Leaving an indelible mark on USA’s Mr. Robot and a string of Ryan Murphy series—most notably, his two American stories—composer Mac Quayle met his match when approached for the prolific creator’s latest project, Feud: Bette and Joan.
The style was “early ’60s, old Hollywood orchestral type music,”—a form outside of Quayle’s wheelhouse. Murphy was intent on transporting viewers to that time in Hollywood history, a directive that comes through in every aspect of the production, from the costumes to Judy Becker’s pitch-perfect production design. In a flashy world set to a score of many colors, one particularly quiet cue stands out most, conveying the loneliness and isolation of two Hollywood icons fighting the passage of time.
Below, the Emmy-winning composer explains the musical variations he explored within the parameters given, revealing those period composers who were most influential as he found his ’60s sound.
Having worked with Ryan Murphy for years, what were the elements that intrigued you about Feud?
Of course, the first element is Ryan himself. He’s so prolific and does such great, interesting television and films, so right there, I’m already halfway in, at least.
But these two legendary women and their one time working together, that’s an interesting story to me. There was also the opportunity for me to write a score that I’ve never written before, in this style of early ‘60s, old Hollywood orchestral type music.
What were Ryan’s intentions, when it came to the Feud score?
He wanted the music to evoke old Hollywood. He wanted it to feel like we were in the early ‘60s when the story takes place. Once we had that feeling—that sound—there were a couple of things we would do with it.
One would be to help tell this sad story of these two women, so he definitely wanted a lot of sadness in the music. He also wanted some fun—some groovy, ‘60s, jazzy kind of fun—so I got to play around with all those sounds.
Did you look to composers of the era for inspiration?
Of course, Bernard Herrmann is incredibly influential to almost all film composers today. Henry Mancini was another one. Frank De Vol, who scored the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which is of course the film they’re making in the show. He was inspirational, as well, watching that film and listening to what he did for that.
Hermann composed for Alfred Hitchcock, and Feud at times feels Hitchcockian. Does that notion of the series resonate with you?
There was certainly some influence there, definitely in the score. But the story itself? Maybe there was some stuff in there where they were giving a nod to Hitchcock. I think you’re not off base with that.
When it comes to your process, what is Ryan Murphy like as a collaborator?
As far as the music is concerned, Ryan is a big picture thinker. We have these initial conversations, where we decide on the overall sound that he wants for the particular show or season.
Then, he might offer, “I think we need this one type of instrument.” With that information, I go and start writing music. I send him music, and he usually either likes it or he doesn’t. I don’t get a lot of notes from him—I maybe will get a very simple note.
With Feud, the very first thing I wrote was the main title. He loved it, right from the first version, but his one note was that the ending needed to be sad. It’s nothing so detailed—it’s more just the big picture—so I made that change and it was approved.
The Feud title theme is entirely memorable, juxtaposed with the Saul Bass graphic. How did you arrive at that composition?
I had the parameters—1960s orchestral music, and a number of references of various films and composers.
Typically, composers are given something visually to work to, perhaps a rough version of the main title credits. In this case, they hadn’t finished it yet. What they had were stills. It’s animated, so they had drawn stills to demonstrate how it was eventually going to look. They sent me these stills, I looked at those, and I wrote the music just based on how they looked, sort of the vibe they had.
Once they loved the music, they went and animated the stills to the music. It’s kind of the reverse of what I normally have to do.
What kind of color box did you work with on this score, in terms of instrumentation?
It was a fairly typical orchestral palette. We had woodwinds; specifically, clarinet and flute. We had strings, brass, percussion, and added to that was something that might show up in a jazz orchestra—a vibraphone, saxophones. Piano was a color.
That was pretty much it. It was right out of what you would find in an orchestra of that time.
What kinds of percussion did you employ? This section was powerful in contributing to a sense of time and place, rhythm and heightened drama.
For the most part it was pretty much what you would find in any orchestral percussion section. Timpani was used a bit; certainly in the main title, timpani has a little solo moment.
Shakers, conga, woodblocks, and cymbals would maybe not be in a typical orchestra, but more in a jazz orchestra. There would be an actual drum kit, playing jazz drums. Marimba actually got used in one cue, and the vibraphone I mentioned before.
The vibraphone is fascinating—it produces this ringing, echoing effect that sets a mood and punctuates scene transitions.
I love that sound, the vibraphone ringing out just by arpeggiating a chord up or down. I think I had used it somewhere in a cue, and Ryan really liked it, so I got that note back maybe once or twice more: “Can you end this cue with that sound that vibraphone sound?”
What was your approach to composing the particularly flashy award show music of the period?
In Episode 1, there was a little bit where they were at the Golden Globes. That was a fun piece to work on, definitely not something I had done before. I just came up with a few different ideas and found one that I liked, gave it lots of energy, and it ended up being nice.
Were there any musical techniques you used to accentuate the venom between Bette and Joan?
The acting is pretty incredible—they don’t really need a whole lot of help from me, but there were some moments where I was asked to heighten the drama. In some of those moments, I would use techniques like tremolo stings, or certain types of chords that would give you a tense feeling. The timpani was used here and there to punctuate some of the drama. All of those seemed to be pretty effective.
In this score, the quietest cue feels the most powerful. What was the process in composing the season’s somber, haunting recurring theme?
There’s a harp in there—it’s just very simple strings and harp. That was a funny theme because they wanted something that hit a lot of the things you just mentioned—somber, and lonely and a bit sad.
I wrote it, and it’s so simple, I was a little concerned that it needed to be more. [laughs] Yet they really liked it. The first version appears in Episode 1, when they’ve started shooting and they’re watching dailies.
It was just very, very simple. Then, when we started to do some later episodes, I took it and evolved it a little bit, so it was a little less simple, but it still never really became more than simple. I got used to it, and I ended up really liking how it worked, in its simplicity.
As a multi-instrumentalist, do you perform cues yourself in the process of assembling a score?
I do. My main instrument is keyboards, so that’s what I write most of my music on, whether it’s a keyboard sound, or another sound. The keyboard is what I’m using to play those things.
This score is a mixture of some real instruments, and some not-real instruments. There’s players and there’s samples, and all kinds of things all mixed together to try to get the effect that we’re looking for.
Was the score mixed in any particular way to lend added period texture?
That was actually discussed, and we decided that we wouldn’t do that. We played around with processing it in such a way to make it sound older, but we ultimately decided No, let’s have the musical content be of the ‘60s, but we’ll let the sound be more modern, a little bigger and what not.
In taking on a different kind of score, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
That was pretty much the main challenge, the fact that I hadn’t done it before. When we have things that we’re comfortable with, we’re able to just do them—not super challenged by them—but this was something that I was really excited about doing.
When I first wrote that main title, we started very early, so I kind of worked on it, on and off, for a couple of weeks. I had the time and was able to do it at a relaxed pace, but once we got into production, the deadlines were coming up faster. To then write this music that was very new for me was a little challenging. I was working slower than I had worked on other things that were more comfortable. It definitely got a little hairy, here and there.
With the diversity of your work on series including Feud, Mr. Robot and American Horror Story, are certain artistic through lines apparent to you?
I think that the through lines are maybe not visible to me. I’ve had people say to me that they can see them, but I’m not sure I have the perspective myself to be able to see what they are.
I love making music, and I love working on projects with people that are great collaborators, that appreciate what I bring to the project with my artistry. When they ask me to change what I’ve done for them just to fit their vision, their changes help make it better, and that’s always very satisfying.
For a preview or fresher on some of Quayle’s Feud cues, click through to SoundCloud below: