Composer Alexandre Desplat On The Booming Taiko Drums & Barking Saxophones Of ‘Isle Of Dogs’

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When two-time Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat goes about his work, he spends a lot of time imagining, striving for a score and a sonic world unlike any heard before. With Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs—set in a dystopian near-future Japan, and following a boy in search of his dog on an island of refuse—this meant leaning into elements of the traditional Japanese sound, without relying on those two heavily. Building his principal melodies entirely around drums—Taiko drums, specifically—Desplat then introduced a booming, chanting chorus of male voices, and an array of distinctive musical colors for specific emotional effect, that had nothing to do with Japan at all. Turning to brass and woodwind instruments, he summoned through his music the sound of barking dogs.

Like most of Anderson’s films, Isle of Dogs isn’t easily classifiable, in genre or aesthetic. Each is original and unique, unified only by the ineffable, yet unmistakable voice of one of the industry’s most remarkable auteurs. Allegorical in part, without being on the nose, the director’s second stop-motion outing suggests an interest in climate change, xenophobia, and more. Otherworldly in nature, Desplat approached it as a “medieval tale…both a Round Table knight kind of tale, but also a story of childhood, and the journey of a little boy who’s going to grow through his adventures, who’s going to have to be brave and valiant all the way through the film.” Pushing himself to find a sound befitting the film’s setting and general essence, Desplat did the same this year with The Sisters Brothers, an out-of-the-box Western from French auteur Jacques Audiard, a task all the more daunting with every musical contribution made to that genre to this point.

This season, Desplat’s latter score was nominated for two Satellite Awards, while his work on Isle of Dogs has spread further, with nominations at the Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards.

What were your first impressions when Wes Anderson brought you the script for Isle of Dogs? What special qualities do you see in the filmmaker that compel you to reteam with him, time and time again?

When Wes has a new a project, you know that it’s going to be something as different as the previous was from the previous one. Each time, he tries to take you to a country, or a land that is unknown for you and for him, and reinvent this land. That’s what he did with Darjeeling, with Mr. Fox, with Moonrise Kingdom. Always in his movies, there’s this other place that he fantasized [about], that he dreams of. Someone can say that Wes dreams his life, but actually, he lives his dreams by doing his movies. So, we started with Japan, and right away I could hear in my head what Japan means, musically. That’s the first impression. But there’s a second impression that I hear, which is what everybody hears, because Japan has specific instruments. Okay, so what’s next? What can we dream with Wes that would become our musical sensations or emotions of Japan?

When did you come on board the project? Was the animation finished?

Almost completed. There were still a few animatics here and there, but the main theme was there, the structure was there, and most of the images were there.

Were you intimately familiar with Japan’s music and its particular vocabulary prior to embarking on the film? Did you look at the music of classic Japanese cinema prior to writing your score?

I’ve loved Japanese culture for a long, long time, from doing martial arts, to the block prints, to the music. It’s a country that I love, and a culture that I love. Since Wes wanted to use Taiko drums, strangely enough, they actually play the melody of the boy. That’s how I think we started [infusing] a Japanese seed into the score, and there was no other room for Japanese instruments. It’s the Taiko drum, which is the Japanese seed, the Japanese color. It’s the melody, the driving force and the musical center of the score, all through the film. On top of that, we discussed and tried ideas together, and we added a group of saxophones, a group of recorders, a group of French horns, a group of male singers, and all that together creates a very strange mix of an occidental feel with sometimes jazzy elements. There’s a double bass, sometimes two, playing a walking bass motif, but it’s very non-Japanese, in a way.

We were never trying to use the folklore; as with Grand Budapest, it was never the folklore of one country. We’d mixed so many things together—electric organs, choir, balalaikas and cimbaloms—which are not in the same country at all, but just to create the flavor of something different. And don’t forget that there’s a spy story in the film. I thought that using these typical occidental, even American instruments, like the saxophones and the jazz bass, you could hear in the movie the ’50s and ’60s. [This] could really bounce off of the relentless Taiko drumming, and certainly have the syncopation motifs, completely away from any Japanese reference.

Of course, we had discussions about cinema, and that’s also a territory that I love—Ozu and Mizoguchi and Imamura, and all these incredible directors. If you’re a director and you pay homage to Japan, you’re definitely going to remember what you’ve learned from watching the Japanese masters’ films. But when I write a score, I can be doing a combination of instruments that I heard in a symphony somewhere, or a concerto, years ago. I remember that combination that creates a special sound, and I’m going to use it. It’s just something that resonates in you.

Did you use a broad range of percussive instruments? That aspect to the score is huge, and richly layered.

