Legendary film composer Alexandre Desplat joins Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki to discuss returning to Wes Anderson’s ‘world of imagination’ and extravaganza for The French Dispatch. Desplat also looks back on career highlights, awards season memories, and why he never watches his iconic movies.
From sweeping romances, period dramas, and biopics to action, fantasy, and animation, Alexandre Desplat’s music has accompanied some of the most iconic titles of the last 30+ years of cinema. Desplat’s mastery of his craft and penchant for the unexpected has made him Hollywood’s go-to composer, a marquee name, and landed him a level of recognition few in his field have achieved.
One hundred ninety-eight credits deep into his remarkable career, Desplat is still creating surprising and intricate music. His latest work, The French Dispatch, marks Desplat’s fifth collaboration with auteur filmmaker Wes Anderson. Desplat’s score is a whimsical delight and a perfect complement to, and an integral part of, Anderson’s distinct world-building.
Desplat’s score is among the 15 shortlisted for the 2022 Academy Awards and could very well land the two-time Oscar winner his 12th nomination—a fitting tribute to a film that celebrates artistic risk and expression, and a musical virtuoso who has earned his place as one of the all-time great composers.
Awards Daily: Wes Anderson is one of several directors you’ve worked with multiple times. Tell me about your working relationship and what makes it unique.
Alexandre Desplat: It’s different each time with every director, but with Wes, it’s because Wes’ world is Wes’ world. It’s like you enter another dimension. He has such a world of imagination. He does not adapt the story, script, or novel. It’s just his own ideas that come out, and that’s something very special.
The second thing is how much music is interwoven with his films, and with his editing, it becomes almost an element you can’t detach from the editing. And thirdly, I would say for me, it’s a world of extravaganza, intelligence, and humor. He hides a lot of sensitivity and melancholy behind his very active imagination. So it’s become very special for me, and he trusts me, and we try together to create something always a bit special for his films. Always very minimal and unpredictable, we hope. So that’s why I’m very fortunate to work with Wes.
AD: You have said that The French Dispatch is special for you because of your personal connection to France. You’ve described the setting as Wes’ version of France and Paris. What does that mean to you, and what did that mean in terms of the music you created?
Desplat: Well, I tried not to go into the French cliche. You know, the accordion and the waltz and the little girls singing in the corner of a bistro. We tried to do something else, but of course, it’s charged with my own melancholy and my own French soul, even though my soul is a mix of many, many things. Of course, there’s a French side of me because I’ve been raised in France.
Also, the first thing that I remember when I read this script is that this film, this story, was Dadaist. I wanted to explore that world of Dadaism and try musically to be unpredictable. There’s continuity when you hear the cords. Still, it’s sometimes switching instruments, then the motifs, or the rhythm, and it takes you by surprise. You know, there’s a banjo suddenly doing a motif or a harpsichord responding to a tuba. Things that are provocative and fun, but at the same time serve the story. So that was what we tried to do together.
AD: The French Dispatch is told in distinct segments. How did you approach continuity across each chapter? And where did you lean into those elements of surprise?
Desplat: There are four stories, and one of them is only songs because Wes wanted it to be in the world of the teenagers of the 60s so it’s mostly period music. For the other stories, the instrumentation is the same. We have the same band making the same music for the three other stories, so there is a continuity of sound and sometimes of the motif. When you hear the tuba in the first story, you remember that sound. It’s not a bombastic score with loads of tearing sounds; it’s like lace. Things are coming in and out. So from one story to another, you are in the same mood.
AD: To me, The French Dispatch is really a love letter to writing and storytelling. You are a storyteller in your own right with the music you create. What did it mean to you to work on a project that celebrates artists and creativity?
Desplat: You’re right; writing music for the film adds one more line or one more color to the dramaturgy already here. I was very lucky when I was a young composer to write for a local theater. When you write for the stage, you spend time at the rehearsals in the theater listening to the actors and the notes that the director gives to the actors. You see how they move on stage. You listen to the way that they place their voice, and you learn to listen to the words and the way that the words are delivered, and I think it helps me a lot when I score a film like Dispatch where it’s a tribute to words, to remember what I learned as a younger composer.
