Composer Paul Leonard-Morgan on Amazon’s Tales from the Loop and Cyberpunk 2077

Tales from the Loop Jonathan Pryce
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Tales from the Loop is a sci-fi series from Amazon Prime Video that’s premiering this Friday. It takes inspiration from the digital paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, adapting the mysterious and futuristic world onto the small screen. The music is as majestic as the show, and I had to chat with composer Paul Leonard-Morgan (Dredd) on his process of creating the score with co-composer Philip Glass. He’s also working on CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, so we had to include that in as well. Some parts of the interview have been edited for length and clarity.

John Nguyen: You’re working on the upcoming Tales from the Loop, a series that deals with robots and how technology can help people.

Paul Leonard-Morgan: Simon was in an Amazon behind-the-scenes video, and I thought one of the things he said was bloody brilliant. He said, “I’m always inspired by innocence. I’m inspired by an incredibly innocent and beautiful world. I realized growing up that adults just don’t have a clue.”

I have to say, “Oh my god, of all the things that you could say at this particular time, it’s pretty much the truth today.” None of us know anything or how to deal with anything. So yeah. Have you seen any of them?

Paul Leonard-Morgan Tales from the Loop Recording at Capitol Key Diana Feil _L1020963
Tales from the Loop Recording with Paul Leonard-Morgan at Capitol Key. Credit: Diana Feil

I’ve seen three episodes. The first episode, and then the other one I saw was about the grandfather. The third one was about the guy who goes into an alternate dimension. But you’ve seen all of them, right?

Oh, yeah, I’ve seen them all. I just don’t want to give the game away. The one with the grandfather is one of the most beautiful hours of television I think I’ve ever seen. And I said that to the entire team, “Every time I watch it, I just burst into tears.”

It’s beautiful. It is weird but it’s not weird, in the sense that there is so much space in it. There is actually very little dialogue, but everything has its own importance in it, whether it’s the music or the VFX or the dialogue. The space itself is as important as the music and the dialogue that’s in there. And it’s just incredibly heartfelt, and it is a really emotional series.

It’s an anthology, right? But then it’s still set in the same universe.

Yeah. Tales from the Loop is set in this town where weird shit happens, but it’s not scary, weird shit in a typical sci-fi way. And stuff just happens, and it’s caused by this thing under the town called the Eclipse. It’s just some spooky magic haunted things that go on.

But the episodes themselves, I think what’s fascinating about it is they are kind of standalone films, like eight individual films that are set in this town. But the town itself, it is about human connectivity with each other. Things that happen make something else happen in the town, which makes something else happen in the town. Say in one episode, you don’t necessarily see the actor again until maybe episode four or five. It’s all kind of self-contained little stories.

So you could watch episode one, and then watch episode five and watch episode seven, and it wouldn’t really make that much difference to your understanding of what’s going on. For all intents and purposes, they are kind of 8 short films. Nathaniel Halpern, the wonderful showrunner and producer, wrote them after being inspired by the beautiful pictures from Simon.

Amazon Prime Video's Tales from the Loop Ep 105
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

The score was featured in the trailer, so people can kind of hear a little taste of it. And it’s very mysterious, sometimes even haunting with the piano. Was the piano the first thing you wanted to tackle?

I composed the music with Philip Glass, the incredible Philip Glass, and we were talking about it. The whole point of this town is that it could be set in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, whenever. It doesn’t really matter because it’s not about technology. “Say well look, let’s not do an electronic kind of sound.” We have a piano, and we have these other weird instruments like the lithophone, which is a bunch of stones that you just hit with the different sounds coming out of them.

And the piano we thought, “Well, this is a really beautiful instrument, obviously, and we’ve got these lovely haunting chords going on in there.” And that’s kind of where we started. We ended up with a recorder for every time you hear something through the Loop, and there was a ney, which is this Middle Eastern wind instrument.

You want to see all of these things as slightly otherworldly, but not so otherworldly that it feels alien and strange and also puts you in a certain country. Again, this could really be shot anywhere. And that’s the kind of thinking behind it.

You mentioned the recorder, and that’s known for being a children’s instrument.

You are right, and again, that was the thinking behind it. It’s the innocence behind it. Episode one is all about the children in the town. And so these two children that walk around the town, what is a simple instrument that’s not going to be too emotionally leading. The cello is going to be too much for the kids. Just a simple recorder playing as they go along. It’s innocent in this little musical motif.

Tales from the Loop - Two kids stand in front of a cabin
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

There are moments where the episodes can feel a little bit scary. And with the music, it kind of amplifies that. How do you go about pulling back on the intensity?

For the first couple of episodes and the soundtrack, there’s a great deal of orchestra that we use. But I think after that we thought, “Well, you don’t need the big Hollywood soundtrack the entire time. A lot of it is this really emotional pull. So we ended up with a quartet, flute, harp, and some bass. But it was really stripped back; it was really emotional.

