From film to TV: A composer’s return to trippy ‘Limitless’ music earned him an Emmy

“Second verse same as the first” isn”t exactly how you could describe composer Paul Leonard-Morgan”s life and career, but you could say some of his life“s melodies repeat now and then.

Whether it be twice writing music for a thriller about a brain-enhancing drug or annual fundraising for a hospital while clad in a kilt, there are a few refrains in Leonard-Morgan”s life, though he”s found ways to make those familiar experiences fresh each time.

Leonard-Morgan composed music for the 2011 thriller Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper. CBS also hired him when the network was developing a TV adaptation of the movie, about the people who discover the powers of a mysterious drug called NZT-48 that gives users access to every neuron in their brain (based on the myth that humans only use 10% of their brain).

Limitless, which premiered last fall, didn”t get renewed for a second season on CBS, but a couple months after the disappointing news of its cancellation, Leonard-Morgan got to see his name on the list of 2016 Emmy nominees. The Limitless score is nominated for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series. It”s the Scottish composer“s first Emmy nom, for his first American TV project. He”s earned BAFTA nominations for British shows Spooks and Fallen.

Ultimately, Leonard-Morgan had a blank slate for the series, as the producers encouraged him to “do something completely different from the film.” Both have a musical motif for the moment characters are popping NZT. For the show, Leonard-Morgan composed a new NZT motif, and that became the series” main title theme.

Executive producer Marc Webb (Amazing Spider-Man, (500) Days of Summer) knew that CBS wanted Limitless to be a procedural, but he guided his composer to create a score that was “so wacky” and so much more “out there” than a traditional procedural, Leonard-Morgan recalled.

One of major differences between the movie and the series was the lead actor and character. Bradley Cooper”s Eddie Morra inspired a sound quite distinct from series star Jake McDorman”s Brian Finch. 

“I scored that in a very different way, because they”re different kind of characters. For me, Brian had a purpose, originally, when he took that pill,” Leonard-Morgan explained. “There was a real emotion to a lot of the music, particularly the family scenes.”

Brian, after getting access to NZT, makes a deal with the FBI so he can help his gravely ill father, while while in the film, Morra, a struggling writer, used the drug to write a successful book and outsmart the stock market.

And Morra”s scenes in the series had a different musical quality than his in the movie, in part since this is no longer his story and also because he”s been using NZT for so long.

Leonard-Morgan”s music for a moment when NZT-powered Morra remembers being in his mother”s womb – “the most peaceful you can be,” as Leonard-Morgan described – became Morra”s theme in the series, a simple piano motif.

“Every time we saw him, Bradley Cooper was this serenity in the world of craziness, because he knew what to do with this pill,” Leonard-Morgan said. “He”s had years knowing what NZT does to you. Whereas Brian had this energy going on with him.”

The Limitless series also gave Leonard-Morgan another chance to turn to Paulstretch, the software he used for his music during scenes in 2012″s Dredd when the characters are on the drug Slo-Mo, which reduces the user”s perception of time to 1% of normal speed. On CBS” Limitless, Leonard-Morgan put Paulstretch on guitar for scenes when Brian is high on NZT. Much like slowing down a recording of someone”s voice will not only slow the words down but change give the voice a much lower tone, Paulstretch on instruments lends them a whole new quality that simply playing them slowly couldn”t – and the software is slowing down music by as much as 8000%.

“It”s very hard to imagine when you”re writing a piece of music what it sounds like slowed down,” Leonard-Morgan said. “So it was a load of trial and error to work out what would sound good.”

Now, about that kilt-clad bike ride: In the midst of his variety of music projects – which range from film scores to video game music to ballets – Leonard-Morgan raised money for Yorkhill Sick Children”s Hospital in his hometown of Glasgow.

Paul Leonard-Morgan bicycling toward Griffith Observatory toward the end of his 2016 kilt-clad fundraise. Photo credit: Diana Feil Photography

It was at the Glasgow hospital that doctors saved the life of Leonard-Morgan”s daughter Zoë, who was born with Hirschsprung”s disease, a condition affecting the colon that could have been fatal untreated. Zoë celebrated her third birthday earlier this year and is in good health.

Leonard-Morgan first raised funds for Yorkhill Hospital in the 2013 Kiltwalk, a 26-mile charity walk from Glasgow to Loch Lomond. When work commitments had him in Los Angeles at the time the 2014 Kiltwalk rolled around, he donned his kilt to do a solo 26-mile walk through L.A. instead.

The composer has repeated the kilt-clad fundraiser each year, a little different each time. For his 2016 trek, he bicycled from the Santa Monica pier to Los Angeles” Griffith Observatory.

Paul Leonard-Morgan posing with his two daughters after completing his 26-mile bicycle ride. Photo credit: Diana Feil Photography

Leonard-Morgan raised about $3,000 this year, asking friends for donations of $3 or $33 (since Zoë turned 3 this year). In 2017, he”ll ask for $4 or $44 donations, but don”t count on him going for the bike again. “I really wouldn't recommend wearing a kilt when you're cycling,” Leonard-Morgan said. 

A time he would probably recommend wearing a kilt: Any occasion where you might run into fellow film and TV composer Bear McCreary (a professed bagpipe fan who used the Scottish instrument in Starz series Outlander and has worn his own kilt on a few red carpets). At the ASCAP Screen Music Awards this past March, Leonard-Morgan wore his kilt, and McCreary, also in attendance, took notice. The two ended up chatting kilts for about 10 minutes, and McCreary promised Leonard-Morgan some names of places where he can get his kilt altered in L.A. – which he needed to do after training for these solo Kiltwalks and also getting into running marathons after his move to California.

Down the road for Leonard-Morgan: more kilt-clad fundraisers and plenty more music compositions. His next project hitting the big screen: Errol Morris” documentary The B-Side: Elsa Doorman”s Portrait Photography, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.

The winners of the music composition categories will be announced at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards, held over two consecutive nights for the first time this year, on September 10 and 11. CBS” Limitless is currently on Netflix and will be available on DVD on September 6.