Interview with Alexandre Desplat

By • December 4, 2014
(Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

As France’s hardest working musical import since the days of Georges Delerue and Maurice Jarre, Alexandre Desplat has been fighting the good fight to keep a European love for themes and melody alive in an American company town increasingly going astray of either. And judging by the dozens of notable scores for both multiplex (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows,” “The Golden Compass”) and art house on this side of the Atlantic (while being just as prolific on the other with “Reality” and “Renoir”). Desplat has succeeded to the tune six Oscar nominations – among them “The Queen,” “The King’s Speech,” “Argo” and “Philomena.” But it’s unlikely he’ll remain the Susan Lucci of composers for long – as 2014 heralds another year of high quality work that demonstrates Desplat’s dazzling versatility honed from dozens of scores to his credit.

The musical encapsulation of war as something eccentric, exciting, comical, intellectual and an endurance test to emotionally survive has played an interesting, artistic constant in Desplat’s work. Staring off in March with the wonderfully eccentric, cimbalom-driven score that filled up the serio-comic, and finally soldier-filled guest list of Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Desplat next went brassily stomping with a fearsomely angry score for the American army’s assault on “Godzilla.” Art buffs thrust into saving humanity’s creative heritage during World War 2 played a jaunty role for “The Monuments Men,” a film that also showed Desplat could be just as stalwart onscreen as off. This Awards season, the composer has brilliantly encapsulated the mathematical rhythms that suspensefully propel a tormented genius on the mental battlefield of “The Imitation Game.” Then to close Christmas, Desplat becomes the never-say-die spirit of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner in for the match of his life, first against the Pacific Ocean, and then a sadistic Japanese prison camp commandant in Angelina Jolie’s immensely powerful “Unbroken.” Through it all, Alexandre Desplat has never failed to be at the top of his musical game as he’s continued to prove that quantity can be quality when it comes to conjuring one remarkable score after the other – a year in review that he now encapsulates during a rare break before summoning up his next burst of memorable, melodic energy.

What were the challenges of taking Wes Anderson’s dry brand of absurdity down an Eastern European road for “The Grand Budapest Hotel?”

When I broke into Hollywood with “Girl With A Pearl Earing,” it was actually my 50th feature film. I’d done hundreds of short movies and numerous television shows in Europe, during which time I’d I could say I “trained” on every type of instrument. And by nature, I like Eastern Europe instruments and Balkan instruments because of my Greek origins. There was always something that spoke to me there about them. In fact, the very first ever soundtrack I recorded in 1986 was for a string quintet with a cimbalom. So it’s not like I suddenly discovered it. Knowing Wes’s world much better after “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” it was really fun and easy to communicate the idea for an Eastern European score, especially because we now knew which territories we wanted to explore together. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is fantastic and I think it’s his best film at this stage.

“The Monuments Men” also conveyed a serio-comic tone with drama. How difficult was it to capture that particularly jaunty tone that recalled such scores as Malcolm Arnold’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and Elmer Bernstein’s “The Great Escape?”

It’s strange as that is exactly what George Clooney wanted me to reference those scores, along with Maurice Jarre’s “Is Paris Burning?” I loved those kinds of “war scores, and have been listening to them since I was a teenager. So I knew them very well. It was a great challenge, and great fun to capture them. But strangely I think I got my worst reviews in my life because people didn’t understand that my score was homage. They thought I was doing that as a serious matter, you know? It was all about paying tribute to my idols, Elmer Bernstein and Maurice Jarre. Even “1941” by John Williams. I don’t know. My intentions didn’t get through to the critics.

When just about every score you’ve done has got justifiably good reviews that must have been an unpleasant first experience for you.

It was actually more embarrassing for them more than for me that they wouldn’t get the idea that there was a sense of humor there. My score was not meant to be serious.

One particularly fun thing about “Monuments Men” is seeing you show up in a legitimate, extended acting role with a character that has nothing to do with music – which must be a first for a composer in a major Hollywood movie. Did you expect that kind of part in the film?

I was lucky to be with great people around me on “Monuments Men,” first of all with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who are also very good friends. We’ve made “The Ides of March” together, so I knew they could trust me, and I could trust them. It was George who came up with the idea of the character of Emile in the script. He belonged to the French Resistance and had this scarf. George said, “Oh, I know the guy.” So he wrote another scene just to have fun and to be sharing a room with me. That was really sweet and really lovely. I had a great time. And how can you not be impressed to be sharing the screen with Matt Damon? Are you kidding me? He was also very kind and very generous with me and it was a fantastic experience. And since then I’ve kept filming and being on screen. My performance was so great all of Hollywood is talking about me! (laughs)

What’s it’s like to score yourself?

