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Interview: Alexandre Desplat on Creating the Music of Love in The Shape Of Water

Listen carefully to the score from The Shape of Water and it feels as if you’re underwater in that magical world. Oscar winning music maestro Alexandre Desplat captures the watery essence of Guillermo Del Toro’s world in The Shape Of Water relying on a chorus of flutes instead of full orchestrations to create the tinkly sounds of water through the score.

In Del Toro’s latest creation, The Shape of Water, Eliza (Sally Hawkins) is mute. She lives in a speechless world listening to music, carefree, working at a government agency. The Asset (Doug Jones) is a fish-like creature who has been captured from the waters of the Amazon and like Eliza, he has no way to speak. It’s Desplat’s euphoric and gushing score that gives voice to these two characters as they discover each other and trust each other.

The film is exquisite, the acting is exquisite and the score is dreamy and pulls you into the watery world from the opening note to the final chord. I caught up with Desplat to discuss how he found the right melody to express the liquid realm of The Shape of Water. It’s one of the best scores of 2017 and a top contender for Best Original Score for the 2018 Academy Awards.

I’m already dreamy just thinking of the opening as we’re immersed in that underwater world. What did you do to create that effect and that tinkly water sound we hear?

That was the idea, trying to figure out what water and love sound like without doing what Debussy would have done before. Luckily, there was a great visual as the film opens, that floating. So, I asked myself what can possibly capture that? I had to find accommodations between the melody, the change of chords and the instrumentation right away because the sound is the first thing you hear. You hear the sound before the melody.

It’s a combination of the whistle, which is a pure sound and it’s her. There’s the accordion with a pure sound too and at the center of it is the Fender piano, the electric piano, and on top of that that there are 12 flutes that play the melody. They create the blurred underwater sound which is warm, tender, and fragile like love.

What did Del Toro tell you about his ideas for music?

He didn’t point at anything precisely. He just said he wanted a European score. It meant he wanted the score to capture the soul of the film, not just capturing what was on screen. He wanted the score to be like the composers of the ’60s who reinvented film composing and to capture the identity.

Was there a sound to the characters such as when we have Michael Shannon’s character appear?

Actually, the sound you hear is not his sound, it’s the sound of the creature. The lower notes that slowly become higher and gentler for the creature. For us, the creature at this stage is ominous, a bit dangerous. We don’t know who the bad guy is yet. We discover the good and bad quickly.

The sound is watery and in the lower registry. It’s muddy, dark and ugly and you hear the flutes. Strickland doesn’t have a theme. His performance becomes very strong. He’s human but actually, it turns out he’s the monster.

She’s a monster because she’s a mute. He’s a monster because he’s from the river. That’s what Strickland tells us and it’s what he thinks. He doesn’t need music because the music is about love and he doesn’t give love. He has sex with his wife, but it’s not love.

He has sex with his wife, but it’s not tender at all.

He makes love like an animal. That’s what he does.

What about her music and what we hear throughout the film?

It’s delicate. It’s carefree. For others, it’s caring. She doesn’t have a great life, she’s a mute and is a cleaning lady, but she’s happy. She likes life and her friends at home and at work. She goes through everything with a smile and with music. Music is dear to her heart. Using the whistle for her voice captures all of that. The whistle is skinny and so is she and it captures all the elements of who she is.

What was the orchestration like on this film?

It wasn’t big at all except for the end scenes. There are no woodwinds except for the flutes that create the watery sound. There are four bass flutes and four alto flutes that create the blurry sound as if you’re underwater listening to this music. We had strings and accordions and that’s it.

Was it hard to find that melody?

When I compose, if I were a songwriter writing lyrics and music at the same time. I write themes and orchestrations at the same time. I immediately hear which instruments I’m going to play. For this, I didn’t find the melody right away. It took me a while to make it better and improve it. It strange because the minute I wrote the love theme, I realized I had written this piece that felt like broken arpeggios that felt like waves. Remember the film is very watery, the way it’s shot. The camera is always in movement, the same with the editing. It’s very musical and watery and it helped me to lean on that a lot.

What about the external music was that your choice or his?

They were his. The only work I did was to bring in Renee Flemming to sing that musical moment. She is Sally’s singing voice when she sings in black and white. We used the same song, “You’ll Never Know.”

It’s a beautiful film.

It is. I hope people understand that in times of war and hate and pointing at minorities. I hope people see another option and a face of humanity.

That’s the beauty of her character.

We’re all mankind and we’re equal. What he did was magical. You go from the Russian spy to her at her house and to Strickland. It’s very difficult to sustain the excitement and emotion. One minute you’re with Strickland and you cut to her by the docks and you’re looking at the water. He makes it work because the characters and the acting is so strong, and that’s the magic of what he did. You’re in the film.

There’s never a cut that takes you out of the film.

You float through it all. What he did with all of that was help me to create the score and it’s magical. That end result is just beautiful.


The Shape Of Water is released on December 1