John Murphy is a bit of an enigma in that he’s recognized for a sound that inarguably made some of the most popular films by Danny Boyle and Michael Ritchie successful with audiences.
Whether it’s music for hip or slightly daft criminals, astronauts trying to stop the sun from killing the Earth, or bloody annoying zombies running fast marathon stretches to eat you 28 days or 28 weeks after a plague assault has wiped out the world (or London, at least), you’ve heard his music, and would recognize his fusion of British trip-hop and classical, or rock, or anything he feels works best for a film.
He’s a down-to earth artist whose music traverses diverse genres, but in recent years he’s become familiar to horror and action films, and his latest score – Armored – suppors Nimrod Antal’s film about a $42 million heist that goes very bad for an Iraq War veteran.
In our lengthy conversation, Murphy describes his early years as a composer, his sound, and his craft. In addition to Armored, Murphy also talks about working with Michael Mann on Miami Vice, which alongside Danny Boyle’s 2001: A Space Odyssey riff Sunshine, is among his best work to date.
Mark R. Hasan: How did you get into film scoring, because you’ve been at it for almost twenty years?
John Murphy: Is it that long?
MRH: Your first credit is around 1998.
JM: Yeah. Oh my God, I didn’t realize it was that long. To be honest, I was in a lot of terrible bands in the eighties in England as a session player. I was a bass player, working on peoples’ albums and stuff, and I ended up writing songs for some bands, so I kind of fell into songwriting when I was 24 or 25.
Then I got asked to write a couple of songs for this low-budget, little British movie that we didn’t even think would come out called Leon the Pig Farmer (1992). I’d done a few songs for that, and the co-director/co-producer, Gary Sinyor, just liked the style of the score I was doing for the film… It was very literal. I had no idea how to write underscore or anything, but I was just writing these little songs, these little vignettes as to whatever was happening on the scene.
I had no clue as to how to write a score, but he liked it, and he said ‘Can you write a few more?’ in the end [and] probably because he didn’t have the budget to get a grown-up composer to come in and write the score, I ended up kind of writing all of the music.
I was with Dave Hughes in those days, so we ended up writing these little songs. It’s funny, because we won some awards for the music in Europe because people thought it was very original… I was only 25 or 26, I had no musical training as such, so I just wrote these little songs in this film…The film did quite well in Britain, and once you’ve got one out of the way, it was a lot easy for people to twist you to do another movie, so that kind of started it. It was really by luck, you know; just a chance meeting with a friend who said the other friend was making a movie, and then it just kind of took off from there.
MRH: And after that you worked on a number of independent films – comedies, horror films, and a couple of shorts.
JM: Well, early on you do whatever you get offered and you’re just so thankful, you know? It wasn’t like I was set up to do any type of film, it was just anyone fool enough to trust me to work on their film in those days.
Whatever it was I would do because the one strange thing about being a film composer is there’s no real way of learning how to do it without actually doing it, you know? Even though there are film schools and music schools where they specialize in film music, there’s no replacement for actually being in the field and throwing yourself in it and doing it.
Whatever came in, I just did… I was going from horror film to Jilly Cooper mini-series to whatever. It was just very exciting to actually be doing it. I have no kind of snobbery about any of it; it was just great to be actually getting paid to write music on films, because as soon as I’d done the first movie I knew sort of within seconds that this is what I wanted to do.
I was already touring with bands by the time I was 17 or 18, so by the time I got to my mid-20s I was just bored with it all; it was all the same thing. I had enough, so when this came around I’d always loved film music anyways, but you never think you’d ever get a chance to do it. Suddenly there I was and I was doing it. I appreciated the good luck, if you like, of just being given a chance, so I made the most of it. I worked my ass off and kind of tried not to let anybody down, tried to learn as much as I could as I was learning…. and it took care of itself after that.
MRH: It also provided a good training ground because you worked in every idiom – rock, synth, electronic, orchestral, and it was pretty much everything in your early years.
JM: In a way it really helped because even within the first couple of years I’d done maybe 5 or 6 films, and they were all different from each other… To be honest, I think that kind of eclecticism wasn’t just in the early years; it channeled right through to now.
I don’t see myself as being ‘the guy who does this.’ I think in Hollywood… a lot of people see me as ‘the edgy guy’ because of certain films I’ve done that have probably become more prominent, but there’s actually quite a lot of different films I’ve done, and there’s a lot of different films that I enjoy doing.
