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Composer Bear McCreary On His Score For “Rebel In The Rye”

Composer Bear McCreary’s score captured the inner turmoil of writer J. D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult). Photo credit: IFC Films

By: Marjorie Galas

On paper, Bear McCreary was an odd choice for first time feature director Danny Strong to pick as the composer for his film, “Rebel in the Rye.”  Emmy-winning McCreary’s resume includes acclaimed scores for TV series such as “DaVinci’s Demons”, “Outlander”, “Black Sails” and “The Walking Dead.”  At that time, McCreary only had one film score under his belt; the dance feature “Step Up 3D.”  Strong was dubious that a composer whose roster featured zombies , the 1962 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It just so happened that Elmer Benrstein, an Oscar-winning composer who received an Oscar nom for “To Kill a Mockingbird”, was an early mentor to McCreary.  Having the chance to share the emotionally complex scoring style he studied under the acclaimed 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 as it was performed to sway the leery director.  McCreary followed up that effort by scoring a handful of scenes as a test run before he secured the job.  Ultimately, the score that accompanied these scenes was used as temp tracks by the editors as they compiled the film, and the spec piece he first sent in is featured in the closing credits of the film.

“You don’t hear his influence in “Battlestar Galatica” or “The Walking Dead”, but I learned everything about creating an intimate score from him,” said McCreary.  “I was put in an unique place.  I was honored to work with Danny and able to write a score exploring character and drama that I learned from Bernstein.”

Written by Strong, “Rebel in the Rye” explores the nature of reclusive author, J.D. Salinger, a U.S. Staff Sergeant who served in five campaigns during WWII.  After the success of his 1951 novel “Catcher in the Rye,” Salinger virtually disappeared from public view and died in 2010. McCreary worked closely with Strong for two months, discussing and exploring the emotional impact of an artist who went from a driving need to create to a struggle to create and the score’s role in exploring Salinger’s psyche.

“The film creates a version that peels back the layers,” said McCreary. “The score does the heavy lifting emotionally and lyrically.”

One method McCreary developed to represent Salinger’s creative state was by utilizing two pianos, placed on each side of the orchestra.  Like flying fingers across a typewriter, each pianist performed unique arpeggiation that did’t overlap. This resulted in craft a harmonic performance that would be physically impossible to obtain by a single musician.  As Salinger’s inner demons arise, the dual pianists played in a fractured style, with their playing first creating a result akin to broken glass then ultimately disappearing from the score.

McCreary also used minimal percussion throughout the score, however he did incorporate a light percussive element: the clicking of typewriter keys.  McCreary made a recording of each key being punched and weaved these beats through the score.  McCreary’s main use of percussion represented Salinger’s mentor, Will Burnett.  Influenced by the training sequences of sports films, McCreary turned to percussive 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,” said McCreary.

Jazz also played a role in the score, representing Salinger’s time in New York and relationship with Oona O’Neill.  A big band-inspired theme was worked into the film as the song performed in a club. In addition to arranging some other period-specific jazz that is heard drifting through bars during scenes featuring Salinger walking the streets of New York, McCreary also recorded a rendition of “Coming Through the Rock”, an old Scottish folk song.   Referenced in “Catcher in the Rye”, McCreary’s version of the folk song is featured in an early montage scene in the film.