I don’t look at myself, I look at the scene and what’s happening on the screen. I don’t really pay attention that it’s me

Was “Monuments Men” a very patriotic film for you to score, as it dealt with a lot about French resistance?

Of course. My father was in The Resistance. Then he fought with Patton. So that made scoring “Monuments Men” special.

Now, onto “Godzilla” What are the tricks in conjuring that kind of musical massiveness?

I knew from the start the noise level would be crazy in the film and I had to put together a huge orchestra with a lot of energy. Gareth Edwards is a really fantastic director. He loves movie soundtracks and what great music can do in the movies. We shared the same passion about Goldsmith and Williams and all of those great creators. Gareth pushed me to be lyrical and strong at the same time. I think I approached that volume in some of the sequences in the “Harry Potter” scores I did, but not with the same dimension. Because Godzilla is a monster, there’s something different about his music that had to be in even bigger. So I put a very large orchestra together where I had a double brass section and a double horn section and I had them on each side of the room at Sony recording stage in Culver City. That created great possibilities for musical energy and to use the orchestra’s stereo effect. So that certainly made a big noise!

Gareth really picked and chose where you would see Godzilla. In that respect does it make the score all the more important in communicating the monster’s presence?

Absolutely. Godzilla’s seen actually opening the film and then we don’t see him for a long time. By injecting the theme right away, we set the tone. Then when his theme or rhythm comes back, we understand he’s around or he’s on his way. But you’re was very tricky because the “Muto” monsters are what I had to deal with a long time before Godzilla comes back. So I had to inject Godzilla’s themes very early on.

“The Imitation Game” is my favorite of all of your scores this year, especially with how it played the rhythmic combinations that tied Alan Turing with his code-breaking machine,

The music had to convey so many things at the same time because it’s a film with many counterpoints in the story. I felt also the music should capture that. His character is like several fast trains going in the same direction at the same time, but you can only jump from one train to another. That’s not only in his head, but is also about what’s happening around him. There’s the suspense of trying to break the Enigma code with the clock ticking and the feeling of the war that is this big menace. Alan also has a broken soul from the loss of the boy he loved. So there are many musical elements that had to be in one flow, but definitely the speed of his brain was the main element that I felt was the most important. I’ve been lucky to meet people who are geniuses, prodigy’s who go faster then anyone. My wife Dominique is a prodigy. She goes faster then anyone, like a chess player. She could even play music at three years old. People like Alan are always ahead of us. So when you are new to these people, you understand that they think at the speed of light. And that’s what I wanted to capture with these very fast arpeggios with three pianos. Some are programmed. Some are playing randomly by the computer. Some are written. There’s the Celeste the harp the woodwinds, with all of these players doing various counterpoints. It creates this fast complex web of movement, like the synapses or the neurons in Alan’s brain.

Like the art “nerds” of “Monuments Men,” “The Imitation Game” has an introverted person thrust into a battle situation, even if it’s on the home front here. What was the challenge of portraying the broader sense of suspense of the free world at stake within Alan’s ability to channel his brainpower?

That gravitas was an extremely crucial element to the story. You can’t just show what his brain is doing. You have to take into consideration what the world is going through and what is the real battle they are battling for. They’re fighting to save millions of lives. Hopefully they’re lives and the island of the United Kingdom, and also the rest of the world. And they know at midnight the clock rings and it’s the end of the work if they haven’t broken the code, they have to start all over again. It’s a real suspenseful challenge for the music, and I needed to push it in that direction – ticking, ticking, ticking and keeping the tension.

How did you want to get the tragic aspect of Alan getting outted to come across?

I think the tragedy is very early on when we flashbacks to Alan’s childhood and we see him at school with his friend. You can see this boy who will become a man is a different, not only because he’s gay. That’s not even the point. It’s that he’s just different. Alan’s difference will kill him because being different is very difficult to live with, whatever the period of time is. It’s even worse for the time because being gay in England meant you could be imprisoned or chemically castrated. Even today it’s still very difficult to be different. It’s not easy for any kid. Could it be the color of his skin? Or his origins? It makes things very difficult.

