Settling the Score with Oscar-Nominated Film Composer ALEXANDRE DESPLAT
By Tyler Malone
Film music should be silent while making noise; it should be invisible but not inaudible. We shouldn’t feel it tugging at our heart strings or raising our pulse in suspense; it should do these things without being obvious about it. I won’t argue that a score is merely supposed to flit across the background, completely unnoticed, because sometimes a score is supposed to jump into the foreground, but no matter the motives or the style, film music is always supposed to work in tandem with the images, and act as a sort of silent partner in a movie’s success. In that way, I suppose scoring a film is a somewhat thankless job because the best film scores aren’t always the catchiest, loudest, or most memorable. They’re the ones most perfectly wedded to the material, the ones that do their job quietly so that sound and image appear seamlessly connected.
Alexandre Desplat is a chameleon when it comes to music, and this makes him one of the most formidable artists currently composing music for film. Just look at three of his film scores from 2012–Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Moonrise Kingdom–and you can see that each score is its own world, perfectly aligned to the world of the film it compliments. His Argo score, for which he is nominated for the Academy Award, is a chaotic blend of Eastern and Western influences, perfectly ratcheting up the tension in the anarchic meeting ground between these two soundscapes (just as the film builds the tension in the anarchic meeting ground between the two landscapes). For Zero Dark Thirty, he crafted a score that’s as deep and dark as the places the film takes you (both physically and mentally). Composed mostly in a lower register, it draws more from Kurosawa-style Japanese war films than your standard Hollywood action films. And then there’s Moonrise Kingdom‘s score, which is as beautiful, quirky, and self-reflexive as the Anderson film it comes from.
I talked with Alexandre Desplat soon after the Oscar nominees were announced.
Tyler Malone: How would you describe what it is that you do: the art of creating music for film? When you sit down to compose a score, what is it that you are ultimately trying to achieve?
Alexandre Desplat: I always say that good film music brings out the invisible, things that the movie is not yet showing. Sometimes I feel like what I do is like being another actor, that goes into the film–you know, like Zelig–that goes into the film and diffuses another light.
TM: What drew you to writing music for film instead of just composing music on its own?
AD: Cinema! I was passionate about cinema when I was in my teens. I was hearing incredible music in the movies that I loved. I started collecting soundtracks, vinyls, and watching movies with another ear–with a more accurate vision of the ear.
So I felt lucky that I could merge my two passions: music and movies. And that’s just it, I’m a lover of movies, so in my job I’m like a child in a candy store. I mean Roman Polanski calls me, and then Stephen Frears, and George Clooney, or Ben Affleck, or Terrence Malick, and I just go crazy, because this is what I’ve always dreamed to do.
TM: What were the films when you were a kid that you loved that drew you to cinema?
AD: Of course, Francois Truffaut was always very strong in the way he wrote his stories, and how simple he directs his films. And in fact it was very simple, but not simplistic. He had a precision and a detail that I loved. His relationship to music was very strong: through Georges Delerue, Antoine Duhamel, and Bernard Herrmann. Rarely am I in love with the work of a director if the music is not also very strong. I can, of course, also mention Chinatown by Polanski. I can mention all the early Spielberg with John Williams, who really invented something. I like directors who have a very strong world of their own, in which music has a voice.
TM: Tell me how your process works. Are you watching scenes as you’re composing? How aligned are music and image throughout the process?
AD: It’s very important for me to see the film, to see the images. My second passion is visual art, so I have to watch the film to understand what it is. I can’t just read a script and know what the film is. The script is still on paper, the script is not the film. The movie really comes to life for me when I see the actors meeting in the frame, and I can see how the director moves his camera. So it’s really important that I see the film, to get into the film, as I mentioned before.
TM: How involved do the filmmakers usually get into the process? Does it depend on the filmmaker?
AD: Directors are usually involved in everything. Good directors have a great point of view and want to make sure a composer will be as demanding as they were on the set, or in the editing room. When you work with great directors, some of them love music, some of them like music, some of them think that music is necessary, some of them don’t really know what to do with music and they trust you, and some of them don’t really know what to do with music and they don’t trust you. They’re human beings as much as they are creators–they can’t have it all. But I’m sure you can guess which kinds of directors I prefer.
TM: You’re nominated for the Oscar for your score for Argo. Congratulations on that. Talk to me a little about the creation of that score, and your relationship with Ben Affleck throughout the production.
