Scoring for the Undead: Interview with ‘The Walking Dead’ Composer Sam Ewing

Walking Dead Season 10

Season 10 of AMC’s The Walking Dead is already two episodes in, with Sunday night’s episode titled ‘We Are The End Of The World’ focusing on the Whisperers entirely, with only a glimpse at our heroes. There has also been a lot of buzz about Thora Birch (Hocus Pocus, Now and Then) getting cast on the show and viewers were finally introduced to her character, Gamma, a woman who takes after Alpha’s heart so much that she’s given her own name and hoisted up into the upper echelons of the Whisperers’ twisted hierarchy. Another new addition to the show, but behind the camera, is composer Sam Ewing. Ewing is co-composing this season alongside Bear McCreary. We wanted to learn more about Ewing and his musical approach to The Walking Dead, so we spoke with him about numerous topics. Read the fill interview below.

-How would you say Season 10 is different from all the other seasons of The Walking Dead?

I think there is a new emotional component, relationally and otherwise. For example, Carol and Daryl have an interesting season together. Daryl in general is developing his relationships with others. We learn more about Alpha and Beta of the Whisperers. Gamma, a new character played by Thora Birch, has some interesting relational story lines and twists this season. I am personally impressed by what show runner Angela Kang and writers have squeezed out of the 10th season. They are finding new angles to play that are bold surprising, and rewarding for longtime fans. It’s all about the relationships.

-Can you talk about your scoring process? How much in advance do you get the episodes before you begin work on it?

Bear and I usually spend about 7-14 days scoring any given episode. We have to leave room for any recording, mixing, and most importantly feedback from Angela and producers before sending the finished score off. Being a cable TV show, it’s fast paced, no doubt about it. This means there are usually very important tonal decisions made upfront: what kind of instrumentation do we want this season? Which musical themes are returning? Are we creating any new themes? Once decisions like these are made, it’s about diving into the details and deciding where music is going to go and how it will serve the scene. From there, we’re able to actually compose the music fairly quickly, because we have the tonal groundwork laid out.

-Bear McCreary has been scoring the show for a while now and you are stepping in as co-composer for Season 10. Because of the HUGE fan base, did you feel any extra pressure when beginning work on Season 10?

Yes, absolutely. I myself was a fan of the show before I ever even moved to LA. 2010, I was watching the show on my laptop during work-study hours between college classes. So I feel I’ve earned a tremendous responsibility to deliver what fans are expecting and hoping to be a strong 10th season. That being said, it’s been such a gradual “crossfade,” if you will, that I feel very prepared to take on any kinds of creative job that comes our way. It’s all about focusing on the show that’s in front of you, reacting to the cut that’s been put together, and trying to make it the best it can be.

-Is there a character on The Walking Dead that you feel gets a bad rap, but really is misunderstood?

I think Negan might be that character for me. I think Negan is brilliantly portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a complicated super villain, but fans haven’t yet seen his full story. I am excited by the potential for his character. It’s not often you have a guy who disgusted you deeply for the acts he carried out in Season 6, to a guy who you might actually be rooting for.  We’ll see what happens with him.

-Are you going to be contributing any music to the upcoming Walking Dead spin off that will be airing next year?

I have no answer for that, yet. I will say that the tone of each of these spin offs is unique both from each other and The Walking Dead mothership show itself. So I imagine show runners and producers will have to make a decision largely based on tone and aesthetic for how they decide who will be scoring each show.

-Do you and Bear ever talk with the composers of Fear of the Walking Dead, just to exchange ideas?

Basically not at all. Once again, the tone of each show is unique and so if anything, I think there is probably an inherent effort to create different vibes for each show. That being said, there’s an important character, Morgan, who made an epic migration from TWD to Fear. He has some musical themes and ideas in The Walking Dead, and Bear and I have had a single conversation with the Fear music team about what instruments we used and how. But we’re basically each doing our own thing.

-Are there any horror scores that have provided you with inspiration for your Walking Dead score?

Psycho by Bernard Herrmann, The Shining (mostly Ligeti and Penderecki), Jaws and Jurassic Park by John Williams (the action/horror components), Alien by Jerry Goldsmith, Predator by Alan Silvestri, Halloween by John Carpenter are some classic favorites of mine which I’m literally always thinking about. Some more modern ones: It Follows by Disasterpiece, 10 Cloverfield Lane by Bear McCreary, Hereditary by Colin Stetson, Sicario by Johann Johannsson,  Get Out by Michael Abels, There Will Be Blood by Jonny Greenwood. I could go on forever. These all said, I think that one of the biggest sources of inspiration, actually, for the current TWD score is Ennio Morricone’s western scores, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ modern western scores. We’re drawing inspiration from the simple, solo fiddle and rustic, imperfect performances that really play to the tone of the post-dark ages in Seasons 9 and 10 of The Walking Dead. We now have water mills, windmills, HAM radios built by Eugene. So the score is reflecting that.

-Who are your personal favorite and least favorite characters on The Walking Dead?

For reasons I stated above, Negan is one of my current favorites. I also love Daryl, particularly in Season 10, because his character is really beginning to come into the forefront of the show and his actions and relationships have higher stakes than before. Michonne’s a badass, and so is Judith. I absolutely love Judith. Now who do I dislike – ho boy, I honestly can’t say that I have a least favorite character. I may have answer Alpha last year because it’s so easy to dislike the murderous, manipulative villain, but this season, you really begin to understand the vulnerabilities and humanity of every character. It’s hard to straight up hate a character who you empathize with, even a little bit.

-Is there anything musically you haven’t experimented with yet on the show that you would like to in the future?

I will speak for Bear and myself here: vocals have never really been played with or featured in the show’s score. I absolutely love vocals, especially since we’ve messed with vocals a lot on a few other recent projects, including Apple TV’s See and Hulu’s Into The Dark: Pooka, among others. I think vocals are the direct musical version of unlocking human emotion. It’s so immediate and recognizable, and there are so many cool musical and production tricks you can do with voices to make entirely complete musical arrangements. Now I’m excited about this! Keep an ear out for vocals on The Walking Dead!

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