‘Music is inside me and all over the place’
Born in Paris in 1961, Alexandre Desplat came to prominence in the 1990s, working with French directors such as Patrice Leconte and Jacques Audiard. In 2003, he scored Peter Webber’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, launching his career worldwide. Further international recognition came with his soundtracks for Stephen Gaghan’s political thriller Syriana (2005) and John Curran’s drama The Painted Veil (2006), for which Desplat won a Golden Globe Award. A list of some of the titles he has recently scored illustrates his versatility: from Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006) and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) to Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010). “Difference”, Desplat has said, “is what keeps me awake.”
Despite this wide range of projects (or perhaps thanks to it), Desplat has built a unique personal style, an irresistible combination of French délicatesse and American splendour. His scores can be charming, melancholic, exciting and triumphant all at once.
Breixo Viejo talked with Desplat at Abbey Road studios where he was recording a new score with the London Symphony Orchestra for Peter Ramsey’s forthcoming Rise of the Guardians.
Which have been your main influences as a film composer?
It’s a real mix. I was trained as a classical flautist; my mother loved classical music and my sisters were piano players, so I heard all the classical piano repertoires playing in their rooms. As a teenager, I started being absolutely passionate about symphonic music. I had some kind of reluctance with the music of the nineteenth- century. I liked Mozart and Beethoven, but then I felt there was some kind of gap, because music itself was looking for something new. But at the end of the nineteenth century there was this moment in which music evolved, a moment which perhaps has influenced me the most: Mahler, Ravel, Debussy, Puccini…
What about jazz?
My father had a big collection of jazz records, so I listened a lot to Coleman Hakwins, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong… I collected jazz records myself; I have every single record Bill Evans has made! But I also played with a bossa nova band and with African musicians. My mother is Greek so I listened to Greek music and Middle Eastern music and… I have all these influences, Ravel as much as Miles Davis or Mikis eodorakis. Music is inside me and all over the place.
As a student you attended the courses of Iannis Xenakis and Claude Baliff…
I followed Xenakis’ workshops for some weeks, where he had his machine, the UPIC computer, in which you could literally see the sound waves and from those waves you could build with a pencil whatever sound you would like. At the Paris Conservatory I attended Bali ’s great music analysis courses for two years. Bali would play everyone from Stravinsky to Boulez to Messiaen, and we learned a lot about the music of our times.
How do you think your style has evolved?
From the early 1990s to 2003 I wrote music for more than y movies in France and Europe. During that time I tried to build an identity, an aesthetic based on the ‘less is more’ principle. I tried to bring transparency to the scores and to use strings and ethnic instruments in a colourful rather than folkloric way. As a film composer, I did not want to throw my music at the picture but rather to be part of the picture, to be completely involved and interwoven with everything –the dialogue, the sounds, the rhythm of the film. I spent long hours trying to find the right ‘vibration’; I call it ‘vibration’ because that’s what I feel when the music and the image really fit together. My wife Solre Lemmonier was my concertmaster for almost all my European movies and she taught me how interpretation was crucial to my style.
What happened after Girl with a Pearl Earring
After that film I had the opportunity to do some larger scores in Hollywood, where the lm industry offers the possibility of a large, epic expression. In American cinema there is this tradition of symphonic scores, from Elmer Berstein to Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, which has somehow vanished from Europe.
There’s not much music in Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) or Polanski’s Carnage (2011). Are they examples of your ‘less is more’ aesthetic?
Yes. In European cinema reality is more present than in American cinema, which tends towards fantasy. So if you want to respect reality you cannot impose too much music, otherwise you cut yourself off from the real sound. at’s why placement is crucial, because if you place the music at the wrong point you are an intruder, and I don’t want to be that. I want to enter the film without notice.
The finest scores have to work both as applied and autonomous music at once.
That’s the key to a good score. Film music is fifty percent function and fifty percent fiction. Music has to serve the movie to be efficient, it has to be useful, otherwise it wouldn’t be necessary for the film. But at the same time it has to open the world of imagination and bring the invisible to life. Nino Rota, Georges Delerue, Maurice Jarre, they all composed scores that intimately worked with the picture and were at the same time pure music.
Was there a particular film composer that you learned from? 
I learned from Bernard Herrmann in particular, because he had an incredible instinct for dramaturgy and knew how to place music in the film. He was the first one to mark different moments in the same cue and to realise the importance of the entries and the outs. If you listen carefully to his Hitchcock’s scores, for example, his music is never wall-to-wall. Herrmann also invented the use of repetitive music in lm, repetitive patterns transposed, accelerated or slowed-down, the same patterns again and again, which created this feeling of obsession. That is something I learned from him and I think I use a lot.
Do you usually compose the score once the film is edited? 
Yes. There have been some exceptions, like when I worked with Terrence Malick during the making of Tree of Life. But I prefer to write the score once the film is finished. Otherwise I would write for the concert hall. I write for the movies – you have to watch them, because the script isn’t the movie.