In the spirit of Halloween, we chat to music supervisors working on two of the most popular horror TV shows: American Horror Story and The Exorcist.
Q&A with American Horror Story Music Supervisor Amanda Krieg Thomas:
1) Hi Amanda, how did you first get involved in American Horror Story, and how does it differ from other projects you’ve worked on?
A little over two years ago I joined the team at Neophonic Music & Media and began working alongside Music Supervisor PJ Bloom on the show. He had been on it since season 1 and we worked together on Hotel and Roanoke. Hotel especially was such a fun playground musically; we got to use a ton of great 1980s dark wave like The Cure, She Wants Revenge, Joy Division…it was a blast.
This spring PJ moved on to a new role at Warner Bros. Records so I’m carrying the torch on my own now! It’s such an honor to be a part of the legacy of such a landmark series. It’s most definitely the scariest project I’ve ever worked on!
2) You work alongside Emmy-winning composer Mac Quayle, who has said that each season he “starts over from scratch” musically. How would you describe the musical direction for Cult, and how do you work with Mac and the showrunners to craft the sound?
We all have such an incredible leader in Ryan Murphy, whose vision for each season of the show is so clear and complete – music included. We (myself, Mac, the Producers and Editors) each do our part and collaborate closely in making that come to life. This season is grounded very much in reality, so the music is as well. There aren’t any really stylized musical moments, montages, etc. because that isn’t the show this season. Every time we tried one it felt incongruous with everything else around it.
3) This is the first season of American Horror Story to incorporate true events in real time. Do you think that makes it scarier, given that it’s more relatable to viewers?
It’s a different type of scary for sure. What’s so brilliant about the show this season is that it holds up a mirror to some of the events occurring across the country today in a very objective way – and then takes it a few steps further like only Ryan Murphy can. But the writing and tone present even the wildest acts and cult elements in a way that seems possible, in part because those are based in reality too! There have been some truly outrageous real cults throughout history. And that adds to the terror. Ghosts, aliens, vampires and witches are scary…but real people can be even scarier.
4) Episode 7 of Cult saw tunes from the 60s being used alongside the SCUM plot line. Can you talk us through those musical choices?
Again the focus was making the world feel real. Andy Warhol would have had music playing in The Factory. Teenagers would have had music playing from their car on a romantic excursion. We didn’t want to pull any focus from the dialogue and action, so while the songs weren’t ones you’d recognize, they were still absolutely authentic to the time period (the late 1960s).
5) Cult has been predominantly score-driven so far, what can we expect from the rest of the season?
I’m sworn to secrecy. You’ll have to wait and see!
6) What’s your personal favourite use of music in a horror film/TV show?
I have to be honest…I’m a big scaredy-cat! While I am totally fascinated by the paranormal, I am also totally freaked out by it. I don’t watch a ton of horror movies, unless you count The Craft as a horror movie. With that said, my favorite use of music in a “horror” film has to be “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen in Shaun Of The Dead. I hate zombies, but I love that movie. The way the song was edited so beautifully with the action was an example of musical storytelling at it’s finest, and something Edgar Wright continued to develop in the rest of the Cornetto trilogy and went wild with in Baby Driver.
Q&A with The Exorcist Music Supervisors Michelle Kuznetsky and Ryan Kattner:
1) Hi Michelle and Ryan, can you tell us a little bit about the musical approach to The Exorcist?
Ryan: The Exorcist, for the most part, uses its musical cues in diegetic fashion so many of the choices we make have to be tied into the character’s various tastes and hopefully reveal facets of their personalities that aren’t explicitly obvious at first glance. To be able to choose a character’s favorite tune and have that music reveal another layer to a performance is definitely a fun challenge but also a pretty amazing feeling when it truly connects. That said, it was an absolute dream when I found out in season one that the Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) character was a huge Northern Soul fan because it meant that we’d be able to dig into the archives for some incredibly deep, groovy cuts (and I’d get a whole new healthy batch of songs I’ve never heard before). Northern Soul is one of my favorite genres so I owe a big “bless you” to Ben Daniels for pulling that one out of his talented English brain. As a music supervisor, it’s always rewarding to be able to dust off gems like “That’s The Way Love Is” by The Fabulous Peps or Shirley Ann Lee’s “There’s A Light” for an audience who most likely would have never heard them otherwise.
