Composer Bear McCreary chats to Hypable about scoring Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Child’s Play.
Known for such iconic scores as Battlestar Galactica, Black Sails, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, God of War and Eureka, there is no question that Bear McCreary is already one of Hollywood’s most prolific — and productive — composers.
Showing no signs of slowing down, McCreary has had a whirlwind 2019 so far: we have already heard his work in the blockbuster epic Godzilla: King of the Monsters Netflix’s Rim of the World, The Professor and the Madman and of course the re-imagining of the classic 1980s horror film Child’s Play.
Still to follow this year is another horror film, Ciarán Foy’s Eli, and the TBS adaptation of Snowpiercer. And this is all on top of McCreary’s ongoing work on The Walking Dead, Outlander, Proven Innocent and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
To our great joy, Bear McCreary found some time in his busy schedule to talk to Hypable about some of his most recent projects. In this interview, McCreary discusses the creation of Child’s Play‘s already-iconic Buddi Song, the surprising inspiration for Ghidorah’s Theme in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and how he uses music to enrich stories and bring characters to life. Enjoy!
Selina Wilken: Congratulations on all your recent projects, you’re clearly keeping busy! Is there any one piece of music you’ve done recently that stands out in your mind as having been particularly rewarding or challenging to do?
Bear McCreary: Right now, I am so excited about how my score to Child’s Play turned out. Especially the main theme, which is a very personal piece of music for me. There is no orchestra involved, there are very few other musicians; it’s really the closest you can get to downloading a piece of music straight out of my imagination. It feels very personal, so it stands out to me, maybe from everything else that I’ve done.
What made that theme feel particularly personal for you?
Well, it was such a unique and fun opportunity. In the film, Chucky is what they call a “buddi doll,” and one of the things it comes programmed with is a song, called “The Buddi Song,” which I had to create. So in many ways, this was more than just a part of the score; this was creating what needed to be an essential part of the brand of the fictional toy within our cinematic universe.
As I started working on the film, I imagined how cool it would be if the Buddi Song could be an emotional, uplifting theme for Chucky (Mark Hamill) and Andy (Gabriel Bateman)’s relationship, as well as a devious, sinister, twisted theme for Chucky, and could also exist in the universe of the film as a genuinely catchy and fun jingle. Something a company like the fictional Kaslan company would use to sell toys, like all the toy companies did back in the ‘80s.
So I thought, what a perfect trifecta of uses, if I could create a theme that could be all of those things at the same time. That was a really fun challenge, and it gave me a chance to write a melody, which I love to do. I love melodies. So I wrote a simple, yet effective, little tune that I think is very fun and innocent and childlike, but which can also be very sinister and terrifying. But I would like to think that audiences are able to hear that it is the same tune. I am not subtle about how closely connected those two variations are.
I co-wrote the lyrics for the vocal version with the screenwriter, Tyler Burton Smith, and I got to work closely with Mark Hamill, who not only voices Chucky but also sings my song in the movie. And he did a fantastic job.
When you start composing music for a project like Child’s Play, where do you even start? What is the first step on that journey?
I begin with the film, really, which is probably an unsurprising answer. But in the case of Child’s Play, it’s an important answer, because the film itself is a remake of a classic horror film that has had numerous sequels, so there is a whole legacy here to be mindful of, and a legacy that I have tremendous respect for.
But when I saw the film, I realized that the director Lars Klevberg was giving it a new spin; it was a new perspective on the story, and it was very inspiring. It really gave me a chance to put away any preconceived fear that I had about living up to the legacy of the original, and it got me excited about scoring this really cool unique personal story about an AI that has a relationship with a little kid.
It’s very much a Spielbergian, kind of mid-‘80s story that’s told through the lens of our modern day fear of and infatuation with cloud-based technology, automation, and giving away our privacy. So I was very inspired by the timelessness of the story and the absolute modernity of the setting.
When talking about genre, you’ve been all over the spectrum and you’ve obviously recently done these big horror, action pieces like Child’s Play and Godzilla. But how much is genre actually something you use to inform your sounds, and how much to do you look beyond that to the story and the characters and the emotion underneath?
That’s a great question, because like you alluded to, I actually feel that I don’t look to the genre at all when I am drawing inspiration for a new project. I only look to the characters, and to a secondary degree the story. But really, it’s the characters that inspire me and that I want to make real for the audience: their emotions, their motivations, their experiences. And from there, the genre may have influence, but it really doesn’t.
For example, I don’t think of Battlestar Galactica as a particularly science-fiction-y score, and I don’t think of Outlander as a time travel-fantasy score. Even a score as creepy and dissonant as Child’s Play, I don’t think of as a horror score, because the way into it for me was the characters, Chucky and the little boy Andy, and their relationship.
