Alexandre Desplat on scoring 'The Imitation Game' and fighting composer's block
He's scored two films that won best picture Oscars, but he's never won for one of his scores, despite being nominated six times. Could this be his year?
Alexandre Desplat is one of the most celebrated composers in Hollywood. He wrote the scores for "Argo" and "The King's Speech," both of which won the Academy Award for best picture. However, Desplat has never won an Academy Award for one of his scores, despite being nominated six times.
This might be the year that ends the trend for Desplat: he scored five movies this year, including "Godzilla" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel." His most recent score can be heard in "The Imitation Game," which is currently in theaters.
When Desplat recently stopped by The Frame, we talked with him about the role he tries to fill as a film composer, his inspirations, and how he gets over writer's block.
How much time were you given to compose, record, and mix the score for "The Imitation Game?"
I think it was a three-week writing and recording time. It's very short, but as a film composer I'm working very fast and reacting very fast to a story and to pictures. And the time I had was also very charged with energy by [director] Morton Tyldum. I worked very closely with Morton. This story is so beautifully directed, and there are so many elements in it that are charged with emotion and drama that it's actually almost easy to do, because you surf on such a beautiful wave. You're just taken along and it goes fast. I can go fast.
Let's talk a little bit about the orchestration here. It sounds like there's more than one piano; tell us about how it's orchestrated and what your pianos are doing here.
How do you bring out the incredible brain of a genius? [Editor's note: he's referring to Alan Turing, the real-life character played by Benedict Cumberbatch.] In film it's very difficult; you can't just open his brain and show how his neurons are. [laughs] But the music can play that very beautifully, so I tried to bring out the speed, the fast activity of the brain, by using three computerized pianos.
It's not really piano; it's a great sample bank from Abbey Road Studios. There are three pianos, a celeste, sometimes a harp and sometimes an electric piano. So you sometimes have five keyboards going, whether they're playing very precisely-written arpeggios and scales, or completely random algorithms playing with a chord that I used. We have an orchestra in the back which is not too big, so it doesn't become too pompous or too overwhelming.
What is your main job in terms of the role your music serves in the film itself?
I guess the passion I have for cinema is as strong as the one that I have for music. And I've always tried to be a character in the film, not just a composer that throws his music to the film. That's the main element that connects me with directors. The point of the directing is structure, which is the key to my movement, and I want to be this other actor in the film. That's what I want to do.
You also worked this year with Wes Anderson on "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Here's a track called "Mr. Moustafa."
There's a lot of joy and fun and wit when you work with Wes, almost like when you were a little boy and there's a good friend that comes home, and the first thing you want to do is take him into your room so you can show him all the toys you have and share with him all your fantasies. It's exactly the same with Wes. [laughs]
He explains to me what he's going to do before he shoots the film and he comes to my studio at some point, and then we lay all these tools and toys on the ground and we start building a really strange castle, or an army, or a puppet. That's exactly what we do musically, and I guess it just comes from this moment of joy that we share.
When you were growing up and thinking about becoming a musician or a composer, was there a movie you saw that had a great soundtrack that made you say, "This is what I want to do?"
Yes, there is one film and one soundtrack that made me express clearly to my friends that I wanted to do the same job: the "Star Wars" double album. When I heard that one, composed and conducted by John Williams with the London Symphony, I said, "That's what I want to do."
Well, they're making probably another "Star Wars" movie for every year until the end of recorded time, so have you thrown your name into the hat? Do you think you'll get a shot to do one of them?
[laughs] I think John Williams is already on the task. If there's a gap after John Williams passes on a film, maybe I'll do it, yes, of course. [laughs]
Sometimes when you're composing you have only a matter of weeks to put a composition together. What happens if you get writer's block?
It's horrible, because every hour counts when you're on this kind of a deadline. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Can I find my ideas? Where's the chord I'm looking for? What's the melody line I couldn't find? The only way I've found through the years to unblock is to sleep. [laughs]
So I collapse on my couch for a few minutes and then I find the idea — most of the time. Or I go running, that's another option. And funny enough, last year I watched a documentary on Leonard Bernstein when he was in his 60s, and there's a part where he says the same thing, and I said, "Wow! I'm not the only one!" [laughs]
If Leonard Bernstein had writer's block, it's okay, you're in good company.
[laughs] Exactly! He sleeps on his couch to unblock? Perfect!