How a Brilliant TV Composer Moved on Up to 10 Cloverfield Lane
Thanks to memorable performances from John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane more than justifies its existence as a notable spiritual sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield—but it may be most notable for proving out producer J.J. Abrams’ eye for talent. Just as Abrams tapped director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Marvel’s Daredevil) for the original nearly a decade ago, 10 Cloverfield Lane introduces promising talent behind the scenes. It’s the directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg, who helmed the short film Portal: No Escape—a game franchise Abrams stated yesterday he’d still like to adapt into a feature. And as soundtrack fans may already know, it’s the big-budget film debut of one of television’s most revered composers, Bear McCreary.
If you’ve watched some of the highest-rated and most discussed series on television over the past decade years, you’ve heard McCreary’s work. He got his start as the series composer for the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and went on to score Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Outlander, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Walking Dead. While he’s done film work—Joe Lynch’s LARP-comedy Knights of Badassdom and the Natalie Dormer-headlined horror film The Forest—10 Cloverfield Lane is by far the biggest film he’s worked on. (And in keeping with a J.J. Abrams project, everything about 10 Cloverfield Lane was shrouded in secrecy: McCreary received his copy of the script in a hand-delivered envelope with a robot on the cover, which made him feel, he says, as though he was “reading a secret government brief.”)
Writing film music comes with its own set of caveats. “The main difference for me is the creative pressure of knowing that everything you have to say in this world, you have to say right up front,” McCreary says. As a series composer, the musical catalog for shows like The Walking Dead or Da Vinci’s Demons (for which McCreary’s title theme won an Emmy) can go on for years. McCreary says he loves scoring pilots for that exact reason: “You come up with good ideas that you want to explore. You’re planting seeds that you’re going to harvest later.” With a feature film like 10 Cloverfield Lane, there’s only one chance to create the definitive sonic world—a world that needs to reflect claustrophoba and dread.
Since he joined the project so early in the process—even before it had been cast—McCreary was able to visit the set, walk around the underground bunker that’s the focal point of the film, and test out what the space sounded like. “I could hear my voice echoing off those tight, rounded walls,” he says, “and I immediately started hearing a lot of cool subterranean textures. The setting is very tight, which means telling a big story in a very confined space.”
Working on a major studio film for the first time meant that this was McCreary’s opportunity to create his dream score. “I had resources at my disposal to do basically anything that I wanted,” he says. He went all-out, recording a 90-piece orchestra, a 45-piece string ensemble, a combination of 30 cellists and 8 bass players, and the Los Angeles-based Calder Quartet—then layered them together throughout the film, depending on what emotion director Trachtenberg was trying to emphasize. “The 90-piece orchestra is capable of a huge cinematic sound, but within that I wanted intense little bursts of tremolo strings,” he says. “So I recorded the Calder Quartet in a little space, and they’re almost like sparks in a dark room. They would’ve been lost in that big room with 100 players.”
To intensify the subterranean feel, McCreary finally got to something he’d loved over a decade: the Blaster Beam, an instrument he describes as “essentially a 15-foot long steel guitar” that was famously in the score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. “It sounds like this crazy deep synthesizer, but it’s acoustic,” McCreary says. “The lowest note of a piano is like the middle register of a Blaster Beam—I wanted sound that would remind us we’re deep under the earth.”
The first piece on the soundtrack album for 10 Cloverfield Lane, “Michelle,” begins with five high, off-putting solo string notes designed to immediately resonate with the audience. It’s a technique McCreary borrowed from his mentor, the late composer Elmer Bernstein (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven). “His theory was that you have 10 seconds, at the most, where the audience is paying attention to the music,” says McCreary. “They eventually get distracted by titles and the story, they get soaked into that world. But in that first couple seconds, you really have them.”
Citing Ennio Morricone’s use of harmonica in One Upon a Time in the West and Bernstein’s use of a solo triangle to begin Walk On The Wild Side, McCreary wanted a distinctive sound to kick off 10 Cloverfield Lane. He tried opera vocals and even jazz trumpet, but eventually settled on the yayli tambur, a long-necked lute from Turkey. McCreary had used it many times in his work on Starz’ Da Vinci’s Demons, but always as to evoke a Middle Eastern feel; this time, he wanted to utilize its sound differently. “It’s meant to be a rich and low sound,” he says, “but at its highest register, it takes on an otherworldly character.”
McCreary recorded yayli tambur player Malachi Bandy, and the next day went into a demo playback session with Abrams, Trachtenberg, and other Bad Robot producers. “The first two stars of the Paramount logo come into frame and the instrument starts playing,” he says. “And no more than two seconds pass, and J.J. turns to me and goes, ‘That’s really cool, what is that?’” He had perfectly replicated his mentor’s technique. The actual cue in the film remains largely unchanged from that first demo.
You can still hear McCreary’s diverse television work on The Walking Dead, Outlander, and S.H.I.E.L.D.—three series with devoted followings that have all been renewed for new seasons. But with 10 Cloverfield Lane, he’s crossed over into scoring big-budget films. And considering the movie’s successful opening weekend and the wide range of genres he’s written music for, McCreary’s work is about to be in high demand for all sorts of directors.
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