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Kill the Piano Player: Composer Sean Murray on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Call of Duty and Jesse V. Johnson

A white man with a dimple talks on a cell phone on a street.Aaron Eckhart in Chief of Station

You’ve probably heard Sean Murray’s music without knowing it. A composer for nearly 40 years, his work has appeared on dozens of soap operas, action movies and cultural touchstones like TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Call of Duty video game series. His most fruitful collaboration has been with his longtime friend Jesse V. Johnson, a director of low-budget/high intelligence genre movies—the latest of which, Chief of Station, a spy thriller starring Aaron Eckhart, was released in May. Both Murray and Johnson are students of old Hollywood, and their films and scores honor the spirits of their idols. 

Filmmaker: Your father was the actor Don Murray (Bus Stop, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Could you talk about him and how he got you interested in the movie business?

Murray: Yeah, he just passed away on February 1st at the age of 94.

Filmmaker: My condolences.

Murray: Thank you very much. He lived a full, exciting, interesting, long life and died at home in his bed listening to Pavarotti with my brother. The very last film that he did was a film I scored called Promise (2021), a Western directed by and starring Joe Cornet, who I’ve done several Westerns with. So, Don Murray had his last performance at the age of 91 back in 2020.

It’s wonderful to get to score films with my father. I think I’ve done three over my lifetime. The first was Scorpion back in ’86 starring Don Murray and Tonny Tulleners. Tulleners’ claim to fame was that he had beaten Chuck Norris in karate matches. He was a big karate guy, so they thought they’d make a new ’80s karate star out of him. I was 19 years old. By that time, I’d done about 70 student films for a film school in Santa Barbara–I was 16 when I started, so I had quite a catalog of music. And of course, my dad, being the dutiful father, told the director, Bill Riead, “You’ve got to take a look at Sean’s music. He’s been scoring student films, and he really is a great talent. And my friend, the composer Barry De Vorzon [The Warriors] thinks he’s going to be going somewhere with scoring for film.” And Bill said, “Yeah, no. I’m not interested in an actors’ kid.” [laughs] So, my dad was persistent and had me come down to the set when they were shooting. I brought Bill a few video tapes of some of the scores that I did in short films; he listened to them and said, “You know what, Don? The kid’s got talent.” I ended up going to the set some more and developing a little rapport with him, so he ended up hiring me for that. We did another film with the same director about 15 years later, Island Prey (2001), starring Don Murray and Olivia Hussey. 

Filmmaker:  Going back to the arc of your career, how did you go from ’80s action movies to TV and Buffy the Vampire Slayer?  

Murray: The first time I ever wrote anything for television, I was 15. My father was one of the stars of Knots Landing, and of course he wrote in a band part for my rock group and I wrote five original songs for it. That was the first thing I ever did for television. Then I was doing soap operas with Barry De Vorzon—As the World Turns, Guiding Light and Another World. I worked on that for three or four years, so I was able to get quite a bit of a catalog going with him. That’s where I learned to write really fast: I had to get a certain amount of cues done every day. It was library music, but they needed volume and we were pumping it out.

I got an animated series on the USA Network called The Savage Dragon, which was Erik Larsen’s creation if you’re a comic book fan. Another personal connection: Tony Head, who played the librarian on Buffy, had done the first season. He used to hang out at the house all the time where I had my studio, so he liked my music. He said, “I should get this over to Joss. I think he wants to get some new music for season two.” I had given him my tape—a lot of stuff from The Savage Dragon on it. He ended up giving that to Joss Whedon, and it ended up in a big box of tapes where he was listening to different composers. My partner and I went and met with Joss, because he got down to the bottom of the barrel of the box and pulled out the Savage Dragon tape and put that in, and he says, “I want these guys to come in. I’d like to meet them.”

Filmmaker: When you join a show like that that’s already been on for a season, are you basically just continuing the themes and style of the score of the first season?

Murray: No. I didn’t even listen to it, although his last name was Murray, which was pretty cool. I forgot what his first name was. [It was Walter Murphy.] But no, Joss liked that aggressive sound we had and ended up giving us the show. Then, unfortunately, we were informed after we signed, “Oh yeah, you’re going to alternate with another composer, so you’re going to do half the shows. One week this guy will do it, next week you guys will. Everyone will have more time.” That other guy was Christophe Beck (Frozen). So, I had to share the season with him doing every other show, but it worked out okay: I enjoyed doing it, it was a big boost to the career and it was fun to do. Very hard work, but I enjoyed the people involved. It was fun to go and watch them shoot it. That gives you a little more excitement about writing the music, when you know the people and see the sets.

Filmmaker: I’m curious about the process of composing for TV. Are you given a script to get the mood, or only an edit of the episode?

