When it comes to the glorious music that enhances the films we love and brings out every ounce of emotion possible, few have ably mastered that craft than French composer Alexandre Desplat, who has been composing film for music and television since the late ’80s but only started receiving Hollywood recognition in the mid-’00s when he started becoming one of the most in-demand composers working.
In the past five years, Desplat has received four Oscar nominations, including one for 2010’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The King’s Speech, and this year alone, Desplat’s music can be heard in Ben Affleck’s Argo, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom–all of which could potentially be Best Picture nominees–as well as the DreamWorks Animation holiday film Rise of the Guardians and Jacques Audiard’s French drama Rust and Bone, their sixth collaboration together.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Desplat a few weeks back at the junket for Rise of the Guardians, and we did discuss that film a bit, but we were more interested in talking about his process and the way his musical mind works. Desplat is quite philosophical when talking about his craft, carefully thinking about every note and stanza he writes and why they should be included in the film.
ComingSoon.net: I’m a big fan of your work and I’ve seen many of the films you’ve scored even going back to the French films. I’m curious. You haven’t done animation before this. You did “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” with Wes Anderson. Alexandre Desplat: I did “A Monkey’s Tale,” “le chateau des singes” in ’97 or ’98, an anglo-French co-production with the voice of Michael Gambon and John Hurt, and I did a series for French TV at the end of the ’80s, 130 episodes, but I never did something of this level, such huge scope, DreamWorks Animation worldwide, huge story, huge epic orchestra. I’ve never done that for an animation movie before.
CS: I feel like DreamWorks Animation is trying to get away from what they normally do with this movie and a few others, trying to make more of a big cinematic movie, so was that how it was presented to you? Desplat: No, they just presented it to me as a very soulful story, epic, soulful, moving and ambitious, artistically, because as you just mentioned about this ambition of doing like a movie but when you look at the shots, it’s incredible. It looks like a live action movie, and that’s Peter Ramsey’s incredible talent and craft. It’s so spectacular that you don’t feel that you’re in an animated movie. Very quickly you’re drawn into the story and the production design, the depth of field, the camera movements, it’s so incredibly cinematic that there’s no more difference to me, I would say. When I think of this film, as we speak now, I think of a film. I don’t think of it as an animation film, it’s very strange.
CS: At what point do you get involved with a movie? I’m sure it’s different for different movies but a movie like this when they have animation two or three years ago, do you get involved that early? Desplat: They threw a net on my body two years ago to capture me and they showed me some excerpts of William Joyce’s books and how the characters would look, and the production design, and they showed me a few months later, some of the early 3D pictures, which is also something very different. This movie was all tailored in three-dimensional. I think it’s one of the first animation movies tailored from the very first frame into 3D, so it’s not fake, it’s not a gimmick or artificial, it’s really part of the animation. But I really started to work when the movie was almost finished. I said, “Okay, now is the time I will work on this film for three months and I will only do this film.” Which was last summer.
CS: You do end up having seven or eight movies a year in the last couple years, which I guess if you’re doing three months at a time on a movie, it will eventually catch up. Generally, when you start working on a movie. Desplat: It’s just one movie.
CS: You just focus on that and get it done. Desplat: I can’t. I do everything myself. I don’t have a team of composers working with me. I’m the only composer. I don’t have a factory, so I can’t if I had a factory maybe I could do seven movies at the same time, but no, I do one by one and as you notice, all my movies are very different in a year. By doing that, it allows me to switch and unswitch. I do this one, which is one mode with one type of director, and then I do another one, could be smaller, bigger, whatever it is. But I really take it step by step every project.
CS: Before I knew I was talking to you today, I saw “Rust and Bone” for the second time a couple days ago and even though I knew you had worked with Jacques for many years, I didn’t realize you did the music for that until later on. And I also saw “Argo” again which is also different as you say. Desplat: You may not have seen “Reality” which I did last spring for Matteo Garrone, which was at Cannes and won the Grand Prix, and “Renois,” which I did also last winter about the last years of Pierre-Auguste Renois by a French director, so there are so many movies in a row, but again, they’re so different. I can be inspired because the subjects are great, the filmmakers are great and each time it’s a different kind of score that I can write. It seems difficult but to me, it’s just normal. It’s hard of course, intellectually and physically, because it’s a lot of work, and I try to organize myself very drastically. I have a very organized life. I really live like a monk. I literally live like a monk, drinking green tea, exercising at the same time of the day and just focusing and focusing. That’s why I can do it. Otherwise, I would die.
CS: I assume a lot of filmmakers approach because they’ve heard other work you’ve done and they want something like that. Desplat: That’s always a challenge to convince them that I can do something else. I try. I don’t always succeed. Some directors or a producer comes to you and they say, “This piece of music that was in ‘Lust, Caution,’ works so well, it’s so great,” and I say, “No, it doesn’t work,” because I feel that it doesn’t work to the picture but they got used to listening to it for so many works that they think it works.
CS: Right, they use the music from another movie you did as temp music. Desplat: Yes, and then I say, “No, it doesn’t work. It’s the wrong pace, the orchestration is not right, I will find something better.” And it’s my job to convince them and I try hard, believe me, to convince them. Most of the time it does work. I can prove to them that there’s another way and another aspect of me that can come out.
