[Interview - Alexandre Desplat]

Film composer Alexandre Desplat has been receiving critical acclaim for his work on the new drama The Queen. He also has another highly anticipated score forthcoming with The Painted Veil, and SoundtrackNet recently had a chance to talk again with Alexandre about these two projects, as well as a few other things.

How did you become involved with The Queen?

I had worked with Pathé UK before, on Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Stephen Frears knew my work for director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped) and I know he really respects Jacques' work a great deal, and he had heard my previous scores. So through the various stages of the editing, they were uncertain of where to go with the music - they hadn't found the right direction. I was asked if I could have any ideas and help, and obviously I could help - and did! So it was a very quick, last-minute process, but I was so amazed and thrilled to be working with Stephen Frears, and on such an excellent movie. When you start writing music for films, you dream that one day you'll be able to work with certain directors: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ang Lee and Stephen Frears. Yes, Stephen was high on my list, no doubt! I think I have seen and loved all his movies. So that's the way it started.

Your approach to the score uses a rather versatile main theme which changes the tone of the film through the different orchestrations and performances. How did you come up with the palette for the score?

I always like to think about the instrumental colors that we use on a score. For me, it's crucial what kind of instrumentation will fit into the picture. The Queen was tricky, because the movie calls for music - but not too much music, and it couldn't be a loud, huge, pompous, or bombastic score. You could do that, of course, because of the Queen, the palace, the monarchy - but it would have been dangerous. It could have killed the reality that Stephen Frears was seeking in the movie. He's playing very subtly, interweaving fake footage with real documentary. He shot all of the Queen's scenes in 35mm, and all of Tony Blair's scenes in 16mm, so there he is using these cinematographic tools that make you think there is a way of being as smart, and I could use my musical tools as well to be subtle and give different tones and colors. The main idea is that the ghost of Diana is floating over the movie. And yes, there is this struggle, a new battle that starts between this left-wing Prime Minister, and the Queen, who is conservative - as she has to be, she's the Queen! The thread is really Diana. So the theme we hear floating over the movie on and on is Diana's Theme. Sometimes slowed down, sometimes mysterious, sometimes dark, sometimes sad, at other times jaunty, or ironic, but she's the thread woven throughout the tapestry.

What was your working process to come up with that palette? You use a harpsichord, and mandolin, among others...

Obviously, I used instruments of the time of the monarchy, which for us in France was 200 years ago. It's a modern film, and a modern score; I didn't play any Purcellish pieces - that was not the goal. But using these tools, as Stephen has done, allows the unconscious, when you're watching the movie, to make a link between the monarchy and the music - and the interiors, and the pomp of the butlers, and the very dated manners. It's the old world, versus the new world. It's like these instruments are the remains - like at the end of Planet of the Apes when you see the Statue of Liberty - it's the remains of another world! <laughs>

And you used some electronics as well?

There are some electronics. There's an electronic pulse on the bass, and there's also some other sequencing, doing 16th note patterns. "Diana's Theme" on the CD has it. I wanted to add this kind of '80s kind of synthesizer sequencing bass, like what the New Wave used all the time - it's very '80s! I didn't use it all the time, and just as the movie has an arc, the music has an arc as well. The more you go into the movie, the more the focus is on the Queen. So the music that was really on Diana from the beginning, to expose the subject, which is this interplay amongst the Queen, Blair, and Diana, slowly fades out to become the Queen's and Tony Blair's duel. And then even more the Queen's point of view, and emotion, when she's in the countryside by the river, and all these other scenes towards the end of the film. So there's an evolution in the music, but I come back to Diana's color whenever I can inject some of her ghostly presence.

You keep saying that the "ghost of Diana" hovers over the film - is it a presence provided to the audience only on a subconscious level through the music?

Yes, I am keeping this thread of Diana throughout the film. But we see her, for long periods of time - documentary images of hers, speaking through the TV, or people talking about her, until the end - the funeral. This story is a tragedy. She was pretty young, very famous, beloved, admired and cherished, and it is a tragedy. So there is the weight of drama, immediately in the movie, the weight is there, because our unconscious knows there was this great tragedy. We all know about it, and we care less or more, but it's part of the 20th Century's story. And because it is a tragedy, you do not have to play the tragedy with the music. With just a little push, you are there - because you are already in tragedy mode.

The last piece of music on the album is the Verdi piece played at her funeral. This is the original recording?

Yes, it's the actual recording from the funeral. There was this incredible scene - which the film shows - where there is an enormous crowd outside of Westminster Abbey that they had to set up giant screens to show the crowd. Millions of people - it's amazing! So they played the Verdi piece, inside and outside, and at the end there was a eulogy by her brother - and the crowd outside started to applaud. And like a wave, it grew, and continued into the abbey itself - and then people in the church also applauded! Have you ever heard of people applauding in a church, except for a concert? And especially for a funeral! It was really extremely dramatic.

When we last spoke in January, you were starting work on The Painted Veil, which comes out next month.

