by Tom Hoover

Released October 19th, 2009

 John Murphy is absolutely one of my favorite composers to speak with. In our first conversation, the interview for The Last House on the Left, he was as personable and informative as any composer I had spoken with before. His wealth of knowledge about the projects he’s worked on and the directors he’s collaborated with is greatly interesting.
John’s not afraid to take chances with his music. As is often the case, his creative contributions have greatly benefitted the films he has worked on and makes for excellent listening experiences apart from them. Who can ask for more?
In the following interview, John lets us know what makes him tick as a composer. He also shares his experiences with Academy Award winning director, Danny Boyle, and the legendary, Guy Ritchie from his collaborations with each.
Overall, this is segments offers great insight on one of the top film composers from the U.K…


Tom: I'd like to start our discussion off with The Last House on the Left. What were some of the scoring opportunities about this film that interested you?

John: Initially the thing that interested me was working with Dennis. I'd seen Hardcore, which was his first film, and thought he'd done some pretty interesting things with the music. So I had a feeling that he wasn't gonna want a typical kind of horror score you know... that maybe he'd let me try something a bit different . And he had that kind of European sensibility that always gets me. So we met up, and before he showed me the film, we talked about how generic and predictable a lot of horror scores are nowadays compared to how they were in the old days. And then we talked about doing the score in a more organic and melodic way ... kinda like a lot of early American horror films were done. You know, like Rosemary's Baby. And when he showed me a few scenes, it was nothing like I expected. It had this kinda cool European pacing and it just looked beautiful.
For me, the main thing is always the director. If he's gonna be brave with his film then he's gonna be brave with the music, you know? Which means I might have more opportunities to do something a bit different. And for me, that's the most exciting thing about scoring films... how far we can push it.

Tom: I read in your CD liner notes that the combination of beauty and dread, elements that are presented in this film, are specific components that you enjoy writing for. What is it about that blend that you find creatively interesting?

John: I think it's kind of a personality problem that comes out in some of my stuff. I've always tended to learn towards extremes in most art to be honest. I passionately love the really melodic and lyrical stuff by Ennio Morricone and John Barry and Nina Rota... but at the same time I'm still drawn to the really dark or atonal stuff you know. With certain films, I just feel that I can bring more to the table when I'm trying to hit those two polar opposites. Because at some point they kind of become the same thing. You can sometimes see the beauty in something in a more cinematic way if the music is dark and unsympathetic... and sometimes you feel more horror and dread if the music is innocent and lyrical. I like it when scores do that... when the music juxtaposes what's happening on the screen but actually it's heightening it emotionally. Morricone and Bernard Herrmann were fantastic at doing that.
I think I just feel more comfortable working with those two extremes. I can be in either of those two worlds without forcing it so it's easier to write that kind of that stuff. I don't have to over-think it.

Tom: Does it ever become a bit of a chore or challenge to labor through more of a mainstream project as opposed to a film you're more comfortable with, like The last House on the Left?

John: To be dead honest, yeah it does! You know, a lot of times, you just don't get the chance to do the films you really want to do. And you can't just sit around and wait for films like 28 Days Later or Sunshine to come around... you gotta pay the bills! So sometimes that means doing something a little more mainstream, but that's cool. It's not like I'm gonna do something I hate or work with someone I know is an a**hole. Though that never stopped me in the past. [Laughs]
I'm a working composer and I'll never take that for granted. So sometimes I have to just get my head down and do something a bit more mainstream and just be challenged by that. But yes, it's definitely more difficult. It's just a lot easier for me when I don't feel like I'm out of character you know? And I feel more in tune with something like 28 Days later than say… a romantic comedy or something.
The few times I've worked on that type of film, Like Guess Who for example I had this horrible feeling that there were 20 other guys within a mile of me that would be doing it better! And nobody wants to feel like they're faking it you know?... even when they are. So yeah, I'm much happier with the edgy stuff. I don't have to think about it too much.

Tom: Absolutely! And I'm glad you brought up 28 days Later in your response because I would like to ask you how influential you think that film has been for the modern horror genre?

John: When we were doing it, as much as we loved it, I don’t think we thought it was going to be anything other than this cool little, thinking man's zombie road movie! And to be honest, when you're working on a film, you're so involved in the making of it, that it doesn't occur to you that what you're doing at that very moment might actually influence other films in the future. You just want to do it as good as you can and get to the finish line in one piece. Then of course, it came out and everyone went crazy and it kind of rebooted the zombie genre. It's only now, years later, that it's dawned on me how influential it has been to that genre. And I think
it might have made a lot of young filmmakers realize that there are other ways to approach films in this genre and other ways to frighten and disturb audiences without resorting to the usual schlock horror style. That and the fact that it was Danny Boyle... I think it may have given a few new filmmakers a bit more confidence to be a little braver. So yeah, I think it's definitely left its mark.

Tom: You've collaborated with Director Danny Boyle on multiple occasions. How open is he to expressing new and creative musical ideas when it comes to your work?

John: Danny's about as open and brave with music as you would ever want a director to be. I think he's the only director I've ever worked with that I couldn't shock [laughs]. You know, he'll talk and talk about how he wants the film to feel, the backstory of the characters and the themes within the film itself. He'll talk about everything to do with the film apart from how I should do the music. He's never once said to me "this has to be this kind of track" or "this has to be strings"... or piano or whatever. He doesn't really work like that. After he's overloaded my head with the film, he basically leaves me alone to try things out myself, so when he comes back to hear stuff, he comes in with a completely open mind, never knowing what the hell he's going to hear. And if he hates something he'll just say it. But when he gets excited about a track, he gets excited! Especially if it's something he didn't expect.
A good example is the end, or the climax, of 28 Days Later.... you know, the crazy blood-fest in the house. Most directors would have been screaming for me to do one of those hundred mile an hour syncopated action things you know... but we ended up going with this slow guitar groove that went off on this seven minute grungy crescendo. I don't think I would have had the confidence to play that to any other director. But he loved it. In fact he went back in and re-cut the scene longer after he heard it, which is something very few directors will do.
So yeah, to be given this whole level of understanding of the film, and the confidence and... license to experiment and get there in my own way... you don't know how rare that is. It's no coincidence that that’s why my most original stuff has been for his films. He gave me the chance to do what I wanted first. And a lot of composers don’t get that opportunity.
Seriously nice guy too.

