by Dan Goldwasser
Although he has been working for over 15 years in Europe, only within the past few years has composer Alexandre Desplat caught the attention of Hollywood. He has scored numerous studio features, including The Girl with a Pearl Earring (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination), Birth, Hostage, The Upside of Anger, and Casanova. He recently received another Golden Globe nomination, for his work on the political drama Syriana. SoundtrackNet recently had a chance to talk with Alexandre about his work, from his studio in France.
Last year you scored your first major Hollywood thriller, Hostage. How did you get involved in that project?
Bruce Willis loved my music! <laughs> Actually, it was because I had scored director Florent Siri's two previous films. When Bruce and his producers watched Florent's second film, The Nest, they really liked the cinematography, the music, the editing, and of course, the directing. So when he was asked to work on Hostage, he said, "If you want something as good, I need my posse - I need the guys I've worked with before." So it made sense to the producers to hire me, and my name was starting to spread a bit at that point too, because of the Golden Globe nomination for Girl with a Pearl Earring. So that is how I got involved. [Play "Griet's Theme" from Girl with a Pearl Earring MP3]
Was it easy to work on the film because of your relationship with Florent?
Yes, of course. Florent is a big film music fan, so it was much easier and smoother to be with a close friend whose taste in music - and film music in particular - you are familiar with. The most difficult thing to build between a composer and director is confidence - and in this case it was already there, so it helped. I also have to say that there was no pressure from the producers. Even when Miramax was involved, they were very nice - I never felt any pressure from the studio, ever. With another director it might have been more difficult. [Play "Hostage" from Hostage MP3]
Did you ever have the issues of pressure in Europe?
Almost never. The big difference is that in France, all directors have "final cut". That makes a big difference - there is nobody above him.
Why do we have it here, then?
It's just the concept of who the work of art belongs to. In Europe, it belongs to the creator - the directors. He has "final cut".
Do you have ownership of the music, then?
Well, I own the music as a composer, but not as a producer because the music belongs to the studio. On some films, there might be a share of publishing, but each film is different, and I try to do each score differently too!
You had been working for many years in Europe, but only recently are new to the American scene. Do you think that working in the studio system might change your style?
Over the past 15 years, I've been able to build a voice, something that looks like me. I don't know if it's a "new" voice as some say, it's not within my ability to say - but I write what I like! So it's "me". I come from France, and I've worked here, and in England, and Spain, and I'm not going to dump the past 15 years of my life when I come to Hollywood. I will still improve by doing a European movie once in a while, because there's a different approach to film scoring. Even a film with a small budget - I don't care, as long as I can be creative. And being creative is the way to move forward.
What is your working process? Do you use a computer, or pad and pencil?
I use it all! Ten minutes ago, I was at the piano noting a few chords down on paper. This morning I was at the computer, working on a demo. When I orchestrate, I use a pencil and paper. I have all the software, but I never use it - I would have to stop working for a month at least to be able to learn to use them, but I can't stop! So I just use my pencil and paper. I do it all - I use all the tools we can use, because they're great. I am sure that if Georges Delerue or John Williams in the 1960s had the tools, they would have used them. They're good tools, and they're useful.
What inspires you?
Ever since I was a teenager, my two passions have been movies and music. So watching a movie inspires me. That's always what has inspired me the most - watching moving images. But of course I've worked for the stage, and inspiration is there - when you read text, and see actors moving on a stage, but it's a very different energy. It's difficult to write a concert piece and for a movie at the same time, because the energy - the way you put your mind into the work - is different, because of the short pieces you have in a movie, or the way the chronological order of the pieces go into the movie. When you write a concert piece, you have only the direction you picked to go. You don't have to worry about the change of a cut, the dialogue, the sound, the change of a mood in a scene - you go on as long as you want, and as far as you want on those tracks. So it's a different state of mine.
Have you done many concert works?
I have, yes. I also have some pieces of film scores that could be played by an orchestra as part of a concert. The London Symphony Orchestra played Birth, as part of a concert in Daytona Beach last year. I wasn't there for that, so I don't know how it sounded. But with the LSO, it couldn't have been bad!
You've used the London Symphony Orchestra quite a few times. Now that you've recorded in Los Angeles, how do they compare?
I was really impressed with how the Hollywood union musicians were playing. They were great technicians, their tuning was perfect, and they were very good with the rhythms - there were some very difficult rhythms to play in the strings. I was really impressed - they were excellent! They can compare with the London Symphony Orchestra, no doubt. The only difference is that the LSO plays together every day - the same guys - so they make a special sound. It's not because they're better, it's just because they're together, the same group, every day of the year, for several years. And they play everything from Dvorak to Boulez, and John Williams - so they have a sound that's very distinctive.
You say you've been a film music fan since you were young. Who has influenced you most as a composer?
