Composer Alexandre Desplat On Scoring Five Awards Season Contenders

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.

Alexandre Desplat is nothing if not prolific. This year the quadruple Oscar-nominated composer will have five films in theaters. And, as is typical for him, each score is completely different from the others—much like the movies themselves. “If I only did thrillers, I would kill myself,” he said by phone recently from Majorca. “Seriously, I would want to change jobs.”

What keeps him in the game is the opportunity to play with various styles in different genres and compose music that challenges and delights him. “They’re all my babies and all so different,” he says of his scores. “They have different faces and shapes and costumes. Some are big, some are small—and some are huge. Some are talkative, and some are quiet. But I try to give the best of my energy to all of them.”

The most time consuming of these recent projects was his soaring music to DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians, which marked the first time Desplat wrote for animation on such a vast scale. “It was three months altogether, writing and recording,” the composer says. “When you work on animation, the music has a great task: to create a sound and melodies and mood and atmosphere and energy dedicated to these extraordinary characters. And you see they are very specific, very clearly designed. Each has a personality that is different. It’s fun and moving and very emotional.”

For Ben Affleck’s Argo, Desplat merged western and eastern sounds to evoke the film’s Iranian setting. “As soon as I heard about the project,” Desplat says, “I got masters of the ney, oud, kemenche, and Persian percussion. And we also had vocals by the Persian pop singer Sussan Deyhim. I could write anything because these are incredible musicians.” But the driving element was never exotica for its own sake. “Ben was mainly interested in emotion,” Desplat says. “He wanted to hear despair, fear, hope. That was always the main thing with Ben.”

With Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Desplat’s challenge was finding room for his own voice in a film dominated by the strains of Benjamin Britten. “Britten became this thread through the film,” Desplat explains. “And I had to be smart and get inspired by that and convey the love story, the quirkiness, the adventure—but in a weird, restrained, childlike way. I couldn’t have music that would be too adult in terms of harmonies. I tried to stick to what the picture was offering me and be in the heads of the characters and almost in the landscape.”

The French-language Rust and Bone marks Desplat’s sixth film for writer-director Jacques Audiard, their most recent before this being the Oscar-nominated A Prophet (2009). “There’s something that makes a real collaboration,” Desplat says. “You can tell it’s the same director and composer. There’s a real continuity in the work, the style, the orchestration. It allows both director and composer to blossom and find a way through cinema to develop a style like no one else. There’s a word we use with Jacques, ‘modest grandeur’—something really noble but still modest. And I wanted to find that in the music. It couldn’t be symphonic or emphatic. It had to be constrained, restrained, but with fire burning. And it had to be emotional. This is a story about love and how it comes toward you without you noticing.”

Desplat wraps up his fecund year with one of the most awaited films of the season, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, her follow up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008). “It’s a very delicate subject,” Desplat explains, referring to the killing of Osama bin Laden. “There is this sense of inexorability. But it’s also about a war between two cunning and ruthless camps with no limits. Kathryn doesn’t show evil and good battling. The audience is wise enough and adult enough to choose. War is ugly, and both sides are ugly. Never mind who started the war. So the music is very dark. Many times I mentioned (director Akira) Kurosawa to Kathryn, and the musical world Toru Takemitsu created for him in Ran. We use no violins. I use only the low side of the strings. And for brass, the same—so 12 trombones, 12 horns, three tubas. It creates an army of sound, dark and earthy. And I think that works pretty well for a film about desert war.”

The composer makes an unexpected comparison when describing his career at this stage. “As I get further along, I feel more like an actor in these films. I try to disappear with everyone else. I’m not detached but rather part of the game. And when music is not a character, it’s an issue.”

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