Tom: Another notable director you've worked with is Guy Ritchie. Can you describe what his style was like when you scored his films?

John: Guy's a one-off, you know... and great to work with in a completely different way. Very dynamic... very single-minded. And he's another one who kind of leaves me to it till he comes in to hear stuff. So he's similar to Danny in that respect... but other than that, in terms of how they deal with music, they couldn't be more different to be honest. But, you know, there are reasons for that. Guy's films are very character-driven, so it's all about each character having his own theme, his own flavor, as opposed to the film itself having bigger themes. He doesn't really worry about the film thematically as long as the characters have their own musical identity. Which is a weird way to construct a score to be honest, but somehow it works in his movies. For example, there's no main theme in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. So It's all about the comedy with him. And because so much of the comedy in his films is in the dialogue and in the rhythm of the dialogue, it's all about the beats in the music... by which I mean the ins and outs and the pauses, not beats as in drums or percussion. And the tempo of the music is critical in his films because it has to groove along with the non-stop dialogue rather than drive it. You don't drive Guy's films... you groove along with them! And I'm totally cool to do that. It's easy to become obsessed with the mechanics of a score and how it's working thematically, you know... but we just don't get into that on his films. He doesn't really care about all that shit. He's very instinctive as a director, so if something feels right to him, then it's right. He doesn't over-think it or question it beyond that. So in that respect, he's very easy to work with.
So it's all about the flavor and the rhythm of the score with him... the tempo, the spaces you leave and where you come back in. And how it all works alongside the comedy, without ever having to resort to 'funny music'. And somehow it all works.
But you do have to throw the rule book away when you work with him. Which is cool with me.
To be honest, I wish we could have done more films together, but I don't hear about it till it's too late and I'm already on another film. Usually one of Danny's funnily enough.
But Guy's a good lad. And funny. Nothing like the surly, serious feller people thinks he is.

Tom: There's something to be said about directors who have a clear vision about what is expected from your music and I suppose that makes your job easier too.

John: Yeah, there's nothing worse than coming onto a film and you suddenly find out that the dynamic director you took the meeting with, hasn't actually worked out what he wants the music to do in his film. You play them something and they're not sure how they feel about it because they're not sure what they want. So at some point you have to take control and say "OK... we've got one shot at this. If you know what you want, tell me. If not, let me just do it." And I've been on films where the director has been too nice to just lay out what he really wants, and it's always ended up a mess.

Tom: Best to be upfront, get it all out, so you can do what you do best.

John: Yeah, when you have deadlines, you have to be straight with each other from the off... you're gonna have an intense 6 weeks with this person and there's just not enough time to be polite with each other. If you hate it, tell me now so I can do something about it before it's too late. Some guys get it but the guys who don't... well it usually ends up a disaster.

Tom: [Laughs] That's not the goal, I'm sure.

John: No.

Tom: As we near the end of our discussion, I want to take a moment to compliment you on your portfolio of work, and specifically, your score for the heartwarming film, Millions. Can you share your recollections from that film?

John: To be honest, I loved doing Millions. It's actually one of my favorite scores I've done believe it or not. I love it when I can just sit down at a piano and write simple tunes without having to be ironic or cynical or cool. I just don't often get the chance to do it because I think people see me as the edgy guy, you know
... And there's something about writing from a child's perspective that I love. Liam was the same, the film I did with Stephen Frears, which was also from a kid's perspective. I just think you get more freedom to write heartfelt music with this kind of film and not be embarrassed about it, you know. I just don't usually get asked to write those type of scores unfortunately.

Tom: Indeed, I do want to compliment you on that score because it is one of my favorite works of yours.

John: Cheers Tom, I appreciate that.

Tom: What does the rest of 2009 look like for you?

John: The next film out (for me) is Armored, directed by Nimrod Antal. It's a cool, little heist movie with Jean Reno and Matt Dillon. I got to do a lot of crazy overdriven guitar tracks, frantic stuff, lots of feedback and stuff like that. I love doing that shit. The exact opposite of Millions a pretty volatile little score but I like it.

Tom: Has some attitude to it, sounds like.

John: Yeah. It's got a lot of balls. And there's a nice crescendo shape to a lot of the scenes, which is something I obviously love doing. It's a cool little film, very tight and edgy. Nimrod is a pretty exciting young director.
But work wise.... And I've got an exclusive here for you Tom. I'm actually going to take the rest of the year off to put out some of my own stuff.

Tom: Nice!

John: Yeah, I can't wait. No one knows yet. Just you, my wife and my guys [laughs].

Tom: It's a close circle [laughs]

John: Yeah. I've been promising myself I would do this for a couple of years. I'm actually setting up my label now. And to be honest with you, I think I prefer some of this stuff to a lot of my film stuff. Sometimes you've just got to stop and do something for yourself you know. As much as you get a lot of creative freedom with this job - and I seem to get a hell of a lot more freedom than most guys I know – you still have to give the guys who are paying you what they want. And it gets frustrating sometimes when you have to butcher something you like for the sake of the scene or the film. But that’s what you have to do. So I'm taking a few months off to get some of that stuff out my system. That's what I'm going to be doing for the rest of the year. That, and playing legos with the kids.