Tales From the Loop debuted on Amazon Prime last weekend, bringing a one-of-a-kind sci-fi series to the masses. Inspired by the art book and RPG from Simon Stalenhag, the quasi-anthology series takes place in Mercer, Ohio, a small Midwestern town that is stationed around the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics. The center has developed the nickname "The Loop" for the particle accelerator-like machine that sits inside of it, which promises to unlock new secrets about the universe -- but ends up adding so much more unexplained phenomena into the lives of those in the town.
There's so much about the series for fans to love, from the ensemble cast that includes Rebecca Hall and Jonathan Pryce, to the truly breathtaking technical aspects. One of the most haunting qualities of the series is its music, which is brought to life through a collaboration between Phillip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan.
Leonard-Morgan is no stranger to poignant and epic soundtracks, with a filmography that also includes Dredd, Limitless, and Dynasty. But in Tales From the Loop, his and Glass' work has an atmospheric but earworm-worthy effect, which only adds to the heartwrenching plot of the series itself. In celebration of Tales From the Loop's release, we chatted with Morgan about coming up with the series' sound, as well as his work on the highly-anticipated game Cyberpunk 2077.
Joining Tales From the Loop
ComicBook.com: What drew you to Tales From the Loop? Because it seems like such a unique project to be a part of.
Paul Leonard-Morgan: The opportunity to collaborate with Phillip Glass. [laughs] I was called by Mark [Romanek], our wonderful director who I adore. He's clearly an incredible person. And I've been wanting to cooperate with Phillip for a while, but Phillip is an unbelievably busy boy. And my name was kind of thrown out in the room, like "Look, Paul's worked with Errol Morris before, he's done three or four films. Phillip's done all of Errol's previous stuff. They've clearly got a similar kind of style." And Mark was like "Hang on, he did Wormwood? I love Wormwood!", which is this Errol Morris thing. So again, Mark then knew my stuff. But it made it a lot easier -- it's not this case of two random people being thrown in a room together. And I've met Phillip a few times as well. So that was kind of a total thing of "F-ck it, because I get to work with Phillip."
But then, when they described the actual series to us -- it's like nothing I've ever heard of before. And getting to do this dream three-month collaboration with Mark just on the pilot, let alone the whole series, which took about nine or ten months. But the kind of level of detail that they showed in wanting to create this thing, it was like nothing I've ever dealt with before. Normally, it's like "We're writing one episode this week, two episodes, whatever." And this was "You want an orchestra? We're going to get you an orchestra." Cinematographers. They've got the talent behind everything about it. It's like nothing I've ever seen before, genuinely, and I'm saying that even if I hadn't worked on it. It's just incredible stuff.
What was the process like of collaborating with Phillip?
The collaborative process with Phillip was, again, like nothing I could have imagined. Phillip Glass is the greatest living American composer, in my humble opinion. And you just walk into a room with him -- I went up to New York and had a coffee with him in his kitchen -- and he's the most wonderful human being.
In terms of the collaborative process, we were looking at images of Simon's from his book, Tales From the Loop, just to get us going. We sat down at Phillip's piano, he started writing chords, and then I started writing the melodies. And it became this incredible process -- I went back to LA, and then we started reading the manuscripts and running through some ideas. And we just started messing around with each other's stuff, figuring out what kind of instruments that we wanted to create this unique-sounding score. And I was suggesting maybe using [one specific instrument] for The Loop, so that every time something magical has happened, [it's accompanied by] a really basic, innocent instrument. So I suggested a recorder, and I'm - bizarrely enough - happily trained on the recorder. So we played it on the recorder, but we could also play it on the Egyptian theremin. Phillip's knowledge of music and his instruments is phenomenal.
And then we had [one instrument] that was like a glockenspiel, but was made out of huge stones from the garden. And again, all of those things led to a soundtrack which is really quite distinct. Mark, the first thing he said to me and Phillip was "We want the soundtrack to be able to stand the test of time, where you could listen to it by itself without watching it with the actual visuals. And you can just listen back to it as a beautiful listen." However many months afterwards, I stepped back last night with a glass of whiskey and listened to that score again. And there's not a day that goes by where I don't think it's just beautiful music.
Is there a sequence in the show, just from a composing standpoint, that is your favorite?
It sounds arrogant to be like "Oh, yes! That one, that one, and that one." Genuinely, there are quite a few. I mean, in Episode #6, there's a couple of beautiful melodies. Episode #8, which is -- I can't really say what happens, but there are two very large reveals. Each of those moments, I kind of look back and go "Yeah." Again, it sounds arrogant, but I'm really really pleased with that, because it's got that heart-wrenching moment, and it all worked so perfectly.
In Episode #1, where - again, without giving too much away - where they're walking towards The Loop and start going underground. There's this big, orchestral sequence, and it's funny because Episode #1 and Episode #2, it felt like this big orchestra. Whereas a lot of the other episodes, it was really cut down -- not because of financial concerns, Fox and Disney and everyone was just so supportive. They all just said "Look, whatever you need to make this brilliant, do it." And again -- this just doesn't happen!
