The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye

Tonight, celebrate a spooky Halloween with the world premiere of my newest series, THE WALKING DEAD.  Welcome to the first of six in-depth video blogs that will go online with each new episode.  The first focuses on the piece of music that I’m sure you all noticed tonight, The Walking Dead Main Title:

The AMC series debuted in over 120 countries simultaneously, making it the most ambitious worldwide launch of a television series of its kind.  The buzz is justified, because the behind-the-camera talent of this project is a dream team of creative individuals, with whom I’m deeply honored to collaborate.  The roster includes writer / director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redepemption), producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, The Incredible Hulk), producer / writer Robert Kirkman (writer of the acclaimed The Walking Dead graphic novels) and special make-up designer Greg Nicotero (Evil Dead II, Predators).

The cast is absolutely top-notch talent.  While most of them are not well-known names, that is sure to change after this series is finished.  I was especially happy to see Lennie James land a pivotal role in the pilot, after writing him a memorable theme for his turn as Baptiste in “Human Target.”

I was first brought on board this production relatively early in the process, before principal photography or casting had even begun.  And after many months of work, “The Walking Dead” is finally unleashed upon the world.

Days Gone Bye

SPOILERS BEYOND: After a deliciously spooky scene that sets the tone of the whole show (how many series begin with a grown man shooting a little girl straight through the brains??) we dive right into the Main Title.  The first thing you’ll notice about the music is that it begins before the visuals do.  This is a trend that will continue in future episodes.  The strings introduce a simple, repetitive string ostinato that functions as the melodic hook of the series:

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The string ensemble is an intimate group of 6 players, comprised of some of the best musicians in Los Angeles.  I wanted to honor the small chamber scores of Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone.  The energy is vicious, you can hear the rosin scraping against the strings and practically feel the muscles of the players strain as they keep up with the furious tempo.  Fun stuff.

The string orchestra represents one instrumental family I will use constantly throughout the series.  The other family of instruments I draw from is a bit more… rustic.  In the background of the title, you’ll pick out wailing electric guitars, distorted electric bass and a collection of de-tuned banjos, autoharps and dulcimers.  This primitive bluegrass sound is one that Frank, Gale and I discussed at length before production had even started.  I wanted to subtly acknowledge the geographical location of the series (it takes in and around Atlanta, Georgia) and also provide sounds that would stand apart from the traditional chamber orchestra.  I will go into further detail about our bluegrass sessions in future entries.

So, how does one write music for a horror series?  Darabont and I knew we wanted an unconventional approach.  Audiences today are so conditioned to atonal synthesizer beds and screeching orchestral nonsense cueing them to be scared or startled, that composers can simply use a formula to generate horror soundtracks:

Character Walks In X + Spooky Ambient Pads
÷ Y Attacks = Z Startles Audience

(Where “X” = dark hallway, alley or woods
“Y” = monster, slasher or friend mistaken for enemy
“Z” = big orchestra hit or synth stab)

Despite the live orchestra, de-tuned bluegrass band and custom-designed synthesizer textures at my disposal, we found that silence was our most powerful tool in “The Walking Dead.”  The scene where Rick wakes from his coma is the perfect example.  He rises, walks through the halls and encounters hidden figures trapped behind a mysteriously chained door, all with absolutely no musical accompaniment.

It is not until he emerges from the immediate dangers and sees the piles of bodies around him that the music enters.

While there’s an element of menace to the music, it is primarily an emotional cue, not a suspense cue.  It comments on his despair, shock and confusion:

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Clusters in the strings crescendo as he staggers up the hill, reaching their peak as he sees the abandoned military vehicles all around him.  As he walks away from the hospital, the violins and clarinets offer a simple, yet mournful, chordal passage.

Rick finds his way home and looks for his wife and son.  Seeing that they are gone, he breaks down, first into panic and then eventually into a child-like state, completely losing himself to the confusion and grief.  I did my best to stay out of the way of the performance, to let actor Andrew Lincoln provide the despair through his heart-wrenching performance.  Here, the strings and piano offer a gentle, soothing chorale set against a dream-like synthesizer drone.

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Rick is rescued by Morgan and his son.  Morgan explains to him (and the audience) what’s going on, and gives us the basic rules of our zombie apocalyptic world.  This kind of exposition is necessary in any zombie outing, and Darabont wisely connects this sequence to an emotional story arc: Morgan’s wife and mother of his child has become a zombie and is wandering the streets outside the house.  This gives him a reason to talk about the zombies, and gives the audience something to connect to.

