How Alexandre Desplat creates a film score in three weeks

By Vincent Dowd
Arts reporter, BBC News

image sourceGetty Images
image captionAlexandre Desplat has six Oscar nominations for his film scores

If you have a full-length feature film in need of a score very quickly Alexandre Desplat may be your composer.

The Frenchman has built up an unrivalled reputation in the film world for speed and reliability - with recent credits including The King's Speech, Godzilla and Unbroken.

But three films equals less than half his yearly output, he tells the BBC.

Alexandre Desplat sits in a small room at Abbey Road studios in London, taking a break before the afternoon's recording session downstairs.

Director Tom Hooper awaits, ready to put finishing touches to his third commercial for Jaguar. But Desplat is happy to take time to expound on what makes a good film composer.

"The first thing is, you can't write movie music if you don't know how to write quickly," he says.

"It's not unusual to have only three weeks to score a picture. And that's three weeks from signing on to finishing the last recording session. That's how I did The Queen and, more recently, it's how I did The Imitation Game.

"Sometimes it's because another composer has left the project. Sometimes the producers decide very late that they need an orchestral score. In any case, you need to deliver the goods. There's no point writing a great score three months after the film is released."

I ask how he keeps up a strike-rate of three or four movies a year. It's the only time during our chat that Desplat frowns.

"Well I think usually I would do six or even 10 scores a year. Some are big films and some are not."

So does he write music each day? "Naturally. With this job there is no Sunday."

Alexandre Michel Gerard Desplat was born in Paris in 1961 and fell in love with film music at a very young age.

"It was the songs from 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book. But also I remember there was a beautiful melody which Alex North wrote for the Kubrick film Spartacus. When I was a kid I would always hum it. Later I heard Bill Evans do it as a jazz piano piece and I recognised it: it had stuck with me.

"In my early teens, I started collecting soundtrack albums. Soon I knew who was who - from [Max] Steiner and [Franz] Waxman to more recent composers like Maurice Jarre and Georges Delerue. I learnt so much from them."

So were many of his first influences from Hollywood?

"Well we should take a moment to remember that the first movie soundtrack ever was by a Frenchman - Camille Saint-Saens. So it all started in Paris! But it's true that I loved the big, almost operatic way that music can be used in American movies."

It's 30 years since Desplat started writing for films in France. America only really woke up to his talent with Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2003.

image sourceUniversal
image captionDesplat scores Angelina Jolie's World War 2 drama Unbroken

"That was another film I had to equip with a score very quickly. But it was important not to do a period, baroque score.

"Period music can be a trap. That's the one advantage to being the last person to see the completed film, as usually I am. I see with fresh eyes what's already there on the screen and I take its pulse. So if a film is set in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century I can see how far the costumes and production design and the dialogue already tell the audience that.

"The last thing you should do is restate what is obvious. So when I did The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for David Fincher I didn't jump into period American music - but the Brad Pitt character passes through the era of jazz so I put a little jazz flavour into the score.

"That doesn't mean we had a swing or big band sound: it had to be subtle - maybe just an echo of Duke Ellington. If directors know their job, most of that texture will already be in the film."

Desplat says he thinks of his main audience as the orchestra who will play the music. "If I stand in front of the London Symphony Orchestra I don't want them to laugh at me - or, even worse, be bored. So whether it's at Abbey Road, or conducting a concert at the Barbican, I am interested in how the orchestra reacts. But everything you do must be in your own voice or it doesn't work."

Most of Desplat's projects have been one-off films. But the two final Harry Potter films came after John Williams and others had established the musical feel of the series. Was that an advantage or a problem?

image sourceStudioCanal
image captionThe Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as computer pioneer and mathematician Alan Turing

"Well, in some ways Harry Potter was hard, especially because John Williams is one of my all-time idols. But it was fortunate that the first part of The Deathly Hallows was a break with the first six films. The kids are growing up and it's not set at the school. So I could move the score on and we didn't hear much of Hedwig's Theme, which people think of as the theme tune of the series."

He says that in his recent score for The Imitation Game, the main ambition was to reflect the incessant activity in the brain of mathematical genius Alan Turing.

"It wasn't relevant to me that it was set in the 1940s and 50s. Turing had a fantastically quick intellect - that was what I wanted to convey.

"We recorded the score here at Abbey Road and this place has so many great resources to offer. I wanted to match the LSO playing live with computerized piano arpeggios and scales. We needed a sense of whirling excitement and I think we got it.

"Years ago I don't think I could have done all this in three weeks, as I had to. But my skills have improved and I had the support of a great orchestra and fantastic production people."

With which the composer hurries off to consult with Tom Hooper about the commercial they're finishing downstairs and to prepare for his LSO concert at the Barbican.

It's only last month that The Imitation Game was released yet it's symptomatic of Desplat's extraordinary work rate that there are another four films he's worked on since then in various states of completion. Last year he even took an on-screen role in The Monuments Men.

Almost the only thing lacking is an Academy Award. When the Oscar nominations emerge next month it's likely he'll be on the list, as he has been six times previously.

After all, in this, as in most years, Academy voters will have no shortage of Desplat scores to consider.

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