From the creator of Mr. Robot, Sam Esmail’s new thriller, Leave the World Behind, has just landed on Netflix. Just before its release, we had the pleasure of discussing the score of Leave the World Behind with composer Mac Quayle.
Leave the World Behind is a Netflix thriller drama film from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail. The thriller was released on Netflix on December 8th, 2023. You can find our preview here for a full breakdown of Leave the World Behind.
Prior to working on Leave the World Behind, Mac Quayle worked on Netflix projects such as Ratched and The Politician. He has also worked on several other projects for producer Ryan Murphy, such as American Horror Story, American Crime Story, American Horror Stories, Gaslit, and Scream Queens.
Mac Quayle is most well known for his work on Sam Esmail’s crime thriller series Mr. Robot, for which he earned a Primetime Emmy Award in 2016 for Outstanding Music Composition For A Series (Original Dramatic Score).
How did you first become involved in Leave the World Behind?
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Well, I have a pretty long-standing relationship with the writer-director Sam Esmail. I scored a show that he created, Mr. Robot. And we started working on that together in 2015, and it ran for four seasons. And so, yeah, he reached out to me, I think early in 2022, and said that he wanted me to come on board if I was interested in writing the music for Leave the World Behind.
How would you describe your score for the film?
Well, it’s orchestral.
A lot of the strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion. It’s unsettling. It’s a use of dissonance a lot. And it is, I think, it’s pretty unusual. Not necessarily adhering to what some people might call normal music. It’s definitely a bit weird and its intention is to make the viewer feel very uneasy and question what is happening and to really underscore the emotion of this apocalyptic story.
You’ve worked with this sort of aesthetic before, right? Because you’ve done so much of the music for American Horror Story and worked quite extensively on a horror aspect, does that theme fit into Leave the World Behind?
I mean, there are some moments that you could say are a little bit horror, but overall, it’s not a horror film, even though there are some things that are terrifying in it. So that did come up as we were working on the music. There were little moments where Sam was like, this should almost feel like horror right here. But just a little. And I can remember maybe going too far. And he’s like, yeah, that feels like horror, but I think we’ve gone a little too far. Let’s dial it back so it has just a little flavor.
What was it like working with Sam Esmail again? Was there an idea of what the score needed to be, or were you given the freedom to experiment? Was there collaboration?
Well, I mean, yes, it was a collaboration, and yes, there was room to experiment. Sam played me a playlist of music that he had been collecting that he thought might be an inspiration for what the sound of the movie could be. And it was what I would call sort of avant-garde new classical music.
A lot of it I’ve never heard of performed by European ensembles, orchestral ensembles, quite weird, quite dissonant. And I thought this is a pretty interesting jumping-off point. And if we’re going to do this, we’re going to need to record real musicians and Sam was on board with that. I sat down to kind of write some demos and I needed a way in. I needed to find some way to get started. I discovered a composer called Olivier Messiaen, who was active in the early to mid-20th century. He came up with this sort of musical theory idea called the Messiaen modes. And they’re really scales. And I discovered those, and I started messing around with them. No pun intended. But mode three caught my ear. It seemed like a place where I could use this rule, this scale, and sort of bump up against this rule, and it might produce some interesting results. And so I wrote three pieces of music using it, and played them for Sam. He loved them.
And I was like, okay, let’s see how far we can go with this. And so the next important point about the collaboration was that Sam said he did not want to use temp music, which is where they will cut in music from other projects or what have you as they’re editing just to have something there. He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to be using my music from the beginning, which meant I had to write and record music before he was even finished editing. And so I took these few ideas that he liked, and I came up with some other motifs and sounds and weird uses of the orchestra. And I went in and did a recording session and created quite a lot of ideas, not like a full score, but just a lot of ideas. I then chopped it all up and put it into the computer and started writing the score using essentially this custom library that I’d created.
Was Leave the World Behind a unique project compared to some of the previous work you’ve done?
Using temp music is a pretty common practice in the industry; a lot of projects I’ve done have used temp music. So it was a bit different to have it be just a blank slate. So now I have this library. I have all these ideas, and I start writing to the little bits of pictures they’re sending because they’re just starting to edit. Now that Sam has finished shooting, he goes into the editing room and he’s editing. I’m writing and sending it in as fast as I can. I’m trying to keep up with him. He was like, I need more music. I need more music. And we went like that until almost the end, and now we had a full score. And about 80% of it had been done with all these recordings that I had done early in the process. And now, for the other 20%, I’d used commercial sample libraries and sounds. And so we went in and did one more recording session and replaced all of that with live musicians. And then the score was finished. So it was, for me, definitely a different way to work.
So, how did it work with the live recordings?
I did it sort of in pieces.
I started with a string section. It was 34 strings, which is a pretty decent size, and then I recorded a brass section, I think, 11 players. I also recorded soloists, cello, violin, bass, and percussion. That was my starting point. That’s what I created my library with, with those recordings and then when we got to the finish line, I went back in again with 34 strings. And now, this time, I had six woodwinds, all done in pieces. Once it all comes together, it sounds like a weird orchestral ensemble.
What inspired you to become a composer?
I’ve been doing music since I was six. I started off singing in the church choir, and then I just had a long road of, you know, high school band and orchestra, piano lessons, and rock bands. My first career was in New York, in the music business, as a producer, musician, and dance remixer.
I’ve been very involved in electronic music. And then things were shifting in the music business in the early 2000s, and I moved to Los Angeles in search of what was next and worked my way up in the film industry as an additional composer, and then composing my own projects.
There was an important moment when Ryan Murphy brought me into his world on American Horror Story. And that’s what ultimately led me to meeting Sam and to working on Mr. Robot. So it’s been a pretty long road, music forever. And I view it as the film and TV world as my second career because I had a music business career before. I feel grateful that I’m able to express myself as an artist, make music, and have a career.
Are there any Netflix projects we can look forward to hearing your music in the near future?
Not at the moment. I was involved in a couple of shows on Netflix in the last handful of years, Ratched and The Politician.
I think that one of the big questions on the minds of Ratched fans is whether or not it’s getting a second season.
Yeah, I think originally, it was intended to be at least two seasons, but I’m not sure what their plans are.
Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Make sure to check out Leave the World Behind on Netflix. If you’ve watched the film already, what are your thoughts? Did you enjoy the score? Let us know in the comments below.