James Gunn films are much-lauded for their offbeat, perfectly curated soundtracks; hell, Guardians of the Galaxy practically led to the needle-drop renaissance of the last few years of blockbuster filmmaking. But one element that’s often overlooked is the way those pitch-perfect tracks overlap with his orchestral scores, weaving thematic instrumentation to fill all the moments in between cheeky needle drops with that signature mixture of droll comedy and unexpected emotion.
It’s an approach that’s certainly front and center in his latest, The Suicide Squad, which (in addition to the usual source tracks from everyone from The Pixies to Johnny Cash) sports a muscular, bombastic score courtesy of John Murphy. The self-taught Liverpudlian started out as a punk musician in the ’80s (working with The Lotus Eaters, Thomas Lang, and others) before transitioning into a career in film scoring after Guy Ritchie tapped him for the grungy, helter-skelter score to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
After a couple of decades contributing iconic music to films like 28 Days Later, Kick-Ass, and Sunshine, Murphy went on extended hiatus in 2010 — only to return with a vengeance once Gunn came a-knockin’ on his door.
The resulting score is a killer showcase for both Murphy’s love of big, bold sounds and Gunn’s tongue-in-cheek sensibilities, filled with massive walls of grunge guitars that break up into smaller, more intimate themes for each of the squad as they go on their merry, death-defying mission.
Consequence sat down with Murphy to talk about getting back into the game after a decade, collaborating with Gunn on the quirky mishmash of tones and attitudes the film (and its colorful cast of characters) needed, and composing the whole thing on a Telecaster guitar.
This is a bit of a comeback for you — spent about a decade out of the composing game in between Kick-Ass and The Suicide Squad. What were you doing during that hiatus?
I basically retired; there were a lot of reasons for it. I felt like I was repeating myself. People were really hiring me to either redo 28 Days Later or Sunshine or Lock, Stock… Everybody warned me that might happen, but I got to the point where I saw it happening. And I needed a break. Plus, I decided to homeschool one of my kids, and I wanted to spend time with my family, which was awesome. I wanted to set up my record label, too.
I started in bands in Liverpool, so it’s not like I had this grand vision to be a film composer. And then I fell into doing movies. So all these reasons came to a head and I thought, “I need to take a break here.” At first, it was just going to be a year or two off, but then I really got into writing for the sake of writing. So that extended into seven years. And it’s funny because while I was working, all they did was say, “Dad, we never see you, we miss you,” but then when they got older, they were like “Dad, you were cool when you were a film composer!” [Laughs.] But I felt like working again, so we moved house, I built a new studio and got back in the game.
Then Les Mis popped up, and I’m not a musical guy. But I love Victor Hugo and the book, so I thought that would be a good way to blow off the cobwebs. That was eight episodes, which was a good test for the new studio and getting me back in the swing of it. It was amazing, a baptism by fire. Just as I was about to start thinking about what to do next, James Gunn called me, and I didn’t have to think anymore.
And of course, you’re going from Kick-Ass to another irreverent, tongue-in-cheek, ultra-gory superhero movie.
Right, so it all worked out. The timing was perfect. And I was lucky because seven years in Hollywood is like seventy — you disappear for one year and it’s like you don’t exist. But James said he was a fan and he even used some of my tunes when he was writing, which blew me away. So he didn’t have to tell me any more; whatever it was, I was in.
So James Gunn calls you back to the fold, and you have to dust off the cobwebs, so to speak. What were the conversations you had with James about the sound, especially as I presume you wanted to avoid, as you say, repeating yourself?
Well, I love his movies, not just the Guardians stuff, but before that. He clearly understands music and has a very visceral sense of it. You can see that in his movies: the songs he picks, and how he uses them cinematically. People say, “Oh, he uses great songs,” but it’s more about how he uses them to juxtapose what’s happening or play into themes. I knew straight away that he got it. And what I knew about him was that he was incredibly passionate and fantastic to work with. He’s a brave director, you know? He goes for what he wants.
So I didn’t really go in with any preconceived musical ideas. I just thought I’d get in the room with him and hash out the tone, and I’ll get to work. I’ll try to be as brave as him, and let nothing be off the table. It was more about getting into James’ attitude when composing, but thankfully that’s pretty much what I love to do anyway: shock a bit and do something different.
Let’s talk about the music itself. It’s a big, sprawling cast in a movie that bounces between different tones and aesthetics — comedy, horror, action — with a set of characters that have very unique vibes. How did you keep them all straight? Was there an attempt to keep the sound consistent?
That’s the thing, I decided not to keep it consistent. You can do that sometimes. Going back to one of the first films I did, Lock Stock… there are some similarities there. You had this big ensemble of British actors nobody had ever heard of, and a lot of the notes from the American test screening were that people found it difficult to make out the characters, because they all speak in Cockney accents. So the idea was to have a different genre of music for each gang.
I figured that out by just asking myself what these guys would have been listening to at 15 or 16 — when music really gets into you, you know? So Lenny would have probably been into Led Zeppelin, and the young kids would have been into ska. Lock, Stock… was a score of completely disparate genres, so I knew you could do that in the right circumstances.