Murray: You don’t do anything until you get the final edit, especially on network TV in the ‘90s. You got it, and you got four or five days to get that score done, so it’s just go, go, go. You get a raw tape; you don’t get the sound effects in it, or maybe you got some temp sound effects. But at that time, you weren’t loading the video into your machines. You had a video tape player, then you would sync your synthesizers and computers to the video tape, scrolling back and forth, the old fashioned way. That’s how I started back in the ’80s using sync to video. When I was doing student films, I had one of the early MIDI computers, a Commodore 64 with a MIDI interface. I had some of the first MIDI synthesizers, Oberheims and DX7s and all that stuff. 

Filmmaker: I’m curious how the process changes when you start working in video games like Call of Duty. Are you looking at animatics? Are you looking at early builds of the game? At what stage do you come in?

Murray: The first video I did for Activision was called True Crime: Streets of LA (2003). I was hired to do all of the animatics, or cinematics as they called it. That was just like scoring film. I worked on that for six or seven months, and the rest of the game was all licensed songs for in-game play. From there I went on to True Crime: New York City. The sound guys that worked on that went on to Treyarch to work on Call of Duty, so I was called in to meet with them on Call of Duty: World at War and ended up doing a few scenes. That one was going to be cinematics and gameplay. They used a lot of really high-end graphics showing the different theaters and campaigns of World War II. I’d score that just like I would any other kind of piece of film—you know, it’s static. But when it came to gameplay, what I would have them do is play through the entire level. Give me a video for the entire level of the game, however long that lasts, whether it was half an hour of play or 45 minutes. They’d give that to me as a film reference and I would score that like I’d score an action sequence. Then I’d go back and score it differently with a slightly different vibe, maybe a relative key that you could change to for different sorts of action. So, I’d just do a whole bunch of cues for each level and section of the game with different pacing, different levels of excitement and intensity. So, you could switch on a dime, whether it’s an explosion or an attack coming at you.

Filmmaker: When you’re scoring for video game cinematics, do you get instructions on what vibe they’re going for? I mean, are you going back to old war movie scores?

Murray: When I did World at War, that was 2008, and all the other Call of Dutys, except for Modern Warfare, had that Saving Private Ryan vibe. I wanted to stay away from that and do something a little different. We had the big horns and the big Americana sound, but I also developed some really dark textures and ambiences, especially for the Germanic parts and the Russian campaigns. I used a lot of electronics, treated voices and heavy metal guitars, which amped up the sound a bit. I also listened to a lot of modern orchestral composers like György Ligeti from that mid-century era and drew a lot of inspiration from their strange tonal clusters. I used all of my influences from Tangerine Green to Jean-Michel Jarre and tried to mix it all up.

Filmmaker: It must be hard to develop your own style as a working composer on deadline. A lot of the time you’re trying to fit the timeframe and style of the project. How would you define your own personal composing style?

Murray: My style is very eclectic and each project develops its own character. Instead of them telling you what they want, sometimes you’ve got to show people what they’re going to like.

Filmmaker: I mean, it’s amazing to bring Ligeti to a Call of Duty game.

Murray: There was a great piece called “Requiem for Reconciliation” that was in the same vibe of Ligeti. Another great composer that had more of the horns and the big orchestral sound, Henri Lazaroff, was a big influence on that one as well. Einojuhani Rautavaara—I believe he is Finnish—I was listening to a lot of his work. I had about a 75-piece orchestra on that, plus a fifty-piece choir that we recorded in Prague. Recording in Prague, which was under Nazi occupation, really helped with the vibe, especially for the Germanic campaigns in the game. The string work was amazing. They had a little bit of a hard time with some of my brass work because I wrote some pretty strenuous stuff apparently [laughs]. One day at a lunch break, all the brass players’ faces were red. They were fucking mad. They walked past me and I’m like, “Hey guys!,” smiling at them. They’re all red-faced and shaking their heads. “Get me to my beer break!” 

Filmmaker: They have good beer over there. You go way back with director Jesse V. Johnson. Could you talk about your collaboration over the decades?

Murray: I’ve known Jesse since he was 18. I was just a few years older, in my early 20s. My brother and I lived in Los Angeles at that same place where I met Tony Head, this cowboy shack in the bottom of Topanga Canyon. Jesse came rolling over on a motorcycle when he was 19 and had this cool old Triumph bike. He was wearing those old-fashioned 1930s motorcycle goggles that have some kind of leather helmet. He had a lot of style and panache. He started directing some short films and putting together some concept films to raise money to make some movies. I scored those for him. Then, in ’99, I was able to score his first feature, The Doorman, right after my season of Buffy, and I was doing another show, an animated series called God the Devil and Bob, for NBC. Then he came back to me for The Package, with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren. That had a much bigger budget than anything he’d done. We really did a unique score for that. Again, I used a lot of my influence from those mid-century composers—Rautavaara again, Ligeti and Lazaroff—but also using a lot of electronica and strange sounds. All of the material that I did for Dolph’s character was kind of Germanic because he played a character called The German. I brought in some of those dark ambiances and moody things that I did on Call of Duty: World at War and applied the same concepts to Dolph’s character.

