Scottish composer Paul Leonard-Morgan has seen his career go from strength-to-strength since winning a BAFTA for his first short film score in 2000. As well as his work on hit BBC series Spooks and 2011 thriller, Limitless, Leonard-Morgan most recently scored comic book adaptation, Dredd. As Dredd arrives on DVD, Jonathan Melville spoke to the musician about his work which sees him split his time between Scotland and Los Angeles.
Jonathan Melville: Let’s go back to the beginning – are you able to pinpoint where and when your interest in music began?
PL-M: My mum was a music teacher, so I was always surrounded by music. Particularly flute and piano music as that’s what she plays. I studied piano, violin and recorder. Everyone always laughs at the recorder part of that, but recorders are cool. Try shoving that through a few distortion pedals and see what happens…
What musicians did you listen to when you were growing up? Were you a fan of any particular film composers?
I used to listen to bands like Boomtown Rats, The Beatles and The Clash. 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.
Was attending the RSAMD (Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) always your plan after leaving school? Did your course allow you to specialise in any particular areas?
My mother is Scottish and we used to drive up from South England to spend our school holidays here. So when I was 18 it was a no-brainer for me to come and study music at the RSAMD. I studied Film Music in particular, but got involved with all sorts of composing, orchestrating and arranging. I thought I’d just come up here for three years, but instead have been in Glasgow ever since. Why move? I love it.
Were you heavily into the Scottish music scene around this time? Did you start to work with any musicians/bands while at the RSAMD?
The band scene in Glasgow was, and still is, so vibrant. It was just after leaving RSAMD that I started working with the guys from Belle and Sebastian, Snow Patrol, Simple Minds, Texas, Isobel Campbell, Horse, Craig Armstrong, etc. All the bands recorded in this great studio called Cava, which was in a beautiful old converted church. It was definitely the right time to be doing music in Glasgow. It also helped that all the bands hung out in the same pubs. Great times, and made some fantastic friends.
How would you describe your musical style?
My album “Filmtales” is probably the best indicator of my own style. I like mixing beats with orchestra, trying to create melodies which don’t necessarily fit in one genre. Having said that, I’m really into distorted bass lines at the moment. I find that after I’ve finished an orchestral score, I need to go and muck around with dirty sounds to get my head back in gear. I like contrasts.
How did you move into scoring film and TV?
While I was studying at RSAMD, I got my first TV composition project for a Scottish TV show about football. It just built up from there. I began doing lots of different work for TV and smaller films, then got a BAFTA for the first short film I’d done. This helped me get some longer TV series and bigger films.
To me, and increasingly in LA, there’s not such a dividing line between TV and film. The quality of both is such that directors, as well as composers, cross the line and do both. I think sometimes I prefer film because you can do less to create more with score – a simple sound here and there can have a dramatic impact, simply because of the sound system in a cinema. With TV, you need to think about how it will sound coming out of a 1950s TV, not just the latest and greatest surround sound system.
Do you have a standard approach for each project – reading the script, meeting the director, etc – or does it change each time?
It’s different each time. Sometimes you’ll be given a script, sometimes a rough edit of the project, sometimes it starts with a simple chat with the director and producer. I’ll often be sent a rough cut of the film and asked to give them my vision of how the score will work with the film. Is it electronic, orchestral, sparse, full-on? What’s the purpose of the music in the film?
Getting onto the same creative wavelength with the director is the most important thing. Talking through the project with them, getting to grips with it and discussing how you might approach it, that’s the key. Having time with the director and exec producers is really valuable, when they like what you plan to do, then you blow them away with it, that’s the buzz.
What was the process of working on the TV series, Spooks? Did you have much scope for making your own mark on it?
The process of working on a series like Spooks was, in a word, hectic!
I had seen the first 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 three and four, 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 four, 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 in 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. From my point of view, 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 four 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 first 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 do two episodes (blocks), and while they were editing theirs, the next director would be doing his block. I would get on average two weeks to score each episode, including mixing and recording any instruments we needed. The producers would joke that Spooks seemed to have about 61 minutes of music for each 58 minutes show, such was the style of it, so it was pretty crazy!
In the past few years you’ve started working on bigger budget films, such as Limitless and most recently, Dredd. How did these projects come about?
Limitless was an awesome film. It came about when my manager in New York called and said would I like to pitch for it. They sent me a cut of it to Glasgow and it blew me away. 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.
When I spoke with Neil Burger (the director), it was great, because he wanted a really different vibe of a score. I was given a few key scenes to score, so I created sounds and little motifs to indicate what as going on in the characters brain when he takes this drug. Neil liked what I’d done, so I got the gig. It was a great project – 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!
When Dredd came up I had finished scoring Limitless a few months earlier, which had been No.1 at the box office worldwide. I had gone in and had a chat with the producers and they liked where I was coming from with my vision for the film.
Where do you work these days? In Glasgow or LA?
I split my time between LA and Glasgow. I love both places. LA has a great vibe to it, it is buzzing with people and possibilities. I feel really creative composing in my studio there, I can spend time at the beach or along the pier. It’s a totally different way of life than in Glasgow. I love Glasgow, it’s my home. I am able to create here too, but trips out of the studio to clear my head are limited to the park or Loch Lomond rather than the beach.
