Interviews

Published on July 21st, 2021 | by gareth

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We Talk Scoring SurrealEstate On SYFY With Composer Spencer Creaghan

Recently I spoke with Composer Spencer Creaghan about his work composing the eerie music for the SYFy Show SurrealEstate Which airs on Fridays at 10PM/9 Central.

How did you get into composing?

Getting into composing was somewhat a unique path for me. I’ve wanted to go into film since I
was young. Focusing on writing, directing, and even acting. Though I was dipping my toe into
music with piano and guitar lessons, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to film scores. However,
around 15, I discovered a subgenre of metal called Symphonic Metal, specifically a band named
Nightwish.

Through looking into their influences I discovered a wide array of more contemporary
film composers and slowly transitioned into film composing. This led me to make strong
decisions about my future. Studying composition under an incredible teacher named David
Miller (who also taught the great Trevor Morris); Choosing York University in Toronto as a place
to earn my Bachelors since the film and music programs were in the same building. This led to
me jump-starting my career instantly upon entering university and working with the filmmakers
there, where I began making a living and gaining experience in film scoring.

Barely 19 years old at this point, I reached out to filmmakers from all over the globe and things just took off. If I could
do it all over again, I’d choose the exact same path.

 

Where do you find your inspiration when composing?

The film and conversations with the director or showrunner are the primary sources of inspiration.
After seeing the film or reading the script, I like to come up with an “angle,” a perspective of how
the music could fit and dance with the story that also allows for the music to have an identity of
its own.

The director and I will bounce ideas off each other and build excitement and then we’re
laughing! Beyond the film itself, I’m heavily inspired by Joseph Campbells’ thoughts on the
mythology and Carol Pearson’s perspective on narrative theory to help find deeper narrative
threads for the music to connect within the story. On a sonic level, I am heavily inspired by the
sounds of nature and the cities. Much of my action music for example uses instruments in a way
to emulate the chaotic anxiety that comes with cars and motorcycles driving past us.

 

What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a project?

Oh boy, there are too many to put in a concise list! My composition journey started thanks to
Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, John Powell, Thomas Bergersen, and
Tuomas Holopainen.

These days, while I do still listen to these aforementioned greats, I have brought more experimental and 21st-century composers into the mix like Penderecki, Hilder
Guthnadóttír, Daniel Pemberton and, Nicholas Britell. Though an equal amount of my inspiration
comes from Folk music (Celtic, Baltic, Persian, and Norse), Metal, and bubble gum synth-pop
(especially the Scandinavian artists like Sigrid and Aurora).

When starting a project I create a Spotify playlist of different bands and composers I think sound
like the film or show. For SurrealEstate for example, the playlist was all over the place, from
Celtic jigs to dark brutal metal.

 

What would you say is your favorite part of your score and why?

SurrealEstate is my proudest work to date in my career, so it’s tricky to lay down one part
specifically. I’m very excited by the use of Celtic and Baltic instruments in the score. It’s
something I don’t think any of us thought would come out of a show with realtors and ghosts,
but it was a perfect fit. In a more experimental way, we’re still pretty excited about how we were
able to turn a bathtub into a musical instrument!

 

Were there particular areas of the score that were more difficult to
compose for than others?

Early on we agreed that every episode’s unique house had to have a unique musical quality to
it. It was absolutely the correct decision, though it proved challenging week to week— you think
you’ve got the sound of the show then next week you get a whole new ghost to create a palette
for.

Thankfully George Olsen, SurrealEstate’s show-runner and creator, built an extremely
inspiring world to jump off of. I looked outside of traditional instruments for many of these
houses and ghosts, building off the story threads and unique identity of each of these
supernatural entities. One episode uses fog horns and ship bells, another uses Grandfather
clocks, another is built entirely from screams, and another uses windows, doors, and even a
bathtub.

 

What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced and what have been
your greatest triumphs?

Honestly, finding the musical tone of SurrealEstate was both immensely challenging and
rewarding. The show balances horror, comedy, drama, family, teamwork, and the ancient ethereal worlds, just one of these is a task on its own, but together they create a feat that’s near
impossible— especially since a musical score should sound cohesive.