At the end of the day, I scored a movie that is probably a horror movie, but I don’t think of myself as having crafted a horror score. I wanted to create a score that could cement for the audience a belief in the characters’ relationship.
It’s so interesting that you say that, because I know that when I listen to scores like Battlestar Galactica and Outlander, I feel like I’m listening to human emotion. And I think that’s one of the reasons your work is so beloved. So when you approach a new score and begin doing your research and finding your sounds, how do you use all that to find your way into the core of the characters?
I love that you bring up the research, because that is a big part of it. I usually like to take on projects that give me an excuse to learn something that I don’t know about. I like to explore instruments that I am unfamiliar with, or musical cultures that I want to incorporate into my work, and then I usually look for essential components of those elements that I feel like have something to offer the main characters. Something to graft onto.
It’s a process that’s very hard to quantify, but I’ll give you a good example: when I did Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I used the old Godzilla theme for Godzilla and the old Mothra theme for Mothra. But I wrote an original theme for the antagonist, the three-headed dragon named Ghidorah.
And in my deep dive into traditional Japanese music — which I ostensibly did to reinforce Godzilla as a character; I was drawing from Japanese sounds, and I wanted to give his theme a distinctly Japanese flavor — I came across the chants of Japanese Buddhist monks.
It’s hypnotic and beautiful and surreal and calm, and I don’t know why, but I thought, ‘That’s Ghidorah’s theme. That’s the antagonist.’ I can’t even explain it. If I tried to put it into words, it would sound like a mistake. But I set those calming hypnotic voices against this gigantic three-headed dragon, as it rises up from a frozen tomb, and it worked.
So that’s the fun part for me, the discovery; if I had just written a theme for Ghidorah, I would probably have written something in the brass and ominous, but I would have never thought on an intellectual level to incorporate Japanese Buddhist chanting. It is only through experimentation and discovery, and that sort of indescribable act of inspiration, that an idea like that can form. So the research is super fun, and it’s really what I love the most about writing to film.
When you come into a project like Godzilla and you go, ‘I really want these Buddhist monks to accompany the rise of a dragon,’ is that an idea that might give you a little bit of a pushback from the rest of the team, or do they just let you roll with it?
It’s really a question of collaboration. Film music is a fully collaborative art form, and I certainly hope my career never reaches a point where a filmmaker would hesitate to say something to me. I’m definitely not at that point now! But getting your filmmaker on board is a huge part of the creative process, and they need to be fully confident in your ability to express their vision for the film.
In the case of any film, one challenge is coming up with the idea and seeing if it’s something I feel works, and then there is a whole secondary component which is selling the idea. In many ways, I feel like I’m a real estate agent or a car salesman; you gotta know how to bring the clients in and say, ‘Hey, check this out, just walk through here, look at this, ooh isn’t that exciting?’ And that’s actually a really fun part of my job, because it’s a way of presenting stuff I’m excited about and getting other people excited about it.
And when that happens, you’re paving the way for your creative experience to be a really fun and pleasant one, because you are psychologically preparing them for hearing Buddhist chants, or toy pianos in Child’s Play, or whatever it may be. It’s a fun part of the process.
When you go through this process, do you sometimes discover new aspects of the story or the characters that you can then bring to the filmmakers, and from there maybe have a conversation that expands those characters?
Absolutely. One of the things I learned from my mentor, Elmer Bernstein, who was himself a legendary film composer, was that the score is meant to bring out the subtext. It’s rarely text. If you are underlining the text of a film, you probably have a bad film. Or you’re missing something. So for me, digging into the deeper levels of meaning, and bringing them out for the audience in a subconscious way, is the role of film music.
For example: you’re doing a horror movie and the character is walking down a dark hallway, and the audience knows there is a scary monster at the end of the hallway. But the scene is not scary, so you have to put scary music on it in order to make it scary. Then, you are only playing the text. You are not playing any of the other meaning there.
And this is one of the places where Child’s Play for me was an absolute joy. Because even as the film evolves and becomes more graphic and violent and scary, there is a fascinating little character study here. There are fantastic dynamics between Chucky and Andy and between Andy and his mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza), and these are completely different relationships than those that existed in the 1988 Child’s Play. It’s really an interesting little character piece.
So even when there are scenes of violence and tension, when talking to Lars and the producers, we were never saying, ‘Should this be scary?’ We were saying, ‘What is Chucky thinking? What is Andy feeling? What is Chucky trying to accomplish by doing this thing that is scary?’ Is the music scary? That may be part of it, yes. But there were other places where the scares are self-evident.
