Since beginning his career in France in 1985, Alexandre Desplat has scored 150 films including two Best Picture winners. His first Golden Globe nomination came in 2004 for Girl with a Pearl Earring, and he won that same accolade in 2007 for The Painted Veil. That same year, Desplat received his first Oscar nomination for The Queen, and has since been Oscar-nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The King’s Speech, and Argo. Other recent credits include Zero Dark Thirty, The Tree of Life, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2. Desplat has become the composer of choice for numerous acclaimed filmmakers, having scored multiple films for Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer), and George Clooney (the upcoming The Monuments Men).
One of Desplat’s most consistent collaborations has been with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Stephen Frears, which has included The Queen, Cheri, and Tamara Drew. Frears’ latest film, Philomena, finds Desplat back in the Oscar race, along with star Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love), and co-star and co-writer Steve Coogan (Tropic Thunder). Philomena recounts the true story of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) helping the title character (Dench) find her long-lost son, which may involve uncovering one or more horrible secrets being tightly guarded by the convent where Philomena was held captive after becoming pregnant as a teenager.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Desplat about his collaboration with Frears and their latest film. Here’s what Desplat shared with me about finding the themes for this unique film, recording at Abbey Road Studios, and working with the some of the best musicians in the world on Philomena.
Jackson Truax: You received your first Oscar nomination in 2007 for The Queen. What impact did that first nomination have on your life or career?
Alexandre Desplat: The Oscar, it’s the holy grail of anyone working in cinema… If you look in the history of cinema, you see that most of the great actors, directors, and composers, have been delighted to be members of the Academy. Whether they received it or not… Being nominated, which means being recognized by your peers, is something huge. I love so many French composers who have been nominated. So it was really important… In terms of career…Girl with a Pearl Earring opened a wide range of possibilities. Because my work was heard. Because a movie I worked on was seen. When you have a movie that has an Oscar nomination, it’s also a movie that can be seen. The music can be heard. So it gives you a new range of directors that have heard your work in movies… It’s a new chapter.
JT: How did you initially come to work with Stephen Frears? How has your collaboration evolved through several films, up to and including Philomena?
Desplat: He was looking for a composer for The Queen. He had followed my work… Before American movies, I had scored more than fifty features in France… Especially one director that I think he really likes, French director Jacques Audiard. His last two movies were A Prophet and Rust and Bone. At the time, there was a movie called Read My Lips, which [Stephen] really liked. He had noticed the music. So when he started working on The Queen, he just thought about me. He updated his knowledge by watching The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which was Jacques Audiard’s latest movie at the time. Then he called me. He’s always been one of my idols. And has been for a long time. Of course, he’s made so many movies. The great thing about Stephen is his ability to direct a very social, dark movie set in the country of England… He’s got the social content, and a great wit. I guess that’s where we meet each other very, very well. We like to have a great spirit together.
JT: What’s the process of working with Stephen Frears on a film? How much direction does he give you either at the beginning or throughout a project?
Desplat: Stephen is very open-minded. He expects his actors and his collaborators to be inventive. He doesn’t want to frame them too much… He does have a way that’s very smooth and very open. So at first when we start a film, we talk about it. We say out loud what we dislike or what we should avoid. Then we just go to work. And I suggest things. Then he can pick and choose. And he guides me when he thinks it’s too dark or not dark enough; or not emotional enough, all these things. When I saw The Queen [before it was scored] I remember, I said at the screening… “Do you need the score?” Because the movie was great as it was. He insisted, “No. We do need the score.” But there was no guidance. His movies are the bonds of emotion and wit and energy. He’s got a great sense of camera movement. There’s a great fluidity. All of these elements are musical; are part of the musical language… So it does help.
JT: Your scores are so varied. Does writing a score like Fantastic Mr. Fox or Argo feel the same as writing Philomena? Or are they different challenges creatively?
Desplat: Each movie is a big challenge. It’s tough. You’re offered a film and you see the timeline in front of you. You know that it’s a new challenge. It’s a new hill, or mountain to climb. The challenge of the work that I do is to be able to, during a very restrained, contained frame, to be able go from scoring, frame-by-frame…within nine months, a very dark movie to a big blockbuster… You can write for a solo instrument or a big opera. You have all these tools that you can use… In that respect, being able to go from one style of film to another is a blessing. Because I can put myself in danger. And enjoy doing what I do. To do the same type of films all the time would be a nightmare. For me, and for the people who listen to the music, that would sound the same on and on. So it’s one of the most appealing things of my job. To be able to do Fantastic Mr. Fox, Harry Potter, and Argo.
JT: The score for Philomena feels very sparse in a lot of ways. There are really compelling themes on the piano and strings, but there’s not the lush or bombastic feel of a full orchestra. How did you decide on that approach?
