How computers generated Alexandre Desplat’s ‘Imitation Game’ score

The gears in composer Alexandre Desplat”s head are always turning. They have to be; even with a packed scheduled – he”ll see five films hit American screens before the end of 2014 – his artistic process is still one of care and contemplation. With each new score, Desplat chisels out a sound that”s recognizably story-driven, interwoven with theme and individual from his other works. In his new film, “The Imitation Game,” the composer translates Alan Turing”s life into a fractaling piano score that encompasses both the mathematician”s achievements – cracking the Nazi”s “Enigma Code” with a proto-computer known as the Turing Machine – and an emotional frustration bubbling underneath the surface. 

If Desplat”s espionage sounds click with Oscar voters, “The Imitation Game” would net him his seventh Academy Award nomination. He previously nabbed a spot in the top five with “The Queen,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The King's Speech,” “Argo,” and “Philomena.” The Golden Globes awarded him with top honors for another energetic piano score: 2006″s “The Painted Veil.” And along with “The Imitation Game,” he'll have an angle on recognition with “Unbroken,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Godzilla,” and “The Monuments Men” this year.

I spoke to Desplat about the nuance behind his “The Imitation Game” score, a soundscape he banged out in three weeks (which is, apparently, a common situation for the workhorse). Below, we discuss constructing a sound to fit Turing, his relationship with musical technology, the differences between “The Imitation Game” and Angelina Jolie”s “Unbroken” and the influences he still relies on today, including everyone from Elmer Bernstein to Harry Mancini to John Williams.

“The Imitation Game” hits theaters Nov. 28.


HitFix: You wrote the score to “Imitation Game” in three weeks. How??

Alexandre Desplat: Well, some movies are like this. “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” “The Queen,” even “The King”s Speech” – sometimes these movies have long post-production processes and sometimes, when they”re ready for the music, there is only three weeks left. You just jump on board and do it. As a composer for films, I”m trying to work fast. I guess the more I improve, my craft improves, I can move even faster.

Was there something about the film that convinced you the timeline was doable?

When I read the script, which is what I do when I first work on a film, I was moved, impressed, excited, and interested. That”s a lot! That”s why I do music. I want to watch films that inspire me. This was strong. I knew I could do it and it would come out from my system. Not easily, but fast. You have to work a lot.

What does reading a script offer you musically?

I always try to read the script. Great movies are made of great scripts. If I read a script and don”t feel connected to the story or the way the story is told, why would I do it? I”m not the right person.

You”ve said in previous interviews that the piano running through “The Imitation Game” represents Turing”s mind and the mechanics of the machine. Why did that particular tactic make sense for you?

The idea was that it”s very difficult to show on screen what”s happening in the brain. That”s where music comes in. The sensation that this brain is different than the others'. Faster, complex. When you look at a Jackson Pollock painting or a Cy Twombly drawing, it”s this fast movement of interleaved lines. I felt that using computerized pitches and scales could render that. We also know Turing invented [the computer]. So it was an homage to his invention. I used some great piano samples from the Apiary Studios collection. And then I mixed that, sometimes three or four tracks of pianos. Some are literal, some are random arpeggios that the computer plays. Then there”s this celeste harp, this twirling sensation.

You programmed computers to randomize the piano sounds or you folded the algorithmically-generated compositions into your scoring?  

It”s a mix of both. There are things that I play that are programmed precisely, the notes I want to play. Some others are from a generator that plays the notes that I want, but in a random order.

Many modern composers rely heavily on technology to produce their soundscapes. What”s your relationship with computers in regard to composing?

Almost all my scores have programmed elements. My music is more orchestral with some electronic elements. But it”s very important in the way I compose and sounds in the orchestra. If you listen to “Birth,” for example, there”s the sub-bass, and in “Zero Dark Thirty” there”s a lot of electronic, too, with the orchestra. I like when an electronic sound can bring something the orchestra cannot play. I like to mix those. But I like live instruments, play with them, conduct them – that”s the core of my music.

At times we hear a clacking sound in the background that blurs the line between sound design and score….

That”s an electronic sound that I”ve used, a percussion sound I like very much. I wanted to use it when the machine first starts to work after months of struggle. The noise the machine makes made me want to find a mechanical flavor that I could use in the film to express two things: the machine and the way war is crushing human beings. And even the clock ticking. 

