'Agents of SHIELD': Clark Gregg's 'commanding presence' calls the tune for composer Bear McCreary

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At Comic-Con this week in San Diego, Bear McCreary will be introduced as the composer for the ABC pilot for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which aims to bring the Marvel Universe into primetime television with a mythology that is tethered somewhat to the silver screen exploits of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., the government agency that answers a world with thunder gods and gamma-green monsters.

McCreary’s new post will surprise exactly no one in San Diego. The classically trained pianist and graduate of USC’s Thornton School of Music has been in the ear of discerning genre fans in a big way the past decade as the composer of some truly distinctive themes — among them the unsettling strings that open AMC’s record-setting hit The Walking Dead and the dark tribal exhilaration of the drums that ushered in episodes of the Peabody Award-winning series Battlestar Galactica.

Jeph Loeb, the head of television for Marvel, said McCreary is a collaborator with boundless energy and a gift for finding the “emotional vibrancy” of moments and music and message. We caught up with the 34-year-old McCreary for a quick chat about music, heroes, Joss Whedon, and an old television show about an intergalactic garbage hauler.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With a project like this there are so many questions from the get-go but is there a place you typically start that investigation? Do you start with pinning down facts or finding feelings?
BEAR MCCREARY: I like to bring something unique to every project I take on, something that can immediately hook the audience and tell them what show or film they’re watching, or game they’re playing. The furious tremolo strings at the beginning of The Walking Dead main title, or the heavy percussion of Battlestar Galactica are great examples. At first glance, I was nervous that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be difficult to approach. … It ties together a cinematic universe that spans years of characters, storylines and scores by talented composers. The instant I saw the pilot, I connected immediately with the characters.

You need top flip between universes, one day it could be Defiance (in video above) the next S.H.I.E.L.D. With the Marvel show, what ways do those characters echo in the music?
The series centers on the behind-the-scenes people, their heroism and their quirks. As such, the music I wrote is heroic and, at times, quirky and offbeat. And I’m fortunate that Marvel and Disney immediately recognized the value in having a full symphony orchestra perform the score for each and every episode, which is the only way to do this right.

Is there a cast member who seems to be on to something special with their role? Or within the group dynamic?
For me, the entire series hinges around Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson. He has a magnetic presence and an irresistible charm. Every time he’s onscreen, musical ideas are bursting into my brain. As a fan, I think he brings the same commanding presence that Edward James Olmos brought to Battlestar Galactica, although obviously with a totally different style. Centering the series around him was an inspired idea.

Can you pick five words — nouns or adjectives I suppose — describing the music you’ve done for the show?
If I had to pick only five words? Melody, Melody, Melody, Melody, and Melody. To me, a superheroic score is only as good as its main theme. If you’re not singing the tune in the shower a few days after hearing it, then an opportunity has been lost.

Joss is such a music guy, and it even permeates the screenplays he writes, which could have a metronome ticking during the dialogue “solos” and “duets.” How did that inform the work relationship for you?
One of his talents is understanding what music can bring to the narrative. … Joss and I spoke at length about the music for S.H.I.E.L.D. in particular, about the challenge of creating a score that is big enough in its orchestral presence that it feels cinematic and feels at home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also must capture the intimate human characteristics that define this series. In editorial, it became clear that simply tracking in typical big “superhero movie” music wasn’t going to work. So Joss helped guide me to find a sound that lives a little in both worlds.

Do you have a sci-fi or superhero TV theme that you have a real soft spot for? Maybe Twilight Zone? I want to play this theme from Quark for you [near 2:12 mark] because I think it might be the worst thing ever

Wow, Geoff. I hadn’t heard Quark before. But it might now be my favorite piece of music ever. To me, the bar for television music is forever set by Shirley Walker’s score for Batman: The Animated Series. Her melodic invention, the thematic continuity, the attention to detail and luscious production values were — and remain — unrivaled. I scored the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot in the same recording studio where she recorded her Batman. I thought of her that day.

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