It was 10 Decembers ago that a French composer named Alexandre Desplat burst on to the Hollywood movie scene with his gorgeous score for “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” He earned his first Golden Globe nomination for that work, and after continual quality achievements on films like “Birth,” “Syriana” and “The Painted Veil,” he earned his first Oscar nomination seven years ago for “The Queen.” It has been nothing but up since then, as he has now earned five Oscar nominations and worked with directors ranging from Roman Polanski to Stephen Frears, Wes Anderson to Stephen Daldry, Terrence Malick to Tom Hooper, Kathryn Bigelow to George Clooney and David Fincher – and that”s just in the English language.
His latest score is for the newly released and highly regarded “Philomena.” The chance to catch up recently was particularly meaningful for me, given that we first spoke the year Desplat earned his nomination for “The Queen,” which was both his first Oscar nomination and the first year of In Contention’s Tech Support column.
We began, of course, by looking at the past decade, which Desplat admits has been an incredibly lucky one. “Hollywood has opened the gate for me and has kept it open,” he says. “It is a very fragile world where doors can open but can close very quickly. Many Europeans, not only composers, have tried to break into Hollywood but only get one attempt. I”m very lucky to have continued to work [in the US] while still doing work in the UK and France.”
Of course, luck is not all that Desplat is riding on. Talent and a sheer love of film music has also driven him. He would hardly be so prolific otherwise, turning out an average of six feature film scores per year since that first Oscar nod, and sometimes as many as nine. “You have to believe in what you do and do it with passion,” he says. “It”s what I”ve always wanted to do – write film music. By being a crazy cinephile and being able to talk cinema with my directors and because of my passion for music, I am able to show that I can offer anything that the history of music has to offer.”
This of course requires significant discipline. He admits he still needs to work and train after 10 years of improving his range, “to be able to approach a wide range of films and wide range of scores – 120 piece score like ‘Harry Potter,” or big successes like ‘The Ides of March” or ‘The King”s Speech.””
And yet he confesses he still, always, frets about landing his next job. That”s the thing that occupies his brain. All these doubts and fears that a composer has – opening a new chapter and new history and millions of notes. The blank page is as terrifying for him as it must be a screenwriter.
Clearly, though, much of Desplat”s success has been attributable to the directors who have a desire to keep working with him. “Most of these directors have called me again for one, two, three, four movies,” he says. “It”s the directors who have heard my work somewhere and think I can bring something to their film.”
When asked why this might be, Desplat becomes pensive, but believes it ultimately is related to an ability to ensure that his music complements their work and does not overwhelm it. “I have to be dedicated to the film as well as to the music,” he says. “There”s a respect I have for the dialogue and the sound and trying never to overwhelm their cinema…Directors speak together. They speak to film editors. They share the idea that I”m completely devoted to what I do and the films I work on. I always try to elevate the movie – even if it”s very high. I try to make it look better without making me look better.”
Even on massive blockbusters such as “Harry Potter,” Desplat goes out of his way to emphasize the importance of what”s on the screen. That was a huge franchise film with a massive orchestra but director David Yates, he says, has a very European sensitivity. “We were always on the same page aesthetically,” Desplat says. “In American scoring, there is a tendency to underline every emotion. Sometimes you need to do that, like in ‘Rise of the Guardians” – animation is, by essence, not real. But in a way, ‘Philomena” or ‘Harry Potter,” in the gentle sections, the films are not so far away. Of course, when there”s a huge battle with thousands of soldiers and monsters, it can”t sound like ‘Philomena!””
Something that Desplat has strong views on, and which he believes is a large reason for much of the success that he has experienced, is his background in European approaches to film scoring and filmmaking. But what does he mean by that? “I think maybe that”s why directors call me on both sides of the Atlantic,” he muses. “I”ve kind of combined the grandeur, epic, Romanesque scores that you can hear in American cinema since the ’40s/”50s until John Williams, and the restrained scores of Nino Rota, Georges Delerue.”
