What haven’t you heard Alexandre Desplat score before? The Oscar winner has composed for everything from Harry Potter, Argo, and Moonrise Kingdom to The Imitation Game, The King’s Speech, and Zero Dark Thirty (and even this fall’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) — but as far as his English film work goes, audiences have yet to hear the French composer wax jazz at the movie theater.
Miraculously, Desplat gets to flex that modern music muscle in an unlikely place: Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s animated summer comedy, The Secret Life of Pets. The film is set in New York City and follows the hidden lives of a slew of metropolitan mutts (voiced by Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, and others) as they cavort around Manhattan; as such, New York City provided the perfect vessel for Desplat to dive into a jazzy genre he’s always wanted.
“[Director] Chris Renaud showed me some excerpts of the film and they were so funny and beautifully shot that I was already excited, and then we had a chat about music and very quickly we realized that we could go to a territory which I’ve not really explored in movies in America, which is jazz meeting orchestra,” Desplat tells EW. “For taking place in New York, there was something that felt very right.”
The frenzy of the city runs through Desplat’s entire score (which you can hear on the soundtrack, available for pre-order on June 24 and out digitally on July 1) but it’s perhaps never more on display than in the title song, “Meet the Pets,” which EW has a first listen to below. He describes the score as “Gershwin meets Miles Davis,” with perhaps a little extra swagger, too.
If you’re hearing just the faintest hint of Looney Tunes, that’s completely understandable — and perhaps intentional. “Another inspiration of mine was Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley, who scored cartoons in the ’50s and ’60s,” continues Desplat. “I ended up being very, very obsessed for many years in trying to find a movie that could bring me to write in that spirit. And here it was!”
Desplat, who scooped up his first Oscar last year for The Grand Budapest Hotel (after seven prior nominations), considers himself a lifelong jazzophile but never found the right project. “I haven’t really had an opportunity to really use it in a big scope for cinema, and this was a great option for me to do that. Swing, classical references, jazz, a symphony chorus, humor, tenderness…all these things were there, offered to me.”
It was also an opportunity to return to animation. He’s notably scored Rise of the Guardians and Fantastic Mr. Fox, among others, and Secret Life of Pets afforded a chance to return to the genre of which Desplat admits there’s a certain added element of concentration required. “An animation movie requires work on the sound and music which is more important than a live-action movie because it’s non-existing persons…you have to create life! And music, in that sense, is very important,” he explains. “There’s also a lot of music, surely, and maybe sometimes much more than a drama or a comedy. And it’s a very detailed type of work. Every single entry, every single move and motion of the characters, must go with music.”
The Secret Life of Pets — and Desplat’s syncopated score — hits theaters July 8.