How was it to move to the actual overseas war with “Unbroken?”

Since I read the script and met Louis Zamperini, I always tried to stay with his character, as his actor Jack O’Connell is in almost in every shot of the film. This score is Louis’ story, about his incredible strength and magical force that allows him to survive anything and to always stand up and keep surviving. This is a rare, positive message that I wanted my main theme to follow and convey. Actually I don’t really emphasis any of the beatings he goes through. There’s never any music there. The silence is the key of the his prison camp tormenter “The Bird.” So adding music onto the beatings is just kind of useless. I kept my cartridges for the moment when Louis would stand up to him.

What was it like meeting the real Louis?

I asked if I could meet with him, and he said “Yes” of course. I got his address, and it turned out that he lived on my street, right down the road from me! That was just crazy. I couldn’t believe I had run past his house doing my jogging the other day. So we spoke about sounds and his training as a young athlete. It was a grateful joy he had when he was running. He felt like he was flying, like he was free. He also told me that he heard a choir in his head when he was adrift in his dingy. Funnily enough, my father came back with all this army equipment from the time he was with Patton, and one of the pieces he had was a dingy exactly like the one in the film. As a child he would go fishing and he would put me on that dingy.

Did working on “Unbroken’s” intense scenes of imprisonment have a psychological effect on you?

Frankly, no. I managed to keep myself away from the topic of the film. But then, I don’t think I’m happy when I’m doing a comedy and sad when I’m doing a drama. My mood remains the same. I’m just trying to chase the clock to make sure I make the deadline!

Another composer may have felt constrained in not making the music bigger or more soaringly patriotic. What was the challenge of taking a restrained musical approach for “Unbroken?”

Angelina Jolie never wanted me to go in that “big” direction of an overly patriotic, brassy score. She wanted the music to reflect Louis, which is exactly what my intent was. So I always focused on Louis and his incredible power. But If you look at my filmography and the way I write music, you’ll see that I’m more inclined to write restrained music that talks about the emotions, the inner thoughts of the characters as opposed to just spreading musical sparkles around them. I try to bring the core of the drama out of the film. And in that respect Angelina was on the same page. We were looking for the same target.

After working with George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, do you think there is a difference dealing with a filmmaker who started out as actors, as opposed to filmmakers who remained behind the camera?

I think the second they direct, they are in charge. It doesn’t matter what backgrounds they had. They could have been plumbers or washing cars. Directing a film only means they’ve put together a crew, and have united them with a creative vision. And you have to follow that vision. It doesn’t make a difference if they are stars or actors or anything else. Maybe on the set they may have a better way of directing actors, even though I know many directors who were not actors, and can direct very well to actors – though some actors are not very good at directing actors even though they are very good with a camera. So no, I don’t think there’s any difference.

How do you pace yourself to do this amount of quality work?

I don’t know, I wish I did. I just work as hard as I can to make the score as good as I can. And I hope I improve after each film and get better.

Do you have a self-imposed limit of how many movies you want to do in a given year?

It all depends on the size of the score you have to write. I couldn’t write 4-5 scores with 2 and a half hours of music each year. That would be a killer. But alternating between big ones in terms of the amount of music and smaller ones where there are 45 minutes to an hour of score. That’s why I keep doing movies in Europe. I keep being faithful to my loyal directors. And I keep doing smaller movies in terms of the ambition of the minutes of music that you have to write.

You’ve played “The Imitation Game.” But what’s it like to play the Oscar game, one you keep doing over and over until your hopeful win?

You know, I’m not sleeping with anyone over there. I’m not bribing anyone over there. I don’t even live in Los Angeles. What can I say? I’m lucky to be a part of great movies with great directors and great stories that went high up in the hearts of Oscar voters. That’s all I can say. It’s out of my hands. The only thing I can do is continue to do the best work and try to choose the best projects. The rest is chance. So all I can do is to just write the best music I can.

(A special thanks to Peter Hackman for his interview transcription)

a Buy the Soundtrack: THE GRAND HOTEL BUDAPEST
a Buy the Soundtrack: GODZILLA
a Buy the Soundtrack: THE MONUMENTS MEN
a Buy the Soundtrack: THE IMITATION GAME
a Buy the Soundtrack: UNBROKEN
a Visit Alexandre Desplat’s website

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