In Desplat”s view, this is related to the history of filmmaking. It started in the French New Wave, he says, because the enterprising filmmakers of that movement started to find a new way of telling stories and filmmaking. “When you”re shooting with a camera held on the shoulder, couldn”t have a full orchestra, what did they do,” he ponders. “Just what I said: Picture does not decide what the music will be, story decides what the music will be. I see in movies in America, and sometimes also in music, where the music is just mimicking what you see on screen. And that”s something the Nouvelle Vague would not allow.”
He is nonetheless the first to admit that this isn”t necessarily an area where cut-and-dry distinctions can be made. There have been many great American composers, he points out, who have alterred their personal signature. He mentions Danny Elfman and John Williams with movies like “Presumed Innocent” and “The Accidental Tourist,” as well as the great Bernard Herrmann, even. “So when I say ‘American cinema,” we can”t put everything in the same basket as an animated movie where everything needs to be precisely following the action,” he says. “The scores of Carter Burwell for the Coen brothers are an example of this.”
Turning to “Philomena,” Desplat cites his relationship with Frears as a prime example of a very good rapport he has built over the past seven years. The film represents their fourth collaboration (after “The Queen,” “Chéri” and “Tamara Drewe”). “He”s a man with a great sense of humanity and has great respect for people he collaborates with,” Desplat says. “He knows they”ll be giving 200 percent of their time and energy for the film. We share the same taste for wit. His movies are also very European – something almost Francophile. I”m always very inspired very early on because [his work] is just so related to my own personality.”
With respect to how Frears works with his composers on a day-in, day-out basis, Desplat says the director is not hands-on with details, but he certainly keeps an eye on things “with benevolence, but it”s always about how much more or less drama music can we bring. He can just guide me in kind words, such as, ‘Maybe lighter here.” He has a great sense of how the movie should flow and he knows that the music is very important for that flow. It”s never, ‘Oh, I like major chords or minor chords.’ It”s always about film and the storyline.”
Turning to the actual score, Desplat says “the title is ‘Philomena,” so guess what? I had to find Philomena”s color, tone, physicality. That”s the main thing I focussed on.”
The most memorable aspect of the score is the lovely melody which plays throughout, which Desplat says he came up with in order to reflect the eponymous character’s gentleness, her pain, this wound that she has that never healed and the obsession of the “original sin,” which was the moment when she made love with a boy and got pregnant. “As usual with me, it”s not only the melody,” he says. “When the fairground organ plays this melody, I”m going to use the melody of this sound all along the film. Sound of orchestra is not just playing – sound is an echo of what we heard on the fairground. It creates an eerie but gentle, not-at-all-foreboding sound that both conveys the melody and the memory of that moment.”
As the film goes on, the melody needs to change to reflect the shifts in tone for the film. “We had to build following the story,” he says. “When they go to America, there”s more and more Hitchcockian investigation-type of music. Stephen used to say ‘more Hitchcock” – the music was too gentle, it”s safe to go into more into Bernard Herrmann-style instruments.”
Also, on a film like this, there was a temptation to bring in Irish/Celtic-style music. But it was a temptation that Desplat and Frears quickly found unappealing. “After screening,” he recalls, “we had a meeting where I asked, ‘Irish?” and everyone there said ‘nope!” We knew very quickly that there would be an Irish thread all along the film. To add a tin whistle or a bull drum makes no sense. It would be overdoing it. We needed to find the thin red line between Martin”s cynicism and Philomena”s seeming weakness, when she”s in fact very strong. It”s more important than playing Irish countryside music. Irish countryside is there on screen but the story could be anywhere; the themes are universal.”
We are of course now at the beginning of yet another awards season and I couldn”t help but ask Desplat what he thinks about this. “Having an award is not ‘the truth,”” he says. “When you lose at an Oscar ceremony and the person beside you is John Williams, and he has also lost, you say, ‘It”s not that bad to lose,” and it”s not that you lose, because you”ve been nominated. Not that I wouldn”t like to have an Oscar one day but when I look back over the past 10 years, I think of the music I”ve written and the movies…who remembers who won the Oscar for Best Score in 1956 or 1991? If there was a recipe to do a great movie, with great director, write a fantastic score and get an award, great. But that”s not why I write music.”
Nevertheless, I”m confident that golden statuette is coming his way one of these years.