Composer John Murphy on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Chris Connor chats with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 composer John Murphy…

To coincide with the release of James Gunn’s third instalment in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise we spoke with Composer John Murphy about his work on the film and the Holiday special that preceded it and how he found taking over from Tyler Bates. John spoke about some of the more unorthodox sounds in the score and working with the well-known tracks littered throughout the film. John also discussed how his work with Guy Richie and Danny Boyle prepared him to work alongside the incredibly musically conscious James Gunn.

When did you first get involved with Guardians Vol 3?

We were in the middle of The Suicide Squad. It was going great. Really good energy between James and I. We were having a lot of fun. I think because he was in bands and, and, you know, he was in a punk band, and I was in bands. I didn’t go to music college or anything. So, we had a very common language between us. That makes things so much easier when you can kind of shorthand conversations where you can go, you know, that track on this album? So, it was just a very easy relationship. It’s always intense but it didn’t feel that way.

Even though Suicide Squad was a big studio movie, it felt like I was working on an indie film, just on a massive scale. So, it was going well, and James just rang me up one night and said, Look, I want you to do the next Guardians film. I wasn’t expecting that, you know, because that was, you know, no other project was on my radar at that point, because I was so you know, you sort of live and breathe this stuff once you’re involved. So, I wasn’t even thinking of what I was going to do next. I loved the first two Guardians movies, I do honestly think they’re the best of this whole modern genre, you know, there’s a charm, there’s a wit, there’s a humour and there’s a real humanity to the Guardians movies, for me, whether it’s a tree or a raccoon, somehow. It’s more personified than the superhero, human-like characters for me in a lot of other movies. I love all the Marvel stuff. I grew up with comic books, and I love the DC stuff. The whole world that I’m invested in emotionally anyway, but the Guardians movies were for me, the ones that I looked forward to.

He’s a great director, brilliant to work with, I love these movies. I mean, how was he going to say no? I just said, I’m blown away. Of course, I’ll throw my house into this. But let’s not talk about it again, till this one’s over. He went yeah let’s get this one finished. So that was it. That was it. And then I try to get about it. But you know, it was difficult to, but you know, then we got to the end of Suicide Squad and then we talked again.

Was the work on the Christmas special done alongside volume three, or was that something you did before?

No, I did that before. The way James likes to work is by shooting a lot of the movie to the themes that are going to be in the movie. So, I was so even before they started shooting, I you know, I went through the script. And we had, you know, long conversations about the story, and the characters and what this film meant to him. And, you know, he outlined, I think, 15 or 16 big sections of the movie that he wanted to shoot with music. So I went away with the script. And I wrote versions of all of these themes and sequences in the movie and there was a bit of, you know, to and fro, and this is all before he started shooting, you know, so there was a lot of collaboration already. Now, I would send him versions of, for example, you know, the scene where the high evolutionary sitting with the young Rocket and you have the alien Opera thing playing in the background. So, you know, I think I did five or six versions of that before we were both happy with it. And then I would do the next. So there was a lot very early on.

And then when he had everything that he needed to shoot with, he went and shot the movie. And I had to kind of wait for a long time.  But thankfully as soon as he shot the holiday special, because that was going to be released first That was where they started working. So that was the first thing I received in terms of picture. So, I scored that to the picture. And then I had to wait until he was happy to send me some footage of the actual movie. And then as picture was coming in I started to see how these themes that I’d written from the script translated to the actual movie. Sometimes it just worked perfectly, sometimes I have to arrange it. And then bit by bit, I got more footage. At some point, I had a cut of the whole movie, and you just throw yourself in at that point.

 I mean, to be honest, I love writing from the script. And the same thing happened on Suicide Squad, where James outlined a lot of these sequences to shoot with. For me, first of all, you know, the scripts that James that I’ve worked on, they’re so visual, you know, you read the script, and, and you can see the movie playing in your head. You know, and because we’re also familiar with the Guardians characters, you know, as I’m reading through these pages, I’m watching Groot do this and, I can hear the voices, I can hear Bradley Cooper’s voice as I’m reading it. And so it’s easy to sort of, you know, it just plays in your head. And the best thing about writing from a script is that you don’t have those constraints of now we’ve cut away to something, or there’s a big rocket coming into view, I’ve got to comment on that, and, you know, you just writing in this perfect world of a story and an idea. So, everything is possible, you know, in a beautiful way.

