Interview with Bear McCreary
Emmy® and BAFTA award-winning composer Bear McCreary first launched into pop culture with his groundbreaking score to the hit series Battlestar Galactica, lauded by Variety as “the most innovative music on TV.” Io9.com ranked McCreary one of the Ten Best Science Fiction Composers of All Time. McCreary has twice been voted ASCAP Composer of the Year – Television by his peers. Some of his recent projects include Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the Universal / Blumhouse smash Happy Death Day; Sony PlayStation’s award-winning game God of War; Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures’ long-awaited remake of Child’s Play, starring Mark Hamill and Aubrey Plaza; and the upcoming drama feature The Professor and the Madman, starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn.
McCreary frequently performs in concert throughout North America and Europe, including the Getty Center, the Hagen Philharmonic and Ballet in Germany, the Television Academy and the Golden State Pops Orchestra. In July 2014, Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducted a suite of McCreary’s music with the L.A. Philharmonic and L.A. Master Chorale at the Hollywood Bowl.
In his score for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Bear McCreary was given the unique opportunity to weave into his own music the famous Godzilla Theme written by Akira Ifukube and the Song of Mothra by Yuji Koseki. McCreary spoke with Erik Homenick, the webmaster of AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG about his involvement in the Godzilla: King of the Monsters score and his use therein of these classic monster themes.
(AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG wishes to thank Brett Homenick and John DeSentis for suggesting several interview questions.)
Erik Homenick: First, please tell me a little about your personal background and your road to becoming a composer.
Bear McCreary: I’ve played and written music nearly all my life. I began taking piano lessons at age six, played trumpet in school bands, and played keyboards in friends’ rock bands. My dream was always to write music and I began doing that at a very early age.
EH: How did you break into the film scoring industry?
BM: I studied hard all throughout school. I was focused on becoming a film composer, and on my journey I was fortunate to meet legendary composer Elmer Bernstein. He became a mentor to me and helped guide me in terms of my education, provided me with my first internship and my first job in the industry. I actually wrote a blog post about the decade I spent with Elmer, which is available on my website (bearmccreary.com).
Another big break was becoming the composer for the TV series Battlestar Galactica, which happened when I was 26.
EH: How and when were you approached to score Godzilla: King of the Monsters?
BM: I had known director Michael Dougherty for years as a friend; we ran in the same social circles, and hung out with a lot of horror and sci-fi film nerds, so I was really proud of him when I found out that he was the writer and director of the new Godzilla film, and it never really occurred to me that he would ask me to score it. When he called me, which was before he went into production, I was thrilled not only at the chance to compose music for one of my favorite cinematic legacies, but also to work with my pal Mike.
EH: At what point was it discussed or decided that some of Akira Ifukube's original music would be used in the score? Whose idea was it?
BM: The idea of using of using musical themes from the Japanese Godzilla films was something that was discussed right away and was an ever-evolving part of our conversation about the score to Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It’s impossible to say where the idea started, whether it was with Michael or with me, because for both of us it was so obvious that that approach would benefit the film that we immediately started talking about where we would use Godzilla themes instead of if we would use Godzilla themes.
EH: Had you known Ifukube's music previously? If so, how did you know it and what were your thoughts about it? Do you have a favorite Ifukube film score?
BM: I was familiar with Ifukube’s work as the composer for Godzilla films, and having seen a bunch of them when I was a kid, and then doing a deep dive again when I was hired on this film. I could appreciate on every level the contributions he made to that cinematic legacy. I think perhaps more than any other composer, he defined the sound of an entire genre of a franchise that’s spanned multiple decades and literally and figuratively created the voice of Godzilla. So I always respected Ifukube’s work, and his melodies, especially his sense of intense rhythms which I thought always gave the early Godzilla films their sense of propulsion, and it’s something I wanted to honor here.
It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite Ifukube track, however, because there are many to choose from. I probably have to go to the score from the first film which maybe doesn’t sound the best from a production standpoint, doesn’t necessarily have all my favorite melodies in it, but because it came from nowhere, I just have to give it all the points for being the score that created the genre that we’ve all come to love.
EH: How did you choose which Ifukube themes would be used in the film? Did the director Mike Dougherty or even Toho have any role in the selection process?
BM: The discussions about which classic Godzilla themes to use ran on for several months and concurrently with that I was beginning to score the film, finding my palate of instruments, finding my musical voice for the movie. It was sort of an organic process developing these two ideas at the same time. During my creative explorations I came across a theme that I was excited about for Ghidorah, and another theme that I really liked for Rodan. I also sketched themes for Godzilla and Mothra; I was applying different ideas to these characters. And yet Michael and I kept coming back to using some of the old themes, and the ones that seemed the most obvious and necessary were the themes for Godzilla and Mothra’s song.