I could see a parallel between writing music and code-breaking. There”s mathematics involved in notation. Do you think physically penning the notes of your score is still essential for composers? Have you discovered new ideas for your music through notation?

An important part of music is the counterpoint, one line or several lines, flowing horizontally from left to right as the music goes on. You have the melody and sub-melody, counterpoint. Great composers that I admire, Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams, their musical counterpoint is very present. When you look at a film, the music can follow a storyline and the counterpoint allows you to emphasize subtext. Like the music of war counterpointed with the music of sadness. That”s what a composer should be able to do. It”s crucial. At times, when I hear some scores, I feel I”m missing that. I hope there”d be more of that in scores, [rather than] vague flavor played on a pad looped in the background.

This is your third of four scores for films set during World War II. They don”t sound much alike, but is there a thread between them?

“Monuments Men” had to be a reference to the great war movies like “The Great Escape” or “Bridge on the River Kwai.” That was almost an homage to that era. Elmer Bernstein or Maurice Jarre. While “Imitation Game” is not about the war. It”s about the search of a man and his trial as a gay man, repressed sexuality that can”t come out, and his genius, his relationship with the world and his fellow human beings that brings him to invent another way of being a human, actual intelligence. War is present of course. But it”s about him. “Unbroken” isn”t about war, either. It”s a spiritual quest of one man: An incredible athlete and a survivor, how he uses his strength and training to survive. It's more of a spiritual quest.

How is that represented in the score for “Unbroken”?

It”s very different because “Imitation Game” moves very quickly. The tempo and the way I used the orchestra in “Unbroken” is very different. It”s much slower, it”s much deeper, the orchestra is much bigger. It”s got a great power, and yet it was recorded by the same orchestra.

You seem to have a deep knowledge of film score history. Do you still go back to the golden age pillars of composing? 

That”s how I started liking film music. I listened to these genius composers and how they wrote incredible music for cinema. Alex North, [Hugo] Friedhofer, even in the '30s with [Max] Steiner and [Alfred] Newman. Of course, Bernard Herrmann invented a new way of scoring, using repetitive motifs and less melody. All the composers of the '60s: [Harry] Mancini, Quincy Jones – they brought jazz into the music. I was and still am a big soundtrack fan.

I wanted to ask about Mancini, who I recently thought of while digging through your jauntier scores. Not an obvious comparison, but maybe an influence on tempo.

He”s a big inspiration. He was a flutist like I am. There are not many composers who are flutists. I was lucky to go to a session of his in 1990 with Jack Hays, my orchestration mentor. He was a very big influence. But Quincy Jones, too – they have this dual genius of writing for orchestra and for jazz band, and mix the influences. It”s counterpoint!

You mentioned John Williams a few times – does one of his scores stand out?

He”s the other one who can do anything. I”d mention “Catch Me If You Can.” He should have won an Oscar just for his opening title. It”s the summation of what a composer can show of his genius. Bar after bar there”s a new idea, coming as a continuous idea of the previous bar. It”s something I try to do every day. The harmonic world he creates, the impossible melodies he creates – “Catch Me If You Can” is a big one.

Williams operates on this mammoth scale. Is it a language you feel comfortable creating with? Or does it feel like a style that”s still developing?

I think I started on “Golden Compass” and improved during the last two “Harry Potters,” improved using a big orchestra and big choir. I think I was ready to do “Godzilla” when I chose to do it. But again, I think I improved. I used the orchestra in a different way. The double brass orchestra, a huge string section – I love doing these movies. It”s new for me, but I just want to find a movie and director I want to spend time with. Gareth Edwards had an incredible vibe around me. It”s so hard to write two hours of music! It”s so much work, so you want to do it in a kind environment.

Gareth is about to jump to a “Star Wars” movie. Would you follow him to that project?

You should ask him! If he asks me, I suspect I”d say yes.

What”s next in 2015?

Many projects. “Suffragette,” with Carey Mulligan and directed by Sarah Gavron. There”s a new Wim Wenders movie [“Every Thing Will Be Fine”], there”s a new [Roman] Polanski, there”s a new Tom Hooper [“The Danish Girl”]. Many great films coming out. Too many. I have to write faster and sleep less. Be like a samurai.