Today we are speaking with the composer for SYFY’s upcoming series, SurrealEstate. Spencer Creaghan composed, arranged, orchestrated, and produced the score for each episode. The series features upwards of 40 themes. Spencer captured the supernatural and emotional aspects of SurrealEstate by including Irish jigs for our main love interest, Bulgarian choirs for moments involving community and family, and medieval harps and wood instruments for the older ancient ghosts. He also used a Theremin to pay homage to old school horror films. Read on to learn more about Spencer’s work on SurrealEstate and his past projects.
Alix Kingray (AK): Hi Spencer! How have you been?
Spencer Creaghan (SC): Hello! I’ve been lovely, on a small vacation between projects and enjoying the sunny weather up here in Toronto while I can.
AK: What is it like working with SurrealEstate’s showrunner, George Olson, and director, Danishka Esterhazy? Tell us more about your working relationship and short hand with them.
SC: SurrealEstate is what one might call a dream gig. George and Danishka were collaborators in the very nature of the word. I got a real sense of artistic connection from our first meeting when we bonded over old horror films, a pining for bold melodic themes, and a strong emphasis on the emotional focus of the score, equal to that of the horror.
George has a poetic style of writing and plans his episodes and seasons out with such detail that when we spot each episode or I spoke with him outside general meetings, he would provide me with character breakdowns and arcs that helped to build the themes out of.Naturally being a writer, his way with words is tremendous, and so whenever we’d get to major emotional moments of an episode, George would have these little story metaphors that helped me to understand each moment, one of these metaphors I can think of now was a “we’re preparing for war” motif, that became a big theme in the show, or the idea of “unfinished business.”
Danishka has a brilliant eye and sense of bold musical directions. She and I share a love of industrial rock and dark folk music, discussing bringing in old medieval instruments such as the Hurdy Gurdy into the show. There was a lot of trust within the group as a whole, and I believe much of that was thanks to George and Danishka’s leadership style: hands-on and confident in their direction and end goal, while allowing creativity and experimentation from the team to help get there.
AK: You brought a unique approach to the music for SurrealEstate. Can you take us behind one or two of your favorite arrangements? Tell us more about your process and how you decide the right way to approach it.
SC: Absolutely, I’d love to! Finding the balance for SurrealEstate is a lot like cooking a stew, you can put a lot of ingredients in and it’ll taste great, but too much in on direction and it starts getting a little funky. The main title theme of SurrealEstate was a lot like this. I wrote a two minute suite of it for the show.
Music Supervisor Jody Colero and our Showrunner George R Olson has been using terms “Ancient, suspenseful, fun, dread, confidence, with an air of humour” a mix of many emotional styles in one theme! The word “Ancient” really stuck out to me as something to hold to, so thinking about harps, hammered dulcimers, and medieval lutes, leading to a riff that might be played on during a summoning of a demon perhaps or a welcoming (mat) into a spooky world.
Upon writing this cycling catchy riff, I knew we had the main theme of the show. We call it “The Roman Riff” or “Roman Agency Riff.” Thankfully, this riff was bouncing and tension-filled enough to also capture the suspense and fun of the show. To bring in the adventure and confidence, I thought about what sounds and instruments are associated with realtors, and kept coming back to the sound of knocking on a door and the chimes of a doorbell. This knocking motif became the big hits that start off the theme, the DUUHN DUN hits. While the doorbell motif turned into the big melody of the track that later varied into what we call the “Ethereal Plain theme” or “Afterlife Theme.”
I’m a big goth rock and metal guy, so much of this theme has a gothic rock energy that George absolutely adored, along with theremin, whistling, and female operatic vocals that infuse the supernatural forces at bay with light comedy. My original pitch demo also included a door squeak and literal door knocking as well, which found their place into the action scenes of the show. Another favorite arrangement of mine is the Ethereal Plain theme, mentioned above.
Like the Roman Riff, it shows us in every episode, established first with Tim Rozon’s Luke character bringing Sarah Levy’s Susan into his unique branch of real estate. We felt we needed a theme that could represent the “other world,” and there were a few principal scenes in the pilot with Luke and Susan that allowed us to work in this theme there. The guitar and piano arrangements pull from my love of Scandinavian pop and folk rock bands like Aurora, Sigur Rós and Kalanda. Finding a balance between modern pop and the ethereal atmospheres.
While the melody is inspired by my love of Irish folk music (though one of my long-time collaborators and singers on the show, Armenia Sarkissian, said that the melody is an intrinsically “Spencer melody,” so perhaps my Irish blood brings out that influence!) The melody is played on Irish low whistle and tin whistle which was done so for two fold. The first being simply that the show was shot in Newfoundland Canada, which has a mystical aura around it and a deeply rich Irish heritage, something I wanted to nod to in the music. Secondly, Irish folk instruments have a way of transporting you to the magical world or the “ethereal plain” quite incredibly, almost as if they are telling you a story. As soon as I played the melody on the Irish flute we instantly felt the Afterlife’s presence in these scenes, felt Luke’s connection to it, and knew we had it!
