John Murphy, who has been nominated for an Academy Award as well as a Grammy Award for his work on the Suicide Squad soundtrack, is perhaps best known for his work on the music for Guardians of the Galaxy. On the Guardians soundtrack, he scored some of the film’s most memorable moments, including the intergalactic concert scene, the Bring on the Bad Guys and Guardians of the Galaxy songs, and the first-ever music composed for a comic book film.
John Murphy’s music for the upcoming DCEU installment Suicide Squad has been making waves ahead of its release, as the composer has already completed two themes for the film as part of Warner Bros.’s first foray into the DC Comics universe. And now, Murphy is breaking down the instrumental pieces for the film in an interview with Vulture. He also reveals a bit about the music that’s in the movie, but the interview is primarily focused on his approach as a composer.
When Suicide Squad was released, it was met with a mixed reception. Some praised the film for its dark humor and wild plot. But some were underwhelmed by its R-rated content, especially in comparison to the PG-13 movie that preceded it. One thing that obviously attracted the crowds was a new song by John Murphy, the composer of the film. After the release of the film, it became known that John was behind the catchy tunes “Time To Get It”, “Purple Lamborghini” and more.
The Suicide Squad, the newest and most talked-about picture in the DC Extended Universe, was released last weekend. The picture, which follows a diverse group of DC Comics villains and antiheroes on a violent journey to the island country of Corto Maltese, has an all-star cast and crew that collaborated both in front of and behind the camera to make the blockbuster a reality. Composer John Murphy, who created the saga’s distinctive punk rock soundtrack, is one of them. Murphy has written notable film soundtracks for films such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Kick-Ass. However, Murphy’s skills are being shown to a whole new audience with The Suicide Squad, and many fans have already gone to social media to express their admiration for some of his songs.
I had the opportunity to speak with Murphy about his role in The Suicide Squad just before its premiere. We discussed his approach to the ideas of some of the film’s most memorable characters, as well as his collaboration process with Gunn.
: I know you were at the premiere of The Suicide Squad a few days ago. What was it like to watch it with an audience and in a theater, particularly given how the film came together over the course of the pandemic?
John Murphy: It was incredible because this is one of those films that has to be viewed on a large screen. And it was wonderful to see everyone again, since I hadn’t been there for the music mixing. As a composer, it’s always a little frightening when you go to watch a movie and think to yourself, “I’m going to have to music too quiet.” or [something]. So you don’t have a clue. You do the task, and the director signs off, stating that everything is perfect, but you never know until you arrive. The music was also very loud. “Wow, they really went for it,” I thought as soon as the first music came in. So it was incredible.
But the true treat is seeing it for the first time as an audience member, as if you were witnessing it for the first time. The task has been completed. It’s all over now. The anxiety is no longer an issue. There’s nothing else to be concerned about. I’m really able to sit and watch this right now. And it’s simply a fantastic film. I mean, it’s insane, but it’s also very entertaining, and I didn’t fully appreciate it until I sat down and watched it as if I’d just purchased a ticket. What was even better was that I was accompanied by my kid. She’s 14 and like this kind of thing. She adores all of James’ films, as well as the whole genre. Things was very wonderful for me to be able to view it through her eyes as well.
How did it feel to be contacted by James? I know he previously said on social media that he was a fan of your work, so I was wondering as to how you were brought on to the project.
It simply happened out of nowhere. I was already surprised since I’d been promised James would call, so I wasn’t surprised. And that was perhaps the most impassioned phone call I’ve ever received when I talked with him. It’s interesting because he got right into it and then began telling me about the movie, and I would have simply responded, “Yes, I agree. I’m all for it.” But he’s contagious. I mean, the first time I talked with him, all I got out of him was [that] he’s a fan. These are his favorite characters. He’s a part of this universe. He’s the genuine article.
As a result, everything occurred quite fast. Then, a few of days later, I went to Atlanta to meet with him and the producers. I had intended to remain for the afternoon, but I ended up staying for three days. So I got to go on set and meet a lot of the folks, and it was clear that the atmosphere was great and that everyone was having a great time. It simply seemed like everyone was having a wonderful time. As a result, there was no doubt in my mind. There was no way I could say no to a James Gunn film. There was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity to see this film. As a result, the answer was a resounding yes.
I enjoyed learning a little bit about your creative process and how much you utilized guitar to create the sound. What factors did you consider the most while deciding on the overall sound for the film?