I actually wrote some of the scariest music in the episode for the sequence where she approaches the door and stares through the keyhole. There was something so unsettling about that image, I knew it would be wonderfully creepy with elegant, dissonant string lines undulating in the background.  Again, there is something melodic and oddly lyrical about the music.  It’s not simply “scary.”  It’s commenting on the emotional impact this event has had on Morgan and his son.

This story arc reaches its climax in a powerful six-minute montage, where we intercut between Rick’s mercy killing of a zombie in the park and Morgan attempting to shoot his undead wife with a sniper rifle.  The sequence is big, powerful and crescendos on its own.   Having established the near-silent musical world of this series, I quickly realized that a traditional emotional cue would be too big for this sequence.  Instead, I wrote a soft chorale, evocative of a distant cathedral pipe organ:

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As Frank said, the music needed to “hover over the action,” instead of commenting on anything specific in the scene.  The result is a marvelously ethereal sequence.  Though I had no doubts it was effective, I was still pleasantly surprised to see that people in the audience at the theatrical premiere last week were openly weeping during this montage.

Rick leaves Morgan and begins his long trek to Atlanta, in hopes of finding his wife and son.  Eventually he runs out of gas and must find new transportation.  He finds an old farmhouse where the two occupants smeared their blood over the walls before blowing their brains out, one of many images lifted directly off the pages of the graphic novel.  (For this sequence, the droning of festering flies provided all the “musical” commentary necessary.)

After this gruesome sight, Rick finds a horse to take him to Atlanta.  With the unrelentingly bleak hour leading up to this moment, I found something very relaxing in this scene.  Rick is gentle with the horse, and reveals something important about himself to the audience: even in the darkest of circumstances, he is still capable of great empathy.  Immediately, I heard a clarinet solo in the back of my mind, playing in its lower register:

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I harmonized the clarinet with pastoral chords of fourths and fifths, evocative of Aaron Copland’s Americana musical language.  The result brought out the gentleness in the scene.

Moments later, he’s on horseback and suddenly the horse breaks into a full gallop.  I don’t know why, but I might be incapable of resisting the temptation to put strumming guitars against images of people on horseback!  But, it really worked.  The simple acoustic guitars playing open fifths added a playful energy to the scene.  Ira Ingber (of “Battlestar Galactica,” “Eureka” and “Midnight Run” fame) laid down a slippery dobro solo on top that added just a touch of levity:

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The score modulates downward, however, and the dobro solo loses energy.  This transitions us from the energetic horse scene to the desolate imagery to follow.  Rick sees Atlanta in the distance, riding down an empty highway into the city, while the lanes heading out of the city are littered with abandoned vehicles.  The visual was so powerful that AMC wisely used it for all their promotional campaign.

Again, using silence as my primary tool, I ended the traveling montage cue before this shot.  Rather than playing a big, ominous chord over this imagery, I let the distant crows and rustling wind provide all the ambience necessary.

Rick arrives in Atlanta and, before long, is up to his eyes in a full-on zombie attack!  I resisted the temptation to enter for the scare and instead entered for the emotion.  There is no music when Rick rounds the corner and is suddenly confronted by hundreds of zombies.  Instead,  the music begins as he crawls under the tank to escape the zombies behind him, only to discover he’s blocked by zombies in front of him as well.  In a last act of desperation, he raises his gun to his head, about to end his own life rather than suffer their same terrible fate.  Here, the aggressive string ostinato from the Main Title returns:

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In actuality, I was sketching this scene when I first came up with that riff.  I liked it so much, I decided it could work as the Main Title.  While there’s still tension and suspense in the music, it comments more on his emotional dilemma, rather than his immediate, physical one.  This was achieved by starting it when he decides to kill himself, instead of when the zombies first pursue him.

At literally the last moment, he looks up and sees he can escape through the bottom hatch of the tank.  And here he remains to the end of the episode, where we conclude with the left-field musical choice of “Space Junk” by Wang Chung, a selection Darabont said he knew he wanted even as he wrote the script.  Having heard nothing like it for the entire 90-minute episode, it comes a stark surprise and actually works marvelously.

In the coming weeks, I will walk you guys through the score in greater detail, beginning with the string orchestra and eventually getting into all the fun banjo, autoharp and dulcimer sounds.  In the meantime, I’m eager to hear what you guys thought of the premiere episode.  Did the scares and the emotional beats work?  Are you guys as hooked on this series as I am?

Happy Halloween!  Enjoy these super spooooooky jack’o'lanterns that Raya and I carved. Cue Shirley Walker’s score in 3, 2, 1…

-Bear

PS: For a completely different perspective on my “Walking Dead” sessions at Capitol Records, check out Raya Yarbrough’s Blog Entries on the subject: PART 1 and PART 2.