AD: You mentioned that words play such a significant role in how you place the music. Could you tell me more about that? When you get the initial script, do you start to hear the music in your head? How does that work?
Desplat: I always say that composing is to think; it’s not to play. It’s not going to the piano and going, ‘Oh, I’ll improvise.’ No, it’s thinking, and I tend to take time before I start writing. I try to intellectualize what I want to do. So the script is a good start, but it’s not enough for me. I need to see the pictures. It’s a mix of intellectualization and intuition that I try to balance in my work. I need to see the colors, the actors, hear the voices, see the camera move. It’s all together on top of what the script gave me.
AD: Is it important for you to spend time on set?
Desplat: I love to go when I can, but it’s difficult. You know, there’s so much going on that it’s difficult to access, especially during COVID.
AD: Alexandre, you are truly one of the hardest working people in Hollywood, with almost 200 credits! Do you take pieces of your compositions with you? Do they inform one another, inspire one another, or do you try to keep them as separate as possible?
Desplat: No, no, no, I never listen to the music I wrote. No, unless I have a concert and I prepare pieces I’m going to play, I never watch the movies I write music for. I never listen to it. I move on to the next story because that’s life; I need to go forward, or if I go backward, not to say I’d be disappointed, but I’d be useless. [Laughs].
AD: What would you say are your quintessential works? If you had to create a Mount Rushmore for your career, which scores would you choose?
Desplat: You know it’s all so connected to the relationship you have with the director. It’s not just the piece; it’s also the experience. Was it nice and smooth? Or difficult but worth it?
I can mention a few movies; The first is Girl with a Pearl Earring  because I love that film and the director, and it took me to the Golden Globes, which opened my American career. Then, of course, Read My Lips  by Jacques Audiard because we did many movies together. There would be the two Harry Potter movies, the last ones because I learned a lot doing that and thanks to David Haymen, who gave me the opportunity to score the last two films. Also, my proximity to John Williams meant that I could get closer to him, he was my idol, and he is still my idol. Probably Grand Budapest or maybe Mr. Fox, one of Wes’ films. and Oh, The Imitation Game as well.
AD: Right. Mr. Desplat, this is Awards Daily. I want to ask about your relationship with the awards attention you’ve received. You’ve amassed an impressive collection of accolades over the years. Where do you keep your Academy Awards? Do you have an office or a special place for your trophies?
Desplat: I’m very cool with them. I have some trophies here, I’ve got a Grammy here, I’ve got quite a few in Los Angeles. I have some in my studio in Paris. I like to move them around, sometimes by my piano, sometimes on the shelf, or sometimes in a safe. At home, it’s the same, some of them are on shelves, one of them is in my bedroom these days. They move around, and they travel. They have their own life. You know, they need to be free because they belong to you only for a while.
AD: Do you have any memories from your awards experiences that remain particularly special to you?
Desplat: Probably my first Oscar because I had two nominations, The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest and I thought I wouldn’t win. I did not prepare any speech, so when I had to come on stage, it was a bit blah blah bling, and I was not very convincing, but I tried. [Laughs].
The other thing was when I won the Golden Globe for The Painted Veil, my first Golden Globe, I had prepared a speech which I thought was very funny and I went on stage, and there was Scorsese, Spielberg, DeNiro— I mean, the room was filled with stars and I felt like an idiot with my jokes. I just said, Good evening and thank you very much; I didn’t say my speech because I think everyone would have been embarrassed.
AD: No, I’ve watched your speeches to prepare for this interview, and you were just lovely. Is there anything you would like to mention before I let you go on with your day?
Desplat: I think I’m happy that people go to the theaters again and see and like The French Dispatch because it’s a great, great movie. You can see all the talent and virtuosity of Wes, and I can’t believe that he has not yet won an Oscar because he deserves that really special moment.
The French Dispatch is available through Video-On-Demand (VOD).