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‘Music is inside me and all over the place’

Born in Paris in 1961, Alexandre Desplat came to prominence in the 1990s, working with French directors such as Patrice Leconte and Jacques Audiard. In 2003, he scored Peter Webber’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, launching his career worldwide. Further international recognition came with his soundtracks for Stephen Gaghan’s political thriller Syriana (2005) and John Curran’s drama The Painted Veil (2006), for which Desplat won a Golden Globe Award. A list of some of the titles he has recently scored illustrates his versatility: from Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006), David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) to Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and George Clooney’s The Ides of March (2011). “Difference”, Desplat has said, “is what keeps me awake.”

Despite this wide range of projects (or perhaps thanks to it), Desplat has built a unique personal style, an irresistible combination of French délicatesse and American splendour. His scores can be charming, melancholic, exciting and triumphant all at once. Mastering the art of film music demands such ability: to compose a symphonic work for the last Harry Potter film and the following day a witty chamber piece for Polanski’s masterful comedy Carnage (2011). Desplat’s success derives from a multifaceted talent, long hours of hard work and a clear understanding that film scoring is an artistic expression of historical tradition and global resonance. That’s why his emotional music for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) is reminiscent of Toru Takemitsu’s most lyrical scores –why some of his irreverent themes for Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) play a heartfelt homage to the great Ennio Morricone.

Breixo Viejo talked with Desplat at Abbey Road studios where he was recording a new score with the London Symphony Orchestra for Dreamworks’ forthcoming Rise of the Guardians, directed by Peter Ramsey.

Which have been your main influences as a film composer?

It’s a real mix. I was trained as a classical flautist; my mother loved classical music and my sisters were piano players, so I heard all the classical piano repertoires playing in their rooms. As a teenager, I started being absolutely passionate about symphonic music. I had some kind of reluctance with the music of the nineteenth-century. I liked Mozart and Beethoven, but then I felt there was some kind of gap, because music itself was looking for something new. But at the end of the nineteenth century there was this moment in which music evolved, a moment which perhaps has influenced me the most: Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, Puccini…

What about jazz and world music?

My father had a big collection of jazz records, so I listened a lot to Coleman Hakwins, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong... I collected jazz records myself; I have every single record Bill Evans has made! But I also played with a bossa nova band and with African musicians. My mother is Greek so I listened to Greek music and Middle Eastern music and… I have all these influences, Ravel as much as Miles Davis or Mikis Theodorakis. Music is inside me and all over the place.

As a student you attended the courses of Iannis Xenakis and Claude Baliff…

I followed Xenakis’ workshops for some weeks, where he had his machine, the UPIC computer, in which you could literally see the sound waves and from those waves you could build with a pencil whatever sound you would like. At the Paris Conservatory I attended Baliff’s great music analysis courses for two years. Baliff would play everyone from Stravinsky to Boulez to Messiaen, and we learned a lot about the music of our times.

How do you think your style has evolved?

From the early 1990s to 2003 I wrote music for more than fifty movies in France and Europe. During that time I tried to build an identity, an aesthetic based on the ‘less is more’ principle. I tried to bring transparency to the scores and to use strings and ethnic instruments in a colourful rather than folkloric way. As a film composer, I did not want to throw my music at the picture but rather to be part of the picture, to be completely involved and interwoven with everything –the dialogue, the sounds, the rhythm of the film. I spent long hours trying to find the right ‘vibration’; I call it ‘vibration’ because that’s what I feel when the music and the image really fit together. My wife Solre Lemonnier was my concertmaster for almost all my European movies and she taught me how interpretation was crucial to my style. The performance of the musicians had to be based upon such aesthetic: the transparency of the orchestrations, the strings playing with very little vibrato or none, my particular use of flutes.

What happened after Girl With a Pearl Earring?

After that film I had the opportunity to do some larger scores in Hollywood, where the film industry offers the possibility of a large, epic expression. In American cinema there is this tradition of symphonic scores which has somehow vanished from Europe. When I was seventeen or eighteen, I was a movie fun and always dreamed of one day following the tracks of Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams... I was hoping that one day I could score one of these epic movies. So I guess that was the next step, when I started doing larger films after 2003. But in Hollywood I kept using what I learned before in my European career, which is being big when you need to be big, but also being small when it’s possible…

…using few instruments…

Yes, because sometimes I want to be very close to the inner psychology of the characters to reveal their traumas. I want to show the invisible, something that you don’t see in the screen. So I have tried on each score not to repeat myself, to bring new themes that I have not used before, to take new challenges, to improve on the melodies, the rhythm, the harmonies, the way I build the cues of the picture. So I guess my style has evolved or at least I hope so, because I have tried really hard.

