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MODERN MUSIC MASTERS: Alexandre Desplat Talks TWILIGHT, HARRY POTTER, CARNAGE, Polanski & More

Having composed the musical scores for some of the biggest films of the century so far, Alexandre Desplat has displayed an uncanny ability to tap into the thoughts, emotions and even the very dramatic themes inherent in properties as diverse as - just to use his most recent projects as examples - TWILIGHT: NEW MOON, HARRY POTTER & THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, Roman Polanski's THE GHOST WRITER and CARNAGE, Stephen Daldry's upcoming EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, George Clooney's THE IDES OF MARCH (another stage-to-screen adaptation like CARNAGE), Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE - as well as the main theme for MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, performed on the soundtrack by noted pianist Lang Lang. Discussing all aspects of his compositional process as well as outlining his interactions with the respective directors of each entity - his ongoing collaboration with Roman Polanski, first and foremost - Desplat and I delve into the delicate art of film composing and how he has achieved such great success and international acclaim for his incredibly impressive work on a heady list of projects in a relatively short period of time - last year's Best Picture Oscar-winner THE KING'S SPEECH, directed by Tom Hooper, included. Desplat and I also touch on some of his own favorite film composers and he shares his opinions on Broadway and Hollywood music icons such as Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Michel Legrand, fellow Modern Music Master Mark Isham and he also sheds some light on his plans for the future - as well as much, much more!

Opening & Finale

PC: GOD OF CARNAGE was one of the biggest comedy hits of recent years on Broadway.

AD: Right.

PC: The movie is a very true adaptation of the material, I thought. It's really quite an amazing and brave film.

AD: Yes. You know, it's so obvious when you see this film what a genius Roman Polanski is.

PC: Indeed, it is.

AD: The way you never see the camera or feel the camera moving - you think you are watching a play or a real live performance.

PC: You really do. It has that same sort of kinetic energy.

AD: Roman just puts the camera in the right place and creates the right space and directs the actors with such grace and precision. It's incredible.

PC: CARNAGE is very reminiscent of Polanski's two other fantastic stage-to-screen adaptations - MACBETH and DEATH AND THE MAIDEN. Was it a challenge for you to write music for a play onscreen whose words seem so musical already? Had you seen it in Paris or on Broadway?

AD: No, I did not, actually. But, I read the script for the play and I instantly knew that, even though it was a play, there was no simply room for music in it. So, Roman and I decided to only have music at the front and at the end.

PC: Why so?

AD: Well, it's very important because it brings the audience into the film and keeps the mood and tone that we will follow after, you know, the first little scene in the park. And, then, I conclude with music, also. So, it's like an overture and a finale - there was no way I could interfere with the dialogue and the drama with music.

PC: It's really a play that sings.

AD: Yes. It would have been inappropriate and intrusive to add music [during the dialogue scenes]. And, so, I think we found the best way of using music in this film.

PC: Your musical input into Polanski's work is so often cerebral and intellectually-motivated, whereas so often with film composers they go for the saccharine or emotionally-motivated material. Do you find that you choose intellect over emotion as a composer in general?

AD: Yes. You know, you have to respect the audience. I think that that is something that the great directors know.

PC: Indeed.

AD: And Roman is definitely one of those.

PC: Undoubtedly.

AD: Roman is one of those who believes that the audience is smarter than he is - because the audience is actually used to watching movies and is, in fact, ahead of the story all the time. So, you have to respect that and try not to manipulate the audience.

PC: So, you guide rather than pander to the audience.

AD: Yes. In the same way, when you look at Roman's movies, he never takes advantage of showing violence - it's always very quick. He doesn't like to, you know, manipulate the audience by showing violence or lots of blood - he hates that and he thinks the audience deserves better than that. And, you know, that's something we share.

PC: You come from the same place on those issues.

AD: Yes. I like to go into the film as it goes on more than out of the film, you know?

PC: Yes - stay enveloped in it. That comes through in THE GHOST WRITER, too. Just the riveting final scene of that film alone is enough to put it with the best of the century so far, in my opinion.

AD: That's a fantastic scene - just a fantastic scene.

PC: And your epic music cue for it is so very apt. Was that scene and the reveal of the twist always in the script?

AD: Yes, that is how it always was. But, you know, the only issue I had at the time was that Roman was in prison. I couldn't talk to him.

