How Composer Spencer Creaghan Developed Motherly’s Horror-Centric Score
Spencer Creaghan is a multi-award winning composer who has had the opportunity to compose music for various film and television productions. Most recently, he created the score for both SYFY’s Surrealestate, as well as Craig David Wallace’s horror film Motherly. In this interview, we take a deeper dive into Spencer’s music, career, and work within the entertainment industry.
Tell us about yourself. What was your first job as a composer and how did you decide to pursue your craft?
Hi, Film Daily! Thanks for taking the time to chat. I’m Spencer Creaghan, a Film & Television Composer, notably for SYFY’s supernatural drama SurrealEstate and the CSA nominated horror film Motherly. The decision to become a composer began in my early teens.
I always knew I wanted to work in film, following the path to be a director, writer, even actor. Simultaneously loving music, having loved film scores since I was a child, and playing in bands, it suddenly occurred that film scoring was a calling; it also helps when anyone who hears your original music mentions its storytelling qualities as well.
I studied composition from a man named David Miller (who also trained VIKINGS composer Trevor Morris) and chose to study at York University in Toronto, Canada, because its film and music program were in the same building… a great way to meet filmmakers and hone in on art and craft.
Turns out York was a smart decision, as my first ever job as a composer coincided with my first day – almost 12 years ago! York allowed their new students to all meet via a private Facebook group prior to Frosh Week. After mentioning that I was a composer and sharing a few of my works, a director named Dmitry Lopatin connected.
We began talking and got along quite well. The literal first day of Frosh week, I was moving into residence, Dmitry comes up to me and says he has a short that he’d love for me to score; we got to work that afternoon! I’m pleased to say Dmitry and I still work together to this day, though he has transitioned into a cinematographer – and a great one at that!
In terms of influences, Film music is certainly high on that list, regardless of composer, era, or style, it’ll always be my ‘first love’ as it were. Beyond this genre, there is a lot of influence from Metal, Irish Folk, Nordic Folk, electro dream pop, and early 20th century Classical music heard in my scores. However, if I may take it a step further, the natural sounds of the world around us have been a major influence as well.
I think most musicians will attest that they can hear music in the world around them, I’d agree. Cars driving by, the sounds of the city, train stops, microwave hums, creaking houses, busy streets, all of these sounds have influenced my scores in recent years as I try to emulate their sonic textures in a musical form either with the orchestra, other instruments, or recording these sounds and using them within the music itself!
What are some differences in your scoring approach for a film like Motherly vs. a series like SurrealEstate?
Great question! Every film requires its own approach in style and scoring practice. Though both in the horror realm, Motherly and SurrealEstate couldn’t be further apart. SurrealEstate, whilst utilizing a healthy amount of experimentation, is a more traditional score. It has a myriad of themes for the different characters, ideas, places, things, that all tie together in telling the musical story.
Sonically, SurrealEstate is also, for the most part, a traditional score, featuring strings, choir, piano, guitars, and folk instruments – though with a fair amount of unconventional instruments as well, such as a Grandfather Clock, and a Bathtub, but more on those later!
On SurrealEstate so much of the process was about balancing the series’ many tones, from Horror, witty comedy, action, drama, romance, and supernatural fantasy, the score had a lot of juggling to get the tone right, the first few episodes were tricky to get right.
We ended up creating another challenge for ourselves in wanting each ‘house of the week’ to have its own sonic pallet. One house revolves around Time, another influenced by the Sirens of myth, another from a music box melody, and a house where the sounds of a house itself are brought to life in the music. It was a massive feat!
In complete contrast, Motherly is an incredibly experimental score. While it still utilizes a number of themes and motifs for the narrative concepts and ideas, it does so equally from experimental textures as from melodies. A lot of Motherly was to create a horror score without using any Horror tropes, no scratchy strings, no risers, no big whacks on jump scares, and no scary choirs.
To get around this, myself and my synth designer Chris Reineck created these nauseating synthesizers using frequencies that affect the human gagging reflexes. Thankfully no audience member has thrown up yet, but quite a few have said they felt incredibly uncomfortable the entire film. Both SurrealEstate and Motherly aim to bring to life concepts in their stories that don’t have physical embodiments – something I do in a lot of my scores.
For SurrealEsate, this was the houses themselves and, perhaps more importantly, the Afterlife. This is represented with an Irish low whistle theme that often plays with Tim Rozon’s ‘Luke’ and Sarah Levy’s ‘Susan.’ Similarly for Motherly, you’ll hear these eerie whisper and percussion vocals. I heard these in my head upon first viewing the film, seeing them as a musical representation of Kate’s inner monologue (played by Lora Burke).
