Alexandre Desplat on 'Imitation Game,' the Turing machine, and hints for 'Unbroken'
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.