Desplat: The character of Philomena is a very simple person. In the most beautiful…and gentle way. She’s a nurse. She’s been working hard all her life. She’s had this very difficult time since her child was taken from her. It’s a very deep and soulful story. I knew it could have been too big, too aggressive, and too romantic. It would have been ridiculous. It would have overwhelmed the whole character. She’s the lead of the film. The film is named Philomena. It’s her story… She’s a tiny, little woman in her late seventies. The music had to mirror that. That’s her suffering, her strength, and her sensitivity. Her wit, because she also has a lot of wit. She’s that gentle grandmother. We’ve all known one in our lives. And that’s what the orchestration was built on.
JT: Steve Coogan co-wrote and co-produced the film, in many ways for himself to play the male lead. The film is very dramatic, but he brings some comedic elements. Were you conscious of that when writing the score? How did it influence your work?
Desplat: There are very few movies of Stephen Frears’ where humor is not present… Steve being well-known, especially in England, as a great comedian, it makes sense for him to bring, to inject, an extra layer of humor… There’s nothing more moving…than a dramedy… You can jump, from one scene to another, from drama to comedy. And Steve loves doing that. He [plays] a pretentious, sure of himself, upper-class, British journalist. He’s so the opposite of Philomena. That’s why the two of them work together so well. He plays that very well.
JT: Philomena has a handful of flashback scenes in the beginning, but so much of the film deals with a traumatic past that then spans continents and decades and is constantly being revealed in and impacting the present. How did the way the narrative dealt with time and people’s relationship with time influence your writing of the score?
Desplat: Time is something that’s very tricky in cinema. I’ve worked on many projects where the way the time was felt or shown or used was crucial to the narrative… It’s something I’ve always been very interested in. It’s difficult to deal with. Because, as you know, music only has one time. It starts at Point A and ends at Point B. The nature of this art, music, has just one go. So, it’s sometimes difficult, when the movie is fragmented with flashbacks and flash-forwards…to find the continuity of the music, as we’ve not heard the continuity of the film. Actually, most of the time, the music can help the continuity. I think that’s what we tried to do in Philomena. Trying to always link the past with the present. They always have the nuisance of the original trauma, the original sin, I would say. That’s why the theme that we hear at the very beginning of the film, the orchestration, it’s almost like a grand organ using recorders…playing harmonics and details. It sounds familiar. But you can’t really tell what it is. When you see that, as you go through the movie, it reminds you, of the fairground organ that you heard at the fair in the beginning, when she has her first sexual adventure with a boy. That’s also a way of helping the puzzle [of the film] to have some continuity.
JT: You’ve recorded a lot of your scores at Abbey Road Studios, which is arguably the most famous recording studio in the world. Why do you like recording there, and what do it think it offers you or adds to the scores?
Desplat: I’ve learned that…for a composer, the main thing when you enter a studio is music. You shouldn’t be thinking of anything else but music. How to play it. And how to record it. When you’re surrounded by the crews of Abbey Road, everything is made of that. Everything goes in that direction. So that all of your brain and your sensitivity can be lent to that. You can focus only on being creative. That’s a very rare thing. Everybody works hard for you to be happy over there. The room is fantastic. The equipment is great. And the crew, on top of that, makes it wonderful… There’s a…big, big, big reservoir of musicians. They’re the best players. I’ve been lucky through the years to work closely with their orchestra… There’s always magic among them…. For a musician, for a composer…it’s exactly what you dreamed of when you were writing. You hear what you wanted to hear. It’s the most beautiful sound.
JT: Different composers have different views on this, but when you assemble your team of musicians to record a score, do you show them the picture that you’re scoring to?
Desplat: I do. I invite them to see what we’re talking about. I always do an introduction before we record. But words are not as strong as an image. I always ask for a big screen so they can watch whatever is happening. They can’t just watch. Because they have to watch…the sheet music. But they can look around. They see what we’re talking about. And why I’m wanting them to play [a certain speed]. Everything I write is connected. The music I write is connected with the picture. I do think it does help them.
JT: You’ve already received five well-deserved Oscar nominations, and scored two Best Picture winners. What would it mean to you, or receive another nomination or win for your work on Philomena?
Desplat: It’s always good to be recognized. It’s always good to be receiving an award. I don’t know when it will come. It will come one day. Or not. And I’m just looking at the next movie. I try not to look back at what I’ve done. And try to always elevate myself for the next project. And try to get my music better. To do the best that I can do. I’m just waiting with joy and patience for my next film with Stephen Frears. I hope there will be many. For the rest, there’s nothing you can do… There will be many movies with many great scores, like every year. If I’m part of the game, great. If not, that’s fine. Life goes on. I will continue writing music.