Emmy winner Walter Murphy’s classy, brassy music can be heard all over Seth MacFarlane’s wacky TV creations Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show. So he was an obvious choice to score MacFarlane’s first live-action feature film Ted, in theaters today. What’s it like moving from cartoon pooches to CGI teddy bears? A couple days before he took home two plaques at the 2012 ASCAP Film & Television Music Awards, I asked Murphy to expound.
You’ve got two shows, a movie coming out this week, and I’m sure a lot of press to do, and yet you still sound so chipper! How does that work?
Well you know actually, I’m fine. It’s Seth MacFarlane who’s besieged by stuff. I keep my head low.
How closely did you and Seth work on honing the musical language for Ted?
Very closely. He’s an easy guy to work for because he really knows what he’s looking for. It’s always a pleasure to work with someone like that because it makes your job easy - you just have to go do it. I would write and demo segments of the film and send it to him, or he’d come over and look at it and make comments about this or that, and I’d tweak it. There are segments that we really tweaked a lot, and there are portions of it that I grasped on to very quickly. But it was definitely a collaboration.
Has your creative relationship with him changed much in the years that you’ve worked with him?
Not really at all. Luckily, when we met, we got along famously and still do. Also, we have a very similar taste as far as music’s concerned, and also dramatically how things should play. So over the course of time, we’ve developed a verbal shorthand, as anyone would. He could just say “Hey, you remember when you did this scene in this show and I liked that? How about something like that over here in this situation?” and I know what he’s talking about. So one really nice opportunity about this film is that I got a chance to write a score that spanned the whole film. In a comedic film, you don’t often get that chance; it’s normally a lot of pop songs and then the composers fill in dramatic spots here and there. But Seth let me write an overarching theme, so if you listen to the first minute and a half of the score, the musical germs of the entire score are in that minute and a half. So it hopefully gives a complete feeling to the listener. And you don’t often get a chance to do that. More often in a dramatic film you might, but for comedies it’s kinda rare.
So you treated it almost symphonically, with different leitmotifs that recur?
Yeah. There are two main themes that are at the beginning of the picture and they appear periodically in different guises throughout the film, basically attached to different characters, when you see it. So, yes, I was trying to do that.
This is a mix of live-action and CG animation. Did the fact that the character Ted is completely computer-generated present any interesting challenges for you in writing the score?
No, because after about two minutes you forget that you’re looking at an animated character. I mean, the way Seth has voiced it and the dialogue that the bear has, and especially Mark Wahlberg’s interaction with him, you don’t realize that after a couple of minutes, so it really didn’t present any challenge in that way.
So would I imagine that you were scoring to picture the entire time? You didn’t have to pre-record anything?
Oh, yeah. Seth and I wrote a song about a year ago, which became the main title song called “Everybody Needs a Best Friend,” but other than that I wrote everything to picture.
Did you feel like there were any scenes or moments in the film that took more revising than others, or were especially complicated to score or record?
Yeah, the car chase. There’s quite a long car chase near the end of the film, and trying to get the right tone that Seth wanted took a few passes [before we] hit on the right thing.
You use a somewhat similar orchestral palette in Family Guy and American Dad compared with Ted. How did scoring for Ted depart from your TV work with Seth?
Well, generally, television works very telescoped, you know? You only have 22 minutes and the occasions for music are very short, and you have to be musically to the point in order to convey just a certain idea or feeling...you really can’t develop musical themes at all. So that’s the big difference in writing a feature like this, where you have more screen time to say what it is you’re trying to say.
Given that, is it an ambition at all of yours to write large-scale orchestral work that’s not tied to picture?
Well, I have things in drawers that I pull out every once in a while to work on, as I think everybody who writes in some way might have special projects of their own...so I do have a couple things, but nothing that’s come to fruition, really.
Do you write and orchestrate all the music that you score by yourself?
I do. Well, I have an orchestrator but I do sketch everything out myself. I have to make demos of everything for most of the producers that I work for, so I play all the parts myself, then I print out the notation screen and give it to my orchestrator so it’s really well fleshed out.
Is that pretty rare in the film/TV world for pretty much everything that you write to be demoed by one person, namely you?
You know, it might be. Everyone works differently, and it depends on your relationship with the producers you work for. I mean, I’ve worked with Seth for a long time now, and I still do it this way because he’s really astute about everything, especially music. He often makes comments that are very, very astute and it brings up things that I wouldn’t have thought about in terms of little dramatic emphases here and there...but then the good thing is that when we record it with the orchestra at Fox, the producers don’t come! So it makes it go very, very smoothly. There’s a lot of work on the front end of it but I guess it all evens out.
Seth recently tweeted that you outdid yourself with your music for Ted. Are you particularly proud of this score?
Oh, I’m very happy with the way it turned out and that I got to do it here in Los Angeles with these great players; we had an 80-piece orchestra for the whole film and I worked really hard on it. I’m really, really happy to have this opportunity.
What’s coming up next?
Well, Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show...after, I think I have about six more weeks off, and a few other irons in the fire. We’ll see what happens.
Ted is in theaters now. Find out more at www.tedisreal.com.
Read about Walter Murphy at his IMDB page.