BWW Interview: Composer Sam Ewing Talks The Walking Dead Season 10
Composer Sam Ewing took the time to speak with us about his work on season 10 of THE WALKING DEAD and co-composing with Bear McCreary.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you decide to become a composer?
I went to Berklee College of Music to study jazz guitar and realized I needed to parlay my music chops into something that would give me a job. I knew it would involve technology because I've always been obsessed with tech. So there was a "Film Scoring Contest!" poster in some hallway, and I thought, I want to give this a try. I ended up being a finalist in the contest, but more importantly I had so much fun that I decided I wanted to try my hand at this in the long run. I think composing is really a synthesis of many different skills, which is why it's a great fit for me.
You are co-composing the most recent season of The Walking Dead (season 10) with Bear McCreary, how did you get involved with this show?
I started interning for Bear's company when Season 5 started up, and at the time he needed some managerial and logistical support on the show. I really happened to be in the right place at the right time. That being said, I also made a really decisive effort to help him and go beyond what he was asking of me, and I think that's why I got to where I am now.
What is the process of composing each episode and collaborating with Bear like?
We split each episode up between us. Some co-composers might alternate which episodes they take, but we are more all hands on everything. It's very different from episode to episode. Sometimes I'm doing a lot because it calls for the playing and recording solo instruments. But one thing is for sure, I look up to Bear big time and he has been on this show for 10 years. He's the man. I'm listening to him and always supporting his great ideas and trying to learn as much as possible from him. And my personality is like a sponge so I am soaking up everything from the work we do.
If you could describe the feel of the music in season 10 using only three words, what would they be?
Raw, rustic, organic!
Are there certain instruments you gravitate towards when scoring this show?
Lately I have been gravitating a lot towards playing fiddle and electric bass. Fiddle is so versatile for both melodies and for textural animation. It can be beautiful or horrifying. I started playing in my early 20s. I'm not always perfectly in tune and I don't have that classical drilling from childhood, so there's a kind of rustic identity to my playing that I try to lean into. Bass on the other hand is amazing because it fills the other end of the frequency spectrum. Often the low end is the only thing that cuts through the mix when a million zombies are onscreen, and you still get that raw, organic feel to translate because it's a real performance. The show and the score really call for that.
You've been involved with The Walking Dead in some capacity since season 5, how have you noticed the score changing from season to season as plots and characters develop?
It has changed dramatically. When I jumped in on Season 5, the direction was John Carpenter, simple but dreadful analog synths. It's the future, post-apocalyptic. Of course I was into that being obsessed with tech and synths. As we get into Seasons 9 and 10, however, we start to see the characters build society back up, and revert to old technologies like windmills, waterwheels, colonial plows, horseback, etc. So the idea that show runner Angela Kang and Bear McCreary sparked, that we're still running with and developing now in Season 10, was that the music would follow suit, and devolve in a way, away from the more modern synthesizers and into something more acoustic, organic, and rustic. I think it's such a simple and wonderful direction. So now we call it a modern western score.
Do you find it more difficult to create music for scenes that is meant to be heard and focused on or meant to be subtle and blend into the background?
I think scenes that require music to be heard and drive the scene are more challenging simply because they require more hours. We composers tend to sweat more over something that we know will be heard and will take the spotlight. We give more attention to each note. That being said, I think the biggest challenge film composers face are scenes that need help. So music has to do some heavy lifting to get a story beat across because the footage wasn't there or the actor performance wasn't quite what we wanted. Music is usually last in post-production process, so it often falls on us. That's a huge part of the job, and probably one of the most valuable tools in the shed as a film composer!
How much creative freedom do you have while composing for The Walking Dead? Is there a clear direction or are you able to experiment?
We have a pretty clear direction. Bear, Angela and I sit down with the editors and watch the episode down, and decide before a note of music is written how we're going to score a scene. In the opening of episode 1003 for example, there's little to no dialogue for a few minutes and dialogue and the editing really dictate the emotion and the pace. This scene was begging for something driving, mysterious, a little bit fun twisting into something dreadful and surmounting. We discussed this as a group. But what exactly does that sound like? That's up to the composer to go try something. Ultimately, it's our job to satisfy the show runner, Angela Kang's vision. She is very encouraging about being bold and musical, but very clear about the voice of the score. I think there's a great creative relationship happening here.
Do you have a favorite genre you like to compose for best?
Since we're talking about The Walking Dead, I'll say that I love horror. I love scoring emotion and drama as well, perhaps even more than horror - music tells an emotional story. But the horror genre opens up a big old door that's usually closed: dissonant music. There's a huge body of musical work in the modern, 21st century harmonic language that is really fun to explore and goes way in between the 12 chromatic notes of the western scale. Even if it's not horror, it's fun to explore that. I really believe it's in between those 12 perfectly spaced tones where the emotion and the story lies. That's why the sound of an orchestra is beautiful - it's a room full of people who are making an effort to tune together. An analog synth is drifting out of tune a little bit as tiny changes in voltage go through the wall. These are the colors of music that I love.
Is there one person you'd love to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to yet?
I have a lot of admiration for Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. I think it would be fun to collaborate with her because I feel there's a really raw and fresh sense of musicality there. It's not about trying to score Steven Spielberg's movie or win an Oscar, it's about creating music that resonates with her, and usually through strange instruments like a feedback cello. Weird and cool.
When you're not composing, what do you enjoy doing?
I love to play tennis. I grew up playing tennis with my dad and admittedly don't do it enough, but try to get out there. There's something therapeutic and beautiful and simple about hitting a ball over and over. Don't think, just hit the ball.
Do you have any advice for anyone pursuing music as a career, like anything you wish you knew when you were starting out?
My advice would be to find your patch of grass, plant your seed and let it grow. Stay loyal to the people around you and when you're asked to do a job, do it and also do the job that wasn't asked of you. Make decisions and stick to them, for better or worse. Don't let the wind carry you. In other words, go work for a composer who you admire and when you feel like giving up, push harder. Luck, talent, and timing are nothing compared to genuine, hard work.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SAM EWING