Ten Minutes With : “Mr. Robot“ Composer Mac Quayle
Capturing the complicated life inside Elliot’s (Rami Malek) head drives composer Mac Quayle’s score. Photo credit: USA Network
By: Marjorie Galas
Just as summer kicked off, Lakeshore Records released the Emmy nominated score to “Mr. Robot – Season One.” Mac Quayle, thrilled to be receiving his second consecutive Emmy nom (he was nominated last year for “American Horror Story: Freak Show”), was particularly tickled to discover fan’s devotion to the music. After a recent convention that found Quayle participated on a composer panel, Variety 411 caught up with him to chat about encountering adoring fans and to discuss the inner melodic workings of “Mr. Robot.”
Variety 411: There were a lot of fans waiting to ask questions today – it must be fun to see so much attention given to your craft.
Mac Quayle: I love that film and TV music is getting more and more attention. It’s having a life outside of its main focus, which is to be supporting the shows. There is a line I always repeat that someone said to me years ago: ‘When composers are doing their job well, you don’t notice that we are there.’ Which I think there is a lot of truth to. But to have people enjoy the story then say ‘Hey that music is really interesting, who did that? How can I buy it? How can I go see it?’ That’s great.
411: I often go back to a show a second time just to listen to the music. I was particularly excited to talk to you about “Mr. Robot.” The story premise and the characters are all engaging and the handling of the score I find exciting. What was it like when you received the script; what were those early conversations with the producers and directors like prior to you creating the score?
MQ: Well, it was last January, of 2015, and I got a meeting set with the creator Sam Esmail. (Esmail) is the main writer and producer and he directed three episodes in the first season as well, and he’s directing all season two episodes. So, first I was sent a script which I read and liked. They had already shot the pilot, so I got to see the first episode, and I thought it was really good. Then, we met and talked about music. Music plays a really important roll to Sam. The idea was that the score should be electronic, which excited me because I love electronic music and synthesizers. So that was pretty much where it started, and then I started writing music.
411: To me, the music has an atmospheric yet organic quality. It’s electronic, but there is a real life to it as opposed to it being just electric-tech sounding. It feels like it is pulsing. Was there something you were looking for in the characters, particularly Elliot’s constant voyeuristic, rather omnipresent element? Was that an inspiration?
MQ: Well, definitely. So much of the story is about what’s going on in Elliot’s head. I mean, there is even a character that has been created entirely in Elliot’s head! So, yeah, the music lives there. A lot of times Elliot is tense and paranoid, so the music is tense and paranoid. Atmospheric was a good way to describe it. So the (creative process) didn’t necessarily focus on using big melodies or anything like that – but creating more of an atmosphere of tension, paranoia and suspense, because that is what is going on with Elliot. There are other moments…in season one, there was the beginnings of a love interest – jut for a moment, and the music slightly went there. Elliot was having positive feeling around this women. And then there are some other moments were what was going on in his head was actually sort of manic and happy. There are additional singles that have been very well placed by Sam himself that have done that job -describing what’s going on in Elliot’s head. If there is one overriding influence, I’m going to say its Elliot’s mind.
411: Seeing that Elliot is so confused in his reality, it seems like it might require an interesting process in selecting the right musical path. Did the creation for this score come fairly easily, or did you have to experiment quite a bit to get the right types of sounds and pairing with what you were looking at, what you were listening to, and what is actually going on in the script?
MQ: Well, definitely some experimentation, which I find is kind of always there for me when I write. There is some experimentation until I end up finding something I’m happy with. I’ll refine it, and when I feel it’s ready then I turn it in to Sam and he will give me a series of notes, highlighting what is almost right, kind of right or ‘This is the sound I want.” Then, I go back and I revise and send another version in. This trail and error continues all the way up until when we have the final music.
411: With this style of electronic music, are you sampling other types of instruments and altering and manipulating them, or is the sound created some other way?
MQ: Um, well, it’s a pretty broad definition to say electronic music. There is music that might get created electronically but actually sounds like an imitation of organic music – sampling instruments and manipulating them. What we are doing with “Mr. Robot” is creating electronic music that also sounds electronic. These are synthesizers sounding like synthesizers. In season one there was one nod to a real instrument, which was a piano. There was a sample that was manipulated somewhat, but still did come across as a piano. That was pretty much the one thing in season one that was not electronic.
411: On a typical passage – well, I don’t know if there is a typical passage in “Mr. Robot” but let’s say there is – how many tracks are you working with when you are recording? For example, say Elliot is walking down the street, making a decision about F-Society, unsure if he’s doing the right thing. How many music tracks would an example like that usually have? Was there a lot of layering?
MQ: It does vary from que to que, but on something like the scenes that you are talking about, maybe there ends up being twelve different elements, not a huge amount. I don’t usually go too much more than that. I can, but I don’t. But then sometimes, such as that romantic scene I mentioned, I think there were around three to four elements. It was very simple, very minimal.
411: Season one did end with a harp player performing something very classical sounding. Is that a piece that you composed as well?
MQ: I believe that piece was what the chamber musicians were playing on the Titanic as it was going down. It’s the famous piece – and the perfect choice.
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