Boingo, the band which also exposed the world to Danny Elfman) and Bear McCreary (credited in the miniseries with “additional music”), the new music featured only a single quotation of Stu Phillips’ theme from the original series – and carved its own unique path from there with layers of thundering Japanese taiko drums, wordless female vocals that could be soothing in one cue and anguished in another, and very little of the original show’s Star Wars-inspired bombast.

Directed by Michael Rymer, the miniseries set much of what the weekly series would become into place, particularly with its documentary-inspired handheld camera work. Rymer also took an active hand in discussing the music of the new Galactica with Gibbs and McCreary, and to a certain extent, the search for the show’s musical voice put the composers on a short schedule to complete the score. “It was pretty tense!” says McCreary of the miniseries, noting that while the pace of creating music for a weekly series is much tighter, the job has become, to a certain extent, easier. “There are different challenges. The reason that the series is easier, and the reason the miniseries was simultaneously harder, is that we were inventing the musical language.”

When Gibbs and McCreary began their work on the miniseries, Rymer had temporarily dubbed the early edits of the show with, among other things, music from Peter Gabriel‘s soundtrack from The Last Temptation Of Christ. A common practice in filmmaking, these “temp tracks” assembled from previous works gave the composers an idea of what the director, producers or editor have in mind for the scene. “Michael [Rymer], Ron [Moore] and David [Eick], had a really clear idea of what they wanted – it was kind of a detective game for Richard and me to take what Michael was using as temp music, in combination with his input, and realize his vision in music.”

The miniseries score captured enough attention to merit a CD release on La-La Land Records, and when production began on the weekly series, Richard Gibbs and Bear McCreary both signed on to tackle the hour-long episodes, but McCreary would wind up taking over the show. “Richard took the show on, but he had to go back to feature films after a couple of episodes,” he says, and that provided a lucky break. “When he went back to movies, he brought me in, since I’d been writing with him on the series already.”

While the transition may have been seamless from a musical standpoint, behind the scenes there was some anxiety – not least of all for McCreary himself. “I’m sure there was some doubt on [the producers’] part.” His first sole music credit was on the episode 33, the third show produced (but scheduled to be the first one aired). The music initially echoed the style of the miniseries, but now had to be produced on an even tighter schedule.

“For me, the challenge is two-fold. Just getting all the music done on time – there’s considerably less time to get one episode done. And finding out what they want when they want to deviate from the sound of the miniseries.”

That element has provided some favorite moments for both the composer and the viewers. “Every episode or every other episode, they throw a curveball at me – Gaelic music, big band music, hip-hop background music,” McCreary says, adding “In fact, many of the most interesting cues are actually from when I deviated from the sound of the miniseries.”

The process of scoring Battlestar Galactica begins, as with any other project, with “spotting” sessions, in which the composer sits in on a screening of a rough edit of the show do discuss the timing, placement and emotional thrust of the music. According to McCreary, though, while the episodes are intense, the spotting sessions are much more relaxed. “One of the reasons is because they do know exactly what they want. The editors lay in temp scores for every episode, just to make sure the cut is working. Some of the temp tracks are from the miniseries, and sometimes they’re from other things.”

Bear McCreary interview “We don’t spend a lot of time talking about it [in the spotting sessions],” McCreary says. “We spend more time on those details in the mix.” (Though he notes that, once the episode’s sound mix is being put together, the music is recorded and mixed already, which can make last-minute revisions difficult.) “It works out pretty well as a collaborative process. I feel like I’m free to experiment, I have a good idea of what they’re expecting. It’s creatively free in one way, and adhering to the miniseries score in another way, all at the same time.”

Among those experiments is an unusual number of instances, in the 13 one-hour episodes aired so far, where the music takes center stage in the sound mix, and McCreary is happy to rise to the occasion. “It’s thrilling. The main reason that this happens is that we’re really producing 13 short films, not 13 episodes of a TV show. Everything is approached cinematically, especially the music. To have that kind of freedom and trust in the music, that it’ll be worth that, is a huge compliment – it inspires me to make the music that much better. If I felt like that music was going to be constantly butchered, I’d get a lot more sleep in the average week, but it wouldn’t be as creatively fulfilling.”

One of the most talked-about scenes in the first season, both for the shocking developments unfolding on screen and for the music accompanying them, is the final sequence of Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Part 2. Almost the entire sound mix vanishes in favor of a full string ensemble – a striking contrast to the rest of the series’ music.

“Some of the scenes in episodes 12 and 13, the moment I saw the rough cut, I was saying ‘I can’t wait to write the music for that!’ It was like a gift to the composer,” McCreary says. “There were some sound design elements for the last 30 or 45 seconds, for the shot of the ruins and the mountains, tastefully and wonderfully done by [sound designer] Daniel Colman. Michael Rymer said ‘Get rid of the sound effects!’ and they stripped away everything but the score. That made my day. It made me very glad that I went the extra mile.”

