Exclusive premiere: John Murphy's "Les Misérables" from Masterpiece's Les Misérables

 

Lakeshore Records is set to release the original soundtrack to the critically-acclaimed BBC/PBS Masterpiece mini-series Les Misérables, written by composer John Murphy (28 Days Later, SunshineKick-Ass). Check out our interview with Murphy and the exclusive song directly below this article. Les Mis the album will be released digitally on May 3 with CD and vinyl versions forthcoming.

This Les Mis is NOT a musical; in fact, it is relatively faithful to the source novel. It premiered April 14 on PBS, but all episodes can be watched with PBS Passport.

Les Misérables is a six-part drama adaptation starring Dominic West (The Affair) as Jean Valjean, and David Oyelowo (Selma) as Javert in this landmark take on a classic, timeless, and sweeping story. They are joined by Lily Collins (Rules Don’t Apply), in the role of Fantine.

With a striking intensity and relevance to us today, Victor Hugo's novel is a testimony to the struggles of France’s underclass and how far they must go to survive. The six-part television adaptation of the renowned book vividly and faithfully brings to life the vibrant and engaging characters, the spectacular and authentic imagery and, above all, the incredible yet accessible story that was Hugo’s lifework                                   

The distinguished British cast includes Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager) and Academy Award winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite) as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals) as Cosette, Josh O'Connor (The Durrells in Corfu) as Marius and Erin Kellyman (Raised By Wolves) as Éponine.

 Liverpool born John Murphy began scoring movies at the age of 25. In 2001, following the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, he moved to Los Angeles.

Since then he has worked with some of the industry's most respected and luminary filmmakers, including Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie, Stephen Frears, Matthew Vaughn and Michael Mann, producing film scores as prominent and diverse as SunshineLock Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsMiami ViceSnatchKick-Ass, and the seminal 28 Days Later.

Murphy's movie trailers include: Captain America: Winter SoldierGravityX-Men: OriginsCloverfieldWar of the WorldsCowboys and Aliens, BlindnessEx Machina, SouthpawX-Men: Days of Future Past, and Avatar. His music has been featured in advertising campaigns for Nike, Audi, Microsoft, Louis Vuitton, Samsung, Google, and Apple.

After Kick-Ass, Murphy set up the record label Taped Noise and began work on several non-movie projects. BBC/PBS Masterpiece Theatre's Les Misérables is his latest project.

Les Misérables director Tom Shankland wanted John to tell a fresh musical story and to ultimately create a raw and uncompromising score to reflect the trials and misery of "Les Misérables." John describes the scoring process as an "experimental journey."

 Initially, Tom wanted a gritty, folk-oriented score, but as they began the process, he and John quickly realized that the story would need a broader musical palette. John ended up incorporating less obvious elements such as bowed electric guitar, analog synths, experimental viola, and backwards loops, with a nod to the classic French romantic scoring of the '60s. Despite mixing instrumentation, the elements fused and the sensibility stayed true throughout.

 John described the scoring process further:

"My original idea for the score to Les Mis was '1816 Velvet Underground meets '60s French film music.' While director Tom [Shankland] was thinking 'gnarly, down in the dirt, French folk music.' Producer Chris Carey suggested, 'let's do both, but throw in some vintage analog synths.' I then gleefully tried all of these elements, often at the same time. And we discovered that you can actually mix a hurdy gurdy with a Moog Sub Phatty, and we loved it. And what started out as a musical standoff, became our score for Les Misérables." 

Interview: John Murphy

Hello John and welcome!

Hey Wess. Good to talk with you!

Likewise. To start things off, what attracted you to this telling of Les Mis as a project? I really appreciated how it was based on Hugo's novel, and not a musical. The novel, in my opinion, does not get enough praise.

Yeah, sadly the musical has pretty much hijacked this great novel. I read it in my early twenties. I was a session player back then and I spent a lot of time on tour buses, so I got through a lot of reading. Aside from all the ideas and themes, it's a great story – hope, despair, sacrifice, redemption, all the good stuff. I loved it.

I read it when I was in my twenties as well. Such a great novel.

