Alex Moreland talks to composer Mac Quayle about American Crime Story, working with Ryan Murphy, and more…
So, how would you describe the sound style of The Assassination of Gianni Versace?
After working on pretty much all of it, which we’re ready to finish finally the last episode now, I feel like I can best describe the score as if Giorgio Moroder scored Silence of the Lambs in an Italian villa. It’s an electronic sound that helps to tell the story of this really creepy serial killer, with also elements of Italian classical music.
What was the starting point when you came to work on this?
Yeah, I mean, you know, those elements I just described were brought up in conversation about Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer, a super creepy guy, and we knew we needed something to help tell that part of the story. We needed something that would be unsettling, and Versace was an opera fan. And so that brought the Italian classical style into the mix. And I guess really kind of to reference the period, and also just Ryan is a big fan of Giorgio Moroder and electronic scores so that brought that element into the mix. And I found that all three things worked together really nicely and it’s been a great project to be able to sort of play in that sandbox for nine episodes.
Now I know that on Mr. Robot, another programme that you scored, you typically don’t read the scripts initially and then score from the episode. Is that something you’ve been doing with Versace?
It is, yeah. I haven’t read the scripts. I go totally based off of what they send me, whether it’s a full episode or just a few acts or scenes and then we speak about ideas of what the music should be doing and then I compose based on all of that.
Do you tend to score chronologically, or build around big moments and motifs first?
You know, I think most of the time no, actually – because it depends really what I’m sent. I mean, if I’ve sent the whole episode, I might work a little bit chronologically but often I’m being sent scenes. Maybe it’s scenes early in the episode, maybe it’s scenes at the end of the episode. So, I’m really just kind of writing as it comes in. Then we sort of shape it as it’s all coming together, the music is getting further developed and shaped until it does have the right sort of flow that it should have from beginning of the episode to the end.
Now, this is the latest in a long line of several collaborations with Ryan Murphy. How did that relationship between you two start?
Well, I worked on a film that he directed called The Normal Heart. Cliff Martinez was the composer on that film and I was working with Cliff as an additional composer. And I guess I just attracted the attention of Ryan and his team. Six months after that project was finished, I – just out of the blue – received a call from one of Ryan’s producers saying that they were going in a different direction on American Horror Story and would I be interested in writing some music for them? And then based on that they hired me and that began my work with Ryan.
Across that work with Ryan, on the various seasons of AHS and American Crime Story and so on, you’ve covered lots of different genres and styles. Do the different shows present different challenges particularly or is it a similar way of working each time?
I mean, they have provided different challenges with all these different sounds and styles. I mean, the Horror Story, Crime Story, Scream Queens, they’ve all been different stylistically but also you could say there is something common between them all – relatively modern, electronic elements if not totally electronic. You know, Scream Queens, very electronic, some of the seasons of Horror Story, very electronic.
So all of those kind of have, they’re not too far away from each other, but Feud was quite different from everything else being that it required an orchestral score that evoked the sound of like 1960s Hollywood, so that was quite different, stood out from the rest.
Do you think across the shows, even with their sort of varying styles, you can still pick up on your sort of distinctive ‘voice’, as it were?
You know, it’s hard for me to be able to recognise that myself. I’ve had people tell me that they think they hear this voice across the different genres, but I don’t know myself. I’m not sure I have the perspective to notice it.
Fair enough. I was speaking recently with another composer and she mentioned that early in her career she worried about having a singular voice but wasn’t so concerned about it now. Have you ever felt that way? Is it something that you’ve ever thought about particularly?
I mean, it’s something that is mentioned a lot and it’s mentioned a lot, more established composers mention this to up and coming composers saying it’s really important that you develop your own voice, it’s really important to have a singular voice. I heard it a lot and so I think maybe it’s a little bit of a, can be kind of a daunting target to hit.
And so it’s not something I’ve really set out to [do, thinking that] I need to develop this voice. Rather I just, I do the work that I’ve been asked to do and I try to be as creative as possible and try to do something unique if I can, and I’m making decisions while doing that that are inferred from my own experiences and my own tastes and life and all of that, and so hopefully the final product then does have this, some sort of stamp on it that you might able to identify as my voice. But yeah, I’m not really sure. A bit vague!
Yeah, I suppose it’s kind of an abstract question. Now, on another note, what would you say are your chief musical influences?
My chief musical influences. Well, I mean, it’s really varied over the years. I’ve been through many phases. I’ve been interested in electronic music for a long time, so I’ve certainly listened to a lot of electronic artists and then also film and television composers that are into electronics. But yeah, I mean, all kind of different bands, rock bands, and things that I’ve listened to over the years, I feel like have been pretty influential.