But what you said about scary, I’m not sure that it ever gets scary. I think it’s definitely ominous and there’s a weirdness to it, but I’m never scared when watching it as I would be with a lot of sci-fi stuff. This for me is about the weirdness that goes on in the town. It’s quirky, it’s about humanity and it’s very emotional and so on. But it’s also about the weirdness that happens. It just kind of happened.

There’s a robot in it, and I remember when I was scoring that, to begin with, I had this really dark theme. Mark, a fantastic director, goes, “Why is this a little dark? It’s a fluffy robot.” I didn’t know what was happening at that stage. I was looking at a still image, and they haven’t shot anything yet, and we did a lot of other scoring ideas before they actually went off to shoot it. So it’s been a fantastic collaboration. So I just looked at this robot and thought it was going to destroy people. But no, it just is. It happens to be standing there in the field, but it’s a nice robot. It lives side by side with humans.

It’s hard to explain to people. It’s technology, but it’s not technology. It’s not like 1000 computers making all this stuff work. It’s kind of this magical technology that seems to work somehow. And it’s the same with robots and stuff. They’re just not mega scary, they’re just there.

Tales from the Loop
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

So it seems like you have been working on this during pre-production all the way through post-production.

Yeah, it just never happens like that. Normally they could’ve put you and go, “Right! Here you go. It’s going out there in two weeks.” Whereas this, there’s a collaboration with Philip, and we just got to work together for about three months in the first episode, putting ideas and sounds together. Mark said, “Well, can you send me some stuff as I’m going out on the shoot now? I want to listen to stuff to try and inform how I’m going to be directing. Give me some vibes.”

And there were a couple of tracks that we had to write because there’s a quartet playing in the film itself on some of the scenes. So you had to write for that anyway. “Oh, this is beautiful. Can we try this now? Can we try that now?” So as I say, it really was a true collaboration not just between me and Philip, but between me, Phillip, Mark, and Nathaniel. It’s great when that happens, bouncing ideas off everyone left, right and center as opposed to just, “Here’s the music. Stick it on.” It really takes you in a different direction when you suddenly got all this creative input. It was a wonderful thing.

With the collaboration with Philip, are you used to working with another composer, or is it something new?

Never. It’s always about me, me, me. [laughs] But no, I’ve never collaborated with another composer before. It was a really interesting process. I was like, “Well, am I taking your themes? Are you taking my themes, or how’s it going to work?” And it ended up as a very organic process where he would just write some melodies, I’d write some melodies, he would take my melodies and put his chords in them, and I would take his melodies and change some of the chords around.

Gradually those things became stronger as we kind of went back and forth between each other. And then I phoned him up and say, “Hey, listen. what about the instrumentation for this cue.” And he’s like, “Oh you should try it.” His idea was this ney, the wind instruments. I was like, “Oh, my God, that is perfect.” He’s such a genius. He’s done so much. He’s 83 and I think he’s writing more content than any other composers that I know or have come across.

I didn’t want to take up too much of his time. He said, “You’re not taking too much of my time at all. You should try this. You should try that. I’ve worked with many composers and collaborated with many composers. I’ve worked with one Scotsman before, but I’ve never worked like this with a Scotsman before. This is great.”

Cyberpunk 2077
Courtesy of CD Projekt Red

And the weird thing was I was working on the soundtrack for Cyberpunk 2077, which is a big game coming out later on the year, with two great composers in Warsaw. The brilliant Marcin Przybyłowicz and Piotr (P. T.) Adamczyk. Marcin had done The Witcher soundtrack, and they’re just bloody awesome as well.

A lot of composers have big egos. But it’s not so much about that. You start to realize it’s about the music. And when you want someone to bounce ideas off, it can be frustrating because you think you’ve written the best track in the world. And they’re like, “We’re not sure about that.” Whereas other times, it’s just great because it suddenly makes you think the same way, like a good director. It makes you think about taking off in a different direction. And so on the one hand, I’m collaborating with Philip last year on an orchestral soundtrack. And on the other side, you have Marcin, P.T., and me working on Cyberpunk 2077 and all this hardcore electronica that’s over the top. So it was a real contrast of styles.

Is tackling different genres a challenge? Or is it something that you enjoy?

I enjoy doing different things. I trained classically at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. And so when I did that, I was writing clarinet concerto when I was 18 when I was studying there. And then I started working with bands. I have been producing string arrangements for them. So that kind of got me into the poppy side. And then the film guys always liked the fact that you work with poppy guys. Then they go, “Hey, you work with bands. That’s cool. Come to my film.” And the bands like the fact that you work with film. It’s always been organic. It’s never been like, “I’m going to do film music.” It just kind of happened.

And then games have been taken off. I’d say, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’d love to come work for your game. I write great melodies and write great music, but you’re going to have to hold my hands with the technical aspects. Yeah, Marcin and Piotr have been absolutely incredible.