PC: Quite a hurdle.

AD: Yeah, I mean, I had to write the scene without being able to have his input.

PC: What was that like?

AD: [Laughs.] It was really, really tricky - believe me!

PC: Besides your two very recent Polanski films, you also scored entries in the two biggest film franchises in the world: TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER. How did you get involved with those since you are known primarily for independent and smaller films?

AD: Oh, it's such a strong opportunity for a composer to be called into those kind of movies. And, really, both scores are so special to me. You know, it's been ten years of adventures for Harry Potter… [Laughs.]

PC: Right?

AD: And you are asked to be a part of this global, final adventure. It's really… [Pause.] I mean, you just can't say no!

PC: Too enticing to turn down. So, how did you prepare to take on such big projects?

AD: You have to just go in and take chances and be ready to go to the battle and try to be as good as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and Franz Waxman…

PC: What shoes to fill!

AD: Yeah. [Laughs.] Believe me, it's hard work!

PC: I was curious what your opinion is of Michel Legrand, who has recently had a resurgence in popularity this year thanks to Barbra Streisand and Melissa Errico's albums of his music. Have you ever met him or worked with him?

AD: Well, I've never worked with Michel Legrand. I actually met him for the first time when I was in London doing HARRY POTTER. There was a premiere of one of his musicals there -  for the first time in English - THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG.

PC: Yes.

AD: So, that was the first time I met him. I had never met him before. But, his music, of course, is a strong influence for all the French composers because, I would say, he is a true jazz musician like I am - somebody who really likes jazz and has played jazz - since, like, 1958 all the way to 1975 or '78. It is twenty years of pure genius.

PC: What a collection of great scores he has in that period.

AD: Oh, yes. Every single score is a killer. Every single melody is a killer. And, he wrote songs and he wrote musicals and he wrote and directed movies - everything!

PC: He can do it all so well.

AD: The masterpieces of cinema that he has collaborated on are endless. He is a great master.

PC: What do you think of those pioneering Jacques Demy films? They were truly the first sung-through contemporary pop operas - decades before LES MIZ and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

AD: Yeah, I know! He and Jacques Demy really invented the style - and it has been copied again and again since then.

PC: You can say that again.

AD: Their movies together have so much beauty and poetry and just incredible energy. They are very special. They belong to, you know, the top ten of my all-time favorite movies.

PC: Moving to recent French movie musicals, I was curious what you thought of Christoph Honore and his quite revolutionary CHANSONS D'AMOUR?

AD: Well, here's the thing: my cup of tea is more on the jazz side and less, maybe, on the pop side, so, I couldn't really say much about that. It's not really in my genre - let's put it that way.

PC: What do you think of GLEE and the way it is bringing the great theatre and film songs of years past to a whole new audience?

AD: Well, you know, any opportunity you have to bring quality music to young ears is the best! You know, when I was still in lysee - in high school - STAR WARS and JAWS were out in movie theaters and you would hear the scores of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. You would hear this sophisticated, complex music and the kids would go and hear this music and you would think, "What will they think?", and, you know what? They were not surprised at all! They like it. They enjoy it. They don't feel it is too modern or too complex. And, they go out and buy the soundtrack.

PC: The clearest proof of success, no doubt.

AD: Yes, but, then, you would play them some Stravinsky or Bartok and they would be scared. So, you realize how the movie soundtracks can be these strong, pedagogic objects to help young kids to listen to great music that is different from just the pop music they are used to which is playing on every radio. So, with GLEE, any opportunity to play Bernstein or Cole Porter or Legrand I welcome.

PC: And all three have had their music featured on the show. Speaking of which: what do you think of Cole Porter's music?

AD: [Big Laugh.] Cole Porter as a composer? He's a master!

PC: Definitely.

AD: He was writing the lyrics, too - not only the tunes! [Pause.] He was a genius.

PC: Stephen Sondheim and I discussed Cole Porter quite a bit in this column the first time he did it. What do you think of Sondheim's work?

AD: [Sighs.] Well, now you are talking about all the iconic composers of the 20th century! I just hope someday my name will be up there with Bernstein and Sondheim and Porter. [Laughs.]

PC: You actually scored another stage-to-screen adaptation this year: THE IDES OF MARCH, based on FARRAGUT NORTH. Had you seen the play prior to becoming involved with the film?