With four main monsters, we ended up at a place where two of them had classic themes and two of them had original themes that I wrote. Ghidorah and Rodan have original themes that I composed. Godzilla ended up with thematic material that was drawn entirely from Ifukube’s classic Godzilla March and the Godzilla Fanfare. For Mothra, I drew from Yūji Koseki’s Song of Mothra. Ultimately, Toho was integral in this decision in that they granted us permission to use this material. But they were not involved in the decision of which material to use and where to use it; that was something that was left up to Michael Dougherty and myself. We were grateful for that level of creative freedom from Toho, grateful that they let us use these themes, and of course grateful to the two composers who originally created such memorable music for Godzilla and Mothra. It is my hope that the material that I composed for Ghidorah and Rodan can end up ultimately being as memorable as the original themes from the old movies. But I did feel strongly that their new incarnations in this film required new themes.
EH: What was your own philosophy or approach to scoring this type of monster film? Can you talk a little bit about your own conception of what Godzilla music should sound like?
BM: I’ve been fortunate to score a number of monster and kaiju-adjacent projects in my career, most notably scoring two Cloverfield films with producer J.J. Abrams and scoring an Anne Hathaway drama called Colossal, both of which had giant monsters in them. In every case I felt that that film would be my opportunity to write something in the style of Godzilla music. I always loved those scores; I loved the rhythm, the ambition, the size, the scale. It never occurred to me that I’d have the opportunity to score a true Godzilla film. I put a lot of my fun ideas for what a kaiju score should sound like into the Cloverfield movies and into Colossal. As a result, when I got hired on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I realized I had to start over and really draw from a different well. I had to create something new, because many of my ideas for what Godzilla should sound like I used in other scores already. Thankfully, Michael Dougherty was on the same page. He wanted a score in his film that would both honor the legacy of Akira Ifukube but also create a score that fits at home with modern blockbusters and has a unique personality. Ultimately we settled on a style of music that we called “monster opera” which is similar to “space opera,” which is how one might describe Star Wars.
EH: A related question to the last one: you've been inventive with specialty instruments in shows like The Walking Dead and you even used a Blaster Beam in your score for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Did you use any unique/specialty instruments in the King of the Monsters score?
BM: One of the things I liked about working with Michael Dougherty is that his vision was very clear when it came to music. He wanted the music to do several things. He wanted to it acknowledge and re-incorporate the work of Akira Ifukube and the other classic scores to Godzilla films; he wanted it to be reinterpreted for a modern audience, and he also wanted another musical voice, another personality to tie it all together. So, I was free to bring a lot to the table for this score.
Once the decision had been made to bring in these classic themes, the next choice was to decide what else the score was going to include. This is where I was able to provide a lot of fun ideas. I brought in a choir singing in Babylonian. That language was chosen because we wanted to reflect the idea that these are ancient gods, these monsters have been on earth for a long time. Babylonian is the language that scholars today can have an understanding of what it sounded like, and yet it’s the oldest such language. Any language older than that and we really don’t know what it sounded like when it was spoken. Babylonian was a way to acknowledge the connection to the ancient past.
I brought in a yailli tanbur, which is an instrument I featured in 10 Cloverfield Lane, another kaiju-adjacent film. But I think the most important, unusual sounds that you hear in Godzilla: King of the Monsters are voices. Michael called this a “monster opera” and what is the most important sound in an opera? It’s the human voice. So I used choirs singing in Babylonian to create the Greek chorus for the film. They were commenting on the biggest, most emotional passages. Then I created speciality groups for certain themes. For Ghidorah I crafted a sound that involved Japanese Buddhist monks. They chant in a very unique way that you only hear when Ghidorah is on screen. For Godzilla, I used a taiko ensemble with their very distinct vocalizations, the kakegoe, that are the way that they signal to each other when they’re playing their drums. But I didn’t record their drums; I just wanted their voices. They provide a distinctly Japanese masculinity to Godzilla’s presence that I think cuts through the mix in a really profound way. For Mothra, I used ethereal female vocals. Aside from that, there was a huge orchestra, a huge choir, and a large arsenal of percussion that especially pertained to Rodan, whose theme involves a lot of tribal percussion. So it was a huge mixing challenge to try to get all of these elements together, and stack them together to form the score that I felt could rival the on-screen presence of our massive characters.
EH: You are likely aware that Godzilla fans the world over were very excited to learn that Ifukube's music would be included in the film. Do you have any message for these fans?
BM: I hope that my message to Godzilla fans is something that is stated overtly through the score that I created. And that message is that I adore Ifukube’s music and I credit him as being one of the key reasons that a Godzilla film even exists today. One of the things that people love about the legacy is its musical sound, and without Ifukube’s contributions to the franchise, I truly don’t believe it would have lasted as long as it has, and resonated with so many millions of fans around the world.
Oddly, going into the third American big budget film, it’s almost shocking to me that Ifukube’s music has yet to appear in an American Godzilla film. So the message, I think, is clear and it’s from not only me, it’s from Michael Dougherty, it’s from Toho, it’s from Legendary and Warner Bros. and everybody involved, that we are trying to honor the contributions of Ifukube and the other creators of the franchise, and bring their work forward into the 21st century in such a way new fans will discover their brilliance.
© Erik Homenick. All rights reserved.