John Murphy returns from a personal hiatus to score PBS Masterpiece and BBC’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.
When you hear the title Les Miserables, you automatically think of the bombastic and overly played Broadway musical that came to a city near you. Or you saw the film adaptation that won Anne Hathaway her first Oscar a few years back. Since it debuted over 3 decades ago, Les Miserables has won the hearts of millions around the world. John Murphy, however, isn’t really a fan.
You’ve heard the music of John Murphy but you may not know it. I had no idea that he was the man who created that jolting music behind the opening sequence of 28 Weeks Later, and he also composed the lyrical and epic sound to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (not only an underrated film, but an underrated score).
After taking a personal hiatus to focus on family and his personal life, Murphy wanted to jump back into scoring something completely different. If you look at his resume (you can sample his music here), there isn’t anything like Les Miserables on it. This is a classic tale of redemption with a sprawling scope and massive cast, and that wasn’t lost on Muphy. The score shows a huge amount of range, and he really digs into the minds of the characters. One moment the minds of Jean Valjean and Javert are amplified by the incessant plinking of simple piano strings and the next we are witnessing the horrors of Fantine literally selling her body for the sake of her child.
It’s a familiar story, for sure, but the execution is sophisticated and smart. The music is classic and enthralling in a way that a staged musical never could be.
You haven’t done a big project like this in a long time. Why return from your hiatus with Les Miserables?
I had enough of the movies, to be honest with you. I wanted to spend time with my kids. The spark had gone from me, and I felt that I was going through the motions. I wanted to feel like a human being again. When I decided that I was going to come back, I went in to see my agent, and we sat down to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to pick up right where I left off—with the wall of the sound, post apocalyptic sort of edgy thing I was getting known for. I wanted to do something a bit more grown up with more weight. I wanted something with gravity. A few days later, my agent said there was interest in my doing Les Miserables. I just cracked up, because, of course, I was thinking of the musical.
I do think that’s everyone’s immediate thought.
I hate musicals. I told my agent that I’d be the worst person for that—I’d mess it up. When he told me it was the book, something clicked. I remember that I read the book years ago. I used to tour a lot, and every time I was on the bus, I’d take a big stack of books. On a tour through France, I read Les Miserables. I loved it. I’ve never seen the musical, and I never want to—it’ll ruin it for me. It’s got everything. It’s got these dark characters wrestling with demons, good versus evil, death, betrayal. When I found out that it was going to be a 6 part adaptation and that it was going to be written by Andre Davies—who did the last War & Peace series—I knew I had to do it.
I had a Skype interview with the producers and the director, Tom Shankand. He was so passionate that I knew he was the real deal. He wanted to go back into the Victor Hugo book. It’s like a French Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Part of what Hugo was trying to do was let the world know of how these people were suffering. He was a brilliant man. He was trying to change legislation—he was a real champion of the poor. Tom wanted to get back to what the story was about and keep it raw. I was sold. A week later I was lucky enough to sit in a read through with the actors. Normally, I get brought onto a movie and they’ve practically finish the cut. It was interesting because they hadn’t even started filming yet.
Yeah, I got to sit in and listen to their inflections the first time they were reading through it. There were ideas straight away. Lily Collins is this tiny thing, so that vulnerability was there immediately. I got to see Dominic—this huge guy. It was very inspiring. When I came onto it, I thought they weren’t going to start shooting for another 2 or 3 weeks, so I thought I’d have 6 months to wait for it. Then Tom and producers told me they wanted songs written, and I was like…hold on, what do you mean songs. There are these little songs and piano pieces in Hugo’s novel. They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I told them that I had never written anything before they started shooting ever. So I had 3 or 4 weeks writing these things.
With sitting in on that first reading, did it feel like the music could change with the characterizations or maybe that it would even help build the characters? I’ve never heard of a composer getting to see that so early.
Neither have I! With these great actors, it was amazing to see them. With David Oyelowo, you could see the posture he adopted—just reading it aloud. And I thought to myself, “That’s not natural.” There were all these different things I was watching—with him especially. When you’re composing in a medium that you already know about, you’ve got to make the distinction that you’re not scoring the book. You’re scoring this new retelling of the story. You have to be sensitive to what this new version is going to me. So, for me, watching David to his read through, he did a very quiet, controlled voice. It was different than the book. The same with Dominic. Dominic was a lot warmer with his Valjean than I remember the character being. I was putting notes in my phone and a lot of the things I felt that day helped me later on.
Once they started shooting, I just faded back to LA, and I was on my own. Just being there that day and cross referencing that with the scripts allowed me to write most of the scenes before they dropped the first episode with me. I got a real head start. I couldn’t write anything to picture, obviously, but by the time they gave me the first episode made such a big difference. I was lucky that when I agreed to do it, the read through was 5 days later. It was an amazing experience.
The miniseries has such beloved characters—whether you’re familiar with the book or the musical. Was there someone you really liked writing themes or motifs for?
