Emmy-winning composer Mac Quayle (for Mr. Robot season one) has a long history with mega-producer Ryan Murphy. Scream Queens. Feud: Bette and Joan. The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Pose. Multiple seasons of American Horror Story. 9-1-1. 9-1-1: Lone Star. And most recently Murphy’s first Netflix project The Politician.
Balancing that many series and varied genres may appear to be an intimidating task. Taken on independently, it would overwhelm any composer. But Quayle doesn’t do it alone. He assembles a team that helps him produce a variety of complex and award-winning scores.
“When there are many projects at once, there’s a quantity of music that has to be delivered, and it’s physically impossible for one person to do all of that,” Quayle shares. “Having a team becomes very important and very useful to have people that work with me that are able to contribute and help me get everything delivered.”
At the core of this work is a collaboration between Quayle and Murphy that, after that many series, offers a shorthand based on mutual respect, trust, and a decade of familiarity with their output. With The Politician, Quayle started with some general ideas of Murphy’s overall intent for the project. Specific music references may or may not be a part of that initial conversation.
In this case, Murphy’s initial directions involved references to Wes Anderson films which contain fun, upbeat, and quirky score. That provided the general vicinity, but Quayle needed to hone in on the specific sounds that would ultimately become The Politician‘s score.
The initial tracks failed to convince anyone. It wasn’t until Quayle and his team considered the Spanish heritage of the Santa Barbara-set series.
“Nothing was quite working until, what surprised all of us, we said, ‘It’s taking place in Santa Barbara, so let’s go with a little bit of Spanish flair,” Quayle laughed. “It doesn’t really fit on paper or go with the characters, but it fits the Santa Barbara architecture for sure. It became this Spanish flair combined with a classical influence plus nylon string guitar and trumpet, and we had our sound.”
The much-lauded sounds weren’t part of the original score design, evolving from an exploration of the location. But those hints of flamenco guitars provided a perfect sense of an Old West stand-off as the characters face off. Those guitars joined a relatively streamlined collection of instrumentation. Trumpets were largely reserved for lead character Payton (Ben Platt) while others are represented by a nylon guitar, a solo cello, and simple percussion with a handful of other instruments.
“I wanted to have a small ensemble feel, nothing large,” Quayle explained. “After several cues had been written and the palate grew to that list of instruments, it was just set. I plugged scenes into that palate and the score just wrote itself.”
Also in contention for Quayle this year are his scores for American Horror Story: 1984 and for the final season of Mr. Robot. His 1980s influenced score for 1984 provided the opportunity to revisit some of his earlier score influences based in 1980s horror. Think John Carpenter and you’ve basically got the overall fun score which provided fun opportunities to stretch.
Returning to FX’s Mr. Robot provided Quayle to revisit the series that provided his first Emmy win. Closing the series provided him the opportunity to push the score into new directions. Quayle and team assembled retro-orchestral music influenced by Bernard Herrmann among others. He also experimented with the series’ core electronic sound heavily featured in previous seasons.
But it was tough to say goodbye to the series that brought him an Emmy.
“We pushed it into different places, and overall I was really pleased with how it turned out,” Quayle recollects. “But it was really hard to say goodbye to it.”