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Composer Interview: John Murphy

posted Oct 13, 2014, 12:57 PM by Kaya Savas
John Murphy is one of the most renowned auteur composers working in the industry. His range as a composer is undeniable as proven with such varied films like Sunshine, Kick-Ass, Snatch, Miami Vice, Millions, Friday After Next, 28 Days Later, Liam and many more. His style is instantly recognizable, and in many cases iconic such is his supremely influential score to Sunshine. For this interview we focus on his new album, Anonymous Rejected Filmscore. An album that was born from a score that was rejected. Murphy talks about the process of being rejected, which happens to every composer in this business. We discuss how the album came to be, why he decided to release it, plus more about his background and working relationships with directors.

Interview Conducted By:
Kaya Savas

Special Thanks:
John Murphy

Hi John, thanks so much for your time. Such an honor to pick your brain for a bit!

My pleasure Kaya. Thanks for doing this.

To start, since we’ve never interviewed before I would love to know how you got into film scoring. What made you choose the path of a composer versus any other musical path?

I kinda fell into it to be honest. I’d been touring and recording as a session musician, writing songs here and there, and one night in London I met a guy who said he was making a low budget film called “Leon the Pig Farmer’. I didn’t really believe him but I was drunk and he seemed like a nice guy so we ended up drinking all night. I can’t remember who asked who but by the end of the night we’d agreed that I’d write some songs for it and we swapped numbers.

Anyway, the guy was Vadim Jean and it turned out he really was making a film and he sent the script to me. I was in a band with Dave Hughes at the time and I asked him if he fancied doing the songs with me. So we wrote a bunch of songs on a 4 track cassette porta-studio, sent them in and then forgot about it. Then six months later we got a call from Gary Sinyor, the producer and writer, saying they’d listened to dozens of demos and we’d got the job to write the songs. When we met him in London he asked if we knew how to write a film score as well. We lied and said yeah. We actually didn’t have a clue so we just wrote another load of little songs instead. But the film was pretty quirky and it kinda worked. And when it started winning awards at the festivals in Europe both Vadim and Gary asked us to do their next films. At that point we thought we’d better sit down and learn how to do it properly. And that was it. We were suddenly film composers. Clueless film composers.

You have such a varied filmography, which always impresses me because no matter what genre you do, it always has your distinct musical voice behind it. 28 Days Later to me is not a horror score, it’s a John Murphy score. Sunshine isn’t a sci-fi score, it’s a John Murphy score. Do you ever look at a film like “this is a comedy, it needs this” or “this is action, it needs this”? Does the genre of the film have any effect on your approach?

Inevitably it does. But you have to be careful approaching any film with too many pre-conceived ideas. Some genres do have more rigid ‘rules’ than others, like action films for example. But you’re always looking for other ways to make things happen because often it’s the juxtaposition, or the ‘wrong’ idea that has the most impact. In 28 Days Later I was desperate to avoid writing a ‘zombie score’. I wanted the shape to be almost the opposite you know? So a lot of the really violent scenes play without music and a lot of the quiet, ‘neutral’ scenes are actually scored. But somehow it worked and I think it helped stylize the film. You just have to experiment really. There always other ways to skin the cat.

You’ve also worked with some of the greatest directors in the industry like Stephen Frears, Michael Mann, Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle. In your opinion as a composer, what makes a director good to work with?

For me it’s trust. To get through it you need to have a very open, honest relationship with your director. You need to be able to say what you think and believe what they’re telling you. There’s nothing worse than a director saying he loves something if he’s not sure, or saying something is ok if he hates it. It wastes more time than anything and it always comes back to bite you on the ass. Usually when it’s too late to do anything about it. This happens more with first time directors. The experienced guys don’t give a shit if they hurt your feelings. And they shouldn’t.

So, now you have this album, which is a rejected score. Meaning it’s not what the director or producers wanted so they passed on it. Why was it rejected in the first place? Did they fire you or did you walk away from them? What did they tell you?

It just wasn’t what they wanted so they had to fire me. It happens. The director loved it but the head of the studio wanted something very different. Stylistically it wasn’t even close.

Did you ever watch the finished film to see what they went with or is that something you wouldn’t care what they did after they passed on you?

I have to confess I haven’t seen the finished film. I’m scared to watch it in case they were right!

Every composer I’ve talked to has been rejected at some point or another, how do you take that news especially since you truly believe in the work you made?

Every film I’ve scored there’s been a point where I’ve maybe pushed it a bit too far and I’ve thought “I’m gonna get fired here…” And some films I’ve done I’ve wished they would fire me! But funnily enough I never felt it on this one. I thought I was doing something worthwhile that was working for the film. And it was a good film. I wanted to bring something original to the table. So when my agent called and said the score had been thrown out my first thought was ‘Shit. How do I fix this?’ I was only thinking of what I was gonna do next. That’s how naive I was! And then he said “and you’re fired.” And that was that. Every one of my favorite composers have had scores rejected. It’s just part of the job.

So, usually composers get rejected based on samples or demos. Was that the case here, or did you have a fully finished score like what we hear on the album? Did they ever hear the fully realized product?

