Composer of Dredd – Interview with Paul Leonard-Morgan

This time we asked Paul Leonard-Morgan, who scored Limitless last year, and he is still in the spotlight with the music of Dredd. The Scottish composer's name appears on many other film credits, including documentary, television series or motion pictures, and he is also the composer of the Anthem of the US Olympic Team. 

Please tell us how did a Scottish boy become a film composer? Which composers and works did the greatest influence on you?

My mother was a music teacher, so I was always surrounded by music. Particularly flute and piano music as that's what she plays. My mother is Scottish and we used to drive up from South England to spend our school holidays here. So when I was 17 it was a no-brainer for me to come and study music at the RSAMD (Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama). After studying Film Music in Glasgow for 3 years I thought "why would I want to live anywhere else?"

The first film music that I remember was the classic Ennio Morricone scores to the Spaghetti Westerns, and also the Mancini scores to the Pink Panther. But perhaps the score that I remember most inspiring me to become a composer was Morricone's The Mission. The gorgeous simplicity of the oboe solos, the lush building strings – still one of my favourites.

The beginning of your career you have worked with Craig Armstrong as a musical director and arranger. How did you turn those experiences to your advantage?

Craig and I used to have studios next door to each other in Glasgow, so I got to know him whilst he was working on Plunkett and Macleane, and then The Bone Collector. He already has an orchestrator that he uses for most of his stuff, but at this point he was working on The Clearing and didn't have time to do both. Craig knew my style, and I had just been on tour with him as well. So Craig would give me the main themes and the midi files, and then I would put these themes into fully orchestrated cues. I also conducted the score in Dublin. I don't tend to do orchestrations for other people, as I find composing much more rewarding from a creative point of view, but working with Craig is both an honour and huge fun.

Your latest work is the score of a comic adaptation Dredd. How did you get involved in this project? 

I had finished scoring Limitless a few months earlier, which had been No.1 at the Box Office world-wide. I had gone in and had a chat with the producers, Andrew MacDonald and Allon Reich, and the writer, Alex Garland. We got chatting about musical styles, and how I might treat Dredd. It's such an awesome project to be involved with – Dredd's such an iconic character. I was given totally free-reign composing it, and collaborated really closely with Alex as to what style. He would let me do my own thing, and then pull out parts of the score that he loved after hearing each pass, and we would take those parts and then head in a different direction. I love working in this way, as it's a true creatve partnership. By bouncing ideas off each other throughout you end up in a sonic world which you would never get to by yourself. And it's such a buzz.

Were you given free-hand when composing, and did you use any temp score?

The only temp score we stuck closely to as a concept was the slow-downed tracks on the Slo-Mo sequences. They had used slowed down Justin Bieber (don't laugh) as a concept, and it worked really well. So the challenge was then to create our own version of it which fit in with our own style, but also had the same effect as the temp.

How long did this electronic-based score take to write? What were your first ideas, and how did you develope them to the final version?

Overall I took 4 months to score it, which is a total luxury! But having this amount of time also meant that we were able to explore different sounds and sonic landscapes, without having to just stick with the first idea. For example, my first pass of the entire score was a pretty full-on electric guitar vibe. Then I took those guitars and started chopping them up, me-stretching them, detuning them, putting them through fx, til they were virtually unrecognizable. Then I added some orchestra, but that amde it too glossy. Next pass I started incorporating a whole load of 80's electronica vintage gear, which is when the score really strated to take shape. Next up was taking that gear and putting it through tons of fx, then making the drums more trancy, then finally recording real drums ot layer over the top. So it was a real creative adventure!

In the 90's there was a movie about Dredd, which had a score composed by Alan Silvestri. Did you feel some kind of pressure because of this?

No, not at all – I haven't actually seen that movie and when I told the producers this, they told me not to. What we've strived to make in this film is a completely unique, bold and modern experience. And I reckon we've done that – it's completely different to any film and score I've seen or heard before.

Your very first score Pineapple received a BAFTA award, and Fallen also got a nomination. What are you thinking about these awards?

The BAFTA had a great impact. Not so much in the amount of work that it got me straight away, but more in the fact that it enabled me to get meetings with directors and producers who might not otherwise meet up. In the end, people are never going to use you just because you have awards - they will use you on the strength of your music and creativity – but it helped me back then to get people to listen to my music, and raised my profile. For me, it was more about the fact that my peers liked my score. I suppose it was an affirmation of my belief in that was a really strong soundtrack. 

