Behind the Music interview: John Murphy for Les Miserables

Still from Les Miserables. Photo Courtesy of Lookout Point and MASTERPIECE
Still from Les Miserables. Photo Courtesy of Lookout Point and MASTERPIECE /

Fresh off of a lengthy hiatus, John Murphy, the legendary composer for the likes of Kick Ass, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine, returns to the mainstream with his work on the BBC mini-series adaptation of the famed Les Miserables, premiering on MASTERPIECE on PBS!

Behind the Music is an ongoing series that seeks to interview and gain an introspective on both established and up-and-coming composers. These composers, who have worked for everything from television to film to commercials to video games, share their experiences, work ethic, and more. For this edition, we chat with the acclaimed musical voice behind some of film and television’s most recognizable sounds, John Murphy, for his work on Les Miserables.

Even if you don’t immediately recognize John Murphy by name,  it’s difficult to assume that you have not heard his work in some capacity in your life. For one, Murphy can take credit for his work on such hits as Kick-Ass, the 28 series from Danny Boyle, and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. His melancholy, yet epic musical style helped boost the already-high profile of these movies with memorable intensity and delicate nuance when needed.

If you haven’t seen any of those movies, John Murphy’s work may still be recognizable to you if you’ve watched the trailers for the likes of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Ready Player One. The track, “Adagio in D Minor”,  has been used in popular media ever since its inception during the creation of the soundtrack for the space drama, Sunshine, and now its memorable tune has etched itself into the heart of entertainment with appearances in trailers, commercials, TV shows, other movies, etc.

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Despite the immense popularity of his music, Murphy still took the time to be on hiatus from the public eye for close to 8 years and now his return to mainstream music comes at the support of the new non-musical adaptation of Les Miserables. With none of the musical elements people have associated with it, this new mini-series only has John Murphy to lean on for its musical score, creating a unique atmosphere not found in previous adaptations.

John Murphy stops by to talk to us at Hidden Remote about the work process behind the music of Les Miserables, the nature of his long hiatus from the mainstream eye, his thoughts on his music being immortalized through popular media, and more in this candid feature on the legend!

Hidden Remote: It has been years (around 8, if I’m correct) since you’ve been mostly active in the world of composing filmed works. How do you feel that your hiatus helped you with your return to composing for the television adaptation of Les Miserables?

John Murphy: I think the last film was Kick-Ass, so yeah, it was a long break! Having time away from it really changed my perspective on what film music is. And that forced me to think about how I’d written scores in the past. And at some point I think I figured out how to do it! So by the time I’d made the decision to come back, and Les Mis appeared on the horizon, I was up for it. I’d gotten the urge back and I couldn’t wait to start working on it.

Hidden Remote: Did you still do occasional musical work during your hiatus?

Murphy: I actually never stopped. It was only movies I took a break from. I’d been doing films back to back for a long time and I just wanted to write music for the sake of it again. No directors, no playbacks, no revisions. Just music. It was liberating. I got to learn a few more instruments, set up my own label, work on some albums, and finish some orchestral ideas I had. I wrote more original music in that period than I could ever have done doing movies. And for proper work I did some commercials and trailers.

Hidden Remote: Much of your well-known work on films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine has continued to find exposure and success from appearances in high-profile trailers for films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Ready Player One, among other appearances in media. How have you reacted to the continued resurgence of your music in other media?

Murphy: I have to admit it was cool at first; even though it’s weird seeing something you wrote for a very specific emotion being used in a very different context. But now I’m kinda sick of it. I remember going to see a movie a few years ago and two of the trailers were using the same track from 28 Days Later. Back to back. I could feel the audience going ”Really?”

Hidden Remote: Considering how long your hiatus from the industry was, what would you say inspired you to come back into the fold with Les Mis?

Murphy: It was just time. I loved having all that time with my family, and it was great writing what I wanted to write. But I started to miss the edge you get when you’re scoring a movie. I missed the fear! But I didn’t want to just pick up where I left off so I told my agent I wanted to have a crack at something a bit more serious this time around. And soon after that he called to say he’d just had a call about Les Miserables; the book, not the musical, and it was going to be the closest adaptation to the original Victor Hugo novel yet. Now I’d read the book in my early twenties and loved it. I knew straight away that this was the one. I just had to convince the director and producer.

Hidden Remote: An ambitious decision to omit the musical aspects for sure, especially considering how popular that version is. How did you approach this decision to help inspire you for the miniseries’ score?

Murphy: I’ve never seen the musical and we never mentioned the musical. The source of the story is the book. And they reassured me from day one that we were going back to the source. The book was all I knew so that was cool with me. The musical is its own, very different thing.

Still from Les Miserables. Photo Courtesy of Lookout Point and MASTERPIECE
Still from Les Miserables. Photo Courtesy of Lookout Point and MASTERPIECE /

Hidden Remote: Having listened to tracks like ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Atonement’, your slow and building style remains as strong as ever. Having said that, this television adaptation differs greatly from previous projects like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Kick-Ass. How did you try and distance yourself from your previous work for this project, if at all?