To pivot over to one of your other upcoming projects -- I know you're involved with Cyberpunk 2077.
Aw, yep. That's a totally opposite project from Tales From the Loop!
I know! They're completely opposite sides of the spectrum, but I know a lot of people are very excited about it. What can you tease about that, particularly with regards to the music?
[laughs] Hang on, let me check what I'm allowed to say. No, there are three composers - me, and then two composers who work with CD Projekt Red. Marcin Przybylowicz, who did The Witcher's soundtrack, which is just incredible, and I love it. He's just brilliant. And then P.T. Adamczyk, who I've already worked with, and he's incredible. His beats are just sick, they're so tight. And he sends us this stuff, and I'm going like "Damn you!" And he's like "But your stuff is really great!" But it's like, "You say that, but your stuff is really great!" And then we listen to Marcin's stuff...
I've never collaborated with other composers before, and then in the last year, suddenly, I've worked with Phillip Glass at one end of the spectrum, as far as a classical composer. And then suddenly I end up with Marcin and P.T., who go "We loved your work on Dredd. We don't want to do the same thing as that, but we really really like that style as a starting point."
And it's funny, because you've suddenly got the three of us, and it's not a case of trying to work out "Well, that's Marcin's cue. That's P.T.'s cue. That's Paul's cue," in the same way of working out "Well, that's Phillip's cue, or that's Paul's cue." It's a case of trying to write a soundtrack that's really fluid, that's all in the same world, and still sounds really cool.
And I think the thing with Cyberpunk, in the question of "What style is it?" -- I would say that it's hardcore electronica. And there is hardcore electronica, but it's not this kind of dance music or EDM. And we've got Russian synths and Polish synths and American synths. There are loads of synths going on there, but there's also humanity. Because there's a lot of humanity in Cyberpunk, in a very different way from Tales From the Loop, obviously. But there's stuff that happens in [really emotional] moments, as well as, obviously, full-on chase sequences going on. So we've got real instances of going over-the-top with it, but there are some really haunting bits as well. You've got all this stuff that goes on -- you really kind of create an emotional connection to those characters. I would say it's hardcore electronica, with a lot of humanity.
That's amazing. I'm so excited to hear that, because everything you just described sounds fascinating.
Well, Jenna. It's weird parallel with the way that Phillip and I wrote Tales From the Loop, because it was kind of the same... Game music is as much technical as it is anything else, because with film, you're getting the hit points. The gun's always pulled out at the same point or two people kiss at the same time. Whereas with game music, it's obviously technical, but people don't do things at the same pace. Someone might go and do something and come back. No two people are going to play a game at exactly the same pace. So you're creating, almost, a series of loops. And there are hit points and trigger points when things happen, which then kick off another loop. And a lot of it is about making it sound like it's one piece so that people don't notice.
And on top of that, you've got elements of Blade Runner, you've got elements of that '80s stuff. But at the same time, I don't want it to be a pastiche of '80s stuff. That's been done before, so often. That's why we spent the first month or so of the soundtrack trading synthesizers and trading keyboards and going "Well, what sound are you using? Why don't we try this? Why don't we try that?" And it's a testament to one of the synths that we use, that we've all got, that none of us are using in the same way. I think because none of us know how to use it, it's too complicated. [laughs]
We literally woke up one morning, and we were bouncing ideas off of each other going "What do you think of this for this part?" And they were like "How the hell did you get that sound?" And I was like "With this keyboard." And they were like "I've got that keyboard, and it doesn't sound anything like it." And I think when you've got that. - instead of relying on people to just give a sound, because that's just lazy writing - but using it as part of your creative process, it's f-cking fun. The three of us have been working on the soundtrack for two or three years, back and forth. And by the end of it, we genuinely wanted to create a unique sound that no one's heard before. And I think, fingers crossed -- there's only a few people that have been entrusted with listening to some of it, they've all gone "Bloody hell. This is unreal." We're really excited to release it to the world, but we've got to finish it first.
Advice to Aspiring Composers
Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to break into your industry and get into your shoes of composing for movies or TV?
Yeah, don't. [laughs] Actually, you have to be so passionate about it. When I started out, I didn't know that I wanted to write [television and film] music. I just knew that I loved writing music. And then I started producing bands and I loved anything to do with music. And it always feels like you get to do your passion, you get to do your calling. And you've got to, because you do twenty-hour days in the last three or four weeks of a soundtrack. You just don't sleep. But you're just completely loving it.
With this, you've got to love it. So, what do you do when you want to start doing it? Well, a lot of people go "Oh, I need to imitate this person, I need to imitate that person." I think there's no point in imitating other composers, because - other than the fact that it's already been done - what's the fun in it? It's got to be fun, and what's the fun of trying to do someone else's sound? Establish your own style and establish your own sound, and then people will come to you because they love your sound and they love your style. First and foremost, it's about establishing your own sound. So, go experiment. Create a sound that's not like anybody else's, and it's not because you're trying to be different, but because you really believe in it. And I think there is that "if you build it, they will come" thing -- if you do good work, people will come to you.
Season 1 of Tales From the Loop is now available on Amazon Prime Video.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
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