You are the composer of numerous episodes of Spooks. Could you tell us some words about the working process of creating the musical background?

A series like Spooks is, in a word, hectic! I had seen the 1st season of Spooks, that Jennie Muskett had scored, and remember thinking that she had done some really great stuff with the music. Jennie hadn't actually scored any of the music for series 3 and 4, as far as I'm aware, they had a music editor chopping up all her old cues. I got a call about a couple of scenes that they were having problems with in series 4, and I mocked them up. They loved them, but were unable to use them contractually. However the following year they called up and asked me to come and have a chat!

When I went in to talk to Andrew Woodhead and Simon Crawford Collins (the producer and exec since day one), their initial idea was to use Jennie's music for about half the episode, and for me to score/smooth over the edits, and bring it a bit more up-to-date. I felt that it would work better, and also be more creatively satisfying to work on, if I could score the whole thing. It's a big leap of faith, having had the same music for 4 years, to go with something new, and I respect them enormously for having the courage to do this. So really the only brief for the first year was to not stray too far from Jennie's established Spooks style. Which, of course, I proceeded to ignore...!

All jokes aside, I think it's very difficult to try and imitate someone else's style. Jennie's music had worked so well for her episodes, I couldn't see the point of imitating it.

I remember getting a call from Simon, the exec, after he had heard the 1st episode saying "You've hit the nail on the head. It doesn't sound too alien to Spooks, yet sounds more contemporary and filmic". Which then gives you the belief as a composer to carry on and do some really original stuff.

Each director would shoot and edit 2 episodes (they're called Blocks in the UK). So I would sit down and spot with the director and series producer and spot 2 episodes at the same time. I'd then go away and do a first pass and post it to the sound guys on my ftp site. DVD's then got sent to various people (there were 4 execs on it as well as director and series producer), and then we'd talk through any feedback. I was fortunate to have a really trusting team, and they allowed me to go with my instinct. I would say that 85% of the first pass was normally spot on.

When I agreed to do Spooks, I wanted to make the music more cinematic. By that, I mean less short scene-joining scenes. What it's meant is that you get some fantastic opportunities to write 8 minute chase sequences, which I can't see happening on any other UK television series. It also meant that directors then created these really long sequences to score, which was great. However, it meant that there was about an hour's worth of music in each hour episode – so it was a lot of hard work!

The music of a BBC natural history called Galápagos is one of your most beautiful scores. How did you get involved in this project? What do you think: is a natural history better for inspiration than a motion picture?

The producer of Galapagos had heard some tracks from my album, Filmtales, and was aware of my soundtrack work already from various dramas. He wanted to do something really different with this production. The Blue Planet had just come out, and done phenomenally well worldwide. Galapagos was to be only the second ever series shot in HD, and was absolutely epic. I was approached, given tons of information on the programme and the team. It was such a lovely thing to do, to be asked to be involved in a project, and them giving me background on the producers, etc, to get me on board – it's normally the other way around with a composer convincing a producer to hire them!.

I have such fond memories of this project, such a fantastically close-knit team working on it. I remember the cameraman telling me how he was stuck next to an erupting volcano, with his shoes melting, and the helicopter was taking an age to get to him. I congratulated on him on his zoom lenses to get such amazing shots of the lava flowing. He informed me that they weren't zoom lenses – he was that close to the action.

Natural History and Motion Picture are both pretty similar, in that you're scoring for characters. It just so happens that in Natural History, the characters are animals, or in the case of Galapagos, the islands themselves. You're still trying to create an emotional attachment between the audience and and screen. I love them both equally, but I would say that with Natural History scores, there's normally a lot more space for you to be expansive with your music, and have themes riding really high in the mix. With film score, it's often a case of underpinning the emotion and drama, rather than taking over the sequence.

You composed music for some other historical documentaries (for example A History of Scotland). Did you research some ancient music or melodies of the specific periods?