AD: Well, working with Ben was a very specific experience because we really tried to have the music follow the dramaturgy and the storyline very precisely. The movie is in two or three parts. There’s the “putting the gang together” part, where they’re arranging the scam. Everything is set in that part in the West. At some point, there’s a second part, where they enter another world, another world of sounds, another culture. In the ’70s, this other world was even more unknown than it is now, because there was no internet, and people didn’t listen to what we now call “world music.”
The idea was that we could feel like the hostages being taken to another planet of music. Creating the sounds was really otherwordly, and blending together Turkish instruments, Persian instruments, and strange voices, so that the audience felt unsettled and unbalanced, just like the characters. That’s what the second part is about. The third part then begins when doubt and despair enters the characters’ heads, there’s this kind of lament. It’s this soulful darkness that starts to grow, until they manage to escape, and then the second the plane is out of the Iranian airspace, all the instruments are gone, and we’re back to a pure orchestra.
TM: I really did love that film’s score. I wonder, though, are you ever surprised by which scores get nominated, recognized, and praised, and which ones don’t?
AD: There must be a reason always. I tend to think that somehow that movie resonated more in the minds of the audience. Either they heard the music more, or felt the music more, or were more engaged in the story and the music had something to do with it. It’s a very mysterious project. Why when you shoot ten photos is there only one which is good? It’s a mystery.
TM: But it’s not like your other scores are the equivalent of bad photographs to be discarded. I absolutely love the Zero Dark Thirty score, and the Moonrise Kingdom one as well. I was more just wondering if you have any insight into why the Academy might pick up on your Argo score but not Zero Dark Thirty, for example?
AD: Do I think that I wrote good scores for other movies? Yes. For some reason, the members of the Academy didn’t think that way. And what can I do? I think I did a good job, and I think I created something with Kathryn Bigelow, something unique, that is unlike anything I’ve written before.
TM: Would you say that you have a favorite score you wrote this year? Is there one that’s more personal to you? Or do you love them all equally, like children?
AD: I’m afraid it’s like children. Writing the music for a film is also a process of sharing the moment with the people you work with. To take another example, working on Rise of the Guardians for DreamWorks was just incredibly joyful, and incredibly rewarding musically. I had the best time, recording at Abbey Road with the symphony. And yet the score isn’t nominated, and the movie isn’t even nominated–so what do I know? There’s no absolute truth anywhere, you just have to do what you do, and maybe an award will come along, or maybe it won’t. Bernard Herrmann only got one Oscar, and it might not be for his best score.
TM: You’ve worked with a number of great directors currently working today–Polanski, Malick, Fincher, etc.–but is there any one director that you haven’t worked with yet that you’re dying to work with?
AD: I can mention many of the past. My education in cinema came from people like Scorsese and Coppola, who are incredible masters of cinema and who have both used incredible scores. Today there are lots of directors I would love to work with. I would love to work with Lee Daniels, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Mendes–there’s many of them. Some of them have their composers, and I respect that a lot. I am always happy when a director is loyal. Unfortunately, I can’t just decide, and pick up whatever director I choose, it’s the other way around.
TM: True, but now that you’ve made a name for yourself, you can obviously be more selective in your projects. Even though you take on more movies than most composers, you still get to pick and choose which projects interest you. How do you pick and choose? What’s that process like?
AD: Well, first of all, don’t forget that I work on two or three continents, so there are so many criteria. It could be a director who is loyal to you, and who you want to be loyal to. It could be a genius director who is calling you for the first time that you want to work with because you love his films. It could be a movie that comes to you that, even though you’ve never heard of the director, it just feels like a masterpiece. It could be a producer or a studio with whom you already have a great relationship. On the opposite side, maybe it’s a cast that I don’t want to work with, or a director I don’t want to work with, or people whose faces I don’t want to be stuck with for that long of a time. Or maybe I’m just not free. Or maybe I want to be in Europe and not America for those months.
TM: As you say, you work on American films, French films, and other European films. You also do smaller art films and big budget Hollywood films. Do you have a favorite type of film to score? Or do you prefer diversifying your portfolio?
AD: Before working in Hollywood, I did fifty French and European movies with very low budgets. So I know exactly what it means to do a small art house movie, but I always dreamed of doing epic things like Lawrence of Arabia. I’m lucky enough to have been offered huge Hollywood films. But I still like to go back and come to something small with more of a human side, something more intimate.
Writing music is something which is infinite, you can write music forever.
Alexandre Desplat is an Oscar-nominated composer. He is currently nominated for the fifth time for his work on the Ben Affleck-helmed film Argo.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Andreas Branch
Design by Marie Havens
Alexandre Desplat, 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards – Arrivals, The Barker Hanger, Santa Monica, CA, January 10, 2013, Photography by Andreas Branch for Patrick McMullan.com