The following article contains spoilers for “American Horror Story,” “Homeland,” “Fargo,” “Empire,” “Wayward Pines” and “The Vampire Diaries”.
Last week, the composers of “American Horror Story,” “Homeland,” “Fargo,” “Empire,” “Wayward Pines” and “The Vampire Diaries” joined together for the “Behind the Music: Crime, Death and Resurrection” panel at San Diego Comic-Con. After the panel, they met with an audience of the press to discuss their current projects and the way they prepare for them. Here’s a look at what they had to say.
Mac Quayle, “American Horror Story”
Audience Question: What has your experience with Ryan Murphy been like?
Mac Quayle: Ryan is kind of a mad genius, as you would expect. He’s always so interesting and sees things very big picture. He doesn’t look at my music and say that he dislikes this item or that melody. He either likes the whole thing or doesn’t.
Audience Question: “American Horror Story: Freak Show” had many separate storylines. Was it difficult to marry those threads together when creating the score?
Quayle: You would think so, but the show is so weird that everything worked together really well. It didn’t make sense on paper but when it all was combined, it was a great finished project. The motto was really the weirder, the better. The more I followed that, the better my work for the show became.
Blast Magazine Question: When you are handed the footage for each character, what is the process like of creating their individual themes?
Quayle: I don’t have a particular process but there are always discussions with Ryan and his team about the direction they want to go. After that, I just sit down and start writing what I feel is a good fit for the character. Sometimes, I write something for a character and send it in and it isn’t a good fit, so it goes into the library. Later, there may be a new episode that they use my piece for that works even better.
Sean Callery, “Homeland”
Blast Magazine Question: The music in “Homeland” is so important but does not dominate the story. Was it a conscious decision to score the show that way?
Sean Callery: Yes, because the show is almost like a documentary. It is filmed real-world style and when the music comes on, it’s very natural and realistic. I thought this was going to be an easy show to work on, but I was wrong. The show is so transparent that if you make one piano line or add an instrument in and change one note, it changes the way the show feels completely. It’s amazing and fans pick up on it. I play it back many, many times before it is submitted for the final episode.
Audience Question: Since the show moves around between different cultures and countries, does that affect the way you create the scores?
Callery: Not necessarily. The whole idea for our show is that the music should never inform the viewer how to feel. In the first season, there was a lot of mystery about a certain character and whether he was a good guy or a terrorist. It’s amazing how the music really does effect what people think. If we put happy and high music, then the character becomes good versus low and moody music makes people think he’s bad. Our job is to find a way to make the music sit almost ambiguously so that the viewer has to make their own decisions about the story. That’s the agonizing part that takes a lot of tweaking to make perfect.
Audience Question: Do you write the music based on the story or the actor’s portrayal of the character? Does their performance ever make you want to change the score that has already been written?
Callery: When I watch an episode for the first time, I watch it the same way that you do. I feel the emotions intended and pay attention to exactly which ones I feel for each scene. In Season 4, there was a very controversial scene involving Carrie Mathison [played by Claire Danes] and the baby in the bathtub. I probably scored that scene four times and they edited it differently because they weren’t sure exactly how much to show to indicate whether it was real or not. The first time I watched that scene, there was such a sense of dread. I thought about how I would express dread musically without being over the top because the visuals are already a lot. I try to create music that plays to the picture but is not overly conscious.
Blast Magazine Question: Was the bathtub scene in Season 4 the most difficult scene that you have scored for the show?
Callery: I definitely worked on that scene a lot. It was visually unsettling to watch but once I got over the emotion, I started to think about how I could tackle this scene analytically. There have been a couple of really wonderful and complex moments between Carrie and Brody that were somewhat difficult to score. They have a connection to each other that’s almost societally incompatible and yet it’s very real. You play on the connection and sadness and occasional happiness that the two of them share. When Brody met his end, it was a tough scene emotionally to watch and score.
Jeff Russo, “Fargo”
Audience Question: You write the music for “Fargo” on television. How much were you influenced by the original score from the film?
Jeff Russo: I wasn’t really influenced directly by it, but I did pay attention to the vibe created by Carter Burwell, who wrote the score for the film. I drew from the way that he made the audience feel certain emotions throughout the movie. “Fargo” is all about juxtaposition, because you have a beautiful score against a beautiful backdrop against a guy getting his throat cut. It’s that absurd violence against that backdrop that makes this project unique. I definitely had to tip my hat a bit to that. Everything else was all mine and I wrote all new scores and pieces of music.
Blast Magazine Question: Do you prefer creating music for darker content or more light-hearted projects?
Russo: I perfect dark, emotional content because that’s the place that I write from. I was in a band and I was a songwriter, so I find it difficult to write happy songs. Happy songs are terrible and it’s the same with scores. It’s difficult to write effective happy music because you tend to be too on-the-nose. Most composers are terribly unhappy in general and conflicted inside. When you create something from nothing, it comes from somewhere and that’s normally from your deep subconscious. I’ve never written a good song when I was in a happy place. Really great art comes from dark emotions because you’re trying to express something you can’t get out in another way.
Audience Question: For Season 1 of “Fargo”, who was your favorite character to write for?
