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Tuned In Exclusive: Emmy-Nominated Composer Chris Bacon Talks Bates Motel

We’re pretty serious fans of Bates Motel, so I jumped at the chance to talk to Emmy-nominated composer Chris Bacon. If you’re not a fan of the show (really?!) or aren’t very familiar with the score, do yourself a favor and take a listen right now.

Bacon 5

And that’s just a sampling of the great work Chris has done on the show. I talk to him about why he wanted to do Bates Motel, his favorite musical moments from the show, what might be in store for the final season and what else he’s been working on.

TV GOODNESS: I’m so excited to talk to you about Bates Motel. When did you hear about this project and what made you want to do it?

Chris Bacon: “I heard about this project, it must have been about four years ago. I was in New York sitting in a hotel room on vacation with my wife. My agent called and said, ‘Hey. They’re doing a contemporary prequel to Psycho that details how Norman Bates became Norman Bates.’

Psycho_(1960)

My initial thought was, ‘Well, that sounds like a terrible idea,’ because Psycho is Psycho and so iconic. It is what it is and it seems when you try to mess with something like that there’s a lot that can go wrong.

But then I heard more about it. I heard about the people involved. Carlton Cuse was one of the creators and showrunners. Kerry Ehrin had been doing Friday Night Lights and Carlton had just come from Lost, and Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore.

Photo Credit: Kevin Parry / The Paley Center for Media

Photo Credit: Kevin Parry / The Paley Center for Media

All of a sudden I got very excited about the possibility because the people involved knew what they were doing. I was a huge fan already. And, as it happens, Lost had been one of my wife’s and my favorite shows, something we had really looked forward to. So just that fact that this was coming right off of that for Carlton, it was really exciting that it might be a possibility to work on his next thing.

So as composers do, I put the reel together, sent it in, hoped that they liked it and tried to get a meeting. And I was able to and it worked out. I couldn’t be happier to have spent the last four seasons on it so far.

TV GOODNESS: Good, good. I should have congratulated you right away on your Emmy nomination. That’s so exciting. Congratulations.

Chris: “You really should have done that right away.” [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS: I’m so rude! [Laughs.]

Chris: “I should’ve answered, ‘Hi. This is Emmy-nominated composer Chris Bacon.’” [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS Exactly.

Chris: “Thank you for that. I appreciate it.” [Laughs.]

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E Network

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E

TV GOODNESS: No problem. I’m wondering about your creative process. When do you see the scripts? When do you start composing?

Chris: “I try not to read scripts, if I can help it, for a couple of reasons. On the one hand it can be helpful because if writing for something in Episode 2, which might be laying the foundation for something in Episode 7, it might be nice to have that musical groundwork to connect to.

On the other hand, reading a script can be kind of like reading a book. One of the great things about reading a book is we’re asked to create the imagery in our head, to imagine what it looks like, to imagine what it sounded like when they said that. I think it’s one of the reasons why people often say, ‘Well, the movie wasn’t as good as the book,’ because so many people had their own images and pictures of what it looked like and what it felt like. So then when you finally see it, there can be an inherent disconnect and take a little bit of time, irregardless of of merits, to overcome that and embrace it for what it is.

That and I also find that reading a script only does so much to convey what something looks like, what a scene feels like. What is the atmosphere? What is the way that it’s shot? How far is the camera? How close is the camera? All of those things actually can affect the choices I make musically.

I also like to experience and try to create music that experiences it in real time from an audience’s perspective. So I find it’s best for me to be able to do that without knowing ahead of time what’s coming up.

I’m usually brought in, maybe a week to ten days, before we have to turn it around. So we’ll sit down and we’ll watch it together, me and the editor of the episode — the editors on the show are fantastic — usually a producer or two. We’ll sit and watch it and talk through it, but it usually takes a lot longer than it could or should because I’m watching first as a fan. [Laughs.]

So as we’re sitting there trying to evaluate this episode and the scenes for what they are, I get sucked in and drawn in because I don’t know what’s coming. Meanwhile, everybody else there already knows exactly what’s happening because they’ve been working on it for several weeks already.