What tends to happen is the stuff that you write from a script ends up being much more musical because you’re not mature enough to fit a picture. So, you know, you know, it’s a great way for me to work. I mean, the only frustrating thing is then sort of having to wait a long time till they, you know, till he shoots the thing, but, you know, what’s, what’s interesting is that the woman and Suicide Squad, I thought, Oh, that’s so cool, they’re going to be playing this and I was on set the for some Suicide Squad. And he was playing the music through these huge, big speakers around the set in Atlanta which was enormous, you know, and it’s so cool for a composer to see all these, actors that you’ve sort of grown up with and loved they’re all doing their thing. And your tunes, like smashing out of the speakers.

But what I didn’t realise was a lot of the themes that I was sending to James before he shot Suicide Squad, and on this one, a lot of it was just in his earpiece. So he would be directing and informing the actors with these demos. I’m glad he didn’t tell me that at the beginning because that’s kind of a responsibility. I thought it was just the vibe of the actors, but it’s not, because music is so integrated into his storytelling, more than any other director I’ve ever worked with. To him, it’s got to live and breathe organically at the beginning of the process. It’s not something that you get, and you shoot the movie and go, okay, so we better get some composer in here. You just don’t work like that. In fact, , the songs that appear in the movies that I’ve worked with them on there, they’re like in the script at the very beginning, every one of those songs on Suicide Squad and on, Guardians 3, you know, the songs that, you know, the there is, it’s all their script, he knows and it does not change.

Is it tough to work around the songs, knowing where they fit in?

It’s exactly to the word when I read the script. Even things like, Spacehog starts to fade up into, so it’s that worked out. So as a composer, you know exactly what beat or word the music is even fading in. So that makes it easier for me because I can then go, well, I know that song that’s in the key of D. So I can then make sure that the score that has to dovetail into it is in the right key, to make the song pop as much as it can, is in the right tempo, you know, because you don’t want to have a score piece that’s really fast going into a track, that’s a much slower tempo because it will slow the track down in your head. So knowing all this upfront is actually much easier than writing a score, and then going into the premiere and seeing all these random pop songs that have been dropped in at the last minute.

So, it’s better for me. Working with Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle on all those movies, it kind of taught me how to work with songs, and actually how to make the most out of those moments when the song pops. So, it’s something I’ve learned over the years, and it’s, you know, I look forward to and you know, and if it’s James, you want to hear what songs he’s using and it’s always a surprise, I mean, who would have thought of using Since You’ve Been Gone? You know, in a baby Rocket dance sequence, it’s like, you know, it’s always exciting to see what the hell he’s going to come up with. Even reading from the script, half the songs, I thought, how was that going to work?  And it always does, you know, at some point, you’ve just got to go, he knows what he’s doing.   keep saying this, but you know, he really is the most musically savvy director I’ve ever worked with. He just gets it and he knows what’s going to work and that makes my job so much easier because it takes some of the pressure off. Because if I mess something up, then I know he’ll spot it, and things bounce back and forward. It’s a good relationship.

The tone of this film is a lot more personal with the focus on Rocket. Was that something that was a challenge to reflect in the score?

No, it wasn’t a challenge. They’re the things that wake you up and make you think, okay, I can’t just continue from the first two movies.  I love the first two scores, I think that feeling that Tyler got that big space, romantic, epic, I loved and, you know, I’ve known Tyler Bates, for 10 years or something, and he’s a great composer, and he’s a really good guy. So I was looking forward to seeing if there were any of his themes, the original themes that we could, integrate into the score.

Right from the get-go, James made it clear that totally, the music, you know, has to be very different for this, we still have our big Marvel action moments and those things, but the controlling idea of the score in this third film was clearly going to be darker, and also more tender, you know, it was going to be very dark and very violent in a lot of the film, but it was also going to be very, very tender, very warm. The whole parameters of this score were wider, on both sides. So I had a lot of latitude there and I had a lot to work with, but, it’s still essentially the story of why Rocket became what he became in the first two movies, and it’s explained and, it’s a painful story. James was never going sugar-coat that, he was always going to be rawer, and very personal, and it’s very hard to watch sometimes. With the music, you just have to go with that and make sure that you’re supporting that, those emotional dynamics as powerfully as you can. So, it wasn’t a challenge. It was just what I had to do. So that’s how it worked.

You used some interesting instruments for the score. Can you talk us through that?

I think the moment you’re doing something in space every composer that starts to think what am I going to do that’s different? Most movies play out on Earth so, things like piano and more regular sounds just fit because that’s our musical culture and it’s our musical knowledge. But soon as you’re doing something in space, in every composer starting on what can I do, to, you know, introduce, you know, more otherworldly sounds? And what can I do to, you know, what’s not been done before? Every composer is obsessed with what’s not been done. It’s hard, because there’s been some amazing art, Solaris was a beautiful example of how to come up with a whole new score. Cliff Martinez did a beautiful job there. So I was thinking of different things. I was trying to find a sound that would also, be useful for the innocence of all of these flashbacks. I’ve always wanted to use a tongue drum. which looks like a little UFO. Like a little metal, UFO. And it has these tongues caught and they’re pitched so you can play them almost like a xylophone, but you play them in a circle with beaters.  It’s a very strange warm, otherworldly sound. So I ended up finding this guy called Boris in Eastern Europe, who made me all these different tone drums in different keys.

