Entertainment

02.11.14

Meet Alexandre Desplat, Hollywood’s Master Composer

Alexandre Desplat is having a bit of a moment, having scored Philomena, Monuments Men, and The Grand Budapest Hotel in quick succession. No other composer today has worked so consistently on such good, smart movies. How does he do it?

“I listen with my eyes and I look with my ears,” says Alexandre Desplat.  

The film composer and I are perched on stools in front of a black Steinway grand piano in Studio A—the hallowed, cavernous room at the base of the famous Capitol Records building in Hollywood, Calif. where Frank Sinatra (among other immortal artists) recorded “Come Fly with Me” (among other immortal tracks). Cymbals are arrayed on the floor to our left; a drum kit rests on a red Oriental rug; boom mikes wait patiently, like bony sentinels, while we speak. Desplat is wearing a black Maison Martin Margiela sport coat, a white v-neck t-shirt, black drainpipe jeans, discotheque sneakers, and a gossamery purple scarf. His black hair sweeps back from the crest of his high forehead and laps at the nape of his neck; his lips are pursed. Occasionally his fluent, French-accented sentences will conclude with a conspiratorial giggle. He looks like a Gallic Andy Garcia. 

I’ve come to Capitol Records to ask Desplat, 52, how he does what he does—which is how we got into the subject of aural vision and ocular hearing. 

Desplat doesn’t technically have synesthesia. But as a Hollywood music man, his job, in a sense, is to simulate it. He is very good at his job. A dozen years ago, Desplat was a respected but little-known composer for French-language films. But in 2002, he was hired to score Girl with a Pearl Earring (starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth), for which he received BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations—and Hollywood has not stopped calling since. SyrianaThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Julie & Julia, Twilight: New Moon, The King’s Speech, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Tree of Life, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty. Over the last decade, Desplat has become the composer of choice for some of the finest directors in the business: Stephen Frears (The Queen, Cheri, Tamara Drewe), George Clooney (The Ides of March), Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom). In recent months he has reunited with all three. 

In short, Desplat is having a bit of a moment. In November, Frears’s Philomena arrived in theaters, earning Desplat his sixth Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score. Clooney’s The Monuments Men followed in February. And the latest Anderson-Desplat collaboration, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is slated for March. There may be no other 21st-century Hollywood composer who has worked so consistently on such good, smart movies—and scored them so memorably, with such sensitivity and verve. 

Earlier this month, I asked Desplat to take me inside his creative process—How do you match music to images? How do you convert emotions into melodies?—and he graciously agreed. Now, in Studio A, the composer is cueing up a scene from Philomena on a borrowed laptop and explaining how he joined the project. Step one was receiving a call from Frears.

“Right at the beginning, Truffaut and Delerue set the tone. They were capturing the soul of the film. And I guess you could say that’s what I do, too. I’m a soul capturer.”

“He just said, ‘I’ve got a film to show you. Come to London,’” Desplat remembers. “So I sat in the editing room. I watched the film. And I barely kept my eyes dry; I’m glad that I was on my own.” He laughs. “And then I said, ‘I’m so moved that I’m going back home to find the music.’“

By “the music,” Desplat means Philomena’s theme—a recurring melodic motif designed to accompany the aging Irishwoman (played by Judi Dench) as she embarks on a journey to find the out-of-wedlock son who was snatched from her at age 3 and sold to an America couple by the local nuns. “It really is a mental thing,” Desplat tells me. “It’s a combination of intuition and intellect. Analyze what the movie is calling for—not requiring, calling for. And Philomena was a killer on that level. It was very complicated to make it work.” 

Desplat knew immediately that he wanted to introduce Philomena’s theme during the movie’s opening scene, which shows the young Philomena meeting and eventually sleeping with a young stranger at a carnival in Limerick. ”In the fairground, I thought, ‘If you have this melody playing from a carousel in the distance, subliminally you will inject the spirit of the music and flavor of the melody to the audience,’” he says. 

