If you're going to make a movie about a talking shark, a girl who controls rats, a man with inter-dimensional polka-dot pustules growing on his body, and a cosmic starfish, you're going to need an equally gonzo score to match those characters and their R-rated adventure. That's why James Gunn decided to coax John Murphy out of a sabbatical of sorts for The Suicide Squad.
"I had taken a few years off to do some family stuff and do a few of my own projects," the composer tells SYFY WIRE during a Zoom interview. "I decided to start work again and I did a thing for the BBC, an adaptation of Les Mis, which I thought would blow the cobwebs away and do something out of my comfort zone. I'd just done that and I just started to think about I should do next and I really wanted to do a movie. I'd read some scripts and there was nothing I was really feeling that I could be passionate about. And then I got a call that James wanted to talk to me."
Murphy explains that the Guardians of the Galaxy filmmaker was a fan of his musical work on a pair of well-known genre projects directed by Danny Boyle: 28 Days Later and Sunshine. "Even just from a phone call, you could tell he was completely passionate about this. He didn't let me speak, I just wanted to say, 'Yeah! Whatever it is, yeah. It's you, I'll do it.' But he just did this amazing, passionate, inspiring call and that was it."
Funnily enough, Murphy's previous film score from a little over a decade earlier had also been for a comic book adaptation: Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass, which was more ironic," the composer says. "It was more of a canard. They weren't really superheroes, they were f***ed up people who wanted to be superheroes, which was cool. So, I didn't really get into the purer side of the genre until [The Suicide Squad]. But even with this movie, you wouldn't call it a typical superhero movie because you've got these kinds of flawed, broken misfits who certainly aren't heroes at the beginning. They go on this long journey to get there, so it's not your classical superhero film at all."
Gunn decided to throw convention out the window by asking Murphy to begin scoring while principal photography was still taking place in Atlanta. "I just went back and started writing music from the script ahead of him shooting these scenes. And you know what? It was actually amazing because I'd never done that before," Murphy recalls. "When you write from a script, you're not constrained with edits and certain hit points that you're seeing visually and worrying about how you're going to squeeze it all into the exact amount of time that you're watching. [It's] much more open. What you write tends to be much more musical because you're just writing how you think it's going to be, so you don't cut its fingers and toes off."
Fans already know that Gunn has an extremely keen ear for the music he uses in his onscreen endeavors. His perfectly curated soundtracks for the Guardians of the Galaxy films are proof of that, but what viewers may not know is that the writer/director was part of a band known as The Icons before he broke into Hollywood.
"He knows the lingo that I work with because I never went to music school. I was a guitarist in a punk band. I came through in a very weird way into movies," Murphy says. "So, we had a very similar kind of music fan vocabulary. And he's dead instinctive, he knows when something's working. That allowed me to take bigger risks with the music because I always knew at every point that if I went too far with something or something got a bit too quirky or too clever, he'd just reign it in. It was very much a collaboration, but he gave me that freedom at the beginning of each scene to just surprise him."
The biggest lesson Murphy took away from his time on The Suicide Squad was "Be brave" or put in terms Peacemaker might understand, "Stop being a p***y, and just go for it." He calls Gunn "a very brave director" who "trusts his gut completely." The composer goes on to admit that until this movie, he had no idea just how much he'd been holding back.
"[James is] not scared to do things that haven't been done before or maybe perceived as being too much. Even though I used to think that I was a bit like that [with] movies like 28 Days Later and Sunshine. At the time, I remember thinking, 'I'm doing something different here,' and I felt like I was being brave and I felt like I was pushing it a bit. In truth, even with those movies, I was probably holding back. But I think what I've learned from this movie is, 'Don't hold anything back. Just go for it and if it works, it work. And if it doesn't, then what's the worst thing that can happen? You just write something else.'"
This philosophy resulted in a score Murphy describes as "very comic book" with "loads of attitude [and] punky with a big heart." He continues: "For me, when I've watched some of my favorite films in this genre, even when I've loved them, there's never been that feeling, that excitement of turning the page [of a comic book]. That you remember when you've gotta stop because you're mom's calling you for dinner and you're halfway through something and you're like, 'I wanna just read this!' With this film, it just seems to have more of that crazy s*** going on that a lot of films just don't go there."