Well, the first discussion I had when I arrived in Atlanta was about the tone, since you don’t go into specifics at that time. And the term “attitude” kept coming up for both of us as we sort of shouted over each other, thrilled. Whatever we do, it must have a positive mindset. Let’s frighten them with attitude if we’re going to scare them. It has to be its own thing, which is the greatest thing a composer can hear because you don’t want to come in and work as hard as you do when doing a movie soundtrack and then play it safe. To be safe, we didn’t want to be movie composers.
So when you have someone who is actually saying you, “Let’s try things out,” go for it. “Nothing is off the table,” says the narrator. It’s motivating. So, knowing how daring a filmmaker he is, that sort of raises the bar. You don’t walk in unsure of yourself; instead, you come in thinking, “Well, I’ll show him what attitude is.” You want to go all out right from the start. That was the most important thing. Whatever we produced, we wanted it to be distinct, stand out, and have attitude. So that was my guiding principle.
What was it like working with James in terms of collaboration? Because I understand how essential music is to him while he’s creating screenplays and how he works in needle drops. So I was wondering about how you balanced your score between the needle drops and the overall tone of the movie.
I believe James, I mean, it’s clear from all of his films that he loves music. It’s an important element of the narrative for him. And a lot of movies get produced, and then “We need a song here, we need a song here” becomes an afterthought. That’s not the case with him. The music are included in the narrative as you read it, which is incredible. So I knew exactly what these tunes would be. There were many little signposts. So that’s very beneficial.
And, I believe, since he was in a band as well, while I did not attend music school. I used to play in a punk band as a guitarist. That’s how I got started, and then I became a session musician, went on tour, and made albums, and then I sort of stumbled into doing movies as a composer. So my conversation is very much about being in a band, and knowing that he was also in a band and a huge punk lover. It was very relaxing. There was none of the “Oh my God, I’m going to be caught out here” panic that I usually have. So, right from the start, it was extremely pleasant and simple. It was a true team effort. He told me that I could come up with any ideas I wanted, and he added, “Simply follow your instincts. Then toss them at me, and we’ll go to work.” And it was sort of like that. He didn’t have a huge rule book or a major plan. “Just give me your best shot, and we’ll go from there,” he said. So there was the situation.
And I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to speak with him due of the COVID situation and his busy schedule. But, no matter what I wrote him, I’d receive a response in less than twenty minutes. I used to wonder to myself, “Hasn’t he got better things to do right now than [answer me?]” while he was filming. And he was like, “Wait a minute,” he said “This is fantastic. That’s a great one. That’s not the case. Let’s do that one, but with a larger ending.” It seemed like a really fluid, dynamic, and collaborative process. And knowing how well he knows his movies and how well he understands music, he was like a safety net. So it was simpler for me to simply give them something insane that I thought “no director would go for.” “Yeah, that’s excellent,” he said, “but let’s put it in that scenario.” So it simply let me go wild for a while, knowing he’d always rein it in and see the larger picture. It was fantastic.
I mean, I’ve got to tell it like it is. Working with him was a dream. It’s a lot of fun. He’s a very nice, hilarious person, and it was incredibly eye-opening to see how much fun you can have composing music for a movie. Because sometimes it’s simply a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. There aren’t enough good things to say about James.
Were there any unexpected influences throughout the composition of the soundtrack, something you wouldn’t have anticipated to affect it but did?
I believe what occurred was that there are certain expectations associated with a superhero film in general. Even though it’s a James Gunn superhero film, there are still expectations that there would be a huge orchestra and a big Gothic choir and such such things when you get to the conclusion. And when we arrived there, I was excited to do just that. But what was fascinating was that, even though we were working up to that, I knew I wanted to start with a punky feel because, at the start of the film, these people are very [much] at war, and most of them are scumbags. So I figured I’d start with that battle sound and work my way up from there.
However, as we were determining which of the characters would have their own independent themes, it became clear that James was OK with totally departing from the score in order to do so, allowing for various influences to enter. As a result, we had the form and crescendo of the soundtrack, which organically got more symphonic and Gothic as it progressed. But, within that framework, I had pretty much free reign with some of the vignette pieces to execute whatever style seemed right for that character at the time.
