The composer of ‘Mr. Robot’ describes how he created the show’s dark, Emmy-winning sound
The Emmy-winning composer Mac Quayle has had a storied career in music and television.
Quayle won an Emmy in 2015 for his work on the pilot episode of the acclaimed AMC series “Mr. Robot.” He has scored each season of Ryan Murphy’s FX show “American Horror Story,” and he also worked with Murphy on “American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson,” which won 10 Emmys in 2016.
Quayle returns to “Mr. Robot” for its third season, which premiered Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST on AMC.
Business Insider talked to Quayle about his experience working on each show, his decision to score an “American Horror Story: Cult” scene about Trump’s election as if it were a “dark action” movie, and the musicians he’s most proud to have worked with.
John Lynch: What does your process look like generally? How do you go about building a TV score?
Courtesy of Jana DavidoffMac Quayle: Well, it always starts with a conversation with the creators of the show about what they’re looking to do, what kind of score they think they might want. Then from there, they start sending me completed scenes, or acts, or whole episodes, and we go through it together and talk about where the music should be. And then I start writing music based on all of our conversations. At that point, it’s a collaboration. We kind of go back and forth until the music gets to be just the right thing they’re looking for to help to tell their story.
Lynch: With “American Horror Story” and its variation in themes between seasons, what sort of challenge does that present for you, the constant shifting?
Quayle: Every season it’s like we’re starting over from scratch. Completely different story, possibly a different time period, different characters. So the music starts over from scratch each season. It’s a challenge, and it’s also pretty exciting: that first period of creating the music that’s going to essentially be the blueprint for what the season will sound like. It’s pretty intense for the first couple months, and then we find the recipe that will guide us through the rest of the season.
Lynch: In this season, “Cult,” Sarah Paulson’s character’s anxieties intensify after Trump is elected. How did you react to the election, and how did your reaction inform your work and the show?
Quayle: Well, the scene that’s right at the beginning of the first episode of “Cult” — when they’re watching the election on television, watching the returns come in, the moment when it’s clear that Trump wins — I had a very similar reaction to Sarah Paulson’s character. It was very much hard to believe. Didn’t seem real. The first piece of music in this episode was this montage of actual footage from the campaign, and we scored it like it was a dark action scene, like something really bad is happening, and we should be scared. It definitely resonated with me that that was the appropriate way to underscore Trump giving speeches on the campaign trail.
Lynch: You’ve been nominated for four Emmys, and you won once for the pilot of “Mr. Robot.” What do you think it was it about your score on that particular episode that stood out?
Quayle: It was the first batch of music that was written for that show, and there was quite a lot of it. It was the beginning of defining the sound that would be “Mr. Robot,” so for me it was a pretty special episode. It just seemed like the right one to submit for the Emmys that year. Fortunately, the music in the show had already gotten a lot of attention before the Emmys even came around, so it kind of got swept up in this groundswell of buzz about the show.
Lynch: How does working with Ryan Murphy on “American Horror Story” differ from working with Sam Esmail on “Mr. Robot?”
Quayle: Ryan tends to be more of a big picture guy. He’ll get me started with these conversations about what the music needs to do for a particular show or season. And then as I start delivering things, it’s mostly that he either likes it or he doesn’t. He’s not usually getting in there with me and giving me lots of notes. He may give me a few big notes, like this cue needs to be more sad, or needs to end in a much scarier place, things like that. Sam is a little more hands-on, and there’s really a lot of back-and-forth with him about particular sounds and different things in the music. They definitely have a different style of working with their composers, both, I think, yielding a good result.
Lynch: What, if anything, can you tell me about this third season of “Mr. Robot?” How did you approach it?
Quayle: I can’t say too much. It hasn’t started airing yet, and they’re keeping most of it under wraps. All I can say is that the foundation of it is the core “Mr. Robot” sound. It’s very electronic, quite dark. It’s essentially scoring what’s going on in Elliot’s head, and we’re pushing the score out a little bit more than we did in season two. That’s what we did then. Season one had its sound, and season two started with that sound and expanded a little bit from there. And now we’re expanding it a little bit more this time. I’ve only completed a couple of episodes so far, so it’s still evolving, and we’ll see what it ultimately turns into.
Lynch: Shifting gears a bit, in scoring “The People vs. OJ Simpson,” how did the real-life subject matter of that show affect your approach to writing the music for it?
Quayle: I don’t know that it really had an effect. I take that back. There were two things that had an effect on the score: One was the quality of the performances, and the script. It was phenomenal writing, phenomenal actors. And then that it was a true story. Those two things really dictated that the music take more of a back seat. It didn’t have such a big role, as it does on “American Horror Story” or “Mr. Robot.” It just kind of sits back and lets the amazing performances shine and do their thing. Occasionally it comes up front a little and pushes things one way or the other, but it was much more of a subtle approach on that show.
Lynch: Is that less fulfilling, in a way, to have your involvement be more subtle?
Quayle: I suppose had the show itself not been as strong as it was, then it could have maybe been less fulfilling. But since it was such a strong show with this great cast, it was pretty exciting just to be a part of it, even if the music was a more subtle character than in the other shows.
Lynch: You’ve had a storied career as a producer in the music industry as well. Is there one artist who you’re most proud to have worked with?
Quayle: That’s a good question. I’m not sure that there’s one. There’s some favorites that stick out to me. I’ve worked with New Order, which is a favorite band of mine. That was a highlight. I got to record Whitney Houston, via digital link. We were actually in different countries, but I got to do a vocal session with her, which was pretty fantastic. And wow, there’s been so many others. Really fortunate to work with such talented people.
Lynch: These are two huge shows you have going right now in “AHS” and “Mr. Robot.” Do you hope for an awards season push in the next round of Emmys for either one?
Quayle: You know, it’s hard to say. I’d love to see “Mr. Robot” get attention again. Anything that would get attention, of course, I’m very grateful for. So, we’ll have to see what things look like next spring.