Paul Leonard-Morgan on scoring Fellow Travelers: “it was a very strange & terrifying era, but it’s also this beautiful love story”

From Glasgow to Hollywood, Paul Leonard-Morgan has had an incredible career thus far — finding himself scoring the Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro-starring Limitless shortly after a period of writing arrangements for the likes of No Doubt and Mogwai. He has recently completed work on two incredible series, The Boston Strangler (starring Kiera Knightley) and the new McCarthyism drama Fellow Travelers. He chats to Headliner about his recent work, his studio, and what it’s like to write the music for TV alongside Philip Glass.

After studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Leonard-Morgan began getting work as an orchestral arranger for pop and rock acts, he says by “hanging around at gigs in Glasgow.” His first steps in writing string and orchestral music were arranging instrument parts for the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Snow Patrol, Mogwai and No Doubt.

“While I was still in Glasgow I produced and arranged for bands,” he says. “And while I was at the conservatoire, I got asked to do quite a few short films, and I ended up doing some UK TV like Spooks, which helped me learn to write music really quickly — that show was wall-to-wall music and I’d do one episode per week. 

"My band work led me over to America, and I then got the opportunity to pitch for Limitless, and once accepted I had about three weeks to write the music for a Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro movie! The film went to number one around the world, and that was the big career-changing moment for me, I guess.”

What made the Limitless score stand out was that it wasn’t just another by-the-numbers orchestral score, Leonard-Morgan instead wrote a heavily electronic score that matched perfectly with its drug-enhancement subject matter. Once he convinced the filmmakers that was the way to go, that is. 

“The difference with working on big budget films is that you’re trying to persuade people to let you do your thing as opposed to playing it safe and rein it in, because it is a business. For Limitless, I was saying, ‘Let me Daft Punk this bit here up a bit, add some samples, detune this bit and add some beats underneath’ — they were a bit apprehensive at first. But then when they heard it, they said, ‘This is so different and cool!’”

For Fellow Travelers, it was never a case of it having to be classical or electronic, I just went away and wrote a theme on the piano.

When asking Leonard-Morgan what are some of his fondest memories from his career so far, the first name that pops up is Philip Glass, widely agreed to be one of the most influential composers of modern times. 

Tales From The Loop was my first collaboration with another composer,” he says. “I wasn’t sure how co-composing would work, surely there’d be a clash of egos? But, fortunately, Philip Glass is the most wonderful human being and has no ego. Which is bizarre, because if anyone ever deserved to have an ego, it’s him! It was a little terrifying when we met at his brownstone townhouse in New York — he was making me tea, asking me how I have it, and also about my music and career. I was thinking, ‘God, has he Googled me?’”

Leonard-Morgan’s most recent project was scoring Fellow Travelers, a Showtime miniseries which, like the book it is based on, follows a decades-long romance between two men that spans the McCarthyism era, the Vietnam war, the Disco hedonism and the AIDs crisis.

“Prior to working on the show, I didn’t realise that during the ‘60s and McCarthyism, people were encouraged to turn people in that they suspected of being gay,” Leonard-Morgan says. “Because being gay then meant you were suspected of being a communist, and you’d be blocked from working in government, in the army — it was a very strange and terrifying era. But it’s also this beautiful love story. Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey are such stars and wonderful actors.”

When the show goes into the ‘70s, I started morphing these sounds through my modular synths and vocoders to make it a bit more trippy.

While Limitless and Dredd are two of Leonard-Morgan’s biggest projects which see him composing heavily electronic music, he is devoted to releasing original classical music also, which has led to him being approached to write orchestral scores also. 

“Errol Morris heard my music for a National Theatre production I worked on called The James Plays and wanted to work with me, which was how I got to work on Netflix’s Wormwood. I really enjoyed working with piano and a string quartet for that, and it just became a thing. For Fellow Travelers, it was never a case of it having to be classical or electronic, I just went away and wrote a theme on the piano. 

"I recorded myself playing it and sent it to Ron [Nyswaner, the show’s creator], and when he heard it he immediately loved it and told me this was the sound of the show. But I knew it needed the intensity of a string quartet in there. And when the show goes into the ‘70s, I started morphing these sounds through my modular synths and vocoders to make it a bit more trippy.”

With Fellow Travelers and other projects, Leonard-Morgan has a template in his Digital Performer DAW so he has lots of his favourite sounds ready to go when it's crunch time in a scoring project. Some of his go-tos are “almost all of the Spitfire library, projectSAM, and for synths I have all of the Divas, the Zebras, tons of Kontakt, and Omnisphere. 

"I use Arturia stuff religiously and endlessly until it breaks my computer! And I have my synth collection of the Jupiter X, my Matriarch Moog, my Pro-3 Sequential, Nords and Korgs, and all my modular stuff also. I use the outboard gear if I’ve got longer to experiment on a film, but things like the Arturia VSTs are a life-saver when I need to get something done quickly.”

it was a very strange and terrifying era. But it’s also this beautiful love story.

For crafting sounds, it’s a case of “using Waves H-Delay and H-Reverb on everything, and I always use all of the Soundtoys stuff. I’d say Slate and Soundtoys are my go-tos. I have a pair of Audio-Technica mics, and the Adam Audio A77X speakers have been in every studio I’ve had for the last ten years.”

Leonard-Morgan has to be tight-lipped about his upcoming projects due to NDAs, which adds to the excitement of wondering what on Earth the next score from this unpredictable composer will sound like. In the meantime, you can try and make an educated guess by listening to all of the above scores, and Fellow Travelers is available to stream now.


Paul Leonard-Morgan headshot: Diana Feil
Fellow Travelers: Showtime and Paramount