For Syfy’s original horror series SurrealEstate, composer Spencer Creaghan delivers everything from Irish jigs to jump scares with his versatile score. Creaghan is a JUNO nominated and multi-SOCAN-award-winning film and modern-media composer pushing new boundaries in his chosen field.
SurrealEstate is best described as a “supernatural, horror, comedy, drama,” which gives Creaghan a wide range sonically to play with — his interdisciplinary success in metal composition and his Irish heritage are things he pulls from in creating this “ethereal plane” soundtrack.
Awards Focus spoke to Creaghan about his process as a composer, choosing his featured song for Awards consideration, and the value of an Emmy nomination.
Awards Focus: Let’s start with your approach to composing SurrealEstate. What did you draw from, and what directives were you given to land on the desired tone?
Spencer Creaghan: SurrealEstate was liberating to work on as a composer while consequently being challenging to balance. One moment our heroes are investigating a haunted house and using real estate lingo and calming down clients; the next, they’re fighting ghosts and dropping great one-liners.
One way to balance the musical story of the show was by creating musical themes. In season one, we have around 30 different musical pieces, with ten major ones recurring heavily throughout the season.
Another way to find this balance was with the instrumentation. The show’s overall tone is supernatural horror, which pays homage to some classic horror movies. The elements of that kind of score are gothic strings, voices, electronics, and pianos, layering together to create the mood.
AF: But you go a lot further than just those instruments, there’s clearly a Theremin in there.
Creaghan: Exactly right. Because the show balances so many different tones, I needed more than that ensemble of instruments; I needed to broaden the musical horizons of the first season.
Theremin was included to connect the score to its supernatural roots, along with hammered dulcimers and Viola da Gamba — they bring out the score’s ancient quality.
Conversely, guitars, bass, and drums were added to bring out a modern rock essence, and Cuban and South American instrumentation was also used throughout to reference this music commonly heard in real estate house showings.
The final piece of the sonic puzzle came in through the use of Irish and Celtic instruments. SurrealEstate is shot on location in Newfoundland, Canada. Those landscapes were once attached to Ireland many millennia ago, and you can really feel it in the environment. So it’s no surprise that the province has a large population of Irish immigrants.
Having a strong Irish heritage, I wanted to tip my hat to this and incorporated low whistles, bodhran, tin whistles, and fiddles to bring this essence into the score.
What came from their inclusion was unlike anything else in the score. These instruments were able to bring to life the “Ethereal Plane” or “the other world.” I’m quite adamant that a score should be another character in the show or film, and once these instruments were added, this ‘character’ was entirely felt.
SurrealEstate is a balancing act beyond anything I’ve worked on before, and the instrumentation plays heavily into finding this balance. From the lovely reactions and comments about the series and its music thus far, I think we’ve achieved what we set out to do.
AF: Can you tell us more about the featured song you submitted for the Emmys? What was your creative process for it, and how does it function in the episode?
Creaghan: Episode five, “Ft. Ghost Child,” is the kind of episode any composer or musician dreams of getting. Throughout the episode, a rapper named Damon is writing his next hit and the protagonists are helping sell him a house with a built-in studio that has a history with the church that has a dark history.
In our story, darkness includes a little ghost child, George, who was abandoned by the church and died at a young age. George finds a brotherly role-model figure in Damon.
As the episode progresses, Damon’s song evolves along with it. The first version of “Always Remember” is a stripped-down version of the song, and Damon’s producer hears something, a distant scream in the backing tracks. They sample this scream and incorporate it into the song.
Later Damon hears George’s ghostly lullaby, which recurs throughout the episode, and starts singing along with it, using it as the chorus. Then, in the episode’s climax, the song is heard once more, now infused with the score as George’s ghost finds peace and reunites with his mother.
This track wasn’t easy to create as the song’s main body is a hip-hop track inspired by gothic nu-metal bands like Linkin Park and incorporates a lullaby melody element and a processed sample chilling scream.