So you were a Polka-Dot fan? “What can I do that will give him his unique sound?” I was trying to think. He’s distinct from the other characters, and he has unique abilities. He has this extraterrestrial ability. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a very sort of corny, but sweet, 1973 kind of Moog thing going on?” I thought to myself. “Let’s try it,” I thought, since I have a huge old Moog here. That sound has nothing to do with the remainder of the music, and we never hear it again, but I gave it a go, and James liked it.
Then we came to King Shark, where you had this lovely vignette smack dab in the midst of a huge action scene. Then there’s this huge shark in Bermuda shorts roaming around an aquarium searching for pals, and it’s all a little depressing. “Let’s try some very beautiful, lo-fi little ’60s guitar with a little voice [singing,” I reasoned. That’s insane, because it has nothing to do with the rest of the music, but he liked it all the same.
All of these vignette pieces were able to be their own unique creations as a result of this. As a result, all of the effects were able to enter. It was insane how we shaped the score, but who cares if it works?
It is completely effective. I know that the Ratcatcher piece sticks out to me every time I hear or think about it.
That’s a fantastic example. Ennio Morricone is one of my favorite composers, as is James. Ennio, for example, is like God to me. To me, he is the movie. And Ratcatcher, in particular, was a crucial character because she carries a lot of the heart and passion. I knew James was going to be a major character since the movie’s primary underlying themes are atonement and family. “So, when I’m seeing this genuine, lovely character,” I reasoned, “what do I actually want to hear?” “Well, let’s try the lovely melancholy strings with the basic acoustic guitar,” I reasoned. And I gave James a really basic sample, thinking I was going to put additional elements on top, and there was a countermelody and other stuff. And he was like, “Wait a minute,” he said “No, it’s flawless. Simply leave it at that.”
We attempted to use the motif in other areas, but it simply seemed out of place at the time. A theme, in my opinion, is anything that recurs. However, the majority of those topics for the characters are never revisited. They only get their time in the spotlight once, and that’s it. But he seemed unconcerned about it. He was just like that “No, it looks great there. Let’s leave it at that.”
Are there any vignettes or themes that you really enjoy?
I believe I prefer the King Shark one since it takes place in the midst of all these skyscrapers and is such a bizarre setting. Soldiers are arriving, bombs are going off, and you’ve got this huge shark roaming about, dancing with little fish. It’s really funny. Taking a bizarre image and juxtaposing it with a song that has nothing to do with the movie or sharks, I believe, is a brilliant idea. It’s simply a simple melody. That’s the sort of thing I like. I always like it when a film’s soundtrack catches me off guard. That’s exactly what I’m looking for. So the tiny “la, la, la” bit for King Shark is probably my fave.
What do you think shocked you the most when working on the score for Suicide Squad?
I mean, I don’t simply want to say how enjoyable it was, because it sounds like I’m criticizing every other film I’ve ever worked on. But I believe it’s because I was anticipating ten times more pressure and expectation since it’s James Gunn and this huge movie. I believe I was preparing myself for it. To be honest, the greatest surprise for me was how simple everything was. Despite the fact that we had all worked our tails off. I believe it was the sensation of getting to the conclusion of the movie and still loving it. It’s difficult to accomplish that when you’ve been working on something for a long period, particularly if you’re repeating a scenario two or three times. It remained fresh till the very end. I’m not saying I could have done it all over again right immediately because I couldn’t, but there was none of the normal wear and strain. When I came to the conclusion, all I wanted to do was watch it. That was most likely the greatest shock.
You mentioned how much fun you had working on this project. Would you be interested in working with James again, or perhaps on another DC Universe project? Because I know how much I’d enjoy seeing your unique take on so many different characters in that world.
Yes, I’d be delighted to. I’d never done anything like a superhero movie before. We’d done Kick-Ass, but it was sort of a spoof of superhero movies in a sense. It was, by definition, someone attempting to be a superhero, therefore it was dark and sarcastic. I dipped my toe in a little bit, but now that I’ve completed one, I finally feel like I have the chops. I’d love to tackle that because working with that scale gives you a sense of accomplishment. You want to be able to get in earlier and work later. Because you get that lovely feeling of “This is huge movie sh-t.” It’s incredible. So, yes, I would definitely recommend it. I mean, I’d go to any length for James. If he wanted, I’d make a home video for him. But yes, now that I’ve done it, I’d definitely do it [again]. I believe I’d be wiser as a result of it.
Both in cinemas and on HBO Max, The Suicide Squad is now accessible.
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