The next installment of our Tuned In Contenders series features composer Mac Quayle. I’ve never talked to him before, but I’m more than familiar with his work. He’s been Ryan Murphy’s go-to composer for a few years now and you also might know him from his work on USA Network’s Mr. Robot. We talked about how Mac came to Ryan’s attention, how he finds the sound for each of his shows and some of his favorite cues.
TV GOODNESS: First of all, congratulations on your Emmy nod for Freak Show last year.
Mac Quayle: “Thank you.”
TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about how the sound of that show has evolved.
Mac: “[After] discussions with Ryan Murphy and his team, we decided that Hotel would have a very electronic sound where Freak Show was a little more organic instruments and was rooted in this ‘50s sci-fi world and also a carnival world. So right there those parameters were very different for the two seasons. It gave me some pretty creative guidelines of what do to do make Hotel sound different that Freak Show.”
TV GOODNESS: You’ve worked with Ryan Murphy a lot, which is great. Can you tell me about that process? Do you talk to him when the scripts come in?
Mac: “It’s usually not that early. On those two seasons, it was more once they started shooting and the editors are starting to put together a rough cut. That’s when we would start talking about ideas for the sound of the season. Then I would start writing, even before an episode was finished. I might get sent the first act and I would start writing music to that.”
TV GOODNESS: When you’re writing, what inspires you? Is it the character arc? Is it the story?
Mac: “Both of those things, definitely. Both of those things — what’s happening in the story, what’s happening on the screen, the various characters, what they’re up to. All of that contributes to what ultimately comes out of me for the music.”
TV GOODNESS: Is that a fun series to compose for since every season is so different or is it more of a challenge? And is that good?
Mac: “I really enjoyed it. It was my first time doing a second season of that show, so when it came time to work on Hotel I found it really, really exciting to start over from scratch and create an entirely new musical universe for the season to live in.”
TV GOODNESS: Ryan brought you in because he wanted a different sound for the show. How did you get on his radar? When did he hear about you?
Mac: “I worked, for a number of years, as an additional composer under various other composers and one of those was Cliff Martinez, who I’m a huge fan of. I did 12 films with Cliff including Drive and Contagion. One of the last films that I worked on with him was called The Normal Heart. That was a HBO film directed by Ryan Murphy.
Through that process I met one of Ryan’s producers Alexis Woodall, and his editor Adam Penn. We hit it off and then I didn’t really hear from them for like six months. Then all of a sudden Alexis called me one day and said, ‘Hey. We’re looking to go in a different direction. Would you like to write a piece of music?’ And that was it.”
TV GOODNESS: Are you working on the next season of American Horror Story?
Mac: “I am.”
TV GOODNESS: Do you know anything about it? Are you allowed to tell my anything about it?
Mac: “I do know a little bit about it and I’m not allowed to tell. It seems like a really great idea that they’ve come up with. But that’s it. They’re keeping it very quiet this year.”
TV GOODNESS: I think there’s a lot of interest to see what the show will do next, so I guess that’s fair.
Mac: “Yeah. Each year seems like there’s a whole process where they tease out little bits of information, so I guess we’ll all find out together what’s really happening.”
TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about The People v. O.J. Simpson. How did you approach the music for that project and how did you go about creating the sound for that show?
Mac: “That was the third show I had worked on with Ryan. We initially took a similar approach to the other two, which was Scream Queens and Horror Story. In both of those shows, the music played a pretty big role in underscoring a lot of the drama and pushing the story along. So that’s initially what we attempted to do with O.J. And that was after initial discussions with Ryan and his team.
We thought we would do a score that was modern-sounding, not overtly electronic, would have some more organic sounds in it. So with those parameters I started writing music and we quickly learned that the same approach from the other shows wasn’t really gonna work. It just didn’t need the score to be that big. It needed something more subtle, so it was a little bit of trial and error.
I ended up rewriting a bunch of music and we ended up with a score that was more sparse than Horror Story, was more subtle and it just, for the most part, stayed out of the way and allowed the amazing actors and the script to do its work.”
TV GOODNESS: You mentioned Scream Queens, so let’s talk about that. Tell me about your process there. What were you trying to accomplish?
Mac: “That show is a little different than the others because it has a comedy element, so [we tried] to find this balance between having some scary moments but then also with a little bit of a wink and then some outright comedy moments.
It was a little bit of a different process, still similar having the initial conversations with Ryan and deciding on the sound or some ideas for the sound, which in that case were going to be very electronic. We talked a lot about synth scores from horror films from the ‘80s and ‘90s, so that was a bit of a reference point. Then I just started writing music with those parameters.
The one instrument that was not synthesizer was an idea that Ryan had. He thought harpsichord would be a good sound for the show. So I got a pretty nice harpsichord sound and started using that and it became a signature sound throughout the whole season.”