MRH: You wrote a very beautiful score for Basic Instinct 2 (2006), but I guess you’re best known more for heavy electronic scores, and I’m curious if there any particular electronic composers or groups that you particularly admire or perhaps influenced you?
JM: That’s such a difficult question to answer.
MRH: For example, Danny Boyle has exploited your skills with electronic music, with Sunshine (2007) being one of your best works. It’s really beautiful.
JM: Thank you. I think there’s a lot of vintage British trip-hop I’ve always loved, from Massive Attack and Tricky and stuff like that. If left to my own devices, I’ll always kind of dig in to that style just because it’s something that I loved when it was happening. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped lovin’ that kind of style.
I think it’s actually very cinematic. It’s a style of music that lends itself to being very effective on the screen, so I’ll always be into that kind of stuff, but there’s a lot of guitar bands that I love – I’m a huge Radiohead fan – I’m a bit of a guitarhead, really [but] I’m a bit of a mish-mash of stuff. I feel happy if I’ve done a big heavy guitar score or electronic score, but there’s nothing I like better that to sit down at the piano and write a bit more purely and write for an orchestra, so I’m a bit kind of schizophrenic, I think.
Whatever I did last I want to do the opposite the next time around, but you’re right – a lot of the things that people know me for definitely tend to be where I’m mixing up modern electronic stuff with strings.
I’m not a snob about stuff. If I feel I want to put a big trip-hop beat under some lovely choral thing I don’t really think twice about it; I just do it. It’s one of the nice things about not having a musical background; it’s all the same to me… You can be emotional with fantastic rhythms driving through the scene as you can with woodwinds… I just kind of grab whatever influence I see at the time, and I’ll do whatever is natural. I don’t want to over-think it.
MRH: Your style is also recognizable. There’s something interesting that you do where if a score is based around a singular theme, you don’t whole variations of a theme, you’ll take maybe part of the bass line and build it into a wholly new cue, and you might take part of the rhythm and build yet another cue around that, and then you might take a fragment of the theme and do something different with it.
I think Miami Vice (2006) is a good example, and even Armored (2009), where you’ve got a main theme, but there are so many little parts where you’ve branched off and done very different things, and it’s very clever.
JM: I’m not sure if it’s clever. To me that’s natural. In a way it’s kind of an inverse way of approaching something symphonically.
Modern film scoring is different to what it was 30-40 years ago. I don’t think it’s just me that’s doing that. I think there’s other guys doing that as well, but I just think the difference now is it’s a lot more open nowadays, certainly in the last 20 years where you’ve got people like me or Clint Mansell who kind of come out of rock n’ roll backgrounds.
We’re doing what’s natural to us, and it’s not always where we’re building the architecture to a score, it’s not always the melodic thematic stuff that we pull from to do that. Sometimes it is a bass line or a changing rhythm or a sound. Sometimes I’ll just take a sound or something that for whatever reason sums up an element of what makes up the DNA of the score that I know is working, and start from that.
I think there’s a lot more leeway and a lot more license to be gotten with writing film scores nowadays. I think the [musical culture of] young directors that come on the scene is not classical. Their culture is Radiohead or Massive Attack or whatever it is that they grew up with, so there’s a familiarity sometimes when I do these things because I’ve got the same kind of cultural musical background with some of these directors.
It’s sort of osmosis; it would be more strange for me sometimes with one of these directors to sit down at the piano and say ‘This is our thematic language. This is how I’m going to interpret this in a chase scene or a love theme.’ It’s easier for them to go ‘Oh there’s that beat! Use that beat again.’ Or ‘There’s that bass line, let’s slow it down and make it grungy or make it threatening.’ So in a way I’m using the same clichés if you like, but they’re just in a different sort of language because things have changed, and we have a lot more leeway.
I like to work with young directors or first-time directors partly because of the energy they bring. I know that they’re going to have a sensibility that I can connect with. I mean, half the music I listen to is classical music, but it’s not necessarily where my head is sometimes when I’m [spotting] the movie with a young director whom you never know likes the same type of music.
If I know something’s going to be a kind of violent, edgy, testosterone driven guitar score like Armored was, then that’s where my head is completely for that space of six weeks where I’m on the movie. I will think in those terms and basically not worry too much about something being attached to each other thematically, or attached to each other rhythmically, or as rock n’ roll hooks… but you need the right director to do that; you need someone like a Nimrod Antal who can get it straight away.
