Interview: Paul Leonard-Morgan

PaulleonardmorganwebScreen composer Paul Leonard-Morgan is one of Hollywood’s most in demand screen composers.

Best known for scoring hit films Dredd and Limitless, since graduating from Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music, he’s been constantly sought after by Hollywood producers, and more recently video game makers for his on point music and scoring techniques.

He was nominated for a BAFTA and an Ivor Novello award for his score to the ITV drama Fallen and worked on hit series Spooks before transferring his skills to the big screen. Now he’s busying himself with Battlefield Hardline. Paul reveals the challenges of writing music for such a popular video game…

How did you first get into music?

My mum’s a music teacher, so I was always surrounded by music. She’s an awesome flautist and piano player. (I get to use her on loads of my soundtracks!).

The first film music I remember were the classic Ennio Morricone scores to the spaghetti westerns and Mancini’s Pink Panther. Morricone’s The Mission made me want to be a composer. The gorgeous simplicity of the oboe solos, the lush building strings – it’s still one of my favourites.

When did you get your big break?

While I was studying I got my first TV composition project for a Scottish TV show about football. It just built from there. I began doing different work for TV and smaller films, then got a BAFTA for the first short film I did. This helped me get a TV drama – ITV’s Fallen – this was nominated for an Ivor and a BAFTA. Then Spooks came along, which was a huge hit, and things just started to get pretty busy.

To me, and increasingly in LA, there’s no dividing line between TV and film. The quality of both is such that directors, as well as composers, do both. Sometimes I prefer film because you can do less to create more with a score – a simple sound here and there can have a dramatic impact, just because of the sound system in a cinema.

You won a BAFTA award for your first film Pineapple. How did you find the project?

The directors, Huw Davies and Nigel Atkinson, are the kind of guys that would do everything themselves on their film if they could. But fortunately for me, music was one of the few areas they couldn’t.

As it was my first film, I contacted the Musicians Union to see if they could help fund some string players, as I imagined a really intimate, cinematic score. They amazingly agreed, so I got to use 12 strings on my first score.

How did you get the gig for scoring Limitless?

Sometimes when you first watch a film, you just know it’s going to be a hit. It was like that with Limitless.

The main character takes a drug, which makes him incredibly bright, and able to use all of his brain. I created sounds and little motifs to indicate what was going on in his mind. Recording orchestras, reversing them and making them sound odd.

I was encouraged to be as off-the-wall as possible, but at the same time really modern and tuneful. That’s a challenge, but great fun. I had been doing some programming on No Doubt’s album and had all these analogue synths lying around. I was already in the zone for electronic madness.

You also worked on comic book adaptation, Dredd – how did you approach this project?

After Limitless, I had a meeting with producers, Andrew MacDonald and Allon Reich, and the writer, Alex Garland. It was such an awesome project to be involved with – Dredd’s such an iconic character. I was given totally free-reign composing and collaborated really closely with Alex on style. He would let me do my own thing, then pull out parts of the score that he loved after hearing each pass.

We’d take those parts and then head in a different direction. I love working in this way, as it’s a true creative partnership. By bouncing ideas off each other, you end up in a sonic world, which you would never get to by yourself.

You’ll be working with EA Games on the next instalment of their Battlefield franchise – how has this been?

Battlefield Hardline has been an amazing journey, having never played a video game before, let alone scoring one!

EA, and in particular their audio director, Paul Gorman, have been incredibly supportive teaching me the process. And obviously I had to go out and buy a PlayStation 4 and games to, ahem, research. I‘ve been working on it for a year and a half and am nearly there.

Bizarrely enough the the best preparation was scoring a ride for Disneyworld last year. It’s non-linear writing. So if a film soundtrack is totally scored to picture, games aren’t at all, in the sense that no two players will play the game at the same speed, so you’re never going to have scored hit points.

Instead, all the hit points are created by the music working in layers – each track has to be divided into four layers. I call layer one the “having a beer” layer. Music will be bubbling along in the background, and then a player might go grab a beer and not play for 10 minutes. So this layer can’t be too intrusive. Layer two is the ominous one, when something’s about to happen – someone pulls a gun on you, for example. This might be a case of adding some guitar riffs, some synths, a bass line and some more percussion. Layer four is the full-on layer, when the fights are going at full-tilt. Crunchy drums, more guitars, more layers. This is the fullest it will get. Layer three we call “tension time”. This tends to be solo’d when you’ve been grabbed/kidnapped, and will be a piercing/tense sound until the battle kicks off.

All these layers need to work by themselves, but also with each other. They need to be loopable after about three minutes (due to memory issues), but also not get into too much of a groove. They need to develop and have interest. Oh, and not distract from the game too much. Not too tricky a brief?!! Seeing the guys in San Fran load the music into the game, and programme the faders/volume/fx for each event/hit point was incredible.

What are your thoughts on the health of the screen composing industry?

Many people complain about the industry being in a bad state, but there’s so many films and TV being made at the moment, let alone games and other media. One of my favourite films, and scores, of the moment is Her. It’s just so different, but has been a big success. It just goes to show that people who are prepared to take risks with their writing can flourish.

Have you got any top tips for new screen composers?

Be true to yourself and don’t try and second-guess what people want. First and foremost it’s got to be your passion. People will come to you if you write good, unique music. Most people don’t have an interest in using the same old stuff, so don’t try and replicate others. Sure, learn from others, but always try and do something in every score/album.

Visit paulleonardmorgan.com for more information on Paul and his music.