We also have a lot of old religious choral music, hymns, etc. and it takes a lot of detective work on our end to make sure that everything is clearable. It’s remarkable how many songs you would think are public domain that are actually not at all and tracking down the serpentine origins ends up being a lot of dogged detective work. I remember that for one particular cue, Michelle and I tracked down a nonagenarian in the desert who had once owned a publishing company in the 60s in order to find out where the rights to a 7-inch song he put out years ago ended up after decades of labels buying other label’s catalogs, etc. Woof. That was a fun one.
The last third of our cues on the show are the various “headphone” cues sprinkled throughout, which give us an opportunity to tap into whatever current music the younger characters are into. This season, we’ve been able to get Steady Holiday’s “New Holiday” and The Paranoyds’ “Sleep Paralysis” into the mix. Last season, it was a real trip to use Earl Sweatshirt’s “Chum” in a few gnarly montage sequences. I really love how diverse the cues are in this series. One moment we have Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and the next scene there’s some old soul music or Chicory Tip’s “Son Of My Father” blasting out of a record player.
Michelle: Definitely keeps us on our toes.
Ryan: Keeps our heads spinning. Cue snare.
2) The first season was scored by Daniel Hart, and then Tyler Bates took over for season two. What does each composer bring to the table? Given that the show is largely score-driven, how much involvement do you have in their work?
Ryan: Small world, but I’d known Daniel from playing music and touring over the years. When we both found each other on the first season it was a real funny, “How did you get here?” moment. Both Daniel and Tyler are such incredible talents that our input with them is fairly limited aside from occasionally having to provide cleared religious scores for them to record and/or guide performances with on-camera actors. The first season was such a whirlwind of deadlines that there were a few times when I would just record a simple guide track for actors to sing along with to help with the workload avalanche but those instances were few and far between. In closing, Michelle and I are pretty damn lucky to have such powerhouse dudes at the scoring helm and showrunners deftly attuned to exactly what they wanna hear. It definitely makes our job a lot easier.
3) Can you talk us through some of the ways in which you use music as a tool to enhance the suspense/horror in the show?
Ryan: There’s a great moment in the first episode of this new season (“Janus”) where the social worker character (Rose – Li Jun Li) is walking through the house checking out paintings and having a moment to herself and she suddenly hears creepy noises emitting from one of the children’s rooms. She cautiously investigates and finds the blind foster child (Caleb – Hunter Dillon) at an old record player slowing down and distorting a song which then eventually starts playing an old Northern Soul song called “Too Late For Tears” and the scene suddenly takes on a heavier, multi-layered vibe. When we hear the same song playing on a truck radio at the end of the next episode (“Safe As Houses”), as Tomas and Marcus are heading on towards their next case, it’s a very subtle foreshadowing to the horror that will eventually unfold.
4) What are your most memorable music moments in the show?
Michelle: Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” was a huge part of the storyline for the first few episodes of the new season. It’s great when the music becomes a character all on its own.
Ryan: I love whenever Father Marcus has his soul music moments. It’s a rare relief for him to unwind and reconnect with his youth.
5) How much of your work is influenced by the 1973 film The Exorcist? (We noticed a nod to the film with the use of “Tubular Bells” in the first episode of both seasons)
Ryan: Honestly, not much. While there is obviously respect given towards the original, this series really is its own imaginative animal. If anything, we always want to lean into music that makes the most sense for the character rather than what may be the most trendy. Anything that we can do to help highlight the writing, direction, and performances is what’s most important. It’s also nice having the freedom (and the show runners!) who value tasteful cues over popular songs that instantly timestamp a story. We’re really lucky in that regard. Everyone aboard the project wants to make something timeless.
6) What are your favourite uses of music in a horror film/TV show?
Michelle: I love score themes. “Tubular Bells” and “Jason Theme Song” from Friday the 13th are definitely horror classics.
Ryan: Hmmm. Off the top of my head, “Blue Moon” during the first werewolf transformation sequence in American Werewolf In London and the Gremlins singing “New York, New York” in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The Mica Levi score from Under The Skin and the Disasterpeace soundtrack from It Follows still haunt me.