Absolutely. The Taiko drums are multiple. They go from very small to very big, and that’s the great thing about these drums. Also, the dynamic range is huge. It can be absolutely inaudible, because it’s so loud that you can’t even bear it, or it can be very soft. You can also play with the sticks. If I’m not mistaken, the drumming almost never stops through the film, and sometimes it goes, “Boom, boom, boom,” and then it goes, “Tick, tick, tick, tick.” And you can change the tempo, of course. You can double the patterns; you can do so many things. As I said, it’s the melody, and it’s not something you can whistle, but something you can beat, or remember. I think that when you go out of the film, you still have these drums resonating in your chest, because it’s so obsessive and relentless, and it creates a lot of angst. Because, don’t forget, we’re on Trash Island, with dogs with a disease. It’s something serious, and Mayor Kobayashi is on the edge of killing all the dogs. It’s quite a drama, and I think the drumming of these Japanese Taikos really conveys that tension, that fear of this danger.

Were you consciously playing with a darker end to the musical register?

Absolutely. In my scores, I always try to change from one to another, and not be doing the same thing. If I’d used a symphonic orchestra for this film, it would have been very dangerous. It could have started doing something too sentimental, or too epic, and actually too cliché. And by getting rid of that and having something as archaic and earthy as the Taiko drums, it actually opened for me another way of communicating, of getting a vibration with the image. It was a challenge, because I was not in my comfort zone, but there’s an excitement that comes from that, from not doing the same thing and being in some kind of danger.

How were the male choral elements put together? What was the idea there?

That was another element of our band. Again, this group of instruments you put together has quite a lot of weight, and we thought that maybe we could have singers, but then they should be in the low register, not in the high register. No tenors, no female. Wes always likes to use choir, but in this case, we knew to have this very low, monk-like chant, and what was missing was the lyrics. So, I found this motif that the saxophone would play later, and the fun of it was to find the lyrics. I suddenly remembered that Yoko Ono was playing a character in the film, and I suggested that we use these syllables, “Yoko, Ono.” So, you see, that’s another homage to Japanese culture. [Laughs]

Could you give a sense of how the other instruments you mentioned function in the score, in relation to the Taiko drums?

There’s always some kind of experimentation with Wes, just to build an [instrumentation] that we haven’t used before, and that we maybe haven’t heard before. [Here], I suggested a bunch of saxophones; at first, I even thought there would be 30 saxophones, and Wes is always ready for this kind of craziness. We were reasonable, and reduced it to sometimes four, sometimes six or eight, but they have a bite, the saxophones. Something almost of a bark. This motif is almost like a barking dog. At times with the recorders, they play some dissonant little motifs, and play notes with the Taikos in the low register, [which] also sound like a bark.

There are all these things I was trying to do to make the audience feel that the score was organic to the film, and not just music, throwing a track to the film. “Oh, it’s a nice track, great.” No, we wanted it to be inside the film, inside the texture, the Japanese influence. The piano mostly plays very low notes, like a bell in the very low register of the left hand. And sometimes, there are some scales, but the scales mostly come when the jazz walking bass comes in, and we have the piano counterpointing that. I never used the piano as a melodic instrument in this film, playing a tune, or a gentle chord. We just wanted an element of movement, because the Taiko drums are of this relentless rhythm. Everything is like a train that is carrying everything behind it. Everybody has to follow the rhythm.

With The Sisters Brothers, you had a Western in the hands of a French auteur, who was determined to make the genre his own. Was your approach to this film’s score similar, in terms of finding a new sonic world that could pair with an established genre?

It was exactly that. It was quite frightening to be asked to write the music of a Western because there are so many things that you can refer to that can be cliché, and that could really poison your mind, from Morricone, to Bernstein, to Neil Young. So much music has been written for Westerns, that you wonder how you’re going to find a new or different idea. And actually, I kept thinking that maybe I was banging my head with the word, ‘Western.’ Maybe I shouldn’t think about that, and just think about the characters in the film. It’s always been a solution for me, when I was trying to find a key to a score. If I can focus on the characters, I actually open a wide range of possibilities, because it’s the characters that resonate in you when you come out of the cinema. The story, maybe, but it’s the characters and the actors’ personification the characters.

So, I decided that it was not a Western. Yes, it was set in the West in the mid-19th century, but it was like a film noir story of two killers. I put together a combo, a jazz blues ensemble, but I twisted it with a player piano, an electric cello, an electric violin. I brought electricity on top of these acoustic sounds, and prepared piano also. These strange colors on top of the combo create an eerie, mysterious, gentle or at times dreamlike environment around the jazz combo, so that’s the idea that I found. Good or bad, that’s it. [Laughs]

What was the highlight of your experience with these films? Were there specific moments you can recall when a sound or element clicked into place, in an exciting way?

Until the movie’s completed, I’m never sure that I’ve nailed it. What I know is that there were moments—for example, in The Sister Brothers, the ending, when they go back to the mother—that seemed to be right.

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