Ryan Murphy is one of the busiest people in Hollywood and his composer is just as prolific. Since 2014, Mac Quayle has been Murphy’s go-to guy for hypnotic, absorbing scores for his programs. He’s worked on every “American Horror Story” season since “Freak Show,” both seasons of “American Crime Story,” “The Normal Heart,” “Scream Queens,” “Feud: Bette and Joan,” “9-1-1” and the just-premiered “Pose.”
“Fortunately it’s never more than three at a time and usually less,” Quayle said during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Music panel, moderated by this author (watch above). When he is working on multiple shows at once, Quayle “tries to keep them separate.” “It’s like I put these walls up in between the shows, starting with the sounds.”
Currently, Quayle is just working on one show, which “is really, really nice,” he said. “It’s kind of gentle. I have some help. There’s no way to do all of it by myself. I have an assistant. There’s people that do a little additional composing.”
For Fox’s breakout hit “9-1-1,” Quayle, who won an Emmy in 2016 for “Mr. Robot,” is working with a co-composer for the first time, Todd Haberman. “That makes it a little more kind of fun and manageable,” he said. But he went at it solo for FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” and “American Horror Story: Cult.”
Compared to the low-key score that accompanied “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” the “Versace” sound was deliberately grander and baroque, befitting the tone of the show and the subjects involved. “’O.J.’ was a lot more subtle. We tried to do it more grand at first and it didn’t work. We went back and said it needed to be more subtle,” Quayle revealed. “There was a lot of discussions about the sound for ‘Versace.’ The murder took place in ’97. A lot of the backstory is in the decade before that. There were scenes in nightclubs, there was this creepy serial killer, there was Versace’s love for opera. When we latched onto the sound, I then started calling it if Giorgio Moroder was scoring ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ in an Italian villa.”
When it came to the theme for Versace’s (Edgar Ramirez) murderer, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), Quayle concocted a piano melody before folding in a screeching, haunting horn sound — an aural symbol of his twisted mindset.
“For such a creepy sound, it ended up with a very friendly nickname around post-production. It was ‘The Seagull’ sound. I was hunting around and going through some weird sample libraries and I just came across this — I can’t even tell you what it is now, where it came from,” Quayle said. “All of the sudden, it’s like, ‘OK, there’s Andrew’s creepy mind.’ It had different levels of intensity. It could be really just screaming, very creepy and then a little more subtle, sort of in the background, just adding into the melody, so it was a fun little texture to add.”
Quayle also had to add some new sounds to the “American Horror Story” theme for “Cult.” “I had written a melody a few seasons ago that was on top of that original theme and they keep asking me now, each season, to redo it but with a flavor for the current season,” he shared. While the starting off point for the season is the election of Donald Trump, “Cult” ultimately was not about those results or him.
“The first conversations were more about, ‘Let’s do something that makes us think of the government. Let’s do something governmental,’” Quayle said. “So this season, the idea was to do it with brass and to have this creepy, sort of Sousa marching band-esque feel on top of that really creepy ‘American Horror Story’ main title. That was the beginning of what the sound of the season would be: brass and military drums, but weird.”
That means the Season 8 theme will demand an update as well — and at the time Quayle could not tease any spoilers. “I actually received the first script today. I haven’t opened it,” he said. “I’m gonna read it tonight. I’m kind of excited.”
Video produced by David Janove and Andrew Merrill
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