What I love about working in film and television is how each project stretches the imagination and creativity of its composer. While one can still hear the ‘Spencer’ in both, neither one of these scores would exist in their final form without the film and show they were created for or the collaboration from the incredible directors, writers, cast, and crew involved. Every part of a film influences its score. I’m very thankful to have been a part of such great works of art.
Can you walk us through the elements of the score on SurrealEstate and how they support the show’s narrative?
Absolutely! As I mentioned above, SurrealEstate takes, more or less, a traditional scoring approach, using several themes and motifs throughout to help tell the story musically. One of my favorite parts about scoring is bringing to life ideas and concepts that do not have physical embodiments— or items/places that don’t have an actor to play them.
In SurrealEstate, one of these ideas was The Afterlife. Inspired by the stunning Newfoundland landscapes where the show was shot, the Afterlife theme uses celtic instruments such as the Irish Low Whistle and Tin Whistles and its melody was inspired by Irish airs. Folk instruments play a large part in the show.
Family, particularly generational conflict, is an integral part of the show; to represent this, I used Balkan Choir for its communal atmosphere- you hear the voices of these women and immediately think of history, community, family and all the strength, pain, and love that comes along with that.
So much of SurrealEstate is about tonal balance. Strings, electronics, choirs, and pianos are used throughout for the dramatic, action, horror, and more emotional moments, giving us those bold Hollywood styled melodies and moments. For the comedic moments, we incorporated latin jazz and cuban percussion- a play on how, for whatever reason, this music is often heard in open houses of Realtors and as elevator music in apartment complexes.
It’s a fun little nod to this fascinating phenomena. Celtic instruments are heard in some of the comedic moments as well, inspired by Scotts/Irish reels and cèilidhs. I love paying homage to the greats of the past. One such nod is the use of theremin in the score, an instrument that has a long history connected to sci-fi and surreal supernatural stories.
Then, of course, there’s the houses themselves, each one featuring its own unique set of sounds and unconventional “instruments.” My scoring process is highly detailed, fitting together a web of themes, textures, and instruments to make sure the musical story is as cohesive as the written, performed, and filmed story.
It’s incredibly important that a score doesn’t just recreate the emotions presented on screen, but that it helps tell the subtextual story happening underneath. Often when SurrealEstate I am reminded of that Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia meme with Charlie by the thread map haha many days, I felt exactly like Charlie; thankfully, I think it turned out pretty well in the end!
Were there any unusual instrumentations or sounds you utilized?
This is always my favorite question to answer! Oh yes, were there ever! As hinted at a few times now, each house required its own sonic pallet. Some houses featured folk, electronic, orchestra, and vocal instruments to represent them, but others required a more experimental approach. I was blessed to have an incredible team working with me on this series.
Episode 6 features a house with a ‘ticking time bomb’ styled threat, for this episode we incorporated processed grandfather clocks, church bells, alarms, and ticking into the tense atmospheres. Even slowing down and reversing other instruments like pianos and the string section.
Episode 4, features a haunted lighthouse, so I knew we HAD to use fog horns and ship bells for this episode. Then we come to Episode 10 where season wide big bad comes to play. For this villian, I wanted to bring to life the house itself. My team used friction mallets and recorded everything from windows, to sinks, doors, walls, and my favorite..
The bathtub! I took these sounds and processed them into the score. The Bathtub is one of my favorites not just for its ridiculousness, but also because once processed, it literally sounded like souls trapped in hell wailing to get out… not what you’d expect from such a comforting part of any home!
What is some of your preferred gear for scoring genre projects?
Every composer has their tool kit, mine tends to still be the computer and my DAW, Logic Pro. I’m a very meticulous composer, adjusting and fiddling with every little bit of the music until it’s just right. Because of this, I find working in the computer gives me that flexibility to adjust anything and everything I need.
Thankfully, there are many great players in the Sampling world now that most of my orchestral and traditional instruments are covered, though my team and I are constantly building new sounds from location recordings, new synthesizers, and so forth — my most recent fascination being the human voice and sampling everything one can from it!
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Coming out on April 29th is a film I’m extremely proud of called, Quickening. It’ll be released through LevelFilm with a soundtrack to follow shortly. It’s a different score to both SurrealEstate and Motherly and features a mix of Golden Era Hollywood classical orchestra and modern contemporary scoring techniques. The first single from the OST titled ‘Eden’ will arrive on April 29th to coincide with the film’s release so be on the lookout for it as well!
Thank you for this lovely interview, it was a real pleasure chatting with you!
Learn more about Spencer on his IMDb.