AK: Let’s talk about your JUNO nomination (congrats!). How did it feel to get this recognition?
SC: Thanks! It was an incredible honor. Apart from Film and TV scoring, I compose the orchestral arrangements for many Pop, Rock, and Metal acts around the world. The JUNO came from a record I wrote the strings and choirs on called “Martyr” from a long time collaborator and dear friend, Lindsay Schoolcraft (ex-Cradle of Filth) and Rocky Gray (ex-Evanescence). I don’t think any of us expected it, so it was a real treat when it was announced.
AK: Did you approach the leitmotifs for the characters in SurrealEstate in a specific way at all?
SC: Haha oh boy did we ever! There are approximately 40 themes in the first season of SurrealEstate alone. Most themes take the Debussy, Howard Shore, or John Powell approach of “conceptual themes,” where the melodies invoke a concept or metaphysical force felt in the scenes or meant to be felt in the scenes. Some of these for us include ‘Family’, ‘The Ethereal Plain,’ ‘Luke’s power,’ ‘Investigation/Research theme,’ ‘danger,’ ‘ghost hunting,’ ‘crummy clients,’ etc.
I’m a big fan of this way of writing themes, writing melodies that reinforce ideas felt in the subtext and inner workings of the story and bringing them out through the music. I find this way gives the concepts a physical (or metaphysical) embodiment through the music, letting them breathe beside the actors rather than on-top of or underneath them. This allows the actors the full range to bring their own wonderful artist approach to the scenes depth (that they do with such subtlety and poignancy), the music can do its, and together they create the emotions the audience feels, neither overstepping the other: both working together bringing something special to the scene.
Whenever we hear the music playing these melodies we know, for example, we’re being surrounded by the Ethereal Plain, or we’re in Ghost Hunting mode, or there’s a Family connection being felt (either positively or negatively) within a given conversation. George’s writing is incredibly poetic, often with mirroring moments between characters throughout each episode, that approach allowed the music to follow these parallels and poetry, connecting scenes that otherwise might feel standalone without; really ensuring the audience felt George’s intricate writing.
AK: What were some of the other challenges you encountered with SurrealEstate? How did you overcome them?
SC: Writing a show with these kinds of emotional balances is already quite difficult… then silly me decided to take it another step further. We talked at the beginning about whether each ghost should have a theme or if the different kinds of ghosts should have a theme, or if there should just be a single “ghost approaches” theme or something. We agreed that the ghosts and houses were so unique that they all needed their own sound, theme, and approach, often taking inspiration from old folk and ghost stories.
So while we do have many recurring themes between episodes, each new house and ghost the Roman Agency encounters has its own unique musical pallet as well. Without giving away any spoilers, this led to some creative rewards in crafting musical approaches for each episode. So much so that I often went outside the musical instrument world, sampling non-musical sounds and turning them into musical instruments. Some of these include, cutlery, doorbells, floor squeaking, foghorns, a grandfather clock, screams, and even a bathtub!!
AK: What are some of your other favorite past projects?
SC: A few of my favorite past projects your readers could watch or listen to today would include a fun action/thriller I scored a few years back called Black Water starring Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lungren. The score is heavy metal/djent inspired and mostly takes place in a submarine, so it was a lot of fun finding ways to make the music sound underwater or emulate echo signals of a sub. Lindsay Schoolcraft’s album Martyr was a ton of fun, it’s a throwback to early 2000’s goth rock, that we push into new territories.
SYFY and I have worked together previously on a Christmas horror parody of Hallmark movies called Letters to Satan Claus. It’s a hilarious satire of all the tropes of hallmark Christmas movies combined with the 80s creature features. The music was a ton of fun to write combining these two worlds. And if readers enjoy any of these and SurrealEstate they’re welcome to find some more of my favorite original scores on Spotify, iTunes and wherever they enjoy listening to music, just look up Spencer Creaghan.
AK: What else is happening next in your world?
SC: I just finished scoring a beautiful art house indie film called Quickening, which I’m excited to talk about in the near future. There are some new films coming up I’ll be working on with themes already in the works. My time on SurrealEstate has been very inspiring and I look forward to seeing how audiences react to its distinctive world and cast of characters we loved creating.
For those interested, I’ll be tweeting about the music during each episode, so stay tuned this summer for some ghosts, ghouls, real estate agents, and nerdy breakdowns of the music! Thank you for taking the time to hear about our show. We hope you enjoy it!