From Battlestar Galactica and Caprica to Human Target to The Walking Dead, Bear McCreary’s musical versatility has made him one of the most sought-after composers in television. Fresh off of an Emmy nomination for his title theme to Human Target, McCreary sits down with PopMatters to discuss his unabashed love of film and television scoring, his triple-disc soundtrack to Season One of Human Target, and why he’s not returning for Season Two ...
The Human Target television show is based on a popular comic. Tell us a little about the story.
The premise of Human Target is essentially about a bodyguard for hire named Christopher Chance, who protects high-risk clients. In the comic book, he actually did this by becoming the client and making a mask and posing as the client. In the series, they’ve eliminated that aspect of it and it’s a little more plausible. He just gets close to his targets and he, you know, will pose as your financial advisor or your assistant or whatever. But the premise isn’t what makes it a wonderful show. It’s in a class of its own. What showrunner, John Steinberg, did was essentially create a show that harkens back to the movies of the 70s or 80s. If anything, it feels like Indana Jones or Lethal Weapon or Die Hard, and Mark Valley plays Chance as that kind of classic, rugged, antihero. Smartass, badsass, and wiseass all rolled together. And Chi McBride & Jackie Earle Haley are his sidekicks and they’re hilarious, and it really captures that magical, Lethal Weapon time.
The score that I was able to write for the show was nothing like contemporary scoring at all. It feels like Alan Silvestri, John Williams, Gary Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, or any of the guys I grew up listening to. This is the kind of score that Steinberg wanted to have for the show, and the result is—I think it’s one of the best albums I ever made! It’s the album that I would’ve listened to when I was a kid ‘til the CD wore out.
How did you get involved with Human Target?
I met with the producer [John Steinberg] before the pilot was even shot, he was still writing it. And I knew right away at that meeting that obviously this is a guy who takes music very seriously, because normally in a TV pilot you wouldn’t even hire a composer at all. Normally, you’d wait until the show is picked up to spend the money. Remember, a TV pilot is like an experiment. You try it out, and if it works, then they make it a series. So, the cheaper you can make the pilot the better. Steinberg really wanted to spend the time and money and energy to get a composer early on and do a live orchestral score on the pilot before it was even picked up. So, I knew he took music seriously. We started talking, and he’d found me mostly through my work on BSG and he was aware of it and he met with me even though, he admitted later, he didn’t think I would be the guy to do Human Target because BSG does not sound like the music that I wrote for Human Target! I mean, it’s almost like a complete backlash against that. We immediately started nerding out about our favorite film score composers and our favorite movies and we really got along. I sealed the deal by sending him some tracks from a video game that I had scored called Dark Void. And Dark Void was a big orchestral score, but it was also combined with a lot of tribal and ethnic instrumentation. I mean, if anything, Dark Void is the bridge between Battlestar and Human Target.
And when he heard that stuff, I think he was convinced that I would be the guy to tackle Human Target. It was a great experience. I absolutely adored working with John. Of all the producers I’ve worked with I’ve never met one who’s so keenly aware of music and what it can do. I mean, he’s not a musician, but he really kind of is a musician at heart. He’s really amazing.
It sounds like you had a wonderful collaboration.
We did! You can even hear that in the soundtrack album. The cues in the soundtrack album are not in chronological order, because I put them in the order that I like to listen to them in. But if you listen to them and start with the pilot and start moving through the episodes as they aired, you can actually hear that the score becomes much more sophisticated as it goes along, as I’m experimenting and trying different things. I’m also working with John trying to push the envelope to see how orchestral can we get? How far can we push this sound and still have it function and still have it feel contemporary? And we found that we could push it pretty damn far! I mean, by the last episode it is so shamelessly romantic, and it’s so shamelessly orchestral. It’s the kind of thing where, if I would’ve tried to do this kind of sound of Battlestar, I would’ve been fired, and with good reason! But this was something that really took the collaboration of the two of us to find the balance where we could get that tone, and I think we did it. I’m immensely proud of the work I did on Human Target, and I’m so grateful that Warner Brothers let me put out this soundtrack album so that people can experience this music on its own.
Why won’t you be joining Human Target for the second season? And do you know what the direction of the music will be as the show goes on?
I just don’t know either way. All I know is that I was not asked back, and they have a new showrunner to take the reins, so John Steinberg is not involved in running the show anymore as far as I know. So, there’s clearly a new creative direction. What will the music sound like in Season Two? I don’t know. I’ll wait to hear it with everyone else!
I think there was a big creative shift, and I would’ve loved to have stuck around and continued to explore this sound. However if what they want now is something different than this sound, then I’m happy that they didn’t ask me back. Because this, to me, is the sound of Human Target. I’m just so proud of what we did on Season One, and I’m happy that this can stand on the soundtrack album. And I wish the best of luck to whoever takes it over!
Having never watched the show or read the comic, the music on its own actually made me interested in the source material!
That’s what’s so cool about it! The soundtrack album is a love letter to soundtrack fans, and I’m really hoping that fans of orchestral scores will pick up this CD even if they’ve never seen the show. I mean, the show is fun and great, and I encourage people to check out Season One on DVD, but even if you don’t want to watch the show, I think anyone that grew up listening to the soundtrack scores that I grew up listening to, when they hear the Human Target score, they’ll just get a huge smile on their face! That was my goal, and I really feel like we got there.
You were recently nominated for an Emmy for your Human Target theme, which assembled the largest orchestra in the history of television themes. What does it feel like to have that kind of pull?
Well, I would love to take all the credit! But actually this credit is due to John Steinberg. He is the one that knew he wanted to do this, and found the budget to do it, and made it a priority for him; made it a creative priority of Human Target to have a large orchestra. I think as a composer, you need to have enough of a reputation so that people know if they give you the budget you’re not going to screw it up. But really, as a composer you can say you want a big orchestra til you’re blue in the face. Without a producer willing to step up and really convince the studio why this is needed, it will never happen. So, as I said, Steinberg appreciates orchestral music in a way that very few producers do, and he understands the power it can bring to films and TV. So, he made it happen. I don’t know if anyone else could’ve pulled that off.
Describe your process for Human Target. How is it similar to or different from your other television work?
Well, all of my shows are done with live instruments. The only thing that made Human Target different was the sheer scale. Generally I have between five and maybe eight to ten live musicians on a typical episode. On Human Target the average orchestra was 60 players and the last one was 95. So, this was actually more different for my orchestrators than for me, because I’m still writing the music as quickly as I can, but the orchestrators are turning over huge orchestral scores every week. The thing that made Human Target the most challenging was just preparing for the amount of work that was going to happen for each episode.
Typically I would start writing on a Tuesday morning. By Saturday or usually Sunday, I’d have about 32 minutes of orchestral music written. Then Monday night, we’d record with a full orchestra, and that was an exhausting process! And yet, by the following Tuesday morning, I’d start the next episode. And we did that ten episodes in a row. It was like marathon training for the creative mind. After a while, it was like a runner’s high. I was so tired, I almost didn’t feel it anymore. Let’s do another episode! Why take a break? And then of course, once Human Target was done I was like “Aw, man! I could keep going!” but then I slept for a week, you know?