Composer Paul Leonard Morgan On His Emmy Nominated “Limitless” Score
Composer Paul Leonard Morgan wasn’t expecting any recognition for his score to the CBS television series “Limitless.” He was simply excited to be able to experiment with some interesting music over the course of twenty-two episodes. Although Morgan is busy scoring his next project, he took some time out to answer a few questions about his process, his score for “Limitless” and what it felt like to receive this first Emmy nomination call.
Variety 411: After scoring the theatrical version of “Limitless” what excited you to score the series?
Paul Leonard Morgan: I had never done American TV before, and it was cool. I went in to meet (director) Marc Webb and one of my favorite people Craig Sweeny, the show runner (and) discussed what we wanted to achieve. I always thought of LIMITLESS as my baby since it was my first big Hollywood film and suddenly I had this opportunity to do it for a TV series. It’s 22 episodes and completely different from the film. Both were totally up for it. It’s a bright clean slate and we just went for it. “Do your thing,” they said. They were so supportive and it was a fantastic opportunity to create a sound for the series..
411: The score is primarily electronic, however, I noticed there was a mix of traditional orchestral sections in the pilot as well. Prior to working on the series, what were the early discussions with the producers and show runners regarding any notes on style and types of sounds they wanted?
PLM: When we were discussing sounds one of the first things (that came up) was the fact that Brian Finch, played by Jake McDorman, used to play a band. It got me thinking, “This is a great start from the sound point of view.” He wasn’t a good guitarist, but he had this kind of indie, quirky feel to him. I also tried to tie-into a lot of the license tracks we had for the series. Craig has a fantastic eclectic taste in music, so everything was really current.
Going along, I really want to differentiate when he’s high on NZT. I had this little motif I introduced as soon as he goes on the pill – we know he’s about to become incredibly bright and clear. Synthesizers are great for that because you can achieve a clean sound, whereas during the rest of the series arch you can make it more cinematic. It’s a schizophrenia score.
V411: How did you approach creating the score for the series: was it character driven, action driven, a tool to guide viewer’s emotional responses, or a combination of all these elements?
PLM: I think what I loved about doing this score was that it was really eclectic. As I said, there is a lot of electronica, synths from the 80s and 90s. I always like doing a combination of hybrid sounds. I find that if you just do synths scores or orchestral scores they start to sound the same. Experimenting with sounds and different techniques help create different opportunities in the score and create a lot of emotional moments. For example, Jake McDorman vs Bradley Cooper’s stories in the LIMITLESS TV series vs the film. Bradley Cooper was a struggling writer. He pops the pill and suddenly becomes a success writer and successful with the ladies. It’s all jolly good, whereas with Brian it’s very tender because he took the pill to help save his dad from dying. At that moment we know that Brian sold his soul, not to the devil, but to the FBI (who are trying to find the origins of NTZ).
So I managed to introduce this dramatic material just like I would in a film score. It’s emotional without being cheesy. There is a nice guitar motif that is introduced in a hospital scene (where Brian visits his ailing father) and that is what I call the family tune. As the series progresses, that tune become elongated, adapted and varied so that whenever he had family problems, that theme anchored him to the family. It was his one moment of sanity in this otherwise crazy world trapped in lies and deception. I tried to use different orchestration for the different parts of the different characters in different scenes of the series so that viewers, even subconsciously, kind of know where the characters are emotionally.
411: Did you use a diverse array of instruments through the course of the series?
PLM: I had been working on No Doubt’s album with this producer Mark “Spike” Stent just before doing the film, so I had a lot of old 80s keyboards around that had previous sounds programmed from those recording sessions. Neil Burger, the film’s director, said he loved it and I said, “Well….let me modify them a bit, but let’s use them in the film.” That’s how I came up with the NZT theme, whereas for the TV series I wanted lots of different motifs and lots of different sounds to help identify with the characters.
411: It also seemed to me there was a variation, or sample, of “Happy Pills” from the movie’s score. Is this accurate? If I am correct, what was the reason to integrate this theme, although modified, into the series?
PLM: Kind of. It’s not so much a variation and definitely not a sample, but again it goes back to these little motifs. If you look at a John Williams’ score, (for instance) RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, it’s a fantastic use of thematic material, but this mass of material is kind of half a minute long. (Starts humming the tune of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Whereas the use of melody and motif in TV, specifically to this, because Brian is suddenly popping a pill and his character is changing very rapidly afterwards. If you haven’t got enough time, 30 seconds makes people realize there is a very quick transformation happening. I just wanted a shorter motif. It’s similar, but not the same, but it was funny because everyone was like “Oh my god! I can’t stop singing this tune.” Every week during spotting sessions with the directors you would hear people whistling “do do, do do, do do” all around the place.