CS: How did you get involved in scoring films? I assume you went to music school but how did you up doing music for movies and TV? Desplat: I’ve always dreamed of being a film composer. I never wanted to be anything else but a film composer. My two passions were movies and music and I was becoming a professional flutist, I was already doing short movies and collecting movie soundtracks. I would buy by mail, being sent from here or there, go to special stores in Paris or to L.A. where you can find rare vinyls, and I would listen to this music and think, “Bloody hell, there’s so much music in these films” in terms of intensity of music, not in terms of amount of music. There’s so much musicality that it’s beautiful and I would see four or five movies a week, and I would just go crazy. I was a cinephile and my friends confirm it now that I always kept saying that I wanted to write for films and I want to write for films for Hollywood.
CS: How did you figure out you had a knack for it? Did you try to get films with no music and write stuff for it? Desplat: No, I never did that funnily enough and I never learned. I learned by watching movies again and again. At the time, there was no video, so I had to go to the theater and stay in the room. At the time, you could stay in the room
CS: For multiple showings, that’s right. Desplat: I could stay there and watch again and again, listening to how Franz Waxman or John Williams, again and again, or Georges Delerue. And then when video arrived, it cost a fortune to have a video player, took me awhile before I could start renting tapes and watch them and understand, but it’s not just learning. It’s also understanding the dramaturgy of the film, so it’s not only watching film but it’s also reading books, going to the theater, getting your eyes drawn into what’s visual, what comes from visual emotion. I mean the minute we’re done today, I will go to the museum or the galleries, because I keep my eyes very busy, and I think that’s also part of my specificity of why I work with films because I like to watch, just like in “Being There.” I like to watch, I like to see and watching, my eyes are extra-sensitive I guess. I get extra emotions from movies.
CS: Do you always have music going through your head? When you go to the museum later, will you suddenly have inspiration for melodies that you’ll use down the road? Desplat: No, it’s not that way, but it’s always there, like a sleeping river. There’s always another current and I know that I can go to the piano or to a notebook, which I don’t have here because it’s in my room, but if I go out, I will have my notebook and I will write the melody or chords or a sketchbook.
CS: You’ve worked with a number of directors a number of times, like Jacques or Wes Anderson, but when you work with a new director, like with “Argo” and that was your first time working with Ben Affleck, are you involved right from the script stage? Desplat: No, not with Ben. No, wait, actually I was. You’re right. Ben, I received a script very early on, before he started shooting. Communication was very difficult because he was in Turkey. He was there and it was a big movie for him, so I just let him finish his film and I met him when the film was being put together in the editing room, that’s where I started working with Ben. It’s sometimes difficult for directors to be ready to work with a composer. They really need to put their film together. Doing a film is such a big
CS: Right they need to know that they have the edit they want. Desplat: It’s a tough job to make a movie and put it together and find the right shape and don’t lose confidence and don’t let the doubt overwhelm you, then you put the film together. Actually, that’s why I like to do movies because I like to see the shape of the film, that’s better for me, that’s why I want to see the images and try to capture what the movie needs and what the movie is calling for and from there, discuss with the director, what route we can take.
CS: Having the screenplay, does that help you decide whether or not to do the movie? Desplat: It helps that but it also helps capturing ideas ahead of time. I have to write a concert piece in a few months and I keep having ideas. It’s just there, just sitting in a box, and I sometimes open the folder and I put a little idea in the folder on a file and then I close the folder. Then I go back to the other side of the desktop and continue what I’m doing there.
CS: It’s always there. I have a section on this recorder. Desplat: Sometimes I run and I go to my microphone and I whistle something or I say “A major chord, go to this, blah blah blah.”
CS: I want to ask about working with Jacques because you two obviously have a great relationship. Desplat: We did all his movies together.
CS: What’s that relationship like? Is it a given that if he’s writing something, he comes to you? And at what point does he come to you? Desplat: I think I’m one of the first readers always of Jacques’ scripts, so I see the script very early on, and he mentions things in the script and we start having conversations. But again, we wait for the moment, because the reveal is really the film itself. You can have 1,100 ideas, intellectual journeys, but it’s with the movie, we decide. In the end, the movie is like a guillotine. (Does a guillotine sound) THUNK. That’s the truth and you can’t escape that. So then we start working with Jacques and try to figure out what the movie’s about and what the music should be about, because that’s always the question. Why would there be music in this film? What should it do? I remember on this one he said, “The main character might be the man more than the woman, somehow, and his music would be in French he said it would be ‘Modeste du grandeur.” “Modeste” means humble and “grandeur” means greatness, so he’s a hero but he’s a humble hero. You see? That can resonate already musically. You have to find sense of it, epic but it can’t be big, it has to be restrained, so how do you do that? You try to figure out ideas of orchestration, of melodies, of something like a hymn but it can’t shine, it’s got to be strong and with dignity but restraint.
CS: Do you ever perform your scores live? Desplat: Not many times. There’s not many options for composers to play unfortunately. I’ve done a few film festivals like Gent. I was in Brazil a year ago. There’s one next fall in Taiwann, but there’s not so many opportunities. Maybe when I’m older, I’ll tour.
CS: I think you’ll find that there are many fans in New York who would love to hear your music played live. Desplat: We’ll see.
You can hear Desplat’s most recent work in Rise of the Guardians, currently playing in theaters, or in Rust and Bone, which is playing in New York and Los Angeles. If that isn’t enough Desplat, his music can also be heard in Ben Affleck’s Argo and then Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, December 19.