From Television To '10 Cloverfield Lane,' A Composer Plays With Surprise — And Luck When a film starts, "you have anywhere from two to 10 seconds to get the audience's attention," score writer Bear McCreary says. He gained this and other advice from his mentor, whom he met by chance.
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From Television To '10 Cloverfield Lane,' A Composer Plays With Surprise — And Luck

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From Television To '10 Cloverfield Lane,' A Composer Plays With Surprise — And Luck

From Television To '10 Cloverfield Lane,' A Composer Plays With Surprise — And Luck

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The thriller "10 Cloverfield Lane" opens in theaters this week. It's the first major studio film scored by Bear McCreary. The 37-year-old composer has made his name in television, but as Tim Greiving reports, his roots in film go back a long way.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Bear McCreary - yes, that's his real name - has been obsessed with film music since he was 6-years-old when he snuck a tape recorder into "Back To The Future" just to record the soundtrack.

BEAR MCCREARY: I loved movie music. I like TV, too. The "A-Team" and "Magnum, P.I." were awesome, but it wasn't the thing that made me say, I want to dedicate my life to this.

GREIVING: But his career up to now has been dominated by television ever since he landed his first job at the age of 24 scoring the rebooted "Battlestar Galactica."

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR MCCREARY SONG, "PRELUDE TO WAR")

MCCREARY: Something happened in television about 10 years ago. There was a renaissance where suddenly, longform, serial storytelling became possible. And quite frankly, I think the only reason that a 24-year-old kid with no credits is the composer of "Battlestar Galactica" is because it was a television show. Guys doing films just weren't interested.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR MCCREARY SONG, "PRELUDE TO WAR")

GREIVING: In the 10 years since, McCreary has composed the music for such high-profile TV series as "The Walking Dead" and "Black Sails."

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR MCCREARY SONG, "THEME FROM BLACK SAILS")

GREIVING: Marvel's "Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Outlander."

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR MCCREARY SONG, "OUTLANDER MAIN TITLE THEME")

GREIVING: McCreary's career goes back to a chance encounter when he was a junior in high school. The local rotary club in Bellingham, Wash., named him student of the month, and at the awards luncheon, it came up that he was interested in film music.

MCCREARY: And afterward, this guy comes up to me, and he says, I have a friend in the business. Maybe you'd like to meet him. And I thought, all right, you know, whatever, man. And he says, have you heard of Elmer Bernstein? And my jaw hits the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMER BERNSTEIN SONG, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN THEME")

MCCREARY: I mean, this guy had written some of my favorite melodies ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMER BERNSTEIN SONG, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN THEME")

GREIVING: The late Elmer Bernstein was one of the founding fathers of Hollywood film scoring. His music helped define such classics as "The Magnificent Seven" and "To Kill A Mockingbird."

MCCREARY: Elmer had a sailboat, and every summer, he would take it up to Alaska and come back down. And he kept his boat in Bellingham Harbor. That's how I met Elmer Bernstein. And I ended up working for Elmer for seven to 10 years.

GREIVING: And he learned some crucial lessons.

MCCREARY: He always recommended to start a film with a sound that's unique. He always said that you have anywhere from two to 10 seconds to get the audience's attention before they become distracted by the story, the titles, the narrative, the acting. And you look at his scores, and they actually follow this rule. "To Kill A Mockingbird" starts with this very childlike piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMER BERNSTEIN SONG, "TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD")

MCCREARY: "Walk On The Wild Side" starts with a triangle solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMER BERNSTEIN SONG, "WALK ON THE WILD SIDE")

GREIVING: Bernstein himself provided another example when he spoke to WHYY's Fresh Air in 1991 about the exodus scene in Cecil B. DeMille's epic "The Ten Commandments."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ELMER BERNSTEIN: When we realized that a shofar was going to be seen on the screen, we had to find somebody to play the shofar. To those who don't know, the shofar is a very ancient instrument made out of a ram's horn. Well, who plays shofars? Of course, rabbis because it's still used in Jewish ceremonies. We must've had, oh, I guess 20 or 30 rabbis on the scoring stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMER BERNSTEIN SONG, "THE EXODUS")

GREIVING: Bear McCreary wanted to draw on that lesson when he got the assignment to score "10 Cloverfield Lane."

MCCREARY: So I wrote a theme for the main character, and I had it played on a Middle Eastern instrument called the yayli tambur. And the next day, I went in to play it for the director, Dan Trachtenberg, and producer J.J. Abrams. And the lights went down. Those stars from the Paramount logo start floating in, and the yayli tambur starts playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR MCCREARY SONG, "10 CLOVERFIELD LANE OPENING THEME")

MCCREARY: J.J. turns to me, and he goes, that's really cool. What is that? And I smiled because I thought Elmer was totally right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR MCCREARY SONG, "10 CLOVERFIELD LANE OPENING THEME")

DAN TRACHTENBERG: There's a lot of movie scores that I appreciate technically, and I appreciate what they do for a movie. But they're not necessarily something I would also just want to listen to.

GREIVING: It turns out "10 Cloverfield Lane's" director, Dan Trachtenberg, was a huge fan of McCreary's music for "Battlestar Galactica."

TRACHTENBERG: He wrote things that I really just liked the sound of, and I was excited to work with him knowing that what I would get would be something that I would really find moving and beautiful to listen to.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEAR MCCREARY SONG, "10 CLOVERFIELD LANE OPENING THEME")

GREIVING: Composer Bear McCreary says he feels lucky to be writing music for a living. Finding joy in his work is something else Elmer Bernstein taught him.

MCCREARY: Elmer showed me that it was possible to succeed in art and in an industry and in a business and still have a family, still have happiness, still take time for yourself. All the other tricks of the trade and business that I picked up over the last 10 years have been great, but I feel like my life was set on the right path when I crossed paths with him.

GREIVING: A path that stretches back to a boat dock in Bellingham, Wash. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.

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