Bear McCreary seemed an odd choice for first-time feature director Danny Strong to pick as the composer for “Rebel in the Rye.”
McCreary’s Emmy-winning résumé includes scores for TV series such as “Da Vinci’s Demons,” “Outlander,” “Black Sails” and “The Walking Dead” — and for the dance feature “Step Up 3D.” So Strong could hardly be blamed for doubting that a composer for shows about zombies, pirates and demons could capture the emotional depth of the score he most wanted to emulate: that of the 1962 classic feature “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But a connection was already there. “Mockingbird” composer Elmer Bernstein was McCreary’s mentor. And a chance for McCreary to share the intimate, emotional style he studied under the Oscar-winning composer was a dream come true.
After his initial meeting with Strong, McCreary wrote a piece of music on spec and created a video of himself conducting an orchestra to sway the leery director. He followed up by scoring a handful of scenes as a test run. His hard work secured the job.
Ultimately, his test scenes were used as temp tracks, and the spec piece is featured in the film’s closing credits.
Written by Strong and set for a Sept. 15 release by IFC, “Rebel” explores the life of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, once a U.S. staff sergeant who served in five campaigns during World War II. After the enormous success of his 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” Salinger virtually disappeared from public view and lived a reclusive life in New Hampshire. He died in 2010.
McCreary worked closely with Strong for two months, discussing and exploring the emotional impact of an artist who went from having a driving need to create to struggling to create, and the score’s role in exploring Salinger’s psyche. “The film creates a version that peels back the layers,” McCreary says. “The score does the heavy lifting emotionally and lyrically.”
One method McCreary developed to represent Salinger’s creativity was to use two pianos, placed on each side of the orchestra. Like flying fingers across a typewriter, each pianist performed unique arpeggios that didn’t overlap.
The effect was a harmonic performance that couldn’t be physically produced by a single player. As Salinger’s inner demons arise, the dual pianists play in a fractured style, first sounding like broken glass and then disappearing from the score.
Although McCreary used few drums, he incorporated one percussive element: the clicking of typewriter keys. For this, he made a recording of each key being punched and wove the beats through the score.
He also turned to instruments from India for their intense and unusual sounds. “The ethnic percussion was so outside the language off the score, it provided a jolt of electricity,” he says.
Jazz also played a role, representing Salinger’s time in New York. A big band-inspired theme was worked into the film, and McCreary recorded renditions of period jazz as well as “Comin’ Thro’ the Rock,” a Scottish folk song featured in a montage.