Russo: I split up my music into characters, character relationships and locational narrative. The narrative is actually my favorite. I loved the piece of music in episode 4 when the money is found hidden under the snow. It was the one thing that connected the show to the movie. It wasn’t about a character, but about a statement and a mind-frame.
Fil Eisler “Empire”
Audience Question: “Empire” is a show that centers on music. What is your role in deciding the songs that will be a part of the episode?
Fil Eisler: I’m not really responsible for the songs in the episode. I score the subtext and create music to express the emotions that the words of the songs can’t say.
Blast Magazine Question: How has your experience been working with music supervisors on this show and what is that collaboration like?
Eisler: For “Empire”, it is very hand-in-glove. I have to work very closely with the supervisors because we have on-camera performances and so many situations that I am already dealing with for Season 2. Someone may be sitting at a piano and playing, but they are not really playing and I have to time my music to that. There are a lot of moving parts, such as original songs for the show that may need to be queued up. There are also the licensed songs that change at the last minute. We had a Prince song in one episode that came in at the very last second and was a different key than what we had planned, so the set up had to be changed.
Audience Question: Would you be interested in being a music supervisor or do you enjoy your work more?
Eisler: For a guy who came from bands, I know so little about what’s out there. I spend most of my time in a cave writing and I rarely get to see daylight. I love studying old composers but I have so little time to do that. Every now and then, something comes along that makes my head explode, but I haven’t listened to the radio in half a decade. I would love to do it, but I would make a bad music supervisor.
Charlie Clouser “Wayward Pines”
Blast Magazine Question: For different emotions, are there specific instruments you prefer to use?
Charlie Clouser: I prefer a kind of unsteady and unstable sound, so I use things like bowed metal instruments that sound very unsteady on their feet. In the beginning of “Wayward Pines”, Matt Dillon’s character is recovering from a heady injury and you are not sure if he is still in a coma and dreaming. To create that uncertainty, those kind of instruments were really useful. Even as the show progressed and I started to use more traditional orchestral sounds, the ones I prefer are unique, like string sections playing tremolos slowed down in the computer so it sounds wobblier. This accentuated that unsteady, possibly brain-dead feeling that I was going for. It’s about finding a way to manipulate a sound to give the desired emotion, but you always have to start from something in the right category.
Blast Magazine Question: You’ve worked on “Saw” and now you are writing for “Wayward Pines”. Is there a reason why you primarily score darker projects?
Clouser: My natural inclination is towards melodies and harmonies that are more of a natural fit with darker content. When I create my sound libraries, I end up with nothing that would be appropriate for a Jennifer Aniston film and everything that would be perfect for a dark and scary piece. One of the very first pieces of music that I remember seeing in a movie and loving was from 2001: A Space Odyssey. When they are on the moon and seeing the first buried obelisk, there is this choir piece that sounds otherworldly, but it’s really human voices and it was totally new and strange to me. I was about eight years old and it led to me wanting to work on dark, strange projects from then on.
Audience Question: You’ve done music for films and television. Would you be interested in doing scores for video games in the future?
Clouser: I have done a couple of video games in the past and they were actually much harder than television or movies. The story isn’t finalized until the player participates in the game. The producers think it’s a dream job for the musician because they don’t have to follow a direct script and can set their own tone. However, for me, it’s actually much harder because you don’t have any specific events to hang your coat on that help you sync things perfectly to the action. It was much more challenging than I thought it was going to be. It was a free form space and I couldn’t really pin myself to the story.
Mike Suby “Vampire Diaries”
Audience Question: Your current projects, “The Vampire Diaries”, “The Originals” and “Pretty Little Liars”, are all long-running series. Do you find that you are limited by having to repeat themes or does the time allow you to develop large overextending themes?
Mike Suby: The repeating themes are not always up to me. I write the music, but there are other people who cut it and make decisions without me. For the first four or five seasons, we wanted to keep everything brand-new and fresh. By the time we got to season 6, things start to fit well in new places that we already used so those melodies were reused, but that was out of my control. I don’t watch the shows because I work on them, but I have realized that my favorite pieces that didn’t get used in the beginning are now being used in other scenes. I wrote my favorite piece for Rose dying in Damon’s lap, but it ended up getting used much later for Damon and someone else. It’s not under my control as much as it used to be.
Blast Magazine Question: You are producing so much content every week. Do you ever feel yourself falling into a formula for ease?
Suby: The whole process is a formula now. I can sit down and write a two-minute cue in 45 minutes, but it’s all I do. I hike and write music. I get the scene and interpret what the emotion is supposed to be. As I play what’s in my mind, the rest just comes to me. I’ve done it so many times that it’s much easier now than it was in the beginning.
Audience Question: For “Pretty Little Liars”, they keep you in the dark about who A really is. How do you create music when you think that someone is A based on the script you’re given and then it turns out that they are really innocent?
Suby: I love the challenge. It’s fun to be able to cast shade everywhere and keep people questioning what’s really going on. It’s neat how it could be anyone and I think that’s part of the fun of the show. It’s a great challenge and I really like that I get to be a part of it.