By Jennifer Walden
The creators of A&E’s Bates Motel series have proven that it is possible to successfully rework a classic film for the small screen. The series, returning for Season 5 in 2017, is a contemporary prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It tells the story of how a young Norman Bates becomes the Norman Bates of film legend.
Understandably, when the words “contemporary” and “prequel” are combined, it may induce a cringe or two, as LA-based composer Chris Bacon admits. “When I first heard about the series, I thought, ‘That sounds like a terrible idea.’ Usually when you mess with an iconic film, the project can go south pretty quick, but then I heard who was involved — writers/producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin. I’m a huge fan of their work on Lost and Friday Night Lights, so the idea sounded much more appealing. I went from feeling like ‘this is a terrible idea’ to ‘how do I get involved in this!’”
Bacon, who has been the Bates Motel composer since Season 1, says their goal from the start was to make a series that wasn’t a Psycho knock-off. “It was not our goal to tip our hats in obvious ways to Psycho. We weren’t trying to make it an homage. We weren’t trying to inhabit the universe that was so masterfully created by Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann,” he explains.
Borrowing Some Strings
Having a long-established love of Herrmann’s music, it was hard for Bacon not to follow the composer’s lead, particularly when it came to instrumentation. Bates Motel’s score strongly features — you guessed it — strings. “One reason Herrmann stuck solely to strings was because the film was black and white,” explains Bacon. “He chose a monochromatic palette, as far as sound goes, without having woodwind and percussion. On the series, I take it farther. I use percussion and synth effects, but it is mostly string driven.”
Since the strings are the core of the score, Bacon felt the expressive qualities that live musicians add to the music would be more emotionally impactful than what he could get from virtual instruments. “I did the first three episodes using all virtual instruments. They sounded good and they did their job dramatically, but in talking further to the people involved who handle the purse strings, I was able to convince them to try an episode with a real string section.”
Once Bacon was able to A/B the virtual strings against the real strings, there was no denying the benefit of a live string section. “They could hear what real musicians can bring to the music —the kind of homogenous imperfection that comes when you have that many people who are all outstanding but with each of them treating the music just a little bit differently. It brings new life to it. There’s a lot of depth to it. I feel very fortunate and appreciative that the account team on the show has been supportive of this.”
Tools & Workflow
For the score each week, Bacon composes in Steinberg Cubase and runs Ableton Live via ReWire by Propellerhead. His samples are hosted in Vienna Ensemble Pro on a separate computer while all audio is monitored and processed through Avid Pro Tools on a separate rig. Since his compositions start with virtual instruments, Bacon has an extensive collection of sample libraries. He uses string libraries from Cinesamples, 8Dio and Spitfire Audio. “I have lots of custom stuff,” he says. “I love the Vintage Steinway D Piano from Galaxy.”
Once he’s completed the cues, he hands his MIDI tracks over to orchestrator Robert Litton, who determines the note assignments for each member of the 18-piece string section. The group is recorded at The Bridge Recording studio in Glendale, California, owned by Greg Curtis. There, Bacon joins recording engineer James Hill in the control room. “I enjoy conducting if I can, but on this series it makes more sense for me to be in the control room because we often have only three hours to record roughly 35 minutes of music. Also, the music always sounds different in the control room. Ultimately, when you are doing this kind of work, what matters is what is coming out of the speakers because that’s what you’re actually going to hear in the soundtrack.”
After the live strings are recorded, engineer Hill mixes those against the virtual instrument stems of the woodwinds, percussion and synth elements. He creates a stem of the live strings to replace the virtual strings stem.
“We don’t do an in-depth mix like you would typically do for film,” says Bacon. “At this point, I’m able to leave Jim [Hill] the demo song as a reference and let him do a quick mix. Then, he creates a live string stem and all of those stems are sent over to the dub stage.”
In Season 4, Ep. 9 “Forever,” the moment arrived when young Norman (Freddie Highmore) did what he was destined to do— kill his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga). That’s not much of a spoiler if you’re familiar with the film Psycho, but what wasn’t known was just how Norman would do it. “This death scene was something I had been thinking about for four years. The way they did it — and I think they got it right — was that they made the death a very personal, emotional, thoughtful and, in a very twisted way, probably the most considerate way you can kill your mother,” laughs Bacon. “But really it was the only way that he and his mother, these two damaged broken people, could find peace together… and that was in death.”
The Norma/Norman Theme
In the four-and-a half-minute scene that reveals Norma and Norman’s lifeless bodies, Bacon portrays tension, fear and sadness by weaving a theme that he wrote for Norma with a theme he wrote for Norman and Norma. Norma’s theme in the death scene plays on a large section of violins as her new husband Alex (Nestor Carbonell) tries to resuscitate her.
“The foundation for her song has been laid over the course of two seasons, starting in Season 2, where we look at her family background, like her parents and her brother, and discover how she became her,” explains Bacon. “I didn’t really know which of her themes I was going to use for her death scene, but it seemed to feel, as we’re looking at Norma, that this is a moment about her, so I went back to that theme.”
As Norman wakes up, Bacon’s theme for Norman and Norma plays on sparse piano. In comparison to Norma’s theme on soaring strings, this theme feels small, and lost, highlighting Norman’s shock and sadness that he’s survived but now she’s gone. “The score had to convey a lot of emotions,” describes Bacon. “I tried to keep it relatively simple but as we went bigger it seemed to fit the enormity of the moment. This is a big moment that we all knew was coming and kind of dreaded. The piece feels different than the rest of the show, and rightfully so, while still being a part of the same sonic landscape.”
His original dramatic score on the “Forever” episode has been nominated for a 2016 Emmy award. Bacon says he chose this episode, above all the others in Season 4, because of the emotionally visceral death scene. It’s a big moment for the story and the score.
“During the whole death sequence there are barely any words. Alex is saying, ‘Stay with me,’ to Norma. Then you have Norman wake up and say, ‘Mother?’ at the very end. But that’s it. That section is like a silent movie in a lot of ways. It’s very reliant on the score.”