What do Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Moonrise Kingdom, and Rust and Bone have in common? The seemingly tireless French composer Alexandre Desplat wrote the scores to all of them. No stranger to awards, with five Oscar nominations and six Golden Globes nominations in his career so far (he won a Globe for The Painted Veil in 2007), Desplat is one of the main contenders in this year’s Best Original Score race, with a Globe and Oscar nomination for his work on Argo.
Regardless of whether he’ll walk away with his second Golden Globe statue on Sunday, Desplat’s music made quite an impact on film in 2012. EW checked in with him to talk about some of his recent films. Click past the jump to see a featurette on the making of the Argo score, and to read about the bleakness of Zero Dark Thirty and why Wes Anderson drives him crazy (in a good way).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your score for Argo is the big awards contender this year. Can you tell us a little bit about how you approached the project?
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: Argo was a very exciting project for me because I knew that I could mix together influences from my youth as a young musician and a young composer. I’ve always loved mixing Middle Eastern instruments into a classical orchestra. This was the first time I was able to personalize them. I mixed the orchestral sound and this incredible singer and the players that I brought from Turkey and France. All are masters of their instruments – they are living gods in their countries. I thank Ben for letting me put these musicians together.
What was the process like?
I brought them together to Los Angeles and we locked ourselves in a room and cut the records. We were in a studio for a week. I had to bring all the musicians into my own little world of music, teaching them the melodies and the rhythms that I wanted them to play. The music has very specific rhythms. I didn’t give them much freedom.
Do you have a favorite moment that you scored?
[In “Scent of Death”] when the plane carrying Ben’s character arrives in Iran, you hear this voice, the voice of Sussan Deyhim starting to do some kind of scatting – a rhythm motif. And then the whole Middle Eastern orchestra and symphonic orchestra takes over. And the other one, [“Cleared Iranian Airspace”] when they leave the Iranian airspace in the film, there’s no more Middle Eastern instruments. It’s just the classical orchestra.
Zero Dark Thirty
This score couldn’t be less similar to Argo, but both are tense, thrilling films. How did you approach Zero Dark Thirty?
Argo is about the hope of a happy ending. In Zero Dark Thirty there’s no hope, only death all along the path on both sides of the parties. Whoever we call the good guys and the bad guys, whoever they are, they all try to kill each other. And the end, the only thing you see at the end of the road is a killing. You follow the path of Jessica, and her goal is only to find and kill. It’s a very different suspense. The word suspense was never used in our conversations with Katherine. It was always about the inevitability of the killing. The rawness. We kept repeating to each other that we didn’t want to write a theme score.
What was the most difficult scene to write music for?
All of them! The music when the helicopters start flying at night over Pakistan to go to the compound [“Flight to the Compound”], this is the music that I think really tells the story well. It’s a real mix of things. There are some heavy electronic sounds that I tailored myself and kind of created. There’s a big orchestra but it’s not a classical symphonic layout. There’s no woodwinds. There’s no violins. I’ve used only the lower instruments of the orchestra – the bases, the cellos. And for the brass, all the tubas, trombones and french horns. And only once at the end you hear a trumpet, giving a little bit of light. The sound is really dark and deep and earthy. Or one could say sandy! It’s the sound of a war zone.
Rust and Bone
Rust and Bone took you back to France. Can you talk a little bit about the collaboration?
I’ve scored all the movies that Jacques Audiard has directed. It’s a long love story between us, trying to find a voice that would belong to his films only. I’ve grown as he was growing as a director and there is a real sense of continuity if you listen to the first scores I wrote for him in the early 90s and then for Rust and Bone. It’s really connected. This film is obsessively dark with a great sense of humor and some very short but intense moments of violence. He’s a real mix of Scorcese and Jean-Pierre Melville. So there’s something very French and at the same time something that doesn’t hide the influence of the American cinema. On that respect there’s always some beautiful moments for me to score in his films. He likes music in his films to bring something that is not yet on the scene.
What was your favorite moment from the film?
I very much like the last moments of the film when they go by the lake. There’s a very gentle melody there. And then the scene in the hospital I wrote for a sextet for three violins and three cellos. And it sounds really, really intimate and fragile. I asked the players to play with one hair of their bow – at the edge of breaking a sound. And it creates something very fragile and very tender. And you see this big guy played by Matthais Schoenaerts with his broken hands touching his little boy and holding his hands and being so moved. The music tries to bring the emotion without being pushy and melodramatic.
Moonrise is definitely a change of pace from the previous three. It must have been nice to step out of the darkness of the other films.
You understand now why I like to go from one type of film to another! I was glad to go into this incredible world of fantasy. Wes wanted me to write a suite, a kind of classical suite that would be an echo to Britten’s young musicians piece. So I wrote a suite and sent it to him. He loved it and that was the start. It’s really fun to work with Wes because he always comes with ideas. He pushes me. He stretches me to be more relaxed. He drives me crazy, but in a good way. The world that he offers us relates to nothing that we know and that’s the incredible magic of Wes’s talents. He writes incredible stories.