Is Alexandre Desplat the new hardest working man in show business? The prolific French composer who has had four Oscar nominations in the last five years is just coming off his busiest year since gaining international notoriety in 2003 with Girl With A Pearl Earring. Since then he has been one of, if not the most in-demand composers in the business with a remarkable output that made me tired just reading all the titles. Those Oscar-nominated scores, The King’s Speech, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Queen are just a tiny sample of the nearly 60 scores he has written in the last 10 years, a decade of major achievement for the now-50 year old Desplat who can probably safely say life really does start at 40. He has actually been actively composing for films for a quarter century but has only become an international household name in movie music circles since 2003. When I sat down with him at a small dinner last week he was in town just for 36 hours and between back-to-back Q&As with his The Ides of March director George Clooney. That morning he had just completed the score for Stephen Daldry’s Christmas release, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It was a rush job to be sure as he was brought in as a last minute replacement for the film’s first composer, Nico Muhly ( who despite having composed Daldry’s The Reader as well as serving as a music coordinator on his The Hours, did not work out on this film). Desplat composed and conducted an enormous amount of music, an hour and twenty minutes worth in less than a month and he was certainly feeling the strain of no sleep when we met.
“I had a gap where I could have rested. I was supposed to be working on a Stephen Frears movie then Stephen Daldry’s came around. It’s a brave score and it took me three weeks to compose. The story is about sorrow and loss – a child loses his father. It’s a contemporary tragedy much like a Greek one that you can transpose into any period, a universal story,” he said adding he used extremely fast piano, sometimes using 2 pianos on top of each other to convey the high degree of emotion. He told me the film is a remarkable and points out the wordless performance of Max Von Sydow as one of its highlights. “He has even a bigger role it seemed than Tom Hanks in it,” he said.
Of course Extremely Loud is just the latest of his scores for 2011, as he had seven other films released this year, all with varying challenges. Two of them , Roman Polanski’s Carnage and My Week With Marilyn actually required very little music on his part. In the case of the former music is used only at the beginning and ending credit sequences, outside of the apartment but it is crucial in adding the right tone the film needs to establish. ” It’s a drama and comedy at the same time. It has a lot of wit so the trick was trying to find this balance between this nasty, angry energy and a more witty color,” he said.
For the latter it took a trip to Paris from the very persuasive producer (with David Parfitt) of the film, Harvey Weinstein to secure his limited involvement. “Harvey needed me to do the score, but I had stopped working last summer. We agreed I would just write the theme and I passed the rest of the work over to my friend Conrad Pope. Marilyn is a lost soul, an abused child who grows up to be this incredible, sensual, intelligent woman,” said Desplat and his lilting, haunting theme conveys all that and more.
On working with George Clooney on the political drama, The Ides of March he says Clooney’s a dream to have as a director. “It’s always easy to come on to a project when the director likes your music and knows your work. Everything seems kind of easier. My exchange with George was fruitful. He knows what he’s doing and has a strong point of view. Otherwise he wouldn’t be a great director. When I composed he would be near me at the piano in my studio. He is enthusiastic and always positive,” he said.
Although he is eligible to continue his Oscar nomination streak with Ides and Extremely Loud as well as his shared credit on Marilyn and his fine work on the Mexican immigrant drama A Better Life, there probably isn’t enough music in Carnage to qualify and there are questions about two other very well-known movies he did this year. He returned to do the finale of the Harry Potter franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,after doing the first part in 2010. Because he is picking up on work established initially by John Williams in the earlier films the music branch may deem it not original enough but Desplat believes it is. “I had total freedom on this score and we barely used the John Williams original theme. Only a few bars here and there. In total , about an hour and twenty minutes of music. We kept the theme in the last final scene because we were keen on ending the series where we started, so it ends with John Williams,” he said. His work on Part 1 did not earn an Oscar nom last year but Warner Bros is doing a much bigger campaign push on this finale.
Then there’s Terrence Malick.
The elusive , reclusive director is no less secretive even when it comes to his composers and for The Tree of Life Desplat has a real challenge . He couldn’t see the movie. “The process with Terrence is that he asked me to write music without the picture, so I wrote and recorded without the picture. It’s a rare and different experience. It took me three years of discussions before I recorded several segments. Some movies, like Harry Potter take three months,” he said. Malick however used that three years of work very sparingly in the film and it is likely there just isn’t enough music to qualify under Academy rules. He’s proud of what he achieved though. “Terrence was looking for some kind of river flowing of music that would go throughout the film. It was about how love passes along. How do you show love and children musically? The music also had a hymn-like quality and Terrence did ask me to write some hymns,” he recalled.
For 2012 Desplat says he plans to dial it back a bit although he does have a couple of french projects he will be doing. With the kind of work he’s been doing he deserves a little time off , but I imagine he will be back around Oscar time. The odds are definitely in his favor.