The video starts, and as it unfolds on screen—the stranger and Philomena stare into a fun-house mirror; when they kiss, her candy apple falls to the ground—Desplat plays ringlets of melody on the piano. 

Video screenshot

When you say you “found” the music, what does that mean?, I ask. Was it in your head? Was it at the piano? Where did it come from?

“It was in my head first,” Desplat tells me. “I was trying to figure out something extremely simple, because it’s a very simple story and she’s a very simple lady. She’s not a sophisticated bourgeoisie or aristocracy. She’s a nurse. And I thought I should try to find that. Also, you know, the words of somebody who has hidden a secret for many years—usually they’re very tempered. They’re very precise. There aren’t many of them. When you have a secret to tell, you don’t start babbling.”

Desplat’s fingers run over three white keys, arranging and rearranging the sequence. He watches the computer screen for a few seconds, then continues. “You say very few words,” he says. “And very specific. And I thought that the music should reflect that—it should reflect her kindness, and the memory of her child.” 

Suddenly, the figure that Desplat is playing on the piano—a new combination of those same three notes—begins to mirror the carousel music emanating from the laptop’s tiny speakers. “I think I was in my studio, and I think I heard...” He plays the first line of Philomena’s theme: a lovely, lilting three-note melody. “I just heard ... something. The ambitus should be very tight. On a very small portion of the keyboard.” He flattens his hand on the piano, covering four keys. “Something on the spectrum of a lullaby.” 

Desplat begins to play again—a melody that sounds exactly like the concept he was just describing, but translated into another, more primal language. 

That just came to you in its entirety? I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “It just flowed.”

***

Desplat’s Greek mother and French father met and married while studying abroad at the University of California, Berkeley. At age 5, Desplat began to play the piano; his attention eventually turned to flute. “I remember my sisters, they loved a movie called The Naked Island,” he explains. “And the flute was actually playing the main theme.” He whistles it flawlessly. “A Japanese movie. A beautiful movie from 1961. I remember hearing this music with a flute many, many times a day at home.” 

Desplat was, as he puts it, “a rather good flautist—like Henry Mancini was, actually.” But the cinema beckoned. “My parents had a lot of movie soundtracks that they brought back from the States,” he says. “So very early on I heard film music at home. And then, when I was 12, I went to Ireland. It was a very rainy summer—the summer Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon against Jimmy Connors, which I watched in the pub. The weather was so bad that we had to stay inside. There, I found a big box of vinyls, and in that box there were some movie soundtracks and some songs, like Marilyn Monroe’s ‘You’d Be Surprised,’ or [Doris Day’s] ‘Que Sera, Sera.’ And I realized they were from movies. They were not just songs; they were tailored to films. The music belonged to another object, which was this thing that I could go and see in a theater. I found that very fascinating.” 

As he entered his teens, Desplat began to collect Bernard Herrmann’s legendary Alfred Hitchcock soundtracks. But it wasn’t until he saw Star Wars in 1977 that he finally accepted his fate. “I thought, ‘This man has heard Stravinsky! Prokofiev! Ravel! Debussy! All the Americana: Copland, Ives, and jazz, of course,’’’ Desplat says. “But he has created a sound of his own that comes and plays with the film. I bought the vinyl and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ It was written on the front of the sleeve—‘Composed and conducted by John Williams.’”

Desplat was a talented, classically trained musician, but he had never studied orchestration. So he decided to teach himself. “Video did not exist, so I would go and watch movies in the theater over and over to understand how the music worked,” he says. “And very early on I started reading pocket scores, too. ‘Why does this combination of instruments playing these notes sound like this?’ By reading the score I could figure it out. To this day, I still travel with scores. Every time I’m on a plane—it could be Stravinsky or Mozart or Ravel.”