411: Speaking of themes; did you have a few different themes you created for re-occurring characters or elements (FBI, Brian Finch, family, etc.) and / or the situations they found themselves in?
PLM: Yes, there was a Piper theme, his on/off girlfriend. There was a dad theme. What’s nice about 22 episodes is that you get a chance to prolong those themes, alter them, and do variations. We introduced some sort of “super hero” chords. He’s not a superhero at all, but there was this moment when he was high on pills and he was trying to work out things in his mind. I started revisiting that in later episodes. It felt bigger than one person and suddenly it felt like it could really change the world. In that moment it made sense to have an over-the-top theme. It’s nice having the ability to expand as the program goes on.
411: How much time did you send experimenting until you found the perfect direction for the score? Did you start with a traditional instrument, such as the piano, then turn towards electronic elements or other instruments?
PLM: I had a total of, about, five days to do the pilot episode. I hadn’t slept for three days and the producers were going, “I can’t believe you’re doing this. It sounds phenomenal and you’re doing it so quickly…..but just one thing. You have one more cue before you go to sleep.” (Laughs) But I think what was great. I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but I seemed to have function best when I didn’t slept. It just gets your brain going in a certain direction. I think the adrenaline and getting the buzz got me on a roll. By the end of it, I looked back and wasn’t sure how I got there, but I was really in the zone. The thing that everyone always comments about on the LIMITLESS score is that it’s full of energy, schizophrenia and has lots of different things going on, like the show. Every time someone popped the NZT pill their brain was working overtime and I wanted to take the audience on that ride to make them feel the way Brian felt, on the edge of their seat. There was some traditional instrumentation. I play the piano, violin and different instruments, but it was actually going along more with my old synthesizers. The sound was about achieving these pulsing 80s bases. It’s a crossover hybrid between a dance score combined with more traditional elements, ultimately achieving an edgy score.
411: Looking back over some of your previous work, you really have enjoyed using a diverse ranges of instruments and styles: from the vocals and indigenous instruments in “Walking With Dinosaurs” to the gentle flutes and broad orchestration in “Making Scotland’s Landscape” to the forbidding brass and base in “Spooks.” Is there a particular musical style you gravitate towards, or enjoy exploring more than others? Or are you always on the search for a new sound and new way to challenge yourself?
PLM: It’s not so much. I’m always on the search for a new sound bite, yeah, I completely agree. I’m always trying to challenge myself. At the moment I’m working on, as of yesterday, an Errol Morris film that’s premiering at the Toronto Film Festival. At the same time this week I’ve been mixing DAWN OF WAR 3, this massive video game that’s coming out. Also, I’m working on some Disney stuff and this Danish film. I think one thing leads to another. You don’t work for the sake of it. You have to love the project you’re working on. Every job that you do leads to something else. If you write in the same style all the time you get pretty bored. For me, I was classically trained, worked with a hundred piece orchestras and then I started producing bands and doing arrangements for bands. Then the band stuff leads me to play a dark orchestral style and doing hybrid scores where you have orchestras against dance beats and dance beats against drum beats, etc. I like having a mishmash of sounds. I think that anything you can do to make your stuff sound different is great.
411: Noting you fluctuate between film and television, what do you look for in the projects you get involved with?
PLM: I fluctuate between TV and film, but also theatre, games, bands, installation art and anything else. I’m up for anything as long as it interest and intrigues me. If I read the script or someone talks about their projects or is if I get an idea I can imagine it in my head. I’ll go off tangent and start thinking about the subject and start pouring over ideas. It doesn’t matter about the budget all the time, who’s going to see it or what’s it going to say. It’s about whether it appeals to me. If you’re going to spend two months on a film soundtrack in a darkened studio, or if you’re working with the band for two months, you want to know that you’re going to get on with these people. That is going to give you a buzz. That’s what it’s about. Music is a passion, it’s not a job.
411: This is your first Emmy nomination. How do you feel to have received the nomination? What was it like when you received the call informing you of your nomination?
PLM: It feels absolutely amazing having the EMMY nomination. I’ve had some BAFTA nominations, but having just moved to the States a couple of years ago and for this being my first first American TV series, I’m deeply moved. I tried to do something completely different with the score that was true to myself and to then get a phone call saying I was nominated, especially by all these other incredible composers in America that have heard my stuff and responded to it in full, was amazing. The fact that they liked such a random schizophrenic, different score…yes, it was a total buzz! I had no idea it was even EMMY nomination day either. EMMYs are something that happen to other people, not to you. It was lovely and very surreal.