Wed. Aug 12th, 2020

TV Interview: Composer John Murphy on taking ‘Les Misérables’ back to its roots

John Murphy (Photo: Charlotte Murphy)

“I Dreamed a Dream,” “Castle on a Cloud,” “Stars,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” “One Day More,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” just a few of the most memorable songs from the musical Les Misérables. The musical composed by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer debuted on Broadway in 1987 and is one of the most popular musicals on the planet. The 2012 musical film version earned a Best Picture nomination and won Anne Hathaway a Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the ill-fated Fantine. All of this makes what John Murphy accomplished a herculean achievement—to score a six-part Limited Series that would be directly compared to the famous musical.

Only someone like Murphy, who, while aware of the musical but has yet to see it, could mount such a challenge.  Unencumbered by the need to equal the musical, he gives the audience a new soundtrack to the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Victor Hugo’s book. 
Murphy, who’s probably best known for his work with Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine, walked away from composing for films taking an eight-year hiatus to focus on his family. He returns with a bang and his efforts should reap the respect his colleagues amongst the music branch and his first Emmy nomination.

Photo courtesy of PBS

AW: Thank you so much for joining us and welcome back, you, took eight years off to focus on your family. What, what made you decide to return? 

JM: It’s funny, I was doing some commercial campaigns and trailers but, I just got to the point after Kick Ass where I needed a break. There were things I wanted to do and, I wanted to set up my record label, I wanted to work on my own projects, without directors and producers and the notes, just writing music for the sake of it. I wanted to spend time with, with the family too. I missed out a lot with the kids. I didn’t want to miss everything. So, I figured you can pause your career but you can’t really pause your kids. But they got a bit older– where they didn’t really care. They’d say to me, “Dad, why don’t you do movies again? You are cool when you did movies.”

AW: How did composing for Les Misérables come about? 

JM: I spoke to my agents and I said, “I’m coming back to work, and I didn’t really want to come back and pick up where I left off.” I wanted to do some different this time. And so, if you find something, with a bit of Gravitas, something I can really get my teeth into.  Literally within a week he calls about Les Mis.

Now I thought he meant the musical. And he’s like, no, no, it’s based on the book. I read the book in my late teens 50 years ago anyway, but I just love this. It’s just such a wonderful story, it’s got everything. It’s dark, its death, salvation and redemption, all the good stuff. So as soon as you said it was based on the book then I thought wow, that would be perfect.  A few Skypes with Tom [Shankland], who directed and Chris Carey the producer, they were so passionate about this and they cared so much.  Tom was hell bent on going back to the original source. At the end of the Skype with the producer Chris I said, look, I’ve got a confession; I’ve never seen the musical. He went great. We don’t mention the musical. We never, we never did. I didn’t have that weight on my shoulders. I think if I probably seen the musical, I’d been a nervous wreck.

AW:  They picked the right composer. My goodness. I want to know what you think of it (the musical) after you see it. 

JM: You know what, I’ll call you and tell you. My wife wants to see it as well. As soon as we watch it, I’ll call you or text you and tell you it’s really good. I’ll let you know. 

AW: Wow. You might not have seen the musical, but it is one of the most well-known musicals in the world. You really didn’t feel any pressure?

JM: I think as soon as fear kicks in, deadlines you don’t worry about the external pressures, you know, you’re just, you’re just trying to get through the day. So, you’ve got your own things to worry about to me it was just business as usual. There was no time to feel this big weight of possibly the most famous musical of all time. Hopefully people won’t be missing the songs too much.

AW: Do you have any interest now in seeing the movie and maybe comparing scores? 

JM: Now it’s done, I can’t wait to see it because, as big as the musical is still a derivative work from the novel. Now that I’ve gotten out to the forest and I feel like I want to go and see it. But I’m glad I didn’t watch it. I’m glad I didn’t go see it before.  I had a job to do, and it was made clear right from the get go that there were zero references of the musical– the musical is very much its own thing. It’s a wonderful thing by all accounts. This was about going back to the source. I’m trying to tell the story that Victor Hugo was trying to tell. You don’t worry about the rest of it.

AW: You’re probably best known for your work on Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Sunshine as well as Kick Ass. Your work on Les Misérables is so different. Is that what attracted you to the project?
JM: In terms of the genre for sure, because, I really wanted to come back and do a grown up film— something with that kind of history and, and with, that scope and time scale. That was definitely a big incentive to me because I just felt like I wanted to take something big on– it’s still a very dark story. But certainly, with the darkest stuff, the edgier stuff, I just feel more at home with. There was enough common ground to me to feel like, I got it– I could do it. So, it was, it was different, but it was also the same. 

AW: What are some of the musical influences that you drew on for your inspiration for the score? 

JM: I love mashing things up. I mean I’ve done it in most movies where you put two completely different genres or periods or styles that you see, that’s the fun bit of composing. We had all these happy accidents, where we were just trying stuff out. It ended up being a bit of a hybrid. It was a bit of a mishmash. And I was very sure about how I wanted certain characters to feel and how I wanted the big scenes and what kind of effect that I wanted for them. It was just how we got there with what instrumentation. Just a mindset of experimentation. There was no grand scheme at the beginning and it’s a bit of trial and error. 

AW: What would it mean to you to get that Emmy nomination?

JM: It’d be unbelievable because to have disappeared– I really didn’t know if I was ever going to do another movie. I’ve never really done television before. I genuinely thought I wasn’t going to do anything like this again. So, you know, if that was to happen then it’d be out of this world. Unbelievable. 

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