Freaks, Screams And Normal Hearts – Composer Mac Quayle
Composer Mac Quayle (right) built themes around main characters such as Else (Jessica Lange) in American Horror Story: Freak Show. photo credit: FX t
Mac Quayle was an assistant composer on Ryan Murphy’s critically acclaimed HBO special “The Normal Heart.” Collaborating with composer Cliff Martinez, his style was recognized and applauded by producers on the show. This connection earned him an “audition” for the open composer slot in the fourth season of Murphy’s acclaimed series “American Horror Story.”
“They wanted to go in a new direction for ‘Freak Show’,” said Quayle. “I sent some music in and was hired the next day.”
Each season of “American Horror Story” featured a stable of consistent actors, such as Jessica Lange and Evan Peters, who morphed into unique characters for the new stories. James Levine’s critically acclaimed scores had ushered mood and tone to a consistently growing audience through the first three seasons. Quayle was excited to be following the precedent set by Levine of presenting well-crafted, acoustically interesting scores as he graduated to the role of lead composer on a Murphy project.
“As lead composer you get to see how much collaboration goes into the process. Ryan, the editors, the producers, they all put in ideas about sound and style,” said Quayle.
The setting of “American Horror Story: Freak Show” – a 1950s fair ground – had an immediate period influence in the musical style. While circus music and horror themes were incorporated in the score, Quayle focused on 20th Century classic orchestration offset by 50s style sci-fi strings. Bridging the different styles resulted in strange dissonance that perfectly carried through the season. Electronic sounds were the primary building block for the “Freak Show” score. For strong emotional beats, Quayle hired a professional cellist and violinist who layered textures and complexities to the score.
While there were some musical themes assigned to lead characters such as Elsa (Jessica Lange), Quayle frequently took those individual’s themes and applied them to other characters to emphasize particular patterns of character growth or emotional change. There were times throughout the season, for example, where Elsa’s theme was used in segments featuring Twisty the Clown, illustrating like characteristics between the two individuals.
Recently Quayle sat on the Q&A panel that followed the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of “Autism in Love.” The documentary follows four autistic adults as they maneuver the generally challenging dating scene. Unlike his previous experience scoring a documentary where he was present from the beginning, shifting the score as the story was revealed, Quale was brought onto “Autism in Love” when the film was 99% completed. Quayle worked to envision the musical style director Mark Fuller had in mind; a score worthy of a narrative story.
“We were treading the line between a documentary and a feature,” said Quayle. “The story isn’t supposed to be happy or sad, it’s just real moments. We wanted a score that supported that idea, rather than help support specific feelings.”
Working with a palette of electronic instruments, Quayle focused on creating an ambient, dreamy sound scape that veered towards the “positive side of neutral” that played without emotional bias with the scenes. While he strayed away from employing specific motifs used to highlight characters or situations, he did utilize bluesy guitars when Lenny, a personality that carries the story, was on-screen. Quayle was given a few months to work on the score in his studio, time he used experimenting and creating sounds that appealed to Fuller’s sensibilities.
Always on the lookout for styles that appeal to him, Quayle jumped on board the upcoming Indie “L.A. Slasher”. The social commentary follows a killer who targets people infatuated with the reality genre. Spoofing 80s slasher films, Quayle was eager to play with one of his favorite period genres: 80s pop music. Avoiding vocal tracks, Quayle focused on using vintage instruments such as 80s synthesizers and hit the satirical beats rather than incorporating horror styles.
In addition to a computer hacker drama, “Mr. Robot”, that he is scoring for USA Networks, Quayle is also busy with the score for Murphy’s new Fox series “Scream Queens” that will debut this fall.
“It’s been quite a ride so far. We’re just working on the early episodes now. While it’s the same process as ‘American Horror Story’, the content itself is very unlike that show,” said Quayle. “We start with an idea, work it through and play with the edits, then readjust the score. It’s outrages, funny, scary; I’m curious to see how audiences will react.”