MRH: You mentioned directors recognize that you have an edgy style and it’s a style that also lends itself to some really bleak stories about humanity under threat, whether it’s global, local or even on a personal scale, and it works very well, but I just wonder if there’s something from your end that you find particularly intriguing about these stories, or is it the filmmaker that finds your style matches their vision, or a bit of both?
JM: I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s a bit of both. I’ve tried to figure this out myself.
When you sit down to start a movie, you’re thinking, ‘Why the hell did they ask me to do this?’ and you get the feeling that there’s 20 or 30 other guys within a 10 mile radius that could probably be doing it better. (I live in Woodland Hills where there’s a lot of composers.)
I feel like I go into character when I do some of those movies, whereas when I do something that’s very dark or apocalyptic or it’s heavily ironic or bleak, I don’t have to think about it. I’m kind of there straight away, so I’ve come to realize that I’m more in tune with the darker or edgier type of film, and I think my best work is with those movies, and I think people kind of get that.
Ihe irony is I actually want to do very European, melodic thematic stuff as well, it’s just people don’t often ask me to do that kind of thing… I like Cinema Paradiso, Once Upon a Time in America, all the classic Morrione stuff, Nino Rota, the really heavily melodic stuff. That’s actually the stuff I love the most, but people wouldn’t think that.
I think it’s the two extremes that I’m comfortable with… The very whimsical stuff I love, and the very hardcore violent stuff I love, too.
MRH: My last question is what was it like working for Michael Mann on Miami Vice?
My impressions from interviews with composers is that he’s a very demanding director but he also has this penchant for shaping his scores to resemble work by Tangerine Dream (with Thief being the archetypal Mann score).
I always wonder if that’s something that materializes when composers work with him, or is it something that they recognize is a music style that he likes, and they try and meet those requirements but try bring their own ideas to the table?
JM: God, you could write a book about working with Michael. I mean, first off, he’s one of the best directors in the world. He operates on an incredible level, and he operates at a million miles an hour so it’s really hard to keep up with the guy.
He’s the most demanding director I’ve ever worked with, but at the same time he’s so on top of what he thinks is best for his movie. Whatever you do, it’s got to meet a requirement that’s already in place, if that makes sense. [That’s] why I think, no matter who came in to do one of Michael’s scores, at the end of the day it will always be a Michael Mann score, so you’re right about there being that signature through his scores, whether it be me or Elliot Goldenthal or whoever has ever worked with Michael.
[Michael’s] kind of got it worked out before you start, so if you can bring your own personality to that, then you’ve succeeded in some way, but you never work with Michael and turn up and have the whole idea in your head; that’s never going to happen with any composer. He knows what his movie needs before you even come on, so I think there’ll always be that signature to his scores that is purely him, because he’s on top of it so much.
Even big directors like Danny Boyle will sort of have a couple of ideas, or he’ll play a couple of songs, but then he’ll try and talk about how the film should feel; he’ll kind of lead you to it.
The same with Guy Ritchie as well, and even Stephen Frears. Those kind of directors will talk and talk and give you beautiful in-depth back-stories what the movie’s about and what the music has to achieve, but none of those guys would say ‘This has to be a piano, or this has to be this, or this has to stop here, or this has to start there.’ You’ve got a helluva lot of leeway with those directors and they’ll kind of keep you on track with it, but with Michael you’re walking into a kind of ready-made template, I think, because he’s already worked all of these things out before you’re even on board, and then he will adjust and tweak accordingly as you go through it.
It’s a very different process and it is very demanding, but I actually learned a lot working with him, the whole way he scores on film. He sees the score not in terms of three acts; he sees it as these overlapping tectonic movements and arcs that continue throughout the film, and it’s fantastic, really.
When I got what he was talking about, it’s actually an amazing strategy with music, and you see it in his other movies as well… For all of the fearful stories about him, he’s actually incredibly supportive, and he’s a pretty nice guy… He’s there when there’s a problem and he’ll talk you through it, and I really enjoyed working with him.
Learned a lot. Learned a helluva lot from him.
KQEK.com would like to thank John Murphy for his time and delightful candor, and Beth Krakower at CineMedia Promotions for facilitating this interview.
Visit the composer’s website HERE.
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This article and interview © 2010 by Mark R. Hasan
Related external links (MAIN SITE):
CD: Armored (2009)
BR/Film: Armored (2009)
Categories: Composer Interview