No, it only existed in rough demo form. Nothing of any substance was recorded… only rough bits and pieces I’d played myself. So no, they never got to hear what it would have sounded like. But it wouldn’t have made any difference. If the tunes and ideas are not what they want, then they’re not gonna suddenly love everything just because it’s played with an orchestra and mixed properly. I’m pretty sure it was doomed from the get go.

Is this score exactly what you wrote for the film or did you work on it to mold it to be a standalone album?

The idea was to go back to the original core ideas and work from there. But once I’d opened the hood and started messing with it I decided to abandon the original constraints and just let each track become it’s own thing naturally. I wanted it to be creative, not restrictive. Tunes are like dogs. They’re always naturally pulling you one way or another. And on a film you have to keep pulling them to where the film wants to go. But that didn’t matter now. I could let them off the leash and see where they went. They could piss in the park. The original score is really just a distant cousin now.

Since the music was written for a film at some point, does that film become a permanent part of this score’s existence and musical DNA?

It’s a good question. And you would think it would. But a lot of what I’ve delivered for films comes out of ‘me’ first anyway, away from the film. Often before the film. And then I pull it apart and shape it till it works for the film. So once the score was abandoned it was natural for the score to abandon the film. It’s real core was itself. Not the film.

Now I usually ask composer’s about the approach of the score based on the film, but here can you discuss the approach at all. The goals you wanted to accomplish musically?

Every film is different and the same. I always try to write the thematic stuff first - usually away from the film. And when I feel like I have a deep enough well to draw from then I’ll start arranging it in to picture. If you have your themes together, before the drudge and politics kick in, everything becomes easier. You know what you’re working with, you can hint at them, pre-echo them, and weave everything together better. The only quirk on this one was the director wanted me to do the end of the film first, where everything was being resolved,before I had the themes in place. I think it was the only time we seriously disagreed.

But musically the goals are always the same. Make the film better. Try to do it in your own way.

What’s the significance of the cover art you chose? It’s just an image, no title or credit.

It’s actually my little boy. Charlotte took it a few years ago when we were on the bluffs in
Carpenteria. It looks like it’s been color filtered to get that weird pinky red apocalyptic sky but she actually took the picture through one of the lenses of her sunglasses.

I was originally looking for something darker, more bleak or apocalyptic… something that would work with the new ‘story’, and the character of the boy searching for his mother. Hence the little narratives you hear now and again, which in a nice bit of serendipity is Jude anyway. And as soon as I saw this I knew it was the cover. I just like that you can see that he’s struggling to get up the hill. His body is bending back from the wind, almost falling, but his head is down, fixed to the ground in a determined little way. It just felt like a nice visual metaphor for the character and the story.

Have you had a chance to read my review of the score? Is my interpretation of it close at all to what the narrative is?

I have and I loved it. It’s one of my favorite reviews. I thought the jack plug in the head was superb. And yeah, you’re very close with a lot of the submerged stuff.

So, what persuaded you to release it? Don’t most composers toss their unused stuff and move on? Why not save it for a future film?

I don’t know any composer that tosses out his unused stuff - we all try to find homes for the ‘orphans!’ Especially the ones we like. I wanted to put it out there because, even though it never made the cut, I liked it and I thought it was one of my more original efforts. And I didn’t want to save it for a future film because I didn’t want to miss out on such an opportunity. I wanted to see what happened when you reduced a score to it’s basic elements and then let it grow out again naturally. It’s not something a film composer gets the chance to do every day.

Since you released it I would think that means that this score is important to you. What does this score mean to you?

I knew it was going to be one of the more personal ones. Some scores you write kind of from the ‘inside out’ you know?… there’s a core feeling and everything you do, even if it ends up compromised or fucked up later, comes from that original core. Whereas some scores you end up having to write ‘externally’… as if you’re detached from it or looking down at it. Like you have the hood up and you’re making thousands of little tweaks to the engine just to get it to work. Just to keep everyone happy so you can get to the end and sleep. But this was one of the ‘inside out’ ones. So it meant a little more to me.

Now I know the answer will be “no”. But will you say what film it was originally composed for?

Haha! I promised the director I wouldn’t. So unfortunately, no I can’t say. Sorry Kaya.

And to wrap up, completely unrelated and something I ask every composer. If you could compose the score to any film ever made, with no disrespect to the original score or composer, which film would you choose? What would be your ideal playground to play in?

It’s a good question and it’s always difficult to answer. But ‘Sunrise’ would be one. You know the Murnau film from the 20s?… there’s just so much going on under the surface with that film. All these huge emotions shifting and crashing into one another. And yet no one says a word. That would be an amazing film to score.

There was also this surreal British kids show called Bagpuss that used to hypnotize me when I was a kid. It was set in a Victorian shop window and these dusty, broken toys would wake up and start arguing and fixing shit and singing weird songs. The music was really lo fi and fucked up. Like it was all in a dream. Me and my brother used to get up early every Saturday morning to watch it and I would go into a little trance whenever the music started.

The funny thing is, I bought the DVD a few years ago to show my kids. The kids thought it was totally shit of course, but as soon as the music started, I went all quiet and strange again. Forty years on and it had the same effect on me. Isn’t that mad? I’d give anything to score Bagpuss. It’d never be as good as the original though.

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