By Randi Altman
Scottish-born composer Paul Leonard-Morgan, who owns a BAFTA award and Emmy nomination, has a resume that is as eclectic as it is long. He has worked on television (Limitless), films (The Numbers Station) and games (Dawn of War III). He has also produced music for artists such as No Doubt (Push and Shove).
In addition to the Wormwood miniseries for Netflix, one of Leonard-Morgan’s most recent projects is the soundtrack for The CW’s reboot of the show Dynasty. We recently reached out to him to talk about the show, the way he works and what’s next.
The name Dynasty comes with certain expectations and history. Did you use the original as an inspiration or borrow bits from the original as an homage?
I remember watching Dynasty as a child, but other than the main theme I couldn’t begin to tell you what the music was like, other than it was pretty orchestral — Bill Conti is such a phenomenal composer. So right from the outset our showrunner Sallie Patrick and director Brad Sieberling and I wanted to do a title sequence with a modernized version of the iconic theme. People don’t tend to do title sequences these days, so it was very cool of The CW to let us do it.
We got a bunch of players into Capitol Studios and overlaid the orchestra onto my beats and synths. I brought in an old friend and Grammy-winning producer Troy Nokaan to pump up the beats a bit. And, of course, there was Tom (Hooten), principal trumpet player with the LA Philharmonic. For me, this is what the whole series’ ethos is about — tying the old to the new. Recording these players in the iconic Capitol Studios, where people like Sinatra recorded… we got such a vintage vibe going on. But then we added modern beats and synths – that’s what the whole score has become. Adding a cool ‘80s twist to modern sounds and orchestra. But other than the titles, the rest of the score does its own thing.
Can you talk about what the show’s producers wanted for the score? Did you have a lot of input?
We had detailed discussions at the start about what we wanted to achieve. Everything to do with the ‘80s is so trendy now — from fashion to music, but there’s a fine line between adding ’80s elements to give the music a nice edge, and creating an ’80s pastiche, which sounds dated.
I produce a lot of bands, so I started taking some of those beats and then adding in lots of analog synths. And then our scoring sessions added an orchestra. I was really keen to use a string section, as I felt that Dynasty is so iconic, giving it a small section would add that touch of class to it. The beats — the clicks, claps and kicks — are what gives the Fallon character her swagger — the synths give it the pace, and the orchestra gives it the cinematic quality. I was keen to find a sound that would become instantly recognizable as that Dynasty sound.
How would you describe your score?
Can you walk us through your process? How do you begin? What inspires you?
I start by watching the episode with the director, editor and writer and then have a spotting session. We work out where the music should come in and out, but even that is open to interpretation, as sometimes their vision might be different from mine. They might imagine short musical cues, where I’m envisaging longer, shaped pieces.
For example, there’s a piece in the episode I’ve just finished (110) that lasts the entire part 4. Obviously, it’s not full-on drums the whole time, but doing cues like that give it some real shape and add to the visuals filmic qualities. After the spotting sessions, I go away and start writing. After a while, you get a feel for what’s working and what’s not — when to leave the dialogue alone and when to try and help it. We’re all pretty keen on not making the music too emotionally leading in this series. We want to let the acting do that, instead of sign-posting every happy/sad moment. When everyone’s happy, we’ll start orchestrating the music, get the parts ready, and then go off to Capitol, or another studio, to record the real players.
The schedule is pretty crazy — I have a week to score each episode. So while we’re recording the real players, the dub is in its final day. As we finish mixing each cue, we then start sending them over the Internet to the dub stage, where they quickly lay them in and balance the levels with dialogue and FX. They’re lucky that I don’t get the chance to go and sit in the dub much, as we’re literally mixing to the last second!
What tools do you use to create a score?
I use MOTU’s Digital Performer to write, produce and pre-mix, then everything gets transferred to Avid ProTools for the main recording session and final mix. Obviously, I have a million samples and lots of original analog synths.
You work in many different parts of the music world — TV, films and games. Do you have a preference? How are those hats different, or are they not very different at all?
It sounds like a cop-out, but I really don’t have a preference. I like working in different fields, as I always feel that brings a freshness and different take to the next project, consciously and sub-consciously. For example, I was scoring a series of plays for The National Theatre in London a few years ago — at the same time I was scoring the film Walking With Dinosaurs in LA and the game Battlefield Hardline — and that theatre score was so different from many things I’d done before. But it led to me working with the incredible filmmaker Errol Morris for his film The B Side, and subsequently his new Netflix series Wormwood.
Dynasty came more from my work with bands. I like working in different genres, as it keeps pushing me out of my comfort zone, which I feel is really important as an artist.
You are building a new studio. Can you talk about that?
It’s been a process! Two weeks to go! Before I moved to LA with my family, I had just completed building my studio in Glasgow, Scotland. Then we moved over here, as I was living on planes between the UK and the US. This was about three years ago. I’ve been renting a studio, but finally the time came to buy a house and it’s got a huge guesthouse in the backyard (2,000 square feet), so I decided to get it properly treated.
We pulled down most of the inside and spent the last six months soundproofing and giving it the proper acoustic treatments, etc. But it’s insane, as I’ve hardly been out of my studio in Santa Monica while the build process has been going on, so the contractors have been FaceTiming me to show me how the progress is going, Trying to make decisions after a week of 20-hour days is hard.
I was keen to move to a place that had birds and nature. Coming from Scotland I like my space, which is not the easiest thing to find in LA. I insisted on having tons of windows in the studios for daylight to pour in — something that is great for me, but awful acoustically, so the acoustic guys spent weeks designing it so the glass wouldn’t affect the sound! But it’s looking fantastic, and I’ll have the ability to record up to 20 players in there. The irony is, having moved to what I thought was a pretty quiet neighborhood, I have a mega-famous hip-hop artist right next to me. His soundproofing had better be as good as mine!
What’s next for you project-wise?
Other than the rest of the season on Dynasty (we’re not even halfway there yet!), I’m working on a game score for the next year and a half, and have a new film starting in the New Year. I’ll also be working with my team on The Grand Tour, Amazon’s big series. Errol Morris’ Wormwood was recently released on Netflix — that’s been a life highlight for me!