There’s not much music in Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) or Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010). Are they examples of your ‘less is more’ aesthetic?

Yes. In European cinema reality is more present than in American cinema, which tends towards fantasy. So if you want to respect reality you cannot impose too much music, otherwise you cut yourself off from the real sound. That’s why placement is crucial, because if you place the music at the wrong point you are an intruder, and I don’t want to be that. I want to enter the film without notice. It’s tricky.

The finest scores have to work both as applied and autonomous music at once.

That’s the key to a good score. Film music is fifty percent function and fifty percent fiction. Music has to serve the movie to be efficient, it has to be useful, otherwise it wouldn’t be necessary for the film. But at the same time it has to open the world of imagination and bring the invisible to life. That is difficult and requires a lot of work, intuition and an understanding of what cinema is. John Williams is the master of that: a composer who can do something extremely tailored to the picture and, at the same time, pure music.

I imagine studying film aesthetics has played an essential role in your career.

I learnt a lot by watching movies and understanding how film music works. In the early 1980s, before I first got a video machine, I spent hours watching movies in the theatres. I stayed and watched the same film three times (which at that time was possible, because with one ticket you could stay in the cinema for several sessions). Knowing about film is not merely knowing the terms, ‘aerial shot’ or ‘tracking shot’, but having your artistic references built by the tradition. Because there’s a history before you, you are not the first one to write music for films. So you have to listen a lot, not only to American scores, but also to Nino Rota, Georges Delerue, Maurice Jarre, all these great composers who worked with great intimacy with the picture.

Was there a particular film composer that you learned from?

I learned from Bernard Herrmann in particular, because he had an incredible instinct for dramaturgy and knew how to place music in the film. He was the first one to mark different moments in the same cue and to realise the importance of the entries and the outs. If you listen carefully to his Hitchcock’s scores, for example, his music is never wall-to-wall. Herrmann also invented the use of repetitive music in film, repetitive patterns transposed, accelerated or slowed-down, the same patterns again and again, which created this feeling of obsession. That is something I learned from him and I think I use a lot.

Do you usually compose the score once the film is edited?

Yes. There have been some exceptions, like when I worked with Terrence Malick during the making of Tree of Life. But I prefer to write the score once the film is finished. Otherwise I would write for the concert hall. I write for the movies – you have to watch them, because the script isn’t the movie. I have done movies where the script was great and the movie was crap. I need to see the faces and the light, to feel the pace of the editing and the inner rhythm of each sequence, to hear the dialogue and the sounds.

Who decides the placement and amount of music in the final film?

It depends. It’s an exchange. Sometimes I try to convince the director if I think it’s better to have more or less music. Sometimes the exchange works, sometimes doesn’t. Fair enough. I am here to help the director, not to impose myself to the director. At the end it’s his film, not mine. I always respect that.

You have given master classes at the Royal College of Music, la Sorbonne and the Cannes Film Festival. What’s your advise to emerging film composers?

Many composers think that they can write film music because they are good composers, but that’s not enough. They have to learn cinema, not music. Actually, I wish I could give lessons to emerging directors rather than to composers! Composers know music, I cannot teach them that. What they need to learn is the history of cinema and the history of film music to be able to communicate with the director. When I speak to a director, we can find a way together through the film only because I have seen many movies and listened to many scores before.

Communicating with the filmmaker is essential for you, isn’t it?

Absolutely. I like to meet people who have the same kind of approach to cinema. I like to share my way of composing for the films with great directors like Frears, Polanski, Audiard or Clooney. They like the idea of ‘less is more’, but they are not afraid of having music in their films. And that’s the best thing for a composer, to have somebody who believes in the strength and the emotional power of the music in the film. Someone who understands the sensitivity that music can bring out of a character, how much the score can contribute to the dramaturgy of the picture. That’s the best director: the one who likes music in life, music in movies, and trusts you.

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