So then after I watch it I have to ask them to go back and do it one more time because I wasn’t paying attention musically, I was just watching the scene and enjoying the story, enjoying the acting. We make some notes about which scenes should have some music, what the music should be, here’s where it should start, here’s where we should stop. Then I go away to my lonely cave and make noise.”

TV GOODNESS: Because the story is so iconic are there any musical tropes you try to stay away from? Are there any instruments you try to utilize more than others? Is there anything you feel like you should or should not be doing with this music?

Chris: “One of the things that Carlton and Kerry made clear early on was this is not meant to be an homage to Psycho. First of all, it’s contemporary; it’s set now. It’s not in black and white. Norman has an iPod.

There are a lot of things that inherently change it from what the world of Psycho was. And Psycho has a lot of things iconic about it, not least of which is Bernard Hermann’s score, particularly the shower scene which, even if you don’t know anything about movies or music or scoring, you’ve probably heard some sort of tribute to that scene and the music there.

So we knew we weren’t gonna do that. Then it becomes a challenge of how do we create this moody, psychological, emotional world in a way that feels consistent with the universe but is also its own thing?

Now, I have to back up and say that one of my film scoring heroes is Bernard Hermann. So even when I’m trying to stay away from that, it’s part of my heritage, as it were. That sound is part of my vocabulary because, as composers, we’re usually the sum total of everything we’ve ever heard and have assimilated. Even as we find different combinations and try to be conscious of doing something a different way, ultimately it’s combinations of stuff that’s usually been done before. So there’s still a hint, maybe more than a hint, of Bernard Hermann in what I do but it certainly isn’t trying to be that way.

I guess you could say that one of the things that Hermann did with Psycho was he only used strings without winds or brass. Because of the monochromatic nature of the film he wanted the music to not be too colorful as well. The addition of other instruments and sounds are often referred to as different colors musically. And that’s something that I’ve done in this show. It’s largely strings. There is a lot of piano and there’s harp and there are some percussion elements and also some electronic elements that go along with the contemporary setting, but really it’s a string driven score and it seems to fit…I think. [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS: I think you’re right.

Chris: “At least I’ve convinced myself of that.

TV GOODNESS: No. I think the score is so beautiful.

Chris: “Thank you.”

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E

TV GOODNESS: We’ve got the final season coming up. I love that you don’t put your stamp on it until late in the game and I love that you watch first as a fan. When do you get back to work?

Chris: “When they need me, I guess, is the best answer I can come up with there. [Laughs.] Right now I know they’re in the writing process for Season 5 and I broke my own rule because I was so interested that I went in and sat in the writer’s room with them for half a day just to see what that process is like.

It’s fascinating to me that you have a group of 8 or however many people sitting around a table and just chucking ideas out. ‘What about this? What if she did this? Why would she do that? She’s gonna go down and she’s gonna close the door this way because later someone else is gonna walk in….’ It’s just fascinating, the way they come up with ideas. I guess it’s also relatable musically because you have to have a very thick skin because a lot of ideas are just chucked out and, ‘No. That doesn’t ring true to me. Ok. Well how about this one?’ So it was really fun to sit in on that process and see how they create this.

I think they’ve written 501 now or at least a draft of it. So that process happens and there’s several different drafts they go through that gets submitted to varying levels of authority for approval: the network, the showrunners, the studio. And then they finish the different drafts and then they have the final or close-to-final versions they start prepping for production. I don’t exactly know how long all of that takes. It’s many, many, many weeks and then once they’ve shot it it gets sent to post-production where they spend several more weeks where they spend cutting it, putting it together. So I’m, I would think, a couple months out still from starting in on Season 5.

But that being said, the one thing that’s predictable about this business is how unpredictable it is. [Laughs.] So anything could happen and it tends to be when it rains, it’s pours. Everything happens at the same time.

TV GOODNESS: Is there any moment you’re looking forward to scoring or are you trying to not jump ahead of yourself?

