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February 24, 2014
Desplat on Desplat
Oscar-nom'd Philomena composer talks shop about film scoring by Jon Burlingame

Alexandre Desplat, pianist Randy Kerber, and SCL President Ashley Irwin review excerpts from Desplat's scores. (Photo by Marilee Bradford)

Alexandre Desplat, pianist Randy Kerber, and SCL President Ashley Irwin review excerpts from Desplat's scores.
Photo by Marilee Bradford

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—Alexandre Desplat, currently Oscar-nominated for his music for Philomena, gave an informative and musically illustrated talk about his work before an invited crowd of 60 Sunday afternoon at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The Paris-based composer, in town for next week's Academy Awards, answered questions posed by Society of Composers & Lyricists president Ashley Irwin. Top studio pianist Randy Kerber played excerpts from Desplat scores.

Desplat has met the real Philomena Lee, upon whose life story the Stephen Frears film is based, and called her "very strong, although she doesn't show it," and a woman of "great dignity" who kept her secret – about a child born out of wedlock, taken away from her as a young teen – for 50 years. The composer felt that he needed to approach the music "with prudence, carefully, worried that I would be intruding" upon such a delicate story.

The theme he ultimately chose, he said, had qualities that were both "melancholic and joyous," and had its roots in a waltz-time piece he wrote for the fairground organ where young Philomena had a brief tryst with a young man that resulted in the baby. He needed "an eerie and haunting sound, as if this music was a ghost" permeating her entire life, constantly reminding the audience of her "pain and tragedy."

This was his fourth film for Frears (after The Queen, Cheri and Tamara Drewe). He likes working for the English director because "he leaves you in peace." Discussing his other films, he also raved about working with Roman Polanski, especially on The Ghost Writer, because Polanski insists on "no temp track, ever," referring to the temporary music that is usually added to a film's rough cut (which most composers dread because of its impact on their own efforts to be fresh or original).

"Composers are handcuffed because of the temp track," he said; many directors respond with an almost "Pavlovian" reaction, he said, because they "want to hear the same sound" as the temp track. "It's fantastic when directors let us free," he said.

He talked about The Monuments Men, currently in release, noting that director George Clooney wanted "a big score" reminiscent of great past war films like The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone. The score was "an homage" to past greats like Maurice Jarre and Elmer Bernstein, he said.

Desplat added that Clooney called before shooting started to say "I've written a little part for you... a Frenchman with a scarf," he said to audience laughter. Acting, as opposed to writing music, "was rather worrisome," he added.

He also praised director Tom Hooper, whose The King's Speech caused him to "explore territory that I would not have explored" outside of the assignment. Irwin pointed out that Desplat's scores are unlike many American film scores in that they concentrate more on atmosphere and mood than "hitting" specific visual points during the narrative.
Alexandre Desplat (Photo by Marilee Bradford)

Alexandre Desplat
Photo by Marilee Bradford

Desplat responded that this was an outgrowth of France's Nouvelle Vague and the way that his French predecessors Georges Delerue and Maurice Jarre often approached films; and that American composer Bernard Herrmann often worked in the same way.

"What I like is when the composer can capture the soul of a film, a deep strong core of emotions and sensations," he said. Desplat has already completed work on Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel and will soon be working on Angelina Jolie's war story Unbroken; Polanski's D, based on the Dreyfus Affair in 19th-century France; and the remake of Godzilla.

Asked why he works so much, and takes so little time off, Desplat said that when "incredible directors" call with attractive offers, "What should I do? Go on holiday?"

©2014 Jon Burlingame
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