There was this internet radio station that I’ve listened to for quite a while that I’ve quoted, mentioned being an influence on the Feud: Bette and Joan score, which is called Secret Agent and it plays a lot of really interesting music, some of which sounds like it was made in the 60s and maybe was, the kind of groovy and jazzy. I used to just have that on in the background all the time when I wasn’t working, and I know a lot of that has sort of seeped into my subconscious.
I performed in my really early days, in high school band and orchestra so I have a lot of experience with various classical composers and music. There’s definitely some influence there. So yeah, I think there’s quite a soup of things that have seeped in over the years.
Picking up on what you were saying there, how did you first start out, first get into composing for screen?
Prior to composing I had a career in the music business. I was in New York City and I found myself sort of involved in dance music. And I worked for many years there as a musician, producer, dance remixer. And when the music industry started to show signs of struggle in the early 2000s, I started thinking it was time to see what the next phase of my career would be. And I set my sights on moving to Los Angeles with kind of a vague idea of getting into scoring. In 2004 [I] moved out here and eventually met a composer by the name of Michael Levine and he hired me to work with him as an additional composer on the television show Cold Case, and that was kind of my first real job. [I gained] some very valuable experience there, and from there met Cliff Martinez and ended up working with him on twelve films over a period of about eight years. And that’s what led me to Ryan Murphy.
On another note, is there anything you can tell us about any projects that you’re working on at the minute? Have you started work on the next series of Feud, or is it still a little early for that?
Little early for that, I’m not sure exactly when it’s gonna start – but that will be coming up. I’m currently working on another new show of Ryan’s called 911. And you know, like I’ve mentioned, just finishing The Assassination of Gianni Versace and just getting started on another show of Ryan’s called Pose, which I believe is set to premier this summer.
Is it quite common for you to still be working on a show this close to transmission?
It is quite common. Yeah, it can be very hectic and really tight deadlines, coming right down to the wire, and what’s somewhat unusual with Versace is that we actually started, and I think I wrote the first music on it back last May, last April or May? So, we were really far ahead and eight of the nine episodes have been complete for the last several months. And then this last episode has just been kind of moving a little slower and is just getting finished now, I think it airs in a few more weeks? So it’s been definitely a different type of schedule than what happens on most of the shows where we’re pretty much right there, getting it finished like the week before it goes on the air.
Do you think that having more time for the score shapes how you write it?
I mean, I guess it hasn’t in a way because my schedule has unfolded in that, especially with this last episode, that I’ve wrote the first music for it back in December and here we are approaching the end of February, so just kind of happened in these little spurts. I would get asked to write music, I would write something over like a week and then I wouldn’t do anything on it for the next like couple of weeks – and then they would come back to me and ask for more music, I’d work on it for like a week. So, I wasn’t spending all the time working on it and developing the music, I would just do these little bursts, but it just happens to be spread out over a longer period of time, so… yeah, quite different. It’s usually much more compressed.
You’re working on quite a few different projects at the moment, and have done that often in the past – do you ever find that they start to influence one another?
I do my best to try to keep them in separate musical worlds. A sound for a particular show gets developed right in the beginning, it will evolve over the season, but the basic parameters get developed in the beginning. I really do my best to keep the certain types of sounds and the certain types of harmonies and feelings that are unique for one show – those are off limits for me to use on another show.
That hopefully helps each one have its own identity. You know, there’s… I’m not perfect, so there’ll be some times where I’ll write something, especially in the Ryan Murphy camp, where I’ll be working with the same producer that is on a couple of the shows, and I’ll turn in a piece of music and I’ll turn it in for, say, Crime Story and they’ll say, “You know, this sounds a little bit too much like Horror Story.” And then I go, oh yeah, you’re right, it actually does so I’ll re-write it. I think a couple of times something will slip through the cracks and it’ll be too influenced from the other show but then someone else on the team will help me steer back into the place it needs to be.
Finally, then, what’s the most important thing that you’d like someone to take away from listening to both your work in general and also your score on Versace?
My goal is to help the storytellers tell their story. Ryan I think is a really amazing storyteller and he loves music and he loves to use it to be effective in getting the feeling of the story across. So, I just hope that the viewer is able to just feel what is happening without being too distracted by the music – but maybe will notice it here and there and enjoy it as one separate element that’s mixed in with everything else.
Mac Quayle, thank you very much!
Photo Credits: Cat Deakins, FX