With The Suicide Squad, you’ve got so many characters, and they’re all exciting; it wasn’t as important to have a consistent thematic goal as it was to give them all their own sounds and just not worry about it. Polka-Dot Man, for instance, bears his soul and his heart at one point, and he’s kind of outside the squad in a way because he’s very quirky and has these very specific interdimensional powers. So why not use a sound we haven’t heard yet? I’ve got this big old analog Moog, on which I wrote something that’s very old school, and it worked straight away.
Then with King Shark, we’ve got this very unique scene where, in the middle of all the action, you’ve got this sad walking shark in Bermuda shorts looking at these tiny fish in an aquarium because he wants friends. It’s fucking hilarious. I tried to get into James’ head and how it works, and I just started playing this sad little guitar that has nothing to do with the rest of the score. Then we’ve got these innocent “la-la-las” in the score because King Shark is very innocent. I sent it to James and it made him laugh, and that was that. We approached the score as if this is a Comic Book Movie in capitals, you know? It feels like a comic book that’s on fucking steroids and rainbows.
Every ten pages, something crazy happens, so I figured, why can’t the score be like this? Where a scene can be its own thing. You need a brave director to do that, someone confident enough to let you try those things. And from the beginning, James told me to go with my gut, and he was true to his word. He was involved all the way through, on a day-to-day basis at times. But he always let me throw my craziest ideas at him and come back with his own. It was very much a collaboration.
Is there a moment in the score that feels like a quintessentially James Gunn contribution?
The end sequence, probably, which I can’t say too much about. Very few directors would have been brave enough to score a scene like that, in the way that we did it.
Yeah, if that’s the cue I’m thinking of, there’s a fundamental sweetness to it that’s perversely the right note to play. It’s a moment that also centers around Ratcatcher, who has her own very specific, distinct musical motifs.
That’s the same thing as a lot of the other characters, where we felt that she deserved her own tune. We were breaking all the rules. When you do a score, you’re supposed to sit down, work out your thematic structure, shape it out and work on each act. We just went for it, you know?
Ratcatcher’s important because she’s very much the heart of the movie. So many themes and story beats are carried through her. She was very important to James, and it was obvious that we needed to use her as an opportunity to underline the more serious stuff. You’ve got all this crazy shit going on, and it’s hilarious, but you’ve got pathos and there’s so much empathy for these characters. James is a big Morricone fan, as I famously am, so we got into that sad, acoustic guitar, and those close string chords and slow-moving emotional stuff. I’ll do that all day, I love that.
Then there are moments where you really get to shred, like the main Suicide Squad theme, which really gets a showcase during their big introduction.
My first gig was as a guitarist in a punk band; even when you move on to different things, you always have the heart. I knew James loved all that stuff too, and he was in a band as well. He was easy to talk to because we weren’t talking semiquavers and allegros and that kind of thing. We wanted this score to have attitude, that was the big thing. We’re going to scare the audience with attitude. So early on, I wanted something raw and primal. You look at these characters in the first bit of the movie, and they’re not noble superheroes. They’re scumbags. It was obvious to me that we just put a little bit of punk in there and make it rough — no orchestra, nothing sweet. But as the story progresses, and the characters and story open out, we can develop that sound.
The biggest challenge was figuring out how we got from the small, grounded beginning to the big orchestras and choirs of the end. Because even a James Gunn superhero movie has certain expectations, and we expect it to be hardcore and fun.
So the way I started was to actually write the first half on guitar, which is what I did. And normally, when you write orchestral music, you sit at the piano, have your cup of tea, and become a grownup. But I thought, fuck that, what if I just stay with the guitar and write the orchestra pieces on the guitar? The attitude might continue.
It was fun because when you’re writing on guitar, you’re in a different headspace. Your body is in a different shape. With guitar, you can walk around the room, you can turn on the amp, you can put a pedal on. I wrote about four or five orchestra pieces with guitar, and put them in a computer, and orchestrated from those ideas. It still sounded big, but it still had that attitude. James loved it, and he threw in his own ideas, and it worked great. So I just kept writing on guitar.
The real treat was when we came to record with the orchestra. That’s the real magic; I feel like a film composer when I’m with the orchestra. Up until that point, I still feel like the fucking Velveteen Rabbit. But it was amazing, all these big brass lines, and those beautiful, soulful string lines — and to think, they were written on a fucking Telecaster through a foot pedal with an amp! It’s funny how it all translated, but it was awesome, too.
That’s such a cool, innovative way of scoring.
Yeah, and for me, the guitar is how I fell in love with music. The other stuff I had to learn — I taught myself piano, how to orchestrate, how to arrange strings. And I did it in my own way. At heart, I’m still just the same shitty punk guitarist.
Now that you’ve ripped the Band-Aid off, so to speak — is John Murphy, Film Composer back for good?
That’s a good question. And it’s the question I was asking myself before I started since I just didn’t know. I figured I’d just do this movie and see how I felt. And through doing the movie, I fell back in love with it. I really did. That’s thanks to not just James but the producers as well, Peter Safran and Simon Hatt, who were really supportive and there with James all the way through. It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie. At the end of any movie I’m usually a heap, I’m just exhausted. But not with this one, it definitely brought the love back. I already know what I’m doing next, but I just can’t say yet.
The Suicide Squad hits theaters and HBO Max on August 6th.