We speak to award-winning composer Paul Leonard-Morgan, who started in the Glasgow music scene – and now scores major Hollywood films and TV shows
You can take Paul Leonard-Morgan out of Scotland. But you can’t take Scotland out of Paul Leonard-Morgan.
Now based in California, where his original scores for TV and film have made him a decidedly in-demand Hollywood talent, the composer – who lived in Glasgow for 20 years – has just received an Emmy nomination for his acclaimed soundtrack to high-profile drama series Limitless.
But he’s not settling for a simple tux when he rocks up at the glitzy awards ceremony next month. Oh no.
“I’m going in a kilt,” he laughs, speaking over Skype from an LA studio. “Damn right!
“I’m bringing a touch of Scotland to Hollywood.”
It’s been an eventful few years for Leonard-Morgan.
Having made a name for himself scoring British shows such as Fallen and Spooks, earning BAFTA and Ivor Novello nominations (and a BAFTA win for his first film score, Pineapple), he was unexpectedly approached about a major new thriller starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.
“It all started with the Limitless film. I’d been working in LA, and I got a phone call as I was getting on the plane back to Glasgow.
“I’d done the BBC stuff, Spooks and so on. But never a Hollywood film.”
He got the gig, the work went well, and when Limitless eventually hit cinemas in 2011, it topped box offices around the world.
Synths and superheroes
Just the next year, Leonard-Morgan would also stun movie-goers with his barnstorming electronic soundtrack for stylish, razer-edged comic book flick Dredd.
“The first thing I said to myself was: ‘Why did I sell all my analogue synths for fifty quid when I was a student?!’,” he jokes.
“It actually started with a band score, but it wasn’t really working. So we started experimenting and it turned into a real ’80s John Carpenter vibe.
“It wasn’t about doing a pastiche of Carpenter though. You’ve got to develop your own style. For me, it was about this ice-cold guy, who never takes his helmet off, and this distorted bassline to go with that.
“And for the high rise, it had to be this very claustrophobic sound. This very creepy score.”
Interestingly, Leonard-Morgan points out that the most blissful, gorgeous sections of the score were reserved for ruthless nemesis Ma-Ma – a prostitute turned gang king-pin played superbly by Lena Headey (best known as Cersei in Game Of Thrones).
“The beautiful stuff was for Ma-Ma. In my mind she wasn’t just a villain. She was a tragic figure.
“When she’s lying in the bath on slo-mo, it’s her moment of release from the outside world. I can’t think of another film where I got to write something like that.”
Rock n’ roll origins
Leonard-Morgan actually started his career on the Glasgow rock and alternative scene.
Working at the city’s CaVa studios, he collaborated with well-known Scottish acts such as Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, Texas and Isobel Campbell (whom he has worked with on many occasions).
“It was a wonderful time in my twenties,” he recalls. “I’d just graduated from the Scottish Academy Of Music And Drama.
“There was a producer called Tony Doogan and he would just call up bands and say: ‘Do you want some strings on your album? I’ve got this classic dude here.’
“I remember Simple Minds doing a track called ‘Spaced’ and they insisted on having ten double-bass players. Getting to work with all those people was just terrific.
“I got to play the Barrowlands with Astrid, and it was the first time I’d even been into the venue.”
Photo: Alexander Newton
Briefly returning to his home city earlier this summer, Leonard-Morgan was astonished to discover an LA-like climate had unexpectedly descended on the locality.
“I went back for the first time in 18 months and it was the hottest it’s ever been. It was ridiculous! It was 30 degrees.”
Electro meets classical
His background in a variety of music styles, honed in his Glasgow days, no doubt helps in lending his movie and TV work edge, originality and diversity to this day.
“I’ve always been interested in ‘dance’ music. I’ve always loved crossover between orchestra and electronic. There’s an opportunity to bring orchestra to the masses. It can be the most beautiful thing.
“I always put strings with beats. I had a studio next to Craig Armstrong, and I learned a lot from him.”
There’s plenty of other contemporary composers, and creations, that Leonard-Morgan admires too.
“Clint Mansell is obviously phenomenal. And the score for Stranger Things: what I loved about it was that it got people talking about the music. It’s better to have something that stands out and makes people take notice.”
On the subject of Stranger Things, it’s notable that TV is increasingly upping its game when it comes to music, as well as casts, production values and cinematography.
“I completely agree,” says Leonard-Morgan. “I’ve always adored the music in Penny Dreadful.
“When you speak to producers now, they’re a lot more open for suggestions when it comes to the score. They realise that what it can bring is something that’s really filmic and cinematic.”
As a case-in-point, when Limitless was given its own high-profile spin-off series on the small screen, Leonard-Morgan was enlisted to help bring the same kind of feature film class he provided for the original movie, to the new series.
“It was an amazing experience. Marc Webb directed a film I adore, 500 Days Of Summer, and in synth world there’s billions of combinations you can use.
“We had such a supportive crew and team and any time I was doing something that I thought was too wacky, they said ‘just go for it’.”
Variety is the spice of life
Once that Emmy appearance – earned by his work on Limitless – is out of the way, Leonard-Morgan still has much on his plate.
There’s a film with Oscar-winning director Errol Morris, the video game Dawn Of War 3, and even a Disney ride in Shanghai to provide music for.
“I’m having a blast,” he smiles. “No two days are the same – just as no two scores are the same.”
Main image: Alexander Newton