I had to carry out a fair bit of research, as the series starts some 5000 years ago. Finding out that pipes and tin whistles weren't really around until 200 years ago was cool. They had this fantastically weird throat singing in the Highlands 1000 years ago – remarkably similar to the Aborigines and Australia, and also found in South Africa. And the drums were incredibly primitive and tribal, so the first hour's score was pretty radical.

We had intentionally decided that we wanted to steer clear of your typical "Tartan" soundtrack that you might expect to accompany films to do with Scotland – no bagpipes allowed! Instead we just wanted to create a really lush and poignant score. The score has gone down so well – it's incredibly cinematic.

Your career has a very wide variety of genres; you already composed symphonical scores as well as lighter or wilder electronic music. Which genre is the most preferred for you?

I like them all! I've got a pretty short attention span, which is why I like producing bands as well as scoring soundtracks. They all have an impact on each other. The main thing for me is that I like the project. That means that I can then really get into the music, and that's where the buzz comes from for me. Whether it's pounding beats, like Dredd and Limitless, or glorious orchestra, like in Galapagos or A History of Scotland, I just love getting immersed in music. A crossover is often my favourite way to go.

How did you become the composer of Limitless and what instructions did director Neil Burger give you about the music?

Limitless was an awesome film. Sometimes when you watch a film for the first time, you just know it's going to be a hit. It was like that with Limitless. And when I spoke with Neil Burger it was great, because he wanted a really different vibe of a score. The main character took a drug which made him incredibly bright and able to use all of his brain, so I created sounds and little motifs to indicate what as going on in his brain. Recording orchestras, reversing them and making them sound odd. And being encouraged to be as off-the-wall as possible, but at the same time really modern and tuneful. That's a challenge, but wicked fun!

What is your opinion: how difficult to get a job in Hollywood for a young and unknown composer? What are the ways to receive more and more offers?

There seem to be a million talented young composers in Hollywood, but you also need to bear in mind that the film industry isn't just in LA. The most important thing is to stay true to yourself. Don't try and imitate other people, just becasue that happens to be the popular style at the moment. Write stuff that is honest to yourself as a composer, because then people will see what your true worth as a composer is. You've got to love writing/producing music first and foremost, rather than trying to score a picture for the sake of it. You've got to ask yourself why it is that you're trying to do this job.

ne is harder: a blockbuster with unlimited budget where you can use anything you want (large orchestra, soloists, choir), but the producers tell you exactly what you have to do, or a low budget, independent movie with no financial background, but you have free hands to compose?

They're the same but different. With a larger budget, you get to try out more things, and use more real instruments, whether it's orchestra, guitar, bass, drums, whatever. However you often can't be as experimental on those films. (Dredd being the exception, rather than the norm.) On a low budget, you've really got to think about what you can achieve on that budget. Is it a string quartet, is it solo piano, etc. They've all got their limitations and trade-off.

You composed the Anthem of the U.S. Olympic Team. How did you get this request and how much time did you have to compose it?

I was asked to compose it by the US Olympic Committee in 2007. The USOC had heard some of my previous music, and asked me to write a piece of music which reflected the spirit of the athletes, and optimism and belief which they have. Just thinking of an athlete getting up at 5am every day, for years on end, just for a 10 second sprint or a throw of a javelin as the end target, that was inspiration in itself. They are incredible.

I scored it in a day, and they loved it. After that it was a case of developing the theme, orchestrating it, then flying them all over from the US to Scotland for the recording session. It was a fantastic experience, and one which took me to Colorado Springs to premiere it in front of Olympic Gold medallists. That was an experience I will never forget. Truly humbling.

This anthem is released on your solo album called Filmtales. How did you compose the tracks and what are the differences between Filmtales and common film scores?

Filmtales was an album I had always wanted to make but never had the time. All the bands I worked with were always saying I should do my own thing, so in the end I took a couple of months out and just wrote an album. I got some of the artists that I had worked with (like Isobel Campbell from Belle and Sebastian and Steve Mason from the Beta Band) to collaborate on MY stuff, rather than the other way round. And then I composed some instrumentals. It was always a pet prject which was supposed to just be a creative release for me (as opposed to trying to match someone else's vision). It was awesome when people started playing it and buying it – that was never the intention of it, but really cool knowing that people like my own style, as opposed to one that I'm composing for other people.

To know more about Paul Leonard-Morgan's work, please visit the composer's official website.


November 24th, 2012
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