Bear McCreary interview As for the string movement, which has become a fan favorite, McCreary reveals that he went to bat to make it real. “With that string orchestra piece, I said, ‘Look, there’s only one way to do a string orchestra, and that’s with a string orchestra,’ and they gave me the budget for it. In the beginning, they wanted to deviate as far as possible from orchestral music, so it was very daring of them to let me go back to an orchestra. For me, that scene shows that orchestral music in science fiction isn’t limited to the traditional bombastic leitmotif approach. I was very grateful for the opportunity.”

That scene has also helped McCreary justify to Battlestar Galactica’s producers the expense of hiring live musicians. “I think they realize the value of [bringing in live players], especially with that piece,” he says, though he always strives to maintain a live component to the music. “There are synths, but a lot of live tracks too. Synthetic scores just drive me nuts. Nothing on Battlestar Galactica is entirely synthesized. Everything is mixed with acoustic instruments and vocalists.”

Of his personal favorites from season one, McCreary singles out both parts of the season-ending Kobol’s Last Gleaming. “Episode one, 33, was really exciting both for being the first one, and because my name would be up there as the sole composer for the first time. The Hand Of God was a lot of fun. But as far as my favorite episodes and music, definitely those last two.”

Chances are that the fans’ favorites are already on the track listing for the Battlestar Galactica season 1 soundtrack CD, due in June from La-La Land Records. Apparently it was a favorite at Universal Studios as well – the upcoming CD was fast-tracked for release like few other TV soundtrack projects in recent memory. “Universal licensed the soundtrack album after only four episodes aired,” McCreary reveals – and the studio’s enthusiasm caught him off guard. “Before that happened, I thought maybe I’d just put a CD out there by myself.”

“”I think that just about any piece that stands out to somebody is going to be on this album. It’s an absolutely full CD – 80 minutes long ­ and the best of everything is on there. I’m really pleased with the record. There’s lots of stuff from 33, The Hand Of God and the last two episodes, but virtually every episode is represented.” McCreary also says that both main titles – the episodes aired in 2004 on the UK’s Sky One satellite network carried different main title music than Sci-Fi Channel’s broadcast of the episodes in North America – will be included. “There was a different main title for the UK, composed by Richard Gibbs, but the Sci-Fi Channel ultimately wanted to change the direction of the music. Both pieces are actually very similar.”

Bear McCreary interview The existing soundtrack from the miniseries has proven to be a hit at the Sci-Fi Channel already, as the network has taken the unusual move of using music from that score in some of the non-episode-specific on-air promotion for Battlestar Galactica. “They started pulling stuff from the miniseries, which is great because it helps identify the score with the show.”

Bear McCreary is keenly aware that he’s sitting on that gold mine as well: “When episodes 12 and 13 aired in the UK, for whatever reason, my inbox was flooded with fan mail. It really surprised me, people asking about the two orchestral pieces – that was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, this is something people are really listening to!'”

At the time this interview was conducted, the composer was only two weeks away from beginning work on the show’s second season. “I’m in it for the long run. Honestly, I feel like I’m in on the ground floor of something really exciting. As a creative endeavor, I want to take these storylines and this music as far as they can go. How long it’ll go on, I don’t know.” When asked if any changes are in store for Battlestar Galactica’s opening titles and music (along the lines of Babylon 5’s annual main title changes), McCreary revealed that he doesn’t know just yet: “I have no idea. I could see them doing that, though, because there is a much larger storyline, each season will probably take on its own character and its own tone. Season one was about the aftermath of the miniseries, and season two deals much more with heavier personal tragedies happening to these people.”

McCreary also has other irons in the fire; a protege of famed composer Elmer Bernstein, he has crafted concert works as well as film music. “I’ve been working on some stuff of my own: a musical, a string quartet, things that have been on the back burner for the past year. It’s good to have other projects of my own that keep me centered. If you write too much film music, you start to go nuts.”

The passionate fan reaction to both Battlestar Galactica and its music doesn’t surprise Bear McCreary at all: “The minute I saw the first episode, and while I was scoring it, I never had any doubt the show would connect with people. It’s the kind of show I’d watch, even if I wasn’t scoring it, and I don’t watch a lot of TV. I hope we’re winning over the diehard fans, but I’m also hoping we’re winning over non-sci-fi fans, creating something that transcends its genre.”

Battlestar Galactica airs on Friday nights at 10pm Eastern & Pacific on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Special thanks to Bear McCreary and La-La Land Records
Battlestar Galactica and all related characters, images and placenames are the property of Universal Studios.

This article ©2005
All rights reserved; unauthorized duplication without the express permission of the writer is prohibited.