The movie is beautifully shot and directed, and was a wonderful palette for an evocative score. The soundtrack will be released by Deutsche Grammophon, partially because there is a pianist who solos on it, Lang Lang, a very gifted and successful classical pianist, who happens to be Chinese. It is a film by John Curran, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, set in China in the 1920s or 1930s. Naomi Watt's husband is a doctor, and as punishment for her being unfaithful, he brings her with him from Shanghai to the remote countryside where he's helping other doctors fight cholera.


What was your musical approach?

It is not a Chinese score. It's an occidental orchestra, with some electronics - electric cello, Tibetan bowls. Piano is an important element, since Naomi Watts plays piano in the film. I was brought on board to do pre-records, a year and a half ago. It's a very beautiful movie, very moving and very sad and strong. John Curran is a great director, and I hope that the score will be enjoyed.

How did you get Lang Lang to perform on the score?

I knew him - we met here a few years ago. He was doing a showcase for Deutsche Grammophon, and I followed his work. He was available the week we were recording and mixing - so it was very easy to bring him into the studio, and record the piece. He has also recorded Erik Satie's "Gnossienne", because Naomi Watts plays it in the film, and he re-recorded the Satie piece, "Gnossiene No. 1" just for the album.

What are you working on now?

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. The director is Zach Helm, who wrote Stranger than Fiction. This is his directorial debut, and it is truly enchanting. In the film, Natalie Portman plays a composer/pianist, and I had to record piano over a year ago, so it could be played back on the set. It's the story of a magical toy store, starring Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman. It's a marvelous, fantastic fantasy movie. It's great - it will be a real discovery when people see this movie. It's not only very well written, but it is also beautifully directed. Zach is very gifted - he's a great talent!

Have you recorded much of the score, or just pre-records?

We recorded the main title and the very long final sequence - lots of it has been written already. Now it's just a matter of putting it in the order of the picture.

What kind of stylistic approach will you take to scoring a magical toy store?

It's still up in the air - there are so many options and I have not yet chosen.

But you have the theme already - since she played it on screen...

Exactly - now I just have to figure out how to distribute it to the instrumentation. There was an orchestral version for the final scene, which mixes electronic with ethnic instruments, which I love to do. In some movies you can go a step further, because there is a giant world of fantasy, like this one. I will be able to play with anything. I can hit on a glass, or blow in a pen, and it will make a sound that could be different and interesting. So it's really wide open. But it's going to be a nice one - I'm longing to be there! It is a Christmas release next year, so it is a ways off.

Is there anything else you're working on?

That's already enough! There are a few projects that have been offered, but it's too early to talk about them. In the next few weeks I think I'll have some news, but right now it's too premature to talk about it.

It sounds like you have some great things on the horizon!

I hope so! That's what I love to do - write music. I am very lucky to be able to do it. There is a good crowd around here. It's not the worst place for composers to be - there's quite a challenging crowd of composers around. I was thinking back about the Golden Globes - I can't believe I was nominated at the same time as John Williams! <laughs>

Did you get a chance to talk with him?

It was difficult, but I mustered my courage and went up to say "hello". He's one of the masters I always dreamed of approaching when I was thinking that one day I wanted to be a composer for films. So being one of the five nominees with him, it was like, "Are they wrong? What happened?" Did they misunderstand my name, and mean to put someone else on the list of nominees? <laughs>

You also did a few films overseas after Firewall. Has your success here in Hollywood increased your stature at home?

Funnily enough, almost at the same time that the Hollywood career started to ascend, I received two major awards for Best Score in Europe: the Silver Bear in Berlin, and the Cesar in France. And suddenly it made sense that the stars were aligned at the same time here and there. I still have not gotten an award here, so I still have a long way to go! I think Maurice Jarre had three, and Michele Legrand had two or three. Yared had one. So, I have to work a little bit. <laughs>

You had mentioned you've done concert works before. It seems that many composers are moving to do an opera, like Don Davis, Howard Shore, and Elliot Goldenthal. Have you thought about going into something more epic and theatrical like an opera?

Since I was 21 years old, I have always worked in the theater. I did a ballet, and worked for films at the same time. I didn't stop until five or six years ago, although four years ago I did some stage music for the Comedie-Française. I never really stopped doing it, it's just that now the film projects are getting bigger, the amount of music is more important in movies, and there are more minutes of music to write. So it takes more time, more energy. Also, I like to be dedicated to what I am doing.

It is hard for me to work on the music for a film and think about anything else. I like to be focused on what I am doing - I think it's necessary. So I would say, yes I would dream of writing an opera, but it's too early. I don't think I could do it now - I am in the movie composing mode, and I think I'll stay there for the moment. Writing music for films has always been, for me, writing music. And there's a difference, yes, between concert music and film music, but still the great masters that I love, from Herrmann to Waxman to Williams, you can play their music separately from the movie. As long as I can have only this goal in mind, and try each time to hit my target as close to the mark as possible, and if this music can stand by itself, I am very happy.

The soundtrack to The Queen is currently available from Milan Records. The soundtrack for The Painted Veil will be out from Deutsche Grammophon on January 9, 2007

Special thanks to Keith Anderson, Sally Zito and Robert Urband.