Tech Support Interview: The ubiquitous Alexandre Desplat on living his dream
When Tech Support first launched at In Contention five years ago, Alexandre Desplat had proven his talents with top-notch scores for “The Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “Birth” and “Syriana.” It was clear to those of us watching (and listening to) the film composing world that this talented Frenchman was going places. His Golden Globe win that year for “The Painted Veil,” and Oscar nomination for “The Queen,” kicked off his success with awards bodies.
His record since then, in terms of quantity and quality of work, as well as awards recognition, has been nothing short of phenomenal. Oscar nominations for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The King’s Speech” have followed, undoubtedly contributing to his seemingly being the most in-demand composer today. This year, he incredibly managed to score eight titles, including Chris Weitz‘s “A Better Life,” Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” David Yates’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” He is eligible for Oscar consideration for his collaborations with Clooney, Daldry and Yates.
How does he find the time to do all of this? “That’s what I do,” Desplat says matter-of-factly. “I never stop and that’s how I like it, to never stop composing. If you think about great architects, they just keep designing and it’s the same with me; if you need to create, you just create.”
This exceptional work ethic has clearly paid off. It's a great honor, he says, to have so many top-tier directors calling him up for collaboration. “It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a teenager," he says, "looking at Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams working with great directors, and here I am working with Polanski and Frears."
The work flow has been constant, with virtually no breaks, even when the work isn’t composing for films. Before we spoke earlier this month, Desplat had just returned to Paris from South America, where he was conducting several concerts. But how can you manage to stay fresh despite all of this? He says the music itself is a self-replenishing source of continual new energy.
“When you really dig, music takes you places you haven’t thought about and it opens wide gates that were unknown to yourself," he says. "Writing more opens up new inspiration within myself.”
He owes that to variety, too, noting the very different films he's worked on this year, from drama to light comedy to documentary. “If you try to compare their moods, they’re all so very different but with great directors and great people, there’s always something new,” he says. This variety of directors, not only this year but throughout the last several has certainly kept his work varied, making it impossible for a critic to peg down what a “Desplat score” sounds like.
The films did pose specific challenges. “The Ides of March” reminded him of his days as a teenage cinephile. “When you look to political films of the 70s, such as ‘All the President’s Men,’ there’s not much music," he says. "It was a challenge not to overwhelm the movie with music and build tension as the movie is going on.”
Of all the work he has in play this year, though, his work on "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," Stephen Daldry's adaptation of the best-selling novel about a young boy grappling with grief in the wake of his father's untimely death in the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York seems to be his leading ticket for an Oscar bid. Desplat was not expecting to work on the film this year, but he jumped at the opportunity when it arose.
“Stephen Daldry was a director I was clearly hoping to collaborate with,” he says. “When he called me, I had a gap in my schedule. It was a challenge because music is very important in Daldry’s movies and I had to do an hour and 15 minutes of scoring in three weeks.”
Adding to this was the fact that Daldry was in New York while Desplat was in Paris. “It was a very demanding subject and I had to find emotion and sentiment in the music,” Desplat continues. “But we managed to have great communication, and when you’re shown such a beautiful movie, you’re quite inspired.”
If “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” was an effort where Desplat came aboard at the last minute, the opposite was true for “The Tree of Life,” as Terrence Malick called him very early in the process.
“We first met in 2007 and [Malick] came in and discussed that he had in mind classical pieces and he wanted me to try and bring some kind of flow of music that would link all these pieces,” he says. This reliance on integrating pre-existing music has undoubtedly been a factor in the film’s disqualification in the Oscar race, but that did not take away from the importance of Desplat's role in creating music for the film. “We would meet, we’d talk on the phone and then we’d speak again and he would just use my music as he would have used classical pieces, integrating them,” he adds. This was a particularly easy film to be inspired by, however, as Desplat offers that “every shot is a piece of art, incredibly beautifully framed; everything is so gorgeous.”
Despite his working primarily with these amazing directors, he acknowledges filmmaking is a collaborative effort and composers are not immune from this. “We have occasional discourses with sound designers, sound editors or [film] editors,” he says, noting that it is essential to ensure the music works in the film’s soundscape. Creating the story has even led him to interacting with the screenwriters, as he believes his work impacts directly upon theirs. “For instance, I had exchanges with Peter Morgan on ‘The Queen’ on deciding when a good moment for music would be," he says, "because we’re the last ‘screenwriters’ – that’s how the music works. You can bring so many things.”
At the end of the day, however, despite interacting with other behind-the-scenes artists, and particularly relishing his relationships with directors, Desplat admits composing is a lonely profession, with many long hours writing music in solitude.
“I do feel very lonely, but I can’t be a composer without it,” he says. “I like to be all alone in my studio. It’s not always fun but that’s the way it works if you’re a composer.”
It will be interesting to see, or should I say hear, what Desplat does next, and it’s obvious he is enjoying his journey: “I’m exactly where I want to be and I’m incredibly happy.”
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is currently in limited release. It expands further on Friday, January 20. "The Tree of Life" is currently on DVD and Blu-ray, while "The Ides of March" comes to home video on Tuesday, January 17.
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