For those familiar with Alexandre Desplat’s work, listening to the Isle of Dogs score, you hear how his instrumentation is unlike his usual orchestra. Instead, the beating of the taiko drums are the heart of the score, the driving force. Reflecting the dogs in the film and what we see on screen.
Reunited with Wes Anderson, Desplat avoided Japanese influences, instead stressing the taiko beat. He talks about how Anderson and he also paid homage in the film to Yoko Ono and Foujita.
I sat down with Desplat in Beverly Hills recently to talk about the score and scoring Sisters Brothers, a Western, again pushing the Oscar-winning composer outside his comfort zone and does something he’s never done before.
Where do you start with Isle of Dogs?
How do you start? It’s in Japan so we started with the taiko drum for the melody motif and that was the driving force of the score in the film. You hear the banging throughout the whole film. With that comes the melody in the same way the flute or violin would be melodic.
Wes uses a lot of silence in the film.
I knew he was going to do that. So, around the drum melody, we used saxophones and recorders, as well as a jazz bass and all of this together makes a very strange sound.
With the double bass, it gives the film that jazz sound, which if you listen, it accelerates with the film and the story. The sound is created not with Japanese instruments. I didn’t look for Japanese influences in the music. The score is very occidental. It’s almost tribal-like if you listen to it closely.
There’s no orchestra here, so what’s your sound palette?
Sometimes it was just a piano, sometimes it was just a saxophone. There’s a spy story and so there was a 50s sound to the score, with a different chord. So, as the film becomes more dangerous, so does the score
You use the chants in the Shinto Shrine. Talk about that.
It’s a male choir that we used. It takes us back to the taiko drums, you hear very low voices. The language is very specific in that. I was watching the movie and looking for Japanese words and I found these four syllables, “Yoko Ono” They sing Yo-ko-o-no. Take a listen to it, no one can tell but that’s what they’re saying and that’s the idea behind it. It made Wes laugh.
At the very end, there’s the little boy, the hacker who hacks the system. He turns around and he has the face of Foujita, the great Japanese painter who came to France. He has the bowl cut with that fringe. The hacker has Foujita’s face and no one knows that unless you’re familiar with him as an artist. So, there are all these little things that Wes offers you as an homage. The film is filled with them.
How different is composing a score for stop-motion compared to animation?
The detail is so incredible, right down to the tears in the eyes and it’s spectacular. Everything you see and the puppets and Wes’ camera movements almost make them seem so real.
With the music, it’s a lot of work and a lot of experimentation to find what works. When we’re in the room together, the ideas flow.
The concept was about trying to avoid a big symphony score and anything too sentimental and stay in that world of Japanese minimalism. When you look at Japanese movies, dialogue, and sound, it’s all about the minimalism and I wanted to reflect that. So, the drums, the beating throughout haunt you and that’s what we wanted.
You also did Sisters Brothers thsi year. A Western score this time.
It’s a Western and I’ve never done that before. It was very scary. It was fun to do, but it’s not fun until you find the music you’re looking for. You know what you don’t want to do.
Again, it’s the movie that guides you and gives you the direction and hope. So, with the sound of this, it’s got a ghostly texture. What we did was we avoided all bass. We chose to emphasize prepared piano, timpani drums, a pair of cimbaloms for bass, and electric violin which sits at the center of the score.