Murphy: You don’t know how hard I try to not ‘start slow and build to a crescendo’… I think it’s hardwired into my DNA! But yeah, the subject and context of Les Mis is very different to the films you mention. But at the same time they all have that darkness and despair which, for whatever reason, I’m always drawn to and feel creatively at home with.

I just have a deeper well to draw from with the dark stuff. It’s the lighter subject matter I struggle with. And Les Mis certainly isn’t light. At least the book isn’t. And I never think of my previous work when I’m scoring something because I’m too absorbed with doing what I have to do. I’m down a new well and there’s no time to look back.

Hidden Remote: Your music is known for its versatility, ranging from hard rock slow-burners to songs of epic melancholy, all the while still remaining representative of your own musical style. Do you feel there’s a running theme for you personally in all of your work?

Murphy: I love “Songs of Epic Melancholy.” Sounds like a cool EP title. It’s funny you mention this because in the very early days, when I was desperate to sound like a ‘real film composer’, I used to despair that no matter what style I wrote in it always ended up sounding like me.

I felt like the ‘Velveteen Rabbit Composer.’ And then gradually it started to dawn on me that the stuff directors were liking, and the stuff people were responding to, was the stuff that didn’t sound anything like other film composers. And this was a game-changing revelation for me. Because it meant I could scuff out my own path and not worry about what the other guys were doing. Which was fine with me because I’m actually pretty shit at sounding like anyone else. So yeah, I think there is some ‘me’ DNA running through what I do. But I don’t worry about it any more.

Hidden Remote: Considering that this version of Les Miserables focused much less on the musical aspect that is most associated with the story, what do you think audiences might get from watching and how do you feel your music helps bring those aspects out, if at all?

Murphy: It all depends how they sit down to watch it. If they want the musical then they’re not going to get it. Fantine doesn’t burst into song when her teeth are getting wrenched out. She screams in agony and shame. But if they want to watch an adaptation of the original Victor Hugo novel then that’s another story. And that’s the story I scored. I hope I did it justice.

Hidden Remote: What would you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of working on Les Miserables coming back from your hiatus?

Murphy: I’m a serial reader so being able to write the score for one of the truly great novels was something I’ll never forget. I could have written it ten times over and not burned out.

Still from Les Miserables. Photo Courtesy of Lookout Point and MASTERPIECE
Still from Les Miserables. Photo Courtesy of Lookout Point and MASTERPIECE /

Hidden Remote: The miniseries has already premiered in the U.K., but will only now be premiering in the United States this month. Do you feel as though the reaction in the States will be similar to the U.K. or do you suspect it may be different? Les Miserables has made a name for itself on an international level, so Americans have managed to harbor a certain attachment to the story (on Broadway, at least).

Murphy: The reaction in the UK was fantastic so I hope so! Again, it’s all down to what people are expecting. The book is the book and the musical is the musical. If that’s clear from the get go then they’re going to love it. It’s a brilliant adaptation of one of the greatest European stories ever told. We just don’t have any rousing songs.

Hidden Remote: Your return with Les Miserables is a welcome one, given the high popularity of your music! Do you suspect this to be a one-and-done deal or what do you consider to be the future for you?

Murphy: Thank you. To be honest, before I started Les Mis, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a one off thing myself. I knew I couldn’t wait to start it, but I wasn’t sure how enthusiastic I’d feel by the end! But about a week in it started to come back to me how good it felt to be working on something worthwhile, and the rush you get when you realize you’ve just made a good scene even better.

All the good stuff that film composing should be about. So I realized quite early on that this couldn’t be the last one. As to what’s next, I don’t know. Les Mis was like doing six movies back to back so I promised myself a few months off with the family when it was done. But if I had to choose right now I’d probably go for a cool, edgy little indie film, with no assholes, and I get to play everything myself. That would be cool.

Hidden Remote: Your work with the likes of Danny Boyle and Vadim Jean has a long and prolific past, dating all the way back to 1992 with your collaborative work with David Hughes in Jean’s Leon the Pig Farmer. Is there a chance you may collaborate with either of these directors again in the future?

Murphy: Danny and I did five films together, and it was the most creative collaboration I ever had. But we fell out towards the end of Sunshine so I don’t think that one’s likely. And Vadim’s now a big commercials director so I’m not sure he even makes movies any more.

Hidden Remote: Lastly, are there any words of wisdom that you would like to share with our readers? You have led a long and storied career in the industry and some of our readers may look to follow in the same path. In other words, what’s the best advice you can give that can be used in any parts of life, music-related or not?

Murphy: If I were sitting in a pub with an aspiring film composer there are so many things I would say. You wouldn’t be able to shut me up. But as I’m not, sadly, I’ll just say the one thing that changed everything for me…

Find your own sound, your own DNA, voice, style, mojo, whatever you want to call it. You’re still going to have to work your ass off and learn your craft, and learn to be versatile but… whatever it is that makes you unique, develop that too, see where it goes, and try to be the best at it. It’s your thing so you’ve got a head start!

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John Murphy’s music can be heard on the mini-series adaptation of Les Miserables, premiering on MASTERPIECE on PBS now! Have you seen any episodes? How did you like it compared to the musical? Sound off below!