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 forces for the “Behind the Music: Crime, Death, and Resurrection” panel at San Diego Comic Con. Following the gathering, Blast Magazine had the opportunity to briefly meet with the men to discuss their current projects.
Blast Magazine: When you are first handed the footage for each character, how do you decide what their individual theme will sound like?
Mac Quayle (American Horror Story): I don’t have a particular process but there are always discussions with Ryan [Murphy] 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.
Blast Magazine: The music in Homeland is so important to the show but does not dominate the story. Was it a conscious decision to score the show that way?
Sean Callery (Homeland): 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.
Blast Magazine: Was the bathtub scene in Season 4 the most difficult scene that you have scored for the show?
Sean Callery (Homeland): 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.
Blast Magazine: Do you prefer to create music for darker themes or more light-hearted projects?
Jeff Russo (Fargo): 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.
Blast Magazine: What has your experience been like working with music supervisors on this show and what is that collaboration process like?
Fil Eisler (Empire): 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.
Blast Magazine: Are there specific instruments you prefer to use to evoke certain emotions from the audience?
Charlie Clouser (Wayward Pines): 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: You previously composed for the film Saw and you are currently working on the show Wayward Pines. Is there a reason why you primarily score darker projects?
Charlie Clouser (Wayward Pines): 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.
Blast Magazine: Since you produce so much content each week, do you ever feel yourself falling into a formula for ease?
Mike Suby (Vampire Diaries): 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.