So, the opening sound of the whole score is one of those played with the beater. So that became the opening to the whole score, you know, the whole open sequence was this little tongue drum. Of course, me being me, the second thing I always do with any new instrument is put it through a fuzz pedal, because I’m a guitarist so the first thing I want to do with everything is put it through a fuzz pedal. So, when we tried these things, we sort of recorded them and we had contact mics on them, and then we fed them back up through the desk.

When we played these things through fuzz pedals they just sounded extraordinary, it was almost like a crazy alien guitar. So that is one of the big sounds in the movie, you know, that can be very gentle and warm, and playful and innocent and then putting them through these different pedals and treating them and, and even pitching them down to really low notes. A lot of the really weird sounds that you hear in the movie that sound like synths but actually, you know, tongue drums played through fuzz pedals. You know, and we did that with, you know, a lot of the other new sounds we are used to guitar viol on this, which is kind of like a cello that you play with a bow tune, but it’s tuned like a guitar. And that has an output with a pickup. And again, the next thing you do is fuzz pedals and that gave, a really mournful, again, like a very alien guitar sound. And that’s the second sound that you hear in the score. When we have that beautiful little scene or the kids playing at the very beginning, then you get this mournful kind of painful, sad, little tragic theme comes in. That’s the guitar vehicle, again through a foot pedal. So, you know, I wanted to have the playfulness and the otherworldliness from the opening of the score with that little with the tongue drum, but to also hinted the pain, then the sadness that was to come in the story, and that’s when the guitar viola comes in.

But I mean, everything sounds better through those pedals. As far as I’m concerned. There’s even fuzz cello. I had one of the best cellists in London recording at Abbey Road playing these beautiful solos and it just, it was such a perfect sound in Abbey Road and I just didn’t have the heart to say that’s going to go through a fuzz pedal because that was always because the sound that gave me the option in these scenes and I said, look, this is a cello sample because you mock it all up first. 

Then I said, this is what it would sound like if we put a fuzz pedal on the cello.  And I got this email back and it was in capital letters. It was just fuzz cello!!!  That’s the fun thing of working with him and working on these films, you’re constantly trying to get new sounds. All of the percussion because we you know, part of the story is when we get to the Orgoscope, and it’s got a very metallic and organic feeling to this place because that’s basically it is metal and organic material. I wanted precaution that didn’t just sound like the usual toms and tycos. So, my producer Tyler Barton said, I’ve got an idea. And he went, he drove around the corner to the DIY and he brought back like, all this, bits of metal, just random bits, of hardware.

We tried recording with this stuff and it was incredible. I think the best percussion sound in the whole movie was a metal immersion heater tray. So, it was this big tray that sits underneath an immersion heater in case it leaks. But when you hit it with metal, just the sound was just incredible, you know. So we were doing a lot of stuff like that. And we were using thunder sheets, which is like a big metal sheet. That kind of sounds a bit like a gong. And we use dongs a lot, you know, but like scraping them and there was a crazy instrument called a marvin, which I bought for this movie. And it looks like a medieval torture instrument. It’s like an original car that was designed to torture people with springs and horrible things. Kind of echo chambers. So you bow this and you hit it, then you kick it and it just creates an amazing sound. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff. But you know, it sounds like work and it’s not. 

Did you speak with Tyler about the score at all?

I saw Tyler at a friend’s party. Just before got into this, we just had a good chat. Tyler’s cool. he was just like, good luck with this. And, you know, you know, and I, I said, you know, where we were, we will use your themes I’ll treat them like my own. It was an honour to take on some of these original themes because it’s a great theme. Even though this score is its own thing, and it’s unique, and it’s unique to the story James, and I knew that there was going to be a moment where we want to hear the original theme.

I’m a fan too, you know, you can’t go to the third movie of a trilogy and not, you know, have some, , reference to this. So, I think we used the theme three or maybe four times. We picked the right moments, we said, let’s just find where it’s going to have the most impact, and then we’ll just blast the audience with it, give them a bit of cool nostalgia, and then we get back into our own thing. And I think we you know, I think we’ve figured it out. I think where we use in the moments that we did use the original theme. I think we did it in a cool way. And it was fun to work with it. You know, I mean, it’s a great thing. Great themes are always easy to work with.

Many thanks to John Murphy for taking the time for this interview.

Chris Connor


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