How did you approach the soundtrack for Dredd? Were you a fan of the character before starting on the project?
I was always a fan of Dredd. I’m not a huge fanboy, but I grew up with Dredd. He’s such an iconic character. He’s a bad-ass who sees things in black and white. He’s not a traditional super-hero in the Hollywood sense, but more a mix of Robocop and Dirty Harry. Dangerous and edgy, not a nice, safe super-hero.
I had gone in and had a chat with the film’s 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. I was given totally free-reign composing it, and collaborated really closely with Alex as to what style would suit the Dredd world.
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 creative partnership. It puts you through the mill over four months, but 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.
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What instruments did you use for your score?
I wanted to create a really gritty, urban score for the film, not a typical Hollywood, glossy score. I pictured a sound which fitted a future set in 100 years time, so traditional orchestra went out the window. My first pass of the entire score was a pretty full-on electric guitar vibe, but it was too safe and overly-produced. So I took those guitars and started chopping them up, time-stretching them, detuning them, putting them through FX, til they were virtually unrecognizable.
Then I added some orchestra, but that made it too glossy. Next pass I started incorporating a whole load of 80s electronica vintage gear, which is when the score really started to take shape. I got out all my vintage keyboards and moogs and put them through tons of FX, then making the drums more trancy, then finally recording real drums to layer over the top. So it was a real creative adventure!
How long did the project last? Was there much discussion director Pete Travis about the style?
Overall I took four 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.
In amongst all the savage brutality of Dredd’s world you have Ma-Ma’s theme, which doesn’t seem to tally with how we see the character on screen, the music is almost ethereal while the character is plain nasty. What was your inspiration there?
When we see Ma-Ma in these Slo-mo sequences it is an opportunity to break out of the darker Dredd universe for a moment. Instead of seeing Ma-Ma as a brutal character, I wanted to try and convey what might be going through her head. Whilst she is an evil person, her back story was incredibly sad and poignant, so I wanted to detach her from the reality of Mega City One. If I could show how in her head she’s so self-obsessed that she doesn’t care about anyone else, that she’s emotionally isolated, then it would emphasize her brutality when she snaps out of her world and into the darkness of Peach Trees.
I used this incredible new timestretch software called Paul. I composed and recorded new tracks with real instruments, and then slowed them down by thousands of percent to match the vibe of the visuals, adding some realtime score over the top of it. So one second of written score could end up lasting 10 minutes. It sounds weird, but it creates some truly beautiful sounds. Really ethereal. It takes you to a completely different world. Getting to do experimental things like this in a film score isn’t something that happens every day, so it was really exciting pushing back the boundaries.
Although the film did well at the UK box office and managed to please genre fans, it seems that Dredd 2 is far from guaranteed. Have you heard anything about a sequel?
It was UK box office No 1, but better than that was that the fans seemed to like it. I’ve been blown away by how many people have got in contact on Facebook and Twitter and said how much they loved the score. That’s what Alex, the producers and I wanted to do – create a film that did the character justice and that the fans liked. After all, it was being made by people that really cared about the character.
I have not heard anything about a sequel, but if Dredd returns to the big screen I would love to join him.
Your career is certainly varied, including writing the US Olympic Anthem and working with Disney on a new ride. How did those projects come about?
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 their olympic athletes. 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 sessions.
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.
As for Disney, they were doing a new ride at the Epcot centre in Orlando. They had temped up some Limitless and Dredd and really liked the futuristic vibe of it. (It’s called Test Track, and you get to design and ride your own car at 60mph). So they approached me to create a score for the ride. It was incredible fun. Creating music and mixing for over 400 speakers throughout the ride. We were mixing in December in the middle of the night, when the park was closed, riding at 60mph while the crazy Imagineers were coding on their laptops and mixing wirelessly. Crazy stuff!
Your music features up in a lot of different places, from TV ads to trailers – do you ever get surprised when it pops up unexpectedly?
My publishers, EMI, normally give me warning when tracks are going to be used in ads. But yes, it’s cool when you switch on the TV and hear one of your tracks. The recent placement in the Paramount trailer for Michael Bay’s new film, Pain & Gain, was great, as it brings your music to a wider audience. Apparently one of my tracks was used on the Playboy channel recently. Obviously, I never saw it…
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Would you like to work on more Scottish films and TV?
Definitely! There have been some awesome dramas and films coming out of Scotland in the last few years (The Angels’ Share, Neds, Single Father). I have worked on quite a few in the past, such as the iconic A History Of Scotland, which was scored over two years. I am proud to be Scottish and have my home in Scotland, so working on anything here is great.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well after bringing in the New Year by rather unexpectedly delivering my new baby daughter on the bathroom floor, I’m taking a few weeks off. Then I’ve just signed up to score some new animations for Universal Films, so really excited about that. I might also be writing a ballet in the US throughout the year, which will be awesome if it happens – we’re trying to make the dates work at the moment.