Outlander composer Bear McCreary wept writing Frank's death scene music
Droughtlander can have a soundtrack now!
On Friday, Sony Music is releasing all the original music from Outlander season 3 to help fill the void until Claire and Jamie return to our lives. In anticipation of the album’s release, we talked to the drama’s Emmy-winning composer Bear McCreary about the season’s most challenging compositions (think drums, lots of them) and how sad it was to create the music for Frank’s death.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There are so many dramatic moments in season 3, like Frank’s death and Claire and Jamie’s reunion. What was it like doing all that music?
BEAR MCCREARY: It was probably the most dynamic season of television that I’ve ever been involved in. It spanned centuries and the globe, so it really put a lot of pressure on the music to not only keep up with the drama, but to propel the story in some ways. Like when we set out on the high seas. We really needed to announce in the music a change in the language of the show. That was really exciting, and that alone would have been a big enough challenge. But we also said farewell to some of our favorite characters, like Frank. I had to write the final, ultimate version of it and that was very sad and emotional for me as a fan of the show. So, to have all that in one season was a spectacular experience.
I know that there are a few instances when the producers went outside for music, like the use of Walk off the Earth’s cover of the Bob Dylan song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” How does it work? Do they say, “Bear, I’m sorry but we don’t need you on this particular episode”?
Ultimately, it’s up to them to make those decisions. Very often the scripts come in and a scene like that has been conceived, using a piece of music. Then a discussion will come up [about] whether or not we are going to use that exact recording or we are going to do our own version of it. We did experiments like this on Battlestar Galactica, so I’m definitely used to [executive producer] Ron Moore throwing curve balls. I enjoy the opportunity to step back and let a piece of the source music or a song come to the forefront in Outlander because it is so rare. It makes these sequences feel very special. I hate to admit it, but no piece of a score would have the same impact. With the Walk off the Earth cover, you hear this intimate guitar performance of a folk song, an American popular folk song, and it immediately draws you in. I definitely know there are times when I take a back seat role for a sequence, so it just gives me more opportunity to dive into the rest of the episode and set it up in a way that it will be powerful for the audience.
What would you say were the hardest moment to write music for from season 3?
Boy, there’s a few. Emotionally, Frank’s death was extremely difficult. I found myself weeping as I was writing. I felt so much for Claire. I felt for Frank and I loved the theme I wrote for Frank and it was sad writing it, knowing it was the last time. In many ways, I was saying goodbye to a piece of music that had been in my life for three years and a character. So that was challenging in that it was very emotional. However, on a creative and technical level, I think the most challenging scene of the season and perhaps in my career was in the finale, with the voodoo drum ceremony in the woods. There’s a drum performance that I wrote. I wrote this drum circle music and on top of this 10-minute sequence, there’s all this drama and exposition. There’s conflict, resolution, revelations, new motivations, fights, death, flashbacks. All of this happens while there’s a gigantic drum circle 10 feet away from our characters. It put us in a bizarre position where the score needed to do something. The idea was to write a drum circle performance that could stand alone and exist in its own world for 10 minutes but told a story and kept us in the setting. It took me weeks and I was working with the editorial department very closely. They sent me the scene much earlier than they normally do because they were wrapping their heads around what we do. But I think it’s really cool and it’s an unusual track on the record and it was just a technical challenge.
How much time do they give you to come up with a piece of music?
Well, on this show I tend to have a lot of time compared to most television shows. On a network show, you can get six days to score an episode. On Outlander, because it’s premium cable and because of the way Starz works, I usually end up with a month or more for an episode, which is extravagant. I get episodes in groups and I end up with certainly a few weeks if not a month or two to play around with them. It’s a wonderful experience that’s relatively rare in television. And when there are major important musical changes coming, I’m usually given a big flag early. Like, for example, when we were going to go to Jamaica with the story, I didn’t wait until episode nine to start thinking about that. I was working on that almost before the season even started.
I loved the way you changed the tune in the title sequence midway through the season.
In the second season, we changed it to French and it sounded very baroque and aristocratic for six or seven episodes. When we went back to Scotland for the Jacobite uprising story, it changed again and was very militaristic. There have been a number of main titles that reflect the story and the geography and of course it’s going to change again now that we are not in Jamaica in season 4. I have never had the opportunity to do this before and I think you can probably count on one or two hands the number of shows that frequently change their title sequence for a narrative or creative purposes. It’s exciting.
Do you anticipate having to change the tone in season 4 because the action will take place in the American colonies?
Yes. I am honestly knee-deep in it right now. I’m working on the new episodes and these are the questions I’m grappling with at the moment. Historically speaking, we pushed the sound of the score to reflect our characters’ growth and our geography. Just because the end of season 3 was so exotic with all the Jamaican stuff, that has to be reversed in the new year. That was like a momentary splash in the score and I don’t think we are going to be doing anything that Cuban-sounding for a while, so there’s a lot of questions that I’m still tinkering with, to be honest. I am in a weird position if you think about it where most of the story took place — in Scotland about Scottish characters — and so Scottish folk music was a really big part of the score and in many ways as connected to the characters of Jamie and Claire. So now they are in America and we are commenting on the geography, but at the end of the day, it’s way more important to comment on the characters and comment on their drama and our familiarity with them. We are seeing everything through their eyes and so I do think their theme that I wrote for them, the presence of bagpipes underscoring Jamie’s strength, are things that will remain in the show.