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How Alexandre Desplat approaches a film score


The French composer Alexandre Desplat (who turns 60 today) is about as prolific as they come. From his work on the Harry Potter franchise to his collaborations with Wes Anderson and Guillermo Del Toro, Desplat’s scores are as numerous as they are evocative.

His scores are characterised by their lush and inventive orchestration, emotive motifs, and subtle dissection of the film’s key themes. But like all great composers, Desplat has a talent for adopting a new approach for each of his films, never repeating himself, and always creating something unique and mesmerising.

Having decided on his career from an early age, Desplat has spent a lifetime honing his craft, absorbing the styles of fin-de-siecle composers Maurice Ravel, Debussy and Camille Saint-Saëns, whilst developing his own musical ability.

An accomplished pianist and composer by the age of 25, his first scores were not for film but theatre. During this time, he applied the lessons he learnt from his conservatoire instructor, the avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis.

Since then Desplat has gone on to score films such as The Girl With The Pearl Earring, The King’s Speech, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Shape of Water, and The Imitation Game. In this article, we’ll look at how the giant of film scoring approaches working on a film score, from collaborating with directors to understanding a film’s characters.

He works (very) quickly

Film music is a unique beast. Unlike the orchestral music you’ll hear in the concert hall (or indeed most other types of music), film scores have incredibly tight deadlines, and there is often no time to make mistakes.

One of the things which has made Desplat such a force of nature in the film industry is that he is incredibly good at getting things done. Of his lightning speed, Desplat has said: “you can’t write movie music if you don’t know how to write quickly. It’s not unusual to have only three weeks to score a picture. And that’s three weeks from signing on to finishing the last recording session. That’s how I did The Queen and, more recently, it’s how I did The Imitation Game.

As Desplat explains, one of the reasons he is forced to work so quickly is because film scoring can be a very fickle business. “Sometimes it’s because another composer has left the project. Sometimes the producers decide very late that they need an orchestral score. In any case, you need to deliver the goods. There’s no point writing a great score three months after the film is released. Naturally. With this job, there is no Sunday.”

He gets to know the film and its characters

The purpose of the film score, more than anything else, is to say what the on-screen action cannot. In other words, a film score is concerned with subtext, with the inner life of characters, and with the film’s key themes. Desplat understands this as well as anyone and demonstrated it in his score for Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The story takes place in an opulent hotel in the fictional land of Zubrowka, somewhere in central Europe. Desplat used the film’s setting to inform his orchestration, utilising Gregorian chant, balalaikas, and the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer heard in folk music in Hungary and Austria. In doing so, Desplat’s score absorbs the audience into the world Anderson has created. However, it also allows us to access the inner life of the film’s main characters. The motif Desplat writes for M. Gustave is the perfect example of how he does this: “all the mandolins that are doing this tremolo, and this creates a trembling, so it’s a bit solemn — because M. Gustave has solemnity and elegance”. Simple as that.

He’s careful not to be too obvious

However, it’s important for a composer not to fall into the trap of simply writing a score inspired by the period the film is set. Whilst this can, in some cases, be very effective, it can also be very restrictive and lead to a score that is superficial rather than explorative. Desplat learnt this during his time working on The Girl With The Pearl Earring.

“Period music can be a trap,” Desplat once said, adding, “That’s the one advantage to being the last person to see the completed film, as usually I am. I see with fresh eyes what’s already there on the screen and I take its pulse. So if a film is set in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century I can see how far the costumes and production design and the dialogue already tell the audience that.”

“The last thing you should do is restate what is obvious,” he continued “So when I did The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for David Fincher I didn’t jump into period American music – but the Brad Pitt character passes through the era of jazz so I put a little jazz flavour into the score. That doesn’t mean we had a swing or big band sound: it had to be subtle – maybe just an echo of Duke Ellington. If directors know their job, most of that texture will already be in the film.”

He is collaborative

Desplat is an example of how healthy, open, and honest collaborations can be the making of a great film score. From working with orchestra’s to communicating with directors, Desplat has always shown humility and openness, allowing him to write some of the most dynamic and successful scores of recent years.

Of working with the London Symphony Orchestra he said: “If I stand in front of the London Symphony Orchestra I don’t want them to laugh at me – or, even worse, be bored. So whether it’s at Abbey Road, or conducting a concert at the Barbican, I am interested in how the orchestra reacts.”

Like one of his heroes, John Williams, Desplat understands the importance of working as closely with an orchestra as is possible. As a result, he often conducts his own compositions. But at the end of the day, a film composer is a cog in a much bigger machine, and individuals like Alexandre Desplat need to be able to adapt their music to the director’s wishes. Desplat is a chameleon in this regard, constantly shifting his style regardless of budget or subject.

Talking about his collaboration with actor-come-director, George Clooney on The Midnight Sky, Desplat said: “I often worry that he might not like it, so it’s both a thrill and there’s a lot of angst because you always wonder if he will like what you wrote or not. He would say, it could be more or less that, and so you adjust or redo. He has a great ear and very quickly he can say, ‘I love it, let’s move on,’ or ‘I don’t like it, we should change it.”