An eight-time Oscar nominee, who finally won for The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2015, prolific composer Alexandre Desplat composed scores for four of this year’s Oscar contenders, including Illumination’s animated feature The Secret Life of Pets and the Meryl Streep-starring Florence Foster Jenkins. If more than one of Desplat’s scores were to be nominated this year, it wouldn’t be the first time Desplat has competed with himself—two years ago, in fact, The Grand Budapest won out over his score for Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. A longtime jazz enthusiast and jazz musician, Desplat spoke with Deadline about the musical influences behind two of this year’s acclaimed scores.
Is it true that the score for The Secret Life of Pets is your favorite of those you’ve composed this year?
That would be unfair to the others. No, I wanted to say that being raised with Tex Avery, and the great scores by Scott Bradley or Carl Stalling for animation movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s, even [Henry] Mancini scores from Blake Edwards movies, I was dreaming that one day I could work on animation, where I could use this kind of material. Pets was exactly the project that could offer that—I have been playing [jazz] since I was a teenager in an orchestra, and find this balance between comedy and high society, classy sounds.
When composing for any film, where does the process begin?
The storyline, of course, it’s guiding you, because you know the characters. But then in a movie where the visual of each character is so strong and every single character has a very strong definition, it helps a lot, finding the themes. There are themes, a little bit by character, but mostly by situation.
Like the beach scene where they cross New York by the roofs, walking on the roofs with the old, blind cripple—the dog—there, we played with more of a moment, and in these kind of films I think you can alternate things by character and moments of action or emotion.
How did the directors relay their ideas in finding a score for the film?
Because New York is the city, we wanted to give a jazz influence color to the score so that made something a bit belonging to New York. If it had been in Louisville, Kentucky, maybe we would not have used jazz. That was the beginning of the discussions. There’s an energy and a non-politeness to the film that I like very much. That’s why I mentioned Tex Avery, because there was something edgy about Tex Avery. There’s no limits.
Jazz influences seemed to bleed into your score for Florence Foster Jenkins, as well.
It’s pure accident that it was the same year, but yes, it’s New York, ‘40s and kind of mixed orchestra and jazz. There were few existing pieces for Florence Foster Jenkins, jazz pieces like “Sing, Sing, Sing,” that would stay in the film, and I think the score could merge with that. Playing with Chopin’s “Prelude,” where Simon Helberg is on the piano playing the left hand and Meryl [Streep] plays the right hand, and there’s a version that John Kirby created. Musicians of the ‘40s had a range, so it goes from classical Chopin to the jazz version. All this kind of morphing was the idea in Florence Foster Jenkins, the real time and sanctity of the score.
What instrumentation was used for these films?
Both have actually big band and a full orchestra. In Secret Life of Pets, it’s a huge orchestra—really, really big. That would be the main difference, I would say.
You hear the muted horn often in Pets—what would you say is the cinematic effect of that instrument?
I played clarinet and trumpet when I was between seven and nine, and it’s an instrument that I always loved. My older sister actually plays clarinet in a New Orleans jazz band in Sweden, and I’ve always been very careful when I write for trumpet to use sound, when it’s open or with mute, and there’s so many mutes you can use. Harmon, cup, straight and you can create very different sounds. There’s a quality to the sound of a trumpet that you can really twist for any kind of sound and mood that you want to create.
What was it like composing and conducting the pieces for manic chase sequences featured in Pets?
Well, I wanted to avoid an orchestra-only chase because, what more can I do? It’s been used for so many years in so many movies, and I thought again by adding the drums, the big band kind of energy to it made it different. Again, it brought me back to these chords that I liked where it could have been in the Disney movies, in The Jungle Book, all these great melodies and moments where the Sherman Brothers were in the peak of their art. I was trying to find something, coming from that magical memory I had, mixing with your orchestra and those instruments.
Another dynamic unique to Pets would be its many mystery-tinged, seemingly noir-inspired tunes.
This feel is vibraphone and marimbas—I like to play with every instrument I have in my hands, and there are many we can’t use. When there’s the sense of humor, the danger is never reaching danger like in horror movies. We’re right on the edge, expecting the audience to understand that you’re giving energy and danger, but it’s not real danger.
What was the most challenging piece to compose for Pets?
Some of the chases were quite difficult to find the balance, between what I just said. The energy, danger and the lightness, and certainly the final scene when they’re thrown into the water, that’s interesting because there is a real jeopardy. It’s the only scene where there is a real true danger that the dog would drown. I guess that’s the piece where that was the most difficult to find a balance between going too far and not too far.
Turning to Florence, what were the central ideas used in finding your themes?
Straight ahead when I start the film, there’s a main theme which actually Meryl sings. I wrote this melody and I asked her if she would agree to sing it—since she was singing the whole film, it made no sense for me to call another singer. Which she accepted to do, and she sang beautifully, incredibly well and very fast. She was a delight to work with; she’s so good at everything she does, it’s embarrassing. That’s the main theme that comes back and forth; there’s also a love theme for her and the character played by Hugh Grant—that’s the more emotional, intimate theme that shows the true love that links these two people.
There’s other themes, more to the moment—like when they go to Carnegie Hall, there’s a music moment. It’s a very long scene, and when the crowd arrives and soldiers join the room and you see all these incredible people of the ‘40s high society of New York getting to Carnegie Hall, the music plays this enjoyment, this frenzy, this crazy energy that we all had at the time.
Do you ever have to take a look back at certain specific musical inspirations, or is it all inside you already?
It’s in my veins. Duke Ellington, I’ve listened to so much, the recordings of the end of the ‘30s, early ‘40s, “Warm Valley” or “Chloe”, all these tunes and all the jungle era just before in the end of the ‘20s, early ’30s; something about the era I knew really, really well, and John Kirby, I mentioned before. Some of their bebop, I couldn’t go that far because it was just not that time, 1940. It’s not really the environment that these people are in. They’re more in the classical—they’re still living like the 19th century, with the valets and drivers.
With moments ranging from abject tragedy to pure comedy, how did you strike a tonal balance with Florence?
In these kind of films, you have to be careful with the comedic aspect, because the music is not meant to be funny. You don’t have to push that. The situations are so funny that the actors play that so well—I mentioned Meryl Streep, but Simon Helberg’s incredible.His timing, his faces, his body language. He plays piano like a professional, he’s incredible and he’s so funny that you don’t have to add anything to that. It’s better to show what his heart is feeling.
Do you enjoy the shorthand produced through working repeatedly with directors like Stephen Frears?
Of course, because you’re in family territory, a common ground that you’ve already explored. You’ve already fought a few battles together, and so you know you can go to the front and he will protect you. As long as they’re good and they’re right, Stephen Frears or Roman Polanski, they’re happy that I suggest ideas that work and maybe are different than what we expected.
What are you working on next?
The next project I’m working on right now is Luc Besson’s Valerian, which I was hired for a long time ago, and it’s incredible. It will be an incredible surprise for everyone who sees this film—I think everyone will be really stunned by the techniques, the brilliance of Luc’s direction. We’re really expecting this film to be incredible, with patience.