Filmmaker: I know Jesse V. Johnson is a big genre fan and Hollywood action movie scholar. Does he show you an old movie as inspiration for a project?

Murray: Yeah, often he does. On that one though, I don’t think he really had too much input from scores that he loved. But often, he’ll come back with some scores from people that he likes a lot, like Jerry Fielding, who I love a lot. Michael Small is one of my favorites of all time. He worked with Alan Pakula and Jesse’s a fan of his. He’s also a big fan of John Barry. So, often he’ll go back to like a John Barry score and say, “Look at what he did here. What kind of instrument is that?” Lalo Schifrin’s a big favorite. So yeah, we’re always looking at stuff from late ‘60s, early ‘70s to get inspiration. And of course, he loves Kurosawa. So I’ve often listened to some of Kurosawa’s composers. We did that a lot for the Debt Collector movies, using a lot of taiko drums and interesting Japanese instruments. I hired a Japanese percussionist around that time to bring in a bunch of her really interesting authentic instruments. He’s also a big fan of Morricone, of course. He’ll often come up with more obscure things. He’ll never play me, you know, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. 

Filmmaker: Which film had the most Morricone influence? Was that Hell Hath No Fury?

Murray: I think that’s Avengement. That one’s got a bit of a Morricone vibe in the main title, which is one of my most popular pieces of music. On my YouTube channel alone, it’s had over 1.2 million listens on it. It’s a piece called “Mi Mum.” A very British film.

Filmmaker: Oh yeah, that’s probably my favorite of his movies.

Murray: Oh, it’s such a great film. And I don’t think there’s a movie out there that has the utterance of the C-word any more than Avengement. I think it’s probably one of the world record holders of the C-word.

Filmmaker: When you were working with Jesse, I know you probably have short schedules on some of these. How long do you think you usually have to turn around a score on something like that?

Murray: My sweet spot is anywhere from five to six weeks. Most of the time with Jesse’s films, we’re not up against a hard release time, and there’s always so much post-production to do, because he’s very involved in the sound design and gun work. So, yeah, five to six weeks, sometimes two months—depends on the project. That really gives us time to go back in and change and shape things. Jesse’s one of my most collaborative directors. We’ll try a bunch of different things until we get it right. He’s like, “Let’s take this piece from over here. I’m really liking that theme. I think this could do great in this part over here. And let’s lose that and try something different.” I’ve thrown out so many pieces of music working with him. It’s a pleasure because whatever we do, if I throw something out because it isn’t working, then it’s back to the drawing board until it’s grabbing him. It’s great when you have time to mess around and play with different things. As long as you’ve got time, it’s a pleasure to just keep working at it until it’s developing a character of its own.

Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned Alan Pakula. I wonder if his films were in the back of your mind when working on Chief of Station, a spy thriller.

Murray: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Michael Small is one of my favorite composers, and one of my favorite scores as a child was the movie Klute. My mother was actually in that movie, in the opening scene. So, I saw that movie when I was like six or seven years old. Michael Small used some very strange kind percussive instrument that is microtuned. It sounds kind of vibraphone-y, but it’s not a vibraphone. I said, “I’ve got to figure out how to make that sound.” My DX7 synthesizer has this great ability to set up microtunings, and I found a vibraphone mixed with some other mallet instrument and was able to emulate that sound.

Filmmaker: Is there anything else in progress with Jesse now that you’re working on that you can talk about?

Murray: Yeah, I can. It was just announced in Deadline: Aaron Eckhart in Thieves Highway. I’ll probably go out to the set and offer myself up for a death scene. I don’t know if you know this, but Jesse has a gag with me where he likes to give me cameos in his movies.

Filmmaker: I did not know that! But now I’m going to have to keep my eye out. So, you die in every one?

Murray: Almost every one since Savage Dog. I was in a shootout scene, offered myself as cannon fodder for a French foreign legion shootout.

Filmmaker: That one has some gruesome deaths.

Murray: I was in the shootout in Accident Man. I play a mobster who gets killed by the pretty assassin with the katana. She slashes me to death. White Elephant. I was in a shootout scene in that. I believe my head gets blown off. Then I had a nice close-up death scene in One Ranger. I get killed by Thomas Jane with a bunch of drug smugglers out in the desert. I got my cameo in Boudica. There’s a nice close up of me with an arrow through my heart in the big final battle. It’s fun. He loves to kill his piano player [laughs].

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