It’s obviously to say the two main characters, but for them that was the biggest well. And it’s not just character scenes. I think some of my favorite things in there were the hulks scenes. I wanted to have something that felt utterly repetitive. What would be the repetitive sound of nothingness of this guy’s life? I ended up climbing inside the piano and muted some strings and was tapping one of the low piano strings with my finger to get this “dun…dun…dun…” It was this annoyingly repetitious thing that is so uncomfortable because you’re waiting for the chord to change. And it kind of doesn’t for ages. His biggest fear is getting caught. As soon as Javert sees him again at the factory you hear very quietly the “dun…dun…dun…” I was trying to do the John Williams thing with Jaws. If he can do it with two notes, I wanted to do it with one. I thought it was a way to be effective without being necessarily musical. It’s not necessarily the character themes, but it’s the situational themes.
That repetitiveness feeds into Javert’s obsession with catching him.
You’re absolutely right. Javert’s version of it was much lower. His driving force throughout the whole story is his skewed sense of justice. In episode 3, 10 years have passed and he’s receiving the Medal of Honor, and when the camera comes to his face, it means nothing to him because this one man got away. You see him go to his room afterwards and when he starts eating his meal, you can see he does not taste it. Then you hear the lower version of the same theme and this hunger will never go away until he’s caught Valjean. It was a nice way to tie in the repetitive life of Valjean in prison with Javert’s mechanical obsession. It’s sort of Javert’s state of mind theme actually.
One of the most distinct pieces of music is when Fantine cuts her hair off and her teeth are ripped out of her mouth. The music feels like the score of a horror movie.
It was such a difficult decision to do it that way. Some people at the BBC said, “You can’t do it that way!” We had this scratchy viola when she gets her teeth pulled out. I thought it’s more gruesome without music. I argued with Tom because I thought that you need to hear the sounds of the teeth getting wrenched, and he said it’s too hardcore. We needed music to remind people they are watching television. I had that little theme for her on a music box with whole carnival. I wanted to do it a bit more macabre cinema—a bit otherworldly with this circus vibe. The guy who does the teeth pulling already has this painted face and hands, so I played into that. What changed it was I had this wonderful violist named Andy.
I need something to be whimsical but also be kind of fucked up and edgy. We had him in the studio and we were working through some articulations. We tried it with harmonica and tried it with the bow going one way and then the other, and then we tried putting it all together. We came up with this sound and I take no credit for it—it was him. It was swirling around and it was so fucked up. So we pulled the picture up, and we started as if we don’t know what’s going to happen to Fantine. Like she’s just going to get a haircut but we know it’s going to get bad. When we go into the teeth pulling, we were going let loose a little bit. There’s a moment when the old woman grab’s Fantine’s shoulders and pulls her back, and I thought wouldn’t it be cool if we did a viola version of the great guitar crash of Radiohead’s “Creep”? I asked him if he could do an 18/16, Johnny Greenwood crash in when he goes to take the teeth. He did it in one take. It made it completely over-the-top, but sometimes you gotta say fuck it. We may get hung for this, but let’s go for it.
I was going to ask if you used any nontraditional sounds in that sequence.
It sounds like a Les Paul with a lot of pedals with a lot of distortion. It was just the sound that we were getting from the viola. Once we had that sound, we wanted to use it in other places.
The scratching sound reminded me of the sounds people are scared of when they go to the dentist. It helped that she’s getting her teeth yanked out, so thank you for scaring the crap out of me with that.
We did use some non-orchestral sounds, but in that moment it just happened to be an orchestral instrument making that metal scraping sound. I hate the dentist too, so that sound really helped. It’s what you get with great musician.
There is obviously a lot of heavy material with this piece of fiction. When you get to do something different for the story—like the sweeping romance for Cosette and Marius—was that a welcome change?
It really did. Tom had an idea of what he wanted, and I had an idea of how I wanted to do it. He wanted a very gnarly folk score and to just use the music of the day. My original idea was 1816 Velvet Underground meets classic French 60’s romantic film music so we had these really light highs with grungy darkness. We ended kind of meeting in the middle. Some of the Velvet Underground stayed. What we both loved was when we went to the world of Cosette and Marius, we went to a stylized version of what she thinks love is. She’s just this abused kid who goes to live in a convent, so she has no idea what it really is. She’s 16, so she has every right to be romantic about everything. When we got to play her frame of mind, we got to play this romantic style. It was a relief after all the dirty stuff we’d be doing. I never thought I’d say that I was ready to get into some of that love stuff.
Since it’s 6 hours, this version really feels like 3 movies stacked on top of one another. Did the size of it all intimidate you?
I’ve done movies that have become big. My first thought was like, “I can’t win here.” Even though I’ve never seen the musical, people are going to watch it and wonder where those songs are. I didn’t think it was intimidating, but I did feel like I had a monkey on my back. Whatever I do, it’s not going to be the musical. A cloud that was always there. The only way to get through that is to completely own it. It’s clear that we aren’t trying to reference the show in any way. The first time I got the first episode, I think I was in denial. When I told people that I was doing it, they got so excited. But the first time I saw those famous two words come up on the screen, I thought, “Fuuuuck.” I had a beer and calmed down and we were fine from there. One small moment, and I got my shit together.
Les Miserables is streaming now.