For the vocals and lyrics, I collaborated with Turkish-Canadian singer Evran Ozdemir. He wrote profound lyrics about one’s journey to finding oneself and one’s true calling to find peace. Evran’s wife and children also sing the lullaby in the song’s final version.
AF: It’s fascinating that you were able to build this song as part of the episode’s story, rarely does a song evolve like that in the narrative of a film or TV series.
Creaghan: That’s what is so great about this episode, seeing how the song progressed and changed at each new moment, as the lullaby aspect was weaved into the episode both diegetically through George’s singing voice and also non-diegetically through the score.
Both added more emotional weight to each time that the audience hears it. Unfortunately, when it comes to song inclusion in film or TV, they almost always occur only once, and more often than not, they’re relegated to the end credits.
Here, I got to write a song with the character in a special way: Damon and I are writing the song together, and the audience gets to witness the song being written in real-time. Building it in the episode connected me closer to Damon and George as characters and gave me insight into how Damon might create the song. You don’t get opportunities like this very often; I’m grateful to George Olson and SurrealEstate for this one!
AF: What was your collaboration with creator and showrunner George Olson like? Is there an example of an excellent note you got on the score?
Creaghan: George Olson is wonderful to work with; he can sum up the subtext of a scene down to a simple phrase. For example, in episode one, there’s a scene where Luke and his beau, Megan, go into a cellar being blocked by a demon hound.
The characters start in the kitchen, collecting weapons, and most of the scene plays out fairly comically between the actors. When spotting, George said simply, “They’re preparing for battle,” and that was all I needed. The score had to feel like they were preparing for battle.
George and I are both huge story arc and fantasy nerds, and we’d talk about the characters’ journeys. Since every episode has its own ‘monster of the week,’ we’d had deep conversations about the mythologies behind these ghosts and their respective houses. The ghosts are unique to George’s mind and the show.
They tend to share traits with many monsters from folklore and mythology, of which I’m a massive nerd. So after our conversations, I started writing and thinking about these folkloric creatures as a unique palette for each house and ghost. George made this show an inspiring and fantastic experience. I don’t think the music would have turned out the same if not for him.
AF: What challenges did you face on SurrealEstate and how did you overcome them?
Creaghan: When I was writing my ‘main title’ pitch theme for SurrealEstate, I kept thinking, “how can I put the house into this music?” Much of what I was writing felt like the tone of the show but didn’t tell the listener that this was a show about real estate agents that investigate haunted houses.
So I thought, “Well, why don’t I put the house into the show?” So I recorded doorbells, knocking, floor creaks, and anything else that was quintessentially a ‘house’ sound. George loved this in my pitch theme, allowing me to do it in other episodes.
Episode four revolves around a ghost ship and sailors, so I used fog horns and ship bells in this episode. Episode six has a demon that has a time and countdown mechanic to their murders, so her theme features a grandfather clock, ticking, and big tolling church bells.
Then there’s my favorite of the batch, Episode 10, which features our big, bad “The House.” I wanted to make music entirely out of house sounds for this theme. My team recorded a bunch of houses around their homes. One of my assistants, Nick Grimshaw, recorded friction mallets on his bathtub. It was perfect. I took these and added a fair bit of processing, and the final result is a sound that sounds exactly like souls from the deepest depths of hell waiving and screaming to be let out. It’s not the sound you’d expect from the most comforting part of any home!
AF: With Emmy voting starting just around the corner, what would awards recognition for SurrealEstate mean to you?
Creaghan: SurrealEstate is my proudest work to date. I told my agent once that if there was ever a score I could point to when someone asked what my ‘style’ was, I would point to SurrealEstate and say, “That.”
SurrealEstate is the show that 14-year-old-me dreamed of making, with a score that was being written deep in my soul. If awards recognition shines down on SurrealEstate or its score, that would be an incredible honor on a 15-year journey.
Regardless of the outcome, this experience has been a great pleasure and one I look forward to again with SurrealEstate and whatever new projects come in the future!
Learn more about Spencer Creaghan through his website.