So when the call came in, I did some Skype meetings with the director Tom Shankland and producer Chris Carey, and they were so passionate about it, and so hell-bent on going back to the source, the book I loved. I knew I had to do it.

That's fantastic. I was hoping we could get an idea of your overall creative process on the project. It really is very sweeping in the emotions of the story and the history it covers.

Well I've really only ever done movies so I knew the production process would be different. For example, before they started shooting I had to write a lot of the in-camera music they needed to shoot to; the scene with the band in the pimp's den, Cosette's piano pieces, Gavroche's song when he runs out to collect the bullets, that kind of thing.

Oh wow.

Which was cool because I'd never done that before. And then there was a big break while they filmed and put together the episodes. So rather than sit around and wait, I started sketching out themes and ideas from the script, which is actually way more creative than writing to picture. But having this pot of ideas was a life saver because, when the episodes finally did come, they came thick and fast.

But the actual creative process wasn't too different from scoring a film. I always write the themes first, and I try to write them away from picture. And then I'll work to picture and write the featured cues, the montages, the chases, that kind of thing. And then you're down to the underscore cues and you're just connecting the dots really.

Still photo from LES MISÉRABLES.

Interesting process John. What were the challenges like?

I think the biggest challenge was time. Even though I had ideas sketched out for most of the themes, there's only so much you can do until they give you locked picture. And when the final locked cuts started coming, I had about 20 days per episode from start to delivery. And this is when I would score everything in, write the underscore, record the soloists, and mix the tracks ready for the dub. There was usually about forty cues and forty minutes of music per episode. So there were a few long nights!

Were there huge differences between Les Mis as a project and working on your more conventional titles like 28 Days Later? You've scored quite a bit in the horror realm.

 I've actually only scored a few horror films. They just tend to be the ones people remember!

[Laughs] good point. I was thinking just relative to other composers I've talked to

Because of the musical, there's kind of a skewed perception of Les Miserables. But a lot of the book is actually very dark. And, for whatever reason, I find it much easier to work with darker material.

I find myself attracted to darker art as well; not just film.

For me, it's just a deeper well to draw from. So even though it's based upon an historic work I never felt like I was writing outside of my own instincts. At the end of the day, whatever the scale, it all comes down to ideas, story and characters.

Absolutely. Any memorable or funny moments that stick out from that behind the scenes process of scoring the series?

There were, but none I could mention! [Laughs]

[Laughs] fair enough. A question I ask most everybody: what scores and films have molded you most as an artist?

I think the first time I became aware that movies used music was in A Fistful of Dollars. I must have been six or seven and it was on TV one night. I remember thinking why is there music playing? Where is it coming from? After that I started listening for it when I watched movies. So, I think my love for [Ennio] Morricone started there. And after that it was the James Bond movies, and the great John Barry themes. Another film composer I love to this day. I was just a kid, but I remember getting hyped up whenever I heard that guitar riff. A few years later, when I started to play a few things, I discovered Bernard Herrmann.

Psycho always stands out for me when I think of a great score. It may be cliché to say but it is true.

I couldn't fathom how he could make music that was so dark and so beautiful at the same time. I'd never heard anything like it and it blew me away. It was like magic.

So, those three made more of an impression on me than any specific movies. Thinking about it now it's probably why I'm so theme-heavy today. Because those guys definitely knew how to write a theme.

That they did. One other big question which is sort of related, what makes a great score?

That's such a difficult question and I don't think there's a definitive answer. But if it truly moves you and takes you somewhere else, then it's doing something right.

Still photo from LES MISÉRABLES.

Well said. Last, what's next for you?

Well, Les Mis was like doing six movies back to back, so I won't be jumping into another big project just yet! I'm going to mess around with one of my own projects for a few months and then see what's around. Maybe a cool little indie where I get to play everything myself!

Follow John at his website here.

Exclusive Track: “Les Misérables” from LES MISÉRABLES (2018).

Trailer LES MISÉRABLES (2018).

Trailer LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998).

Trailer SNATCH (2000).

Trailer 28 DAYS LATER (2002).