All that was left was for Desplat to discover his voice. The French New Wave triggered an epiphany of sorts. “At the time, most film composers would just follow what was on screen,” he explains. “The guy is running, the music is running. The guy slows down, the music slows down. The girl is sad, the music is sad. But with the Nouvelle Vague, composers like Georges Delerue inhaled the film and created a music that had all the essence of the story. Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin starts with a very mundane scene of a family and a man driving to the airport. Yet the music is like a thriller, and you don’t understand why. It’s not until later that you learn it’s because the movie is a thriller

“Right at the beginning, Truffaut and Delerue set the tone,” Desplat continues. “They were capturing the soul of the film. And I guess you could say that’s what I do, too. I’m a soul capturer.”

*** 

2014 is shaping up to be the most delightful and diverse year of Desplat’s career. Next on the docket is The Grand Budapest Hotel, Desplat’s fourth collaboration with Wes Anderson. Back in Studio A, I ask what it’s like to work with the Rushmore auteur. His movies, I note, are nothing like Philomena.

“Wes’s movies are Wes’s world,” Desplat says. “Wes’s world is very special. It’s one of its own. His genius is to have invented his own vision, his own sounds, his own frames—the way he frames a shot is absolutely captivating and special. And he loves music in movies. He definitely has a recurring taste for some instruments and melodies that we really enjoy sharing together.”

I ask Desplat how he would describe Anderson’s “taste.” 

“One could say that Nino Rota’s music is the same in every one of his movies,” he says. “Yeah, somehow. But no. You can tell that there’s continuity between Moonrise KingdomThe Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Budapest Hotel. It’s the same composer, the same director, and the same type of film world, because Wes has a strong point of view, like Fellini had. But each time, we change the instrumentation very drastically. 

“On Mr. Fox, at first there was talk about using a symphonic orchestra,” he continues. “I said ‘No, we should not. You’ve created little puppets and we will have a huge orchestra? It will be ridiculous.’ So I suggested that we have only a miniature orchestra. The strings? Only one of each: one bass, one cello, like a string quintet. The brass? Only one of each. And all the other instruments? Only toy instruments, small instruments: mandolins, banjos, glockenspiel. Everything should be little. Ukulele. Piccolo. The score belonged to the world of the film.”

Desplat's strategy for Moonrise Kingdom was similarly bespoke. “Wes brought in this idea about Benjamin Britton and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which teaches children about symphonies,” Desplat says. “So we assembled the orchestra in a way that every layer became a piece of the pyramid—an inverted pyramid that builds, slowly but surely. One guitar, two guitars, three guitars. One harp, two harps, three harps.” The goal was to capture the feeling of children learning and growing, moment by moment—"and also the excitement and the wildness of these two kids who want to go away.”

Desplat's concept for The Grand Budapest Hotel was more geographic than psychological—or so it seems at first. "The idea came from trying to capture the sound of an imagined Mitteleuropa," he explains. "To us, it goes from the Alpine horn of Switzerland and Austria and Bavaria to the cymbal or the zantur of Turkey, and everything in between. This land full of instruments and rhythms. We tried to squeeze it all into a ball”—Desplat clamps his hands together like he’s wadding a piece of newspaper—“that we sent rolling in the film. That’s the sound of Budapest Hotel.”

After The Grand Budapest Hotel, Desplat will change course yet again, upping the wattage for Warner Bros.’ $160 million Godzilla reboot. He’s currently in the middle of writing the score. At first, Desplat "wasn't sure" about the Godzilla gig. "The monster movies, I’ve never been really into that," he admits. “But when I saw Gareth Edwards’s first film, Monsters, I was hooked. It was very character-driven. So yes, Godzilla is another story than Philomena, because it’s nonstop fortissimo, with lots of brass, Japanese drums, and electric violin. But I still try to find the soul the film.”

It’s that “extra-sensitivity to pictures and storytelling,” as Desplat puts it, that ties all of his work together. The composer has another date at noon, so we stand and shake hands. “I don’t know how other composers do it, but I spend a lot of time trying to find this vibration between the music and the picture,” he tells me as we slip out of Studio A. "It’s got to be doing something. It’s not just a piece of music that’s like, ‘Oh yeah. It works. It follows what we see on screen.'Until the music and the movie are vibrating, I’m still trying to find it." He laughs. "And not sleeping much.”