Chris: “I don’t know where they’re going now. Spoiler Alert: You knew going in that somewhere in the series that Norman is going to end up with his mother stuffed in the basement, right? If they were gonna maintain that part of the mythology of Psycho, which is seems like something you can’t really dismiss about who he is.

Photo Credit: Bettina Strauss/A & E

Photo Credit: Bettina Strauss/A&E

So, four seasons ago I knew at some point they were gonna get to that and that was the moment I was most afraid of. Not afraid of, it was always in the back of my mind, ‘How am I gonna play that?,’ because Norman and Norma have such a unique, deep, tortured, emotional relationship that it seemed like it wasn’t going to be one of his blackout murders. And it turns out it wasn’t. There’s something Romeo and Juliette-esque about the way it happened. The only way that it made sense for them to be together with their broken worlds, was to die together.

I thought it was also ironic that as far as I know, it’s the only time that Norman as Norman killed somebody. Every other time he’s gone into this blackout mode or as ‘Bad Mother.’ This is the only time when he is Norman in his consciousness, this is the best thing for me to do right now this is the best thing for me to do right now for the both of us.

I knew that was going to be a huge moment and I knew just based on the experience of the show, that that was going to be a musical moment and when I saw how they did it, I thought it was really great. I sat down and tried to write music that befit the varying layers of emotion. And apparently I did something right because that ended up being the episode that was nominated. So if I’m allowed to say something like that, I’m proud of that, that we collectively got it right from the writing to the acting to the directing to the music. This feels like something that resonated.”

TV GOODNESS: That leads into my next question. Other than that moment, did you have any other favorite cues or musical moments from the series?

Chris: “Usually the favorite musical moments are often good dramatic moments within the show because good drama tends to make music better. And hopefully vice versa. Good music, in a circular way, can make the drama better. So if you talk about favorite musical moments, I think the show is more emotional than one might think going into it because there are a lot of real relationships.

It’s not a horror show, to me. There’s a lot of psychology to it and there are definitely horrific things that happen, but there’s a lot of emotional depth, in my opinion, between the characters. And a lot of times, those are my favorite musical moments.

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E

This season, or maybe it’s the previous season — I don’t remember, when Dylan and Emma finally embrace their relationship together standing by the lake, I thought that was a lot of fun to write music for. Even going back to Season 1 with Norman and his innocence, when he and Bradley first embrace their relationship for the first time. It was nice to write music for that.

But it’s also really enjoyable to write music when Norman and Norma go off because often it’s about getting out of the way because their performances are so powerful that it becomes trying to find a way to be somewhat interesting but not overshadowing what they’re doing or even really trying to comment on it because they’re so self-contained in what they do.”

TV GOODNESS: Are you working on anything else for television?

Chris: “Yes, as a matter of fact. I just did a really cool pilot that I really hope happens for Amazon/Sony called The Tick.”

Photo Credit: Amazon

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures TV

TV GOODNESS: I loved that series when it was originally on. I’m so excited for that.

Chris: “Yeah. And it seems to still have an audience, which it seems they’re banking on. It’s quite a different take on what it was, but it’s really fun and really well done and well performed. It couldn’t be more different from Bates Motel as far as score goes. So I just did that and we’ll find out what happens there this month, I guess, as Amazon puts the pilot out for everyone to evaluate.

I’m also doing a show for ABC right now called When We Rise. Dustin Lance Black is the driving force behind it. He’s the writer Milk, won an Oscar for that actually, and has been involved in a lot of other important shows. Gus Van Sant has been involved and directed the two-hour pilot. It’s about the gay rights movement of the 1970s, intertwining and dovetailing that on the heels of the civil rights movement and how it’s related and following the journeys of these characters as they’re experiencing what that was like then and the injustices and prejudice and bigotry that they experienced just to be who they were.

So that’s a lot of fun, again in a completely different vocabulary. So it’s fun to have variety in my job, especially with people who are really good at what they’re doing. That’s really rewarding.”

TV GOODNESS: You’re working on such great projects. I’m excited about both of those and I really hope The Tick goes. That’s such a fun show.

Chris: “It really is.”

Edited for space and content.

The fifth and final season of Bates Motel premieres in 2017.

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