If there is an action scene and the action is working, I’m not gonna add anything to it. Let’s either not have music or let’s play something else. But is there some weird emotional or tonal color we can add to this, to augment the action and bring out something new? To me, that’s the joy of working on a very skilfully crafted movie.
I imagine Godzilla must have been a very different experience, but also very interesting challenge, because you were kind of weaving together reinvention and invention, incorporating parts of the classic scores like Akira Ifukube’s theme.
It was a tremendous challenge, but the reinvention itself was less challenging than the selection of what material to reinvent. We are talking about the longest running continual cinematic universe in the history of cinema. Dozens of composers have contributed many dozens of musical themes. Not the least of which is Akira Ifukube’s classic “Godzilla March” and Yuji Koseki’s “Mothra’s Song”, both of which I ended up incorporating.
But I really went through everything, from all the other themes for all the other characters, all the way up through Alexandre Desplat’s score for the 2014 American Godzilla, which my film was a sequel to. I chose to take these two classic themes, that I felt were the most iconic, and then reinvent them in my own musical language and put them into what is an otherwise completely original score.
And the whole thing sort of lives somewhere in the style between the raucous bombastic march-like energy of the classic films and contemporary blockbuster cinema scoring techniques. And the thing I just described, that kind of music that lives somewhere between fun bombastic old school Godzilla themes and contemporary muscular modern film music? That’s the kind of music I love listening to. What I’m really describing is just music that I think is supremely awesome.
So to say the word ‘challenge’ is almost overstating it, ‘cause I had so much fun, and it gave me the opportunity to write a score for a blockbuster action film as part of a cinematic universe in 2019. I got to add seven character themes that were juggled all throughout that, and incorporate these luscious harmonies and memorable melodies and what I feel is sort of classic James Horner, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith-style orchestral writing. All of this stuff I got to throw into a blender.
Plus, I got to cover Blue Öyster Club’s “Godzilla” with my friends from System of a Down! I mean, I could go on and on about the opportunities afforded me by working on King of the Monsters. It was a great experience.
Yes, that let’s talk about that cover! How did the idea for the collaboration with Serj Tankian come about?
When the director Michael Dougherty called me, maybe two and a half years ago, to offer me the job, I think the literal first thought in my brain was, ‘I could cover Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla!” Who would perform it? I would get the guys from Dethklok to play it. Who would sing it? Oh, I could get Serj Tankian to do it. Yep, that’s what I’ll do.’ That all went through my brain in about 30 seconds.
The idea was always there, but I never brought it up with Michael or the producers; I only worked on the score. But it kept nagging at me, it kept clawing at my brain, I kept thinking, ‘this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.’ So towards the end, I just called up those guys and said, ‘I’ve got an idea, let’s make a demo.’ So I recorded my cover and worked on it for about a week, but I did not tell Michael or Legendary or Warner Bros. about it; it was purely in a vacuum of creative joy.
And then I played it for them, right before we were about to go record in London. I didn’t even tell them what I did, I just said, ‘I’ve got an idea for the end credits, what do you guys think?’ And that was it. There was relatively little discussion about whether or not that would be the end credits theme. Everybody loved it right away.
It was a dream come true for me, because it’s always been my favorite Blue Öyster Cult song and I’ve never understood why no American Godzilla film has ever used it. I also don’t understand why no American Godzilla film has ever used Akira Ifukube’s classic “Godzilla March.” But I’m grateful, because it gave me time to become a film composer, and get hired on a Godzilla movie, and get to be the guy who reinvents those classic Godzilla themes for a big budget Hollywood movie.
You said earlier that you’re always looking into forms of music and styles you haven’t tried yet, and that you love doing research on those. Is there any type of project you’re hoping to do in the future that would let you discover or explore a particular new style of music?
It’s hard to say, because what I want to do is the film or game or series that teaches me about a thing I don’t yet know that I don’t know. For example, when I did Sony PlayStation’s God of War, I knew nothing about Nordic folk music, nor had I ever even thought about it. I knew a lot about Scottish folk music and Japanese folk music, but I really didn’t know anything about Nordic, and that pushed me to learn it. To travel there and deep dive into it. So it’s impossible to say what I want to do next, because if there is a kind of music out there I’m excited about, I know it already, and what I like about new projects is that I am pushed into the unknown.
What I’m looking for is a movie like Child’s Play, where I got to do something I never would have thought to do on my own — to put together an orchestra of toys and to sing my own vocals on top of it. I wouldn’t just have done that. But I saw that movie, and like a lightning bolt, bam, there is that weird idea. And I’m grateful for it, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit about myself as a composer by getting to do that. So what I’m really looking for is more opportunities for weird ideas.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters was released on May 31, and Child’s Play hit theaters on June 21.
Thank you to Bear McCreary for his incredible insight and stories!