Fully embracing the chaos and diverse roster of characters, Murphy followed in Gunn's footsteps by swimming against the current of what's expected from a typical blockbuster score. "Normally, you have two layers to a score where you have the dramatic score that will carry you through and drive the action and tell the emotional story, and then you'll have the kind of thematic stuff, which is sort of embedded into it," he explains. "But this had a third element in the score in that when we had some of these featured pieces, the tracks that ended up being featured for King Shark, Polka-Dot Man, and Ratcatcher. Musically, they kind of have nothing to do with the rest of the score, which is kind of weird."
For instance, Polka-Dot Man's costume struck the composer as "really retro and it reminded me of the cartoons I used to watch as a kid." As such, he turned to an analog Moog synthesizer that resulted in a "simple, but sad, low-fi" sound. Ratcatcher 2, on the other hand, comes from a European background, which inspired Murphy to delve "a little bit into Morricone and tried to a few little strings and acoustic." And then there's King Shark, who gets his own tender moment in Jotunheim where he stumbles upon an aquarium full of strange-looking fish that he comes to see as newfound friends. For this sequence, Murphy wanted to achieve a "sad and funny" effect, ultimately deciding on a "retro-y, '60s, French movie with 'la-la-la-la-la.' That kind of lyrical, whimsical vibe." By his own admission, this is "certainly not a conventional score."
"Normally, you break up your score into tectonic movements that broadly fit into the three acts of the movie, but this was kind of different. It went on a crescendo … and just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. You had the thematic stuff, but then you had these little musical vignettes where a lot of people would have used licensed songs. So, it was kind of a weird score in a way, but it's a very comic book movie. Probably the most comic book film I've ever seen in terms of it being so vivid and so dynamic and so twisted and turning. It's like you're reading an awesome comic and it's on f***ing steroids."
You can listen to the full soundtrack below:
Even the climactic battle against Starro the Conquerer played against type — at least from a music standpoint. "That was the scariest decision to make," Murphy says, admitting that he wrote two different cues for the ending. One was "the huge big action thing that you would expect, and it was great." The other was "this little guitar track that was nowhere near as dynamic or as loud and percussive and conventional. But it had a charm. It had this little choir on top and again, it was a very lyrical piece. It was the opposite sort of track that you would ever imagine being on the end of a movie like this."
You can probably guess which one ended up in the finished film. "It takes a brave director to shunt the huge big action piece of music and actually go with the version that you would never imagine would be in a climax of a movie like this," Murphy adds. "I watched it at the premiere on Monday [Aug. 2 in Los Angeles] and it just worked. I was scared. I push the buttons sometimes and I take risks, but even I was saying to James, 'Are you sure? Are you sure we can get away with this?' And he's like, 'No, f*** — it's awesome!' So, I just trusted him and I was right to trust him because he was right. When you watch the whole movie and then you get to this climax, it just pulls the rug from under you and it's just pure cinema. I'll just say it takes a brave director and very f***ing skillful director to make those decisions."
While the film didn't do gangbusters at the box office during its opening weekend (see below for more financial intel), it still managed to be a major hit with both critics and fans alike. A 91 percent approval score on Rotten Tomatoes is all the assurance Warner Bros. needs to bring Gunn back into the fold once he's done directing Guardians Vol. 3 for Disney. He's just the fella to inject some much-needed adrenaline into the heart of the DC Extended Universe and comic book films in general.
"I just think he's pushed the boundaries 360 [degrees] with this movie and I hope that we'll see more truthful comic book films in the future. That would be cool," Murphy concludes. "Batman stuff will always be awesome and the Avengers [franchise] is amazing. But we also need these movies. We also need to all laugh and shout and cheer and be kids again."
The Suicide Squad is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max. The film slightly underwhelmed at the North American box office with $26.5 million by the end of its opening weekend. This is most likely due to the fact that audiences are opting to watch the movie at home in light of spiking COVID-19 cases (driven by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus) across the United States. It fared a little better overseas with $35 million for a global debut of $72 million.