Interview: John Murphy Discusses Score for James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is out now in theaters and on HBO Max, and by all accounts is a wild ride. The movie currently boasts a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes with many calling it one of the best comic book films ever. Naturally, such a motion picture required an exciting score, and who better to tackle that task than legendary composer John Murphy (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Sunshine, 28 Days Later).

ComingSoon spoke to Murphy about working on The Suicide Squad, and the composer discussed everything from John Barry’s influence on his work to what it was like writing music alongside Gunn.

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Jeff Ames: What drew you to the world of film composing?

John Murphy: I guess very early on I remember really loving the James Bond movies, which was a big thing for me growing up. And I realized a lot of that had to do with the music and the riffs and the big, bombastic brass; and it all felt so exotic, and it sort of hyped me up as a kid when I was watching this stuff. So, that was probably the first time I became aware movies had music that could really affect you.

A little later, when I was about eight or nine, I watched A Few Dollars More with the great Ennio Morricone score, and I remember thinking, “This is so weird! What’s all this music playing on all these movies?” I started to pay attention more to music in movies and a few years later I got into music — I picked up a guitar and started playing — and then I was in bands from about 12 until I was around 24. I ended up touring with a lot of bands, you know the usual stuff, and then one day somebody asked me if I wanted to write some songs for this movie, Leon the Pig Farmer [in 1992] with a friend of mine, David Hughes. Throughout the process, because they didn’t have any money, they asked if we could also write the score. I thought, “God, how do you do this?” But we did it in our own way and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. To sit down and think about story and characters just blew my mind because up until that point I had just been writing songs; and suddenly it was like I had been drawing pictures with six crayons and somebody came in and gave me a Crayola set with 250 crayons — it just blew my mind that you could write music like that.

Once I had that experience, it was just a big moment for me, and I thought, “God, if I ever get the chance to do this again that would be amazing!” It just felt very natural to me. So, between the love of it to begin with and getting the chance to do it, that was a life-changing moment.

That’s interesting that you mention James Bond because I’ve been collecting the soundtracks myself. Do you have a particular score you love?

It’s funny because I actually love what David Arnold did when he came on and adapted the whole John Barry sound. I thought how he did it was just perfect. I know David, he’s a friend of mine, and he too is a huge John Barry fan like me; and he was so nervous! There’s the saying, “Never meet your heroes,” but I think for a composer, having to dive into a composer that you completely worship, that was really hard for him and I think he completely pulled it off.

Obviously, in the whole legacy of the Bond sound, it’s always going to be John Barry who defined that. What he did was brave, and when you put it in the context of what film music was like at the time, we were just getting into certain pop influences in film music, you know, Henry Mancini springs to mind and you have some of the French guys who were kind of coming from a pop background. You know, that transition was already beginning to happen, but I think what John Barry did with his Bond scores — you know, because he was in the John Barry 5 and he was in a lot of pop stuff — I think he kicked the gates down for everybody because he did it in such a brave and powerful kind of way. Even now I listen to his scores and they just pump you up, the attitude is f—ing outrageous! Imagine what it would have been like back 60 years ago. That must’ve blown people away! Apart from the fact that you had all these great tunes and this beautiful way of arranging brass — John Barry kind of invented that beautiful, lush, Philharmonic sound. That way of blending the orchestra, a lot of that is in those early Bond films, which is why I consider them some of my favorite scores.

That’s interesting because I can see your music being the next evolution of that type of score – you’ve got so many elements working together, Ennio Morricone-type choir, rock music, traditional orchestra, etc.

I think one of the reasons me and James [Gunn] connected, I’m guessing — I think the first time you meet James Gunn, the first thing that kind of blows you in the face is that he’s a fan. He’s so passionate about this stuff because he’s like the biggest fan in the world. He loves this stuff. So, for him to make movies that he wants to see, that’s very much part of his success. And that attitude goes with me too. I mean, I don’t sit down and say I’m going to do something like Ennio — that doesn’t come into my head. It’s only at the end of the day and I’ll listen to something and go, “Oh! That sounds a bit like Ennio — cool!” There’s nothing derivative about it, it’s just me doing what I love; and on most movies, you don’t get to do what you love because you’re there to do a job and you have to be responsible, you have to be grown up and you have to look at the thematic structure. You have to sit down with the right frame of mind and be quite responsible before you even start writing.

With Suicide Squad, I would get a call from James and, “F—, this would be a great idea, and what about this?” It was just, let’s have fun! I know that sounds like such a cliché because everyone says this about James Gunn, but it really was. There was no second-guessing something. Whether it made sense in the whole scheme or structure it was like, “That cracks me up! That is so funny, let’s do that there!” Or, “F—, I had tears in my eyes when I did that!” You know, it’s all very open. When he gave me the confidence to go with my gut on this — and he did, every week he would say, “John, go with your gut, and then we’ll see what it feels like and we’ll make a decision!” He just let me go for it. When someone trusts you that way, you feel like you have to give them what they’ve asked for, so a lot of the stuff that was coming out wasn’t part of a sort of traditional score, it was just instinct: “Let’s see how this fits,” or, “Let’s see how this works.”

We both kind of knew this wasn’t going to be a score that was constrained by itself because sometimes you’ll write a very grownup score and sort of lay the rules out before you start. There were no rules with this. The only thing we kept chatting about on the very first few days when I met him was attitude. Whatever we do, we’ve got to have attitude. If we’re gonna make them cry, we’ve got to really make them f—ing cry. If we’re gonna scare them, we’re gonna scare the s— out of them! It was like Spinal Tap — “Let’s go to 11!” That’s infectious when you see the director being that way. You sort of sit with yourself and go, “Well, f—, I’m not going to be the guy that discreetly sneaks into the movie! I’m going to pull my game up too!”

So, we just really went for it in that way. We made or broke rules as we went. The movie itself is so funny. I mean, I know it’s a superhero movie, but it’s so funny. That allows you to make fun of yourself. Some of the themes I wrote are kind of pastiche in a way because we were being ironic, or we were juxtaposing what was happening on screen. It’s such a roller coaster, right from the beginning. I mean, two minutes in, and it just blows up. So, we just let the movie drag the score along with it, you know? And if we suddenly had to go to a scene with a sort of low-fi, French noir-film sound, we would just do it! At that moment we would laugh our heads off because it’s so stupid having that kind of music in that kind of scene. If we all laughed that was it and it was onto the next scene. It was definitely the most fun I’ve had on a movie.

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So, I would imagine it would be hard to go back to a traditional film score!

[Laughs] It would be weird, because it felt like school was out. I’ve always been a bit noisy, and normally I’ll get a director saying, “Oh, yeah it’s cool and it’s very loud. Can we just pull it back a little bit?” With James, it was like, “Yeah it’s really cool but it has to be bigger! Can we go a little crazier here?” I was almost affronted that I had to be told to go for it more! So, yeah, it would be an adjustment to have to sort of go back to school and do a grown-up score again. It was just too much fun. I wanted the holidays to go on a bit longer, you know?

James knows what he’s doing and the beautiful thing about the guy — you know, he’s such a cool guy — but he’s so intuitive musically, and I know that seems obvious when you see the way he shapes songs in Guardians of the Galaxy and stuff like that. He really gets it. I didn’t feel so out there when I was trying different things for him, because I always knew when something went a little too far to the left, he’d pull it back that way — he was like the handrails. If I went on a tangent, or down the wrong path, which I do sometimes, he would just go, “You know, I think it’s great, but I think we lost the point there.” He was always there to keep an eye on things. When you’ve got training wheels, it makes it a lot less stressful to throw crazy stuff out there.


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