Alexandre Desplat on working with Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck
At a recent reception for Alexandre Desplat at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to promote his “Rise Of The Guardian’s” score, the composer jokingly offered to validate my parking ticket. “Anything to get the gig,” he laughed. “I’m actually playing piano tonight in the ballroom.”
Even without supplying such additional services, the prolific Desplat is Incredibly in demand for his agile flair and ability to score virtually any genre. This year alone, he wrote music for an wide array of films, including “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Rust and Bone” and the aforementioned “Rise Of The Guardians.”
His past scores include “The King’s Speech,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Queen,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Parts 1 and 2.”
Desplat received his sixth Golden Globe nomination earlier this month for “Argo”; the work won the Satellite Award for best original score on Dec. 16.
At the DreamWorks Animation reception, I grabbed a few minutes with Desplat to talk about some of his work this year. We didn’t have time to cover “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Rust & Bone,” as he was also running the valet operation that night and needed to fetch Jeffrey Katzenberg his car. (Just kidding on that last part).
“RISE OF THE GUARDIANS”: Desplat wrote a staggering 82 minutes of music for the film, ranging from action themes to lullabies. He started with “Believe,” an enchanting piece inspired by a pivotal, emotional scene late in the picture. The movie centers around the “guardians” of our childhood, including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman, who protect children against dark forces, as long as the children still believe the icons are real.
“I just felt that the center of the film was about that dream and the belief and I should maybe start there, not start right away with the action,” he says. Desplat played the theme for director Peter Ramsey, who loved it, and its melody became an anchor. “It started as the theme and then it became the thread which brings us all along the film until the song at the end.” Along with the movie’s screenwriter, David Lindsay-Abaire, Desplat wrote “Still Dream,” the end-title theme performed by Renee Fleming.’’
“Guardians” also features galloping action themes that I suggested to Desplat seemed to pay tribute to one of his heroes, John Williams. “You’re partly right, partly wrong,” he said. ‘I’m not paying homage. He’s just become part of our collective unconscious. John Williams’ music in the last 40 years has rejuvenated the style.”
Desplat added that as much as he listened to such pioneering composers as Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann, “[Jerry] Goldsmith and Williams were the famous composers when I as a teenager,” he says. “So alive and still very active and creating these incredible soundtracks, so I’m sure that had an impact on me. When you see a superhero flying, of course you think of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Superman.’”
His sweeping, imaginative score also hits a number of whimsical beats, similar to Carl Stalling’s work. “The movie is very funny and very witty,” he says “I’d been watching Tex Avery a lot when I was young,” he says, bringing up not just Carl Stalling, but also Scott Bradley. “There’s a fun and a joy, like Spike Jones also used to have...This kind of crazy fantasy. When I wrote this score, I couldn’t not think about that and the need to write my love for this kind of music.”
“ARGO”: The Ben Affleck-directed drama reunited Desplat with one of the movie’s producers George Clooney, with whom he’d worked on “The Ides of March.” For the film, which covers the 1979 Iranian Hostage crisis, Desplat deliberately stayed away from channeling the music of that era in his score since the film already incorporated so many of the fashions and other styles of that time.
“There was so much of that on screen that if I started doing the Wah-wah pedal and the ‘Shaft thing,’ it would have been too much,” he says. “My goal was to bring emotion and suspense and tension and make sure that you got the danger surrounding the hostages. That was my job. [Affleck and I] agreed very early also to bring some Middle Eastern flavor in front of you, which was also a foreign sound because at the time, world music was not that prominent.”
“ZERO DARK THIRTY”: Desplat’s music for the story about the hunt and eventual capture of Osama Bin Laden is kept to the bare minimum. Given the almost documentary feel of the picture and the inherent drama of the story, director Kathryn Bigelow and Desplat wanted to avoid any hint of cliche.
“There was no way I should play the suspense,” Desplat says he and the director agreed. “We always kept repeating to each other, ‘’No score, no score..’ There should be music that should be another current to the film— always appearing—disappearing, without notice. It’s got to be like not painting on the canvas, but in the canvas itself.”
Desplat, who scored the film in three weeks, wanted to create a musical palate that reflected the culture and the history of the region and of the conflict between the warring factions. “It’s it’s the story of two civilizations, two religions, two tribes trying to kill each other. One attacked the other, there’s always one that starts the war and then the other strikes back and then it becomes ugly, and awful and disgusting and disturbing,” he said. “It’s not nice to see somebody being tortured even if he’s a bad guy. It’s monstrous and ugly.”
Desplat had nothing but praise for the Oscar-winning director, calling Bigelow’s movie “a masterpiece...The way she chose to have Jessica Chastain play a role and not some action woman. This tiny woman, so beautiful, such transparent skin, to play the girl who’s the most fierce and cunning of the whole bunch,” he says. “And she’s the one who really wants to kill or catch Bin Laden. Kathryn’s point of view is just amazing and I don’t know how many artists and directors would have had that strong point of view for the subject.”