Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat talks the role of a composer: 'I'm like a kite'
When it comes to working with directors, Alexandre Desplat compared himself to a kite: he has the freedom to fly, but it’s the directors holding the string.
For his work in 2014, Desplat came away with two Oscar nominations, both for films also nominated for Best Director: The Grand Budapest Hotel andThe Imitation Game. While two Oscar nominations in the same category in one year is, of course, is an enormous achievement, it’s almost surprising that it hasn’t happened before to Desplat, known for a propensity to score multiple films a year. Take, for instance, 2012 when he composed Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Moonrise Kingdom, among others. (He was nominated for Argo alone.)
Desplat, who now has a total of eight nominations, spoke to EW about how he works with directors and how he keeps all of his scores straight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is it like being nominated twice in one year?
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: Everybody knows it’s something quite rare. The first thing that came to my mind was that this was something very special, and I should be very honored and should thank the great directors I have been lucky to work with. Without them I would not have been nominated twice, if they had not done two great movies. That’s what came to my mind.
What is your first step when composing a score? Consulting the director? Looking at the work on your own?
I think it’s a real combination. What I like about what I do is that it’s a collaboration with the director. I like that I’m coming on a project to dedicate myself to the story, to the way it’s been filmed to the point of the director. From then I know that I have a great frame of freedom. I know it seems strange, but, in fact, once this point of view has been framed, inside that frame I’ve got a lot of freedom and it allows me to think both musically and dramaturgically. Of course I need to digest the film, let it steep day after day, but it’s really when I first have a sense, I’ve managed to enter myself into the film, that I can share it with the director, and then he guides me. Great directors I work with guide me with a lot of gentleness. I’m like a kite. I can fly easily. If you hold the strings too much I can’t fly. I can’t go up in the air. I try to actually be near directors who I feel or I’ve learned by watching their previous films, whether because I worked with them or because I watched their films, that the way they use music and the way also they collaborate allows this freedom.
Do you prefer directors that have a conversation with you and then let you explore or do you prefer working with directors that have very specific instructions?
I chose the kite example on purpose, because it doesn’t fly by itself. Somebody is holding the threads and that’s the director. What I love is to be able to, every other day, or every three days, or sometimes every day, meet with the director, show him my progress in my work, and together we explore what has to be explored. Sometimes it goes very fast; sometimes it’s more difficult because some movies are more reluctant to music. It’s a really close collaboration with the director on a regular basis.
Both Grand Budapest and The Imitation Game feel very character driven. They are very rooted in Alan Turing and Gustave H and I was wondering how you think about character when you compose a score?
I think for Imitation Game, surely it is very important that Turing is in every sketch and he’s driving the film. It’s really Benedict Cumberbatch who is the center of the whole machine, to put it that way. I think when I saw the film for the first time it was obvious that the music should be his music. He’s a complex character. He was a complex human being. Music could be just with one tone, one color. His themes—he has several themes depending on mood, on moments in the film of suspense—capture I think his fragility and his strength at the same time. In Grand Budapest it’s almost equal for me Zero’s character than Mr. Gustave… Gustave is trying to bring the best out of Zero. There’s more diversity in the way that the melodies or the themes play there.
How much research do you do about the period that you are writing for?
I was always, since I was a child, very crazy about history. Because I studied a lot of music, I also studied history of music. So today I have quite a background of experience both for learning and for experimenting with instruments and periods in the history of humanity that I kind of can guess where we are artistically.
In historical situations I don’t really research. I’ve been very lucky early on to be surrounded when I was a child by music from various countries. My parents would listen to a lot of music coming from other universes. The first score I wrote for a feature film I used a cimbalom, which is an instrument I used in Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s an instrument that is used in gypsy music, in Hungary in Romania in Greece.
When you started on Grand Budapest was the cimbalom something you immediately came to?
Well, very early on, when we started with Wes [Anderson] and he finished the script and sent it to me he said do you want to use zithers and cimbalom and the alpenhorns and all these things. And that’s where we start. In [Fantastic] Mr. Fox, how about we use toy instruments and put them together? And then I have to put that into a musical language that makes sense for the picture and that’s the main job that I have to do. Try to keep the musical integrity when the music is dedicated to a story.
Is working with Wes a more particular experience in terms of what he’s looking for?
He’s very different because he uses music almost as sound. He likes to edit the music and chop it and place it as if it was a piece of sound and not just a piece of music. It creates a different rhythm in the film. The music is part of the rhythm of the film, much more than any other collaboration I’ve had in the past. He has a great sense of where the music could stop, where it could end sometimes abruptly. He’s somehow the son of Jean Luc-Godard who used to like music being chopped music in and out. He’s a very specific way of working, yes, which I must say is very very very fun.
There were five scores you had that could have been nominated. When you have so many films coming out in the same year, how do work on all of them?
I finish one and I start another. It’s the only way I know it. I’m on my own in my studio. I don’t have a team of composers. It’s just me and myself so, in French you say, I can’t chase several rabbits at the same time. I can only focus on one. I go step by step. I do Godzilla, then I do another one, then I do another one. It’s crucial for me because I really want to be dedicated physically and mentally to one project at a time. It’s a lot of work that is requested from you. I don’t think I would deliver the best work if I would do several projects at the same time. So it’s one at a time, but I work a lot. I work nonstop actually, but that’s what I like. Also through the years I’ve improved. I can work faster.
Are there different demands between scoring films for a European audience and scoring Hollywood films?
A film is a film and it has to be good to be inspired. That’s number one. It can be Italian, French, German, American. It’s moving images in front of you and with a strong director who injects his point of view and artistry. The main difference I’d say is that European cinema has always used less music than American cinema for historical reasons. And that’s maybe a historical difference. You have more work in terms of minutes in American cinema. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. To write 40 minutes of music instead of an hour and a half, yes, there are weeks of work but it’s very difficult because when the music comes into the scene you can’t blast in. You have to be very careful with how you place music and how it plays into the soundtrack. All together it’s the same job with different speeds and different sizes.
The Grand Budapest Hotel