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
(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
(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.”
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.
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.
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,
about jazz and world music?
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.
student you attended the courses of Iannis Xenakis and Claude Baliff…
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.
you think your style has evolved?
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.
happened after Girl
With a Pearl Earring?
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…
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.
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?
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.
finest scores have to work both as applied and autonomous music at once.
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.
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.
there a particular film composer that you learned from?
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.
usually compose the score once the film is edited?
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.
decides the placement and amount of music in the final film?
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.
given master classes at the Royal College of Music, la Sorbonne and the Cannes
Film Festival. What’s your advise to emerging film composers?
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.
with the filmmaker is essential for you, isn’t it?
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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