AD: No, I never saw the play. I just read the script and I loved it. You know, George Clooney from afar seems to be, you know, this chic gentleman going around the world with lovely girls around him, but he is a very smart man and a very talented actor and director.

PC: Maybe an even better director than actor, which is saying something.

AD: Yeah, I mean, as an insider, I can tell you how precise and how exact every single one of his choices are made - with taste and with a real sense of dramaturgy, also. He is an incredible director - actually, one of the most brilliant directors and one of the kindest men I've worked with in the last few years.

PC: What a phenomenal cast the film has, as well! Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman

AD: Yes! Yes. And the way he directs all of these actors with, you know, all the skills he has and all the experience he has - it makes all the difference. That's also when you see a great director - when he knows how to have these actors deliver their lines with talent, not just be there.

PC: How do you juxtapose him with Terrence Malick, whom you recently worked with in composing the score for THE TREE OF LIFE? I'd assume he is a far less approachable, given his reputation.

AD: Well, you know, my job allows me to jump from one project to another and to go from a drama to a comedy to, you know, a period drama. I am lucky in that respect.

PC: You are easily assimilated.

AD: I always wanted to write music for films - I never really wanted to write music for anything else but films. So, when you like movies like I do - since I was 13, 14 - I have watched everything; from Japanese movies to Italian movies to French movies to Australian to English, you name it. I watch everything and anything - as long as it's good. It can be a road movie or a comedy or a western - who cares? As long as the movie has a great point of view from the director, I am happy. So, it's the same when I come onboard for a film: I choose based on the script and the subject - if I am really interested and inspired by it or not. And, also, the director and the producers and if there is a good cast. If there is any of that, I just go for it.

PC: EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE is what you are working on this minute, yes?

AD: Yeah, I am actually. I can't talk to you too much longer because of it! [Laughs.]

PC: That's OK. The buzz is so strong for the film - plus, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. What do you think of the rough cut?

AD: It's a beautiful film. Stephen Daldry is an incredible director - and he has shown it in everything he has done with his sense of detail and great vision. He is a great director of actors. He is really up there with the best.

PC: As are you. I have to ask: the music cue for the wolves appearance in NEW MOON? Positively spectacular. Your score is sublime for that film.

AD: Thank you. Thank you.

PC: Are you looking forward to an exciting Oscar season given all your awesome work this year on so many big films?

AD: [Laughs.] Well, you never know! You can't really look forward to it because it makes such a mess of your schedule!

PC: Especially for someone as in demand as you are right now.

AD: You know what's really the best thing for me? Because I am like a monk - secluded all the time, working - it's actually an opportunity for me to meet my colleagues and directors with whom I have worked with before. You know, to be able to say "Hello!" to [David] Fincher or people I see at these ceremonies. So, that is great, as it is, you know, to just celebrate movies.

PC: Are you going to be involved with the stage adaptation of THE KING'S SPEECH?

AD: I don't know. I haven't spoken to Tom Hooper about it yet.

PC: He is doing the LES MISERABLES film right now, of course. Will you be involved at all with that score adaptation?

AD: I have no idea.

PC: I just did a feature article on Lang Lang, whom you previously worked with on THE PAINTED VEIL, and he is involved with you on your new film, as well, yes?

AD: Yes. I actually wrote the main title - the main theme - for MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, which Lang Lang plays piano for in the score and on the soundtrack. I was completely overwhelmed. I just wrote the main title which was then adapted to the screen and Lang Lang kindly accepted to play the piano part - which is fabulous. He is a fantastic artist.

PC: He really is.

AD: He is performing at the Disney Hall and I believe he is going to play the MY WEEK WITH MARILYN theme as an encore.

PC: How fantastic! His whole concert was just broadcast in movie theaters. He is having a career high, it seems.

AD: Yes. Yes.

PC: Mark Isham has previously done this column and spoke favorably of your work, so I am curious what you think of his?

AD: Oh, I like Mark. You know what I really like about Mark Isham is, also, that he has his feet in both classical and jazz - like I do - so, I really like his music a lot. He's great.

PC: Do you have any stage musicals in your future, do you think?

AD: No. I am writing some concert music, but that is for next year.

PC: How exciting! This was so fabulous. Thank you so much, Alexandre.

AD: Thank you, Pat. This was great. Bye bye.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)

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