TV GOODNESS: Is Season 2 top secret or is there anything you can tell me?
Mac: “I’m not allowed to tell, but I don’t actually know much. I couldn’t tell you even if I was allowed to.” [Laughs].
TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about Mr. Robot, which is one of my favorite shows. I love what you do with the music. When did you hear about that project and what made you want to do it?
Mac: “I got brought onto that project initially by a gentleman named Adam Penn.”
TV GOODNESS: I’ve interviewed him. Adam’s great.
Mac: “Yeah. So, he’s worked for Ryan for years as an editor. Shortly after Freak Show finished he called me and he said that he was gonna be starting to work on this new show as a writer. He’d told the creator, Sam Esmail, about me and he wanted to have a meeting.
So I got sent the pilot, which they had shot. I watched it and I thought it was really good. I went in and met with Sam and we hit it off and pretty much by the end of the meeting he wanted to move forward.”
TV GOODNESS: Was your process different for that show?
Mac: “That process started with a conversation between Sam and I. The decision was that the score would be very dark, very electronic. The pilot had been shot, I guess this was January 2015 when I met with them. I probably didn’t start working on it until March. I did have several weeks to do the pilot and that was now still months before they were gonna go into full production and finish the rest of the season.
So it was a little different. I had a little more time, but once again, we’re starting from scratch and coming up with a sound so there’s a lot of back-and-forth between myself and Sam. He’s very hands-on with the music, has a lot of great ideas. I have to credit him with really helping to take the score to another level from what I had written initially.”
TV GOODNESS: Since Season 2 is set to premiere next month, can you talk about how the music has changed or evolved since Season 1?
Mac: “I’m still working on Episode 1 of Season 2. It’s not finished. It airs in a month, so we’re still working hard. I can’t say a lot specific about it. Sam has mentioned in the press that the show is evolving a bit in Season 2. The music, I think, is evolving along with it. It will still be coming from a similar place, but there’s also some new sounds as well.”
TV GOODNESS: Considering all the music you’ve done for TV, do you have a favorite musical moment or cue you can talk about?
Mac: “You know, I’m quite fond of the first cue I wrote for American Horror Story: Freak Show. I like it as a piece of music, but also it was just one of these crazy stories. I got a call one afternoon from one of Ryan’s producers, as I said. I wrote this piece and the next morning they called and hired me. [Laughs.] And it turned out to be a very prominent sound throughout the entire season. That’s definitely one of my favorites.
There’s a bunch of stuff in Mr. Robot as well that I’m quite fond of. I’m trying to think if I have one particular favorite. The opening scene in Season 1 in the pilot when we as an audience get introduced to Elliot, the cue that I wrote there, I think, was pretty special for me. It was the first cue that I wrote for Sam and for Mr. Robot. It established Elliot’s theme and it also began this conversation between Sam and I on how the music would unfold for the season.”
TV GOODNESS: It sounds like you’re really busy, which is great. Do you have anything else coming up?
Mac: “All of these shows are coming back. Mr. Robot is underway now. Horror Story and Scream Queens will probably come back next. The next installment of American Crime Story will be later in the year, maybe even the beginning of next year before we work on that. So, yeah. It’s another busy year ahead.”
TV GOODNESS: In terms of types of story or genre, is there anything you haven’t had a chance to work on yet? Or someone you’d love to collaborate with?
Mac: “I’m a big fan of science fiction. I’ve worked on a couple of short science fiction films, but I’d love to do an intelligent adult science fiction film.”
TV GOODNESS: That sounds great.
Mac: “I don’t mean porn. [Laughs.] I just mean not one of these teen sci-fi films that has been so popular.”
TV GOODNESS: I totally understand. [Laughs.] Do you have time to work in movies anymore? Is that something that still interests you?
Mac: “Recently, there hasn’t been time but it is something I want to do and I think if the right project were to come along then I would make it fit into the schedule.”
TV GOODNESS: So, I was looking at your bio and I know you’ve worked in the music business and have been nominated for a Grammy. In what way does working with artists in that industry help you write for TV?
Mac: “I was very active in that world back in New York. I spent a lot of time working in the music business as a producer and a dancer remixer. I think that what’s carried over from that into the scoring work is I learned a lot about making things sound good, like producing essentially. How to create sounds and to get sounds to work together. So when I first started scoring, I had a lot of experience with that and I was able to translate that into doing soundtracks for film and television.”
Edited for space and content.
Season 2 of Mr. Robot premieres Wednesday, July 13th at 10/9c on USA Network. Season 2 of Scream Queens premieres this fall on FOX. The next season of American Horror Story premieres this fall on FX. The next season of American Crime Story premieres in 2017.