Composer Alexandre Desplat, whose notes have graced such Oscar-winning films as The King’s Speech and Argo in recent years, is going up against himself in the Best Score category this year. The French composer occupies two of the five composer slots for his work on the Weinstein Company’s The Imitation Game and Fox Searchlight’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – and ironically these odds are awarded to Desplat during a year when he has scored five feature films, not 10 like 2011.
With this year’s recognition, Desplat’s Oscar nom count rises to eight. All of which brings up the question why a composer like Desplat, who has been highly coveted by such filmmakers as Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, is always a bridesmaid and never a bride at the Academy Awards.
In regards to this track record, Desplat is humbled. “To be nominated is fabulous,” he says. “Sure, I wish I won eight already, however, I work to serve the film. When the director, producer are happy and I feel the orchestra is enjoying themselves – that’s my joy.”
Whenever a double-nominee scenario arises in an Oscar category, prognosticators are hasty to assess that a cancellation is imminent. That’s not necessarily so. Typically, best score goes to the film that is gaining momentum in its sister below-the-line categories, i.e. last year’s Best Score winner Gravity. This is largely the ruling consensus, despite the fact that there were eight Oscar years when John Williams had double noms in the same music slot, winning only once during these instances, in 1977 when Star Wars beat Close Encounters Of The Third Kind for Best Score. Composer A.R. Rahman competed against himself in the Best Original Song category with Slumdog Millionaire’s “O Saya” and “Jai Ho,” with the latter winning. Then there’s the time when Bernard Herrmann went up against himself in 1941 for his music on Citizen Kane and All That Money Can Buy. Money won. This year, Desplat faces competition from Oscar winner and 10-time nominee Hans Zimmer for his Interstellar score and two newcomers: Gary Yershon, who wrote the music for Mr. Turner, and Johann Johannsson, who composed the score for The Theory Of Everything.
Yet what makes Desplat the go-to guy for a number of prolific filmmakers’ score is his sonic beauty and his ability to deliver a graceful, moving sound that complements the drama onscreen.
In an interview with Deadline last fall, Desplat sized up the original score category: “It’s not about what’s a good or bad score at the Oscars, rather what’s exposed to the ears more. There aren’t that many understated scores that have won in the last 10 years. It’s not easy to write an understated score over a loud one.”
That said, Desplat’s score for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t understated. With its mixture of Hungarian and Balkan music, accentuated by Cymbeline harp and violins, it’s apparent that Desplat hasn’t penciled a moderate score by sitting at a piano with a stopwatch and metronome. The music is so sublimely wild and catchy that it further accentuates the film’s comedic absurdity and fast-paced high jinks as it tells the story of crazed hotel concierge M. Gustave in the fictional republic of Zubrowka in between the World Wars. In regards to the research Desplat did for the score, he says modestly, “I realized sometimes it’s a bit embarrassing when you work fast; it gives your work less value.”
For Grand Budapest Hotel, the composer drew a majority of inspiration from the Greek music he grew up with. “My mother is Greek, and ever since I was a baby, I heard Greek, Middle Eastern music. In fact, I wrote this type of music in the first film I scored. But I have a long relationship with Gypsy music and Balkan music. I met a violinist when I was young. She took me to these Gypsy and Russian clubs. And that woman became my wife. So I’ve been living with the violin, Balkans, all these instruments for many years. It’s in my DNA.”
While the spirit of English composer Benjamin Britten hovered over Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, and Desplat’s score as well, the gravitas in between the World Wars also punctuated the playfulness of Grand Budapest Hotel.
“Music is the reason and the pace of the film,” says the composer. “With this movie, Wes and I built a new color and tone; there was more opportunities to play with the situation.”
At a time when Hollywood studio soundstages are closing due to composers’ preference for sound design-driven scores (read Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ scores for The Social Network and Gone Girl) or the option to record cheaply in Europe, Desplat continues to rely on orchestras, much like the cinema maestros he idolized in his youth, i.e. Max Steiner and Williams. “My preference is always to get real musicians, to create texture with them,” says the composer. pointing to Williams’ suspenseful, layered music for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. “He uses an orchestra – and nothing sounds the same.”
Given the nimble mathematical mind of The Imitation Game‘s protagonist Alan Turing, who was also known as one of the early pioneers of the computer, Desplat found the character’s aura in electric piano, celeste, bells and French horns. “In the music, I had to bring together his trauma as a child, the weight of World War II and the struggle to break the Enigma Code. The music had to keep a constant flow, always reminding us where we are in the past, present and future.” Originally, Desplat had to pass on scoring Imitation Game due to his heavy schedule, but a gap prevailed, and he alerted his commitment to the producers.
As one of the busiest composers working in Hollywood – since 2003, Desplat has churned out 77 feature scores to Hans Zimmer’s 57 – the composer asserts that he has a set of guidelines when committing to the work.
“It’s starts with the storyline,” says Desplat. “I’m inclined to work with a director I’ve never worked with before if I find that the story is worth the journey for me.”
He clarifies that amassing a number of composer credits in a given year “depends on the size of the film and how much score is needed. Godzilla took two months because it required a two-hour-plus score. Imitation Game was three weeks. If I work on films with less than an hour of score, I can accelerate (my projects).”
While Oscar voters are acquainted with Desplat’s fingerprints on award-worthy fare, he doesn’t duck his head when it comes to tentpole-like pics. He was drawn to Godzilla given his fascination for Japan and comic-book character fare.
Like some actors, Desplat says that when he considers a project, “I try not to work on the same type of film twice.” Listen closely, and you couldn’t have two radically different scores, The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel, coming from the same composer.