March 7th, 2016
Tonight marks the debut of Damien, A&E’s new horror / thriller series that serves as a continuation of Richard Donner’s 1976 classic film, The Omen. That film had a profound impact on me growing up, in particular because of its Academy-Award-winning Jerry Goldsmith score. I was thrilled, and a little intimidated, to dive into this unique cinematic world and compose original score for Damien.
I first heard about this show over a year ago, when I got a call from my friend Glen Mazzara, the showrunner with whom I had collaborated on two seasons of The Walking Dead.
“Bear’s score brought so much to The Walking Dead. I knew music would be an even bigger component of Damien, that it would have to become a character in itself, representing Satan’s presence,” Glen recalled recently. “I called Bear as I was driving home from my first meeting. He’s so busy, I needed to get him excited so that if the show were ever to become a reality, he’d already be on board. I could not imagine making this show without him.”
The instant Glen told me he was developing a television series following the events of The Omen, my imagination whirred into overdrive. But, there was only one question I needed answered before I could commit to it: “Can I have access to Jerry Goldsmith’s themes?”
In the decades since the film’s release, Goldsmith’s score for The Omen has become iconic not only of the film, but of the 1970’s horror genre as a whole. (The Book of Mormon on Broadway parodied it pretty hilariously.) I felt strongly that a continuation of that story would not work without a connection to that music. Thankfully, Glen felt the same way as I did.
“I wanted Damien to feel like an updated version of The Omen, not a cheap knockoff,” Glen said recently. “The character-based drama, the type of horror, the music, everything – the tone had to be just right. Since I was working with 20th Century Fox, we were able to get the rights to the score and footage from the original film. Those elements were essential in creating our world. They were our foundation.”
With access to those timeless themes, I wove them into the texture of my score for the series. I featured Goldsmith’s iconic “Ave Satani” prominently in the first episode, and his “Family Theme” makes several appearances throughout the season.
In addition to occasionally borrowing Goldsmith’s themes, I definitely utilized his approach to horror scoring. Surprisingly, when you go back and revisit The Omen soundtrack (or Poltergeist), much of the music’s running time is dedicated to the “Family Theme,” a beautiful, pleasant, suburban depiction of a happy family. It was essential for Goldsmith to establish that relatable musical world before he destroyed it with clustered, terrifying atonal writing. This approach, creating warmth with characters early in the story to make their later suffering even more powerful, was one I applied effectively to Damien.
“Then Bear took it to another level,” Glen said. “He re-recorded Ave Satani and found places to work in Goldsmith’s score. But then, the show became its own thing and as Bear developed his score, we started to push into new storytelling arenas. The music followed the writing which followed the music and back and forth. It was like two guitarists playing off each other, each picking up cues from the other, playing a lick, inspiring the other one to try something new. It was an incredibly collaborative process, all coming out of our love for the original material.”
My first priority was to honor Goldsmith’s score, without copying it. Though rooted in the original film as a basis, Damien is its own series, and as such, required that I develop my own original sound and themes as well. My score for this dark, twisted roller-coaster ride is one of the most sonically distinct of my career. Drawing inspiration from Jerry Goldsmith’s timeless, choir-infused score to that film, my Damien score features ominous choral textures. I wanted to preserve the dissonant, choral sounds that have become the signature sound of the film, but I also felt the large orchestral component from Goldsmith’s score would be too bombastic for a series that stays intimately focused on one man, and tells a more personal story. I needed to pair my choir with a different instrumental foundation.
Where Jerry set his choir in an orchestral surrounding, I instead put my choir in the midst of searing synths, and pounding low strings. I axed the brass and winds entirely, using edgy, ambient synth textures to provide color variation (although I kept ethnic woodwinds for sequences in Syria). Mashing those sounds together produced a score that The Hollywood Reporter described as “industrial Gregorian,” a phrase I will take as a compliment.
The most important piece of music I composed for the series was the Main Title. The visuals of the title depicts modern city life, overlaid with terrifying Renaissance images of hell and demons. Inspired by that dichotomy, I took the classical sounds of my choir singing in Latin and set them against a distorted backdrop of blistering synth basses and powerful drums. I think this Main Title is the most aggressive I’ve ever written since Black Sails.
One of the biggest challenges of writing for choir in this style was finding and developing appropriate Latin texts. Thankfully, my friend Ryan Huber applied his theological research skills and was essential in culling material together. Knowing a scholar of religion comes in handy when you need to write themes for the Antichrist!
Even though I am working on a series about the Antichrist taking over the world, I had a really good time doing it. I found that everyone involved with the show was as excited as I was to see the next episode, to see how intensely crazy the show could become. Reuniting with Glen Mazzara was an especially fun experience.
“The thing I love best about working with Bear is when we watch the show together for spotting,” Glen said. “If he gets it and is excited about the episode, I know it’s good and I can finally relax, no matter what anyone else says. Bear is my barometer, my canary in the coalmine. As long as he’s singing, the show is healthy. His enthusiasm is validating.”
Going into the series, I was most looking forward to producing my own arrangement of “Ave Satani,” an opportunity I found in the very first episode. After that, I found incredibly rewarding sequences starting piling up right away. There are some truly memorable and gruesome deaths in this series, as well as shocking revelations. For these sequences, I pushed the boundaries of my choral writing, low strings writing, and synth programming further and further.
Even though it would be hard for me to pick a favorite cue in the first season, I asked Glen if he had one. “There are so many great musical moments in our first episode but I think my favorite is the heart-breaking piece Bear wrote for act five. I don’t want to reference any spoilers but when we see Damien amidst the wreckage of his life, when he has to comfort someone who’s in pain because of another death he’s responsible for, Bear’s score underlines Damien’s pain. Sure, we have our big horror set pieces but the heart of the show is these subtle character moments.”
I am confident horror fans will be riveted by Damien. The first episode is an intriguing continuation of a classic film, but the series gradually develops its own perspective and voice with each subsequent episode. The second half of the season is honestly one of the most fun, unpredictable and borderline insane things I’ve ever had the privilege of working on. And the last two hours have to be seen to be believed.
A loving tribute to a classic era in horror filmmaking, Damien gave me the chance to pay tribute to one of my favorite film composers and favorite scores of all time. Stay tuned for a hell of a ride.