Once we stumbled on the folk instruments and started discovering that the musical themes of the show would be more
conceptual and metaphysical, the pieces started falling into place. We’ve been getting some
lovely comments about the show and the score. It’s so great to see how many people are
resonating with it.

 

Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing?

Of course! It all starts with the picture and talks with the director/showrunner. On SurrealEstate,
George, Danishka Esterhazy, our musical supervisor Jody Colero, and I discussed character
arcs over the series, the different kinds of ghosts, the major themes at play in the subtexts, and
the references they were using in the early stages.

From these conversations, I went to work,
starting on the piano so I could ensure the music on its own captured the ideas we discussed. Once
I felt the musical themes were ready, I brought them to my computer and arranged them to the
picture, based on the locations we discussed as a team. When the music feels ready to share,
we’ll get together to discuss how the music is working. I’ll make changes based on George and
Danishka’s feelings, and once everyone’s happy we send it off to the sound team for mixing!

 

Maintaining suspense and enhancing scares is a vital part of the horror
soundtrack. How have you tackled this and what horror soundtracks
influenced you over the years?

Horror soundtracks have quickly become some of my go-to scores to listen to and look into for
how melodic they can be and equally how experimental. On SurrealEstate we were referencing
The Omen, Penny Dreadful, and The Exorcist. George and I share a love of choir and the
human voice, so we ensured our score had its fair share of these elements.

I knew early on I wanted to embrace certain horror music traditions, as well as bring my own flares to some of
these as well. This was much of what inspired the idea to bring in everyday house items into the
mix. In fact, the scariest music in the show, might in fact be the ones that used the Fog Horns
and ship bells!

Can you compare/contrast composing for a movie vs a tv show and do you
have a preference?

It’s been an eye-opening realization to see how TV works vs Film. In Film a composer will be
given 6-12 weeks to write about 60-90 minutes of music (at least at the level I’m used to.) In
contrast, for SurrealEstate we had about 10 days to write 30-35 minutes of music— which is
about a quarter the time compared to film.

Though once you’ve found the palette of the show, it
becomes a more fluid process. I’m a big thematic composer, so TV is great for how many
possibilities there are to expand on and vary the musical themes, and all the possibilities you
have to continue writing new music. Film and TV are equally rewarding. I jumped into a film
called Quickening, immediately after finishing SurrealEstate; the music for these two couldn’t be
more different, nor could the processes and as a creative individual, this variety is immensely
welcome.

What do you like to do when you’re not composing?

Funny enough, when not writing music for film or TV, you’ll find me listening to music, or
watching movies and TV shows! Film, TV, and music eat up the vast majority of my waking
hours (even some of my unawake hours.)

However, I’ve officially discovered the joy of reading
thanks to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I’ve been reading through that series, walking the
forests near my apartment, and spending time with my partner cooking, hiking, playing board
games, or… well watching movies and TV shows haha.

 

What else do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?

Immediately after finishing SurrealEstate, I scored a beautiful, heartbreaking film called
Quickening. I’ve heard some good news about the film recently, so hopefully, audiences will be
able to see it soon. This summer I’ll be writing orchestral arrangements for the JUNO award-nominated Metal artist Lindsay Schoolcraft, and a Symphonic Black/Death Metal band called
Astaroth Incarnate. These have been a fun change from Film/TV scoring, and I’m looking
forward to sharing this music with listeners in the near future!

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About the Author

Syndicated movie & game critic, writer, author and frequent radio guest. His work has appeared in over 60 publications worldwide and he is the creator of the rising entertainment site and publication “Skewed and Reviewed”. He has three books of film, game reviews and interviews published and is a well-received and in demand speaker on the convention circuit. Gareth has appeared in movies and is a regular guest on a top-rated Seattle morning show. He has also appeared briefly in films such as “Prefountaine”, “Postal”. “Far Cry”. and others. Gareth is also an in-demand speaker at several conventions and has conducted popular panels for over two decades.



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