The main composers I would say were John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, Georges Delerue, Maurice Jarre, Michel Legrand, Alex North, Franz Waxman, and Jerry Goldsmith. That's the best "short list". For classical music, Ravel and Debussy, Shostakovich, Satie and Mozart.
Have you studied their works?
Yes, but with film composers, it's harder to get their written scores - I just use my ears. At that point, in the late 70s/early 80s, there was no video - so I would have to go to the cinema over and over to watch and listen at the same time.
Do you have a large soundtrack collection?
Not bad, I would say. Each time there is a new Williams, Zimmer, Newton Howard, or Thomas Newman, I listen to them. I want to know what is happening with my peers.
You recorded Casanova with a small chamber orchestra. Did you adapt the classical music in the film too?
No, I was asked to create a few themes here and there. I was asked by director Lasse Hallstrom to create a few things that he would use sparsely, where the classical music wouldn't match because of the shape of the tunes, or the mood wouldn't fit. About 75% of the score was filled with classical music, and that was understood when I took the assignment. That's why I recorded with a baroque orchestra in New York. I didn't record the classical music. [Play "A Venetian Virgin" from Casanova MP3]
For Syriana, you used world renowned artist Djivan Gasparyan on the duduk. How did you get him?
Luckily, he was in Los Angeles at the time. I would have flown another duduk master that I've worked with in the past from France, but the contractor managed to get Djivan, who was available! I was impressed - I was so happy to be able to work with him. [Play "Truce" from Syriana MP3]
Did you change any of the music to feature him?
No, because except for one piece, the duduk was supposed to be blended in with other instruments. There was a trio of cello, duduk and ney (Arabic flute), and I did use him as a soloist on one piece in the film - when George Clooney's character wakes up in the hospital. But keep in mind that I wrote everything he played - there was no improvisation. He always wanted to improvise, but I said, "No Djivan! I want you to play what I wrote!" That's what I always do, even when I use jazz soloists. Because I'm a "jazzer", I write the solos myself - they're not real improvs - I write them down! So I do the same thing with ethnic musicians - I ask them to play what I write.
Syriana used electronic pulses in the score - did you create the synth elements yourself?
Yes, there's a low bass pulse. Also, almost all of the string patterns are doubled by synthesized electronic sounds that blur the strings. The concept was to blend all the sounds, so that no single sound would be too clear or defined. Because the movie is like that, I wanted to the music to be almost like an echo of what the movie is talking about: everything is connected, and you don't know what is happening. So you don't know who is playing what - you don't know if it's a cello, or an Armenian duduk; if it's a string orchestra, or an electronic sound. That was the idea of the score - to blur and hide everything. [Play "Beirut Taxi" from Syriana MP3]
That's great! Many times it seems like film scores just play to the action on the screen.
Some movies need that - they call for it. But Syriana opened up another space. Like Birth or Girl with a Pearl Earring, there's a space in this movie where you can go with another approach, and that's a blessing. Not that I'd be lying - Hostage was great too!
You used your daughter for the vocals in Hostage...
She was eight or nine at the time. I didn't want to take a trained singer, like a soprano that sings in church, and Florent agreed with that - that the voice should be fragile and have imperfections. But she did a great job - I was very proud of her. If there's an opportunity, and she's right for the gig, I'll use her again. [Play "A Child's Spirit" from Hostage MP3]
You recently finished Firewall, which comes out next month. How did you get on board that project?
Richard Loncraine had heard about me because of Birth, so we met and we got along fine. He's a nice gentleman and a creative talent, which was good because we had to spend a great deal of time together. Being the movie fan that I am, I was raised with Harrison Ford on screen in Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Patriot Games, Blade Runner, Witness- too many movies to mention. He's such an amazing star and an amazing actor that I was just jumping to do this movie.
It's a thriller - so did you write dark material, to keep us on the edge of our seats?
Yes, I tried - and I also tried to go one step further than Hostage, trying not to repeat myself from two years ago, and try something with another flavor. I hope I did it! There are more electronics in this one than in Hostage, for sure. The way I use the orchestra is different too. The writing has a different approach. I usually do all of the programming of the electronics myself, with my two hands, but on this one Marc Mann gave me a bit of help too - he's a music programmer.
You received a Golden Globe Nomination for Syriana. What was that like?
It was already such a surprise to be nominated once, two years ago, and to be nominated this year - I wouldn't have expected it. So I'm very honored, impressed, and happy! The nomination is more than sufficient! If an award comes on top of that, it's a dream - but I'm not thinking about it, because either it happens or it doesn't. There are so many other great scores we are competing with.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on Lucky You directed by Curtis Hanson and The Painted Veil directed by John Curran and based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel.
Alexandre Desplat's score to Syriana is available from RCA Red Seal Records. Hostage is available from Superb Records, and Firewall will be released in February from Varese Sarabande Records.
Special thanks to Ray Costa for his assistance in arranging the interview.