But yes, I like it. I like working with the orchestra. And then I like doing electronic stuff. I like doing a mishmash. It just depends on what the project calls for. And I think that keeps it quite fresh as well. You’re not just always doing the same thing. And simply I think if I was always doing soundtracks, I don’t think I could. And if I was always producing bands, I don’t think I could. If I was always doing games, I don’t think I could. It keeps it fresh. But also, your style goes from one thing to the next and to the next. And hopefully, you learn something from all of those things in order to adapt and adopt for your next gig.

Tales from the Loop
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

It’s like never having that feeling of burnout. It’s always something different and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, for Tales from the Loop, it was such a lovely small family vibe. And it’s so beautiful. I mean, I’ve never experienced anything like it. They’re like 8 one-hour films. I’ve never seen on TV the quality and uniqueness of it. They are just as you said, this anthology is eight stories. So working on it, I was never bored. Getting to use real instruments and getting to stand there with them, they became integral to the sounds. And they have the same kind of players a lot of the time because they already know the style. They already know what it is that I’m trying to achieve from it.

Sometimes I think you can get into a certain style of music and go, “Okay, as much as I love electric guitar or as much as I love this, I need to use some peaceful strings now. And then sometimes you listen to the peaceful strings and go, “Right, I need some hardcore smash electronica coming through to take my mind out of it.” It’s as if you’re reading the same book the entire time by the same author. They might be a fantastic author, but you’re going to get pretty bored with it after a while.

Cyberpunk 2077
Courtesy of CD Projekt Red and NVIDIA

With Cyberpunk 2077, does CD Projekt RED have you working throughout production where you can see concept art, video game footage, etc?

Well, games are a weird one. I did short films on the Minions years ago, and I remember working on those and seeing how animation gradually evolves. You’ve gone from black and white animatics to suddenly full-fledged animation. “Oh, now the Minions are yellow.”

And with games, you don’t really have any visuals, to begin with, because they don’t have any. It’s a long process for them to create the shape of people’s faces. They’re suddenly seeing Keanu Reeves’ face, Johnny Silverhand, and it gradually comes across. So I’ve got on my wall, here in the studio, a bunch of stills which were kind of early artwork. It’s really important. If you’re watching a film or a TV series, you’re looking at visuals the whole time, and it takes you into that world. So it is really important to be, “I like to be immersed by anything that gets into that world.” Whereas if you haven’t gotten the visuals, that’s hard. So yeah, I’m looking at a bunch of stills here right now, and I think anyone else in the world will give their right arm to be in here. They’ll go, “Oh my god, that’s what it looks like. Ahhhhh!”

But yeah, that kind of gets you into it, and then gradually they start sending really rough footage of what it is, a really rough animatic. Then again, they’re trying to get that game up and running so that they can send you that, and it’s really rough. It almost doesn’t help because you’re not writing it to the actual scene in-game. You’re writing three-minute loops to go in, which then involves. It gets a hit point, and then goes off and triggers another cue that comes out of that, which then triggers another cue when you get past a certain point.

So yeah, it’s a very technical way of writing. And then it’s the use of those triggers that help you shape the emotion. No two people are ever going to get to the same part of the game at exactly the same time. So you can’t rely on the music to create that emotion. You’re relying on the technical aspects of when to trigger certain pieces of music. And then you’ve got to try and tie that in together so that it’s super smooth so you don’t realize that in actual fact these are 30 different pieces of music for this one mission. It’s really tricky. And hats off to the guys who do it well.

Keanu Reeves Cyberpunk 2077
Courtesy of CD Projekt Red

With Keanu Reeves, did the composing team have to fight for who would do the theme for Johnny Silverhand?

Haha, I can’t tell you that.

It was three years ago when Marcin brought me into this. We’ll have a chat with him saying, “I really like your stuff.” I’d go, “Ah, thanks. That’s cool.” And he said, “I’m working on this. And there’s this other guy, Piotr. I didn’t know Piotr at all, and Marcin’s work in The Witcher was beautiful. He is such a great composer. And Piotr, his beats are just sick. I’m like, “Dude. I’m just listening to this, not because of the game, but it’s just brilliant.” They’ve been saying the same thing about my stuff, but I think they’re just being kind. [laughs]

“How are we going to do this? There are three of us on it. It’s going to be a bit of a mishmash of styles, isn’t it? Everyone’s trying to do stuff.” So what you’ve ended up with are different parts of Night City. Different parts are going on, and some of it is me, some of it is Piotr, and some of it is Marcin. When you hear tracks here, they are collaborations. But they’re collaborations more in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, rather than everyone’s working on the same track. We’ve all kind of taken bits of different parts of the city and then take that and run with it. They’re all in the same genre, but there are some differences between them. But then we’re all sharing samples and whatever else between us.

Amazon’s Tales from the Loop premieres on April 3, 2020. Cyberpunk 2077 is expected to be released on September 17, 2020, for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Stadia.

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