When the two-time Oscar winner spoke with Gerwig about the film early on, he was met with a memorably bold and specific brief. “She said, ‘I’d like the score to be a mix of Mozart and David Bowie,’” Desplat recalls. “We’re in the past, but without being heavy and dated, and bring to this past an energy of today.”
The eighth film adaptation of an 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women centers on the March sisters, four creative and vibrant women coming of age in America, in the aftermath of the Civil War.
To Desplat, there was something beautiful about a story, in which each teenager on screen fiercely pursues their dream of being an artist, whether it’s as a writer, a composer or a pianist. “These teenagers, they don’t dream of being anything else than an artist. [That] means being in the world of dreams, and also being in the world of childhood, because you continue dreaming of what was the fantasy of your childhood,” the composer says. “So, there’s not one moment, I think, where the music is not charged with these emotions.”
Below, Desplat offers further insights into the crafting of his Little Women score. Additionally, the composer shares where he’s at with two highly anticipated upcoming projects: Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion take on Pinocchio.
DEADLINE: What were your first impressions when you read Greta Gerwig’s script for Little Women?
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: The script was brilliantly written. The way Greta changed the [book’s] linear, chronological order to a non-linear storyline made it very exciting and challenging. She could have played it safe and taken the book from A to Z, and she said, “No, no, no. I want us to be feeling the past, the present, the future, everything in a dance, like a ballet, and feel that all these characters are growing up, but that youth is their energy.”
And I felt it right away, when I saw the film for the first time—this vital energy, so strong, so beautiful, so genuine. The actors were so nice, so true. The costumes, the photography, the hair, everything makes it, at the same time, period and contemporary, and that’s Greta. Greta put together all these ideas to create the first version of Little Women that didn’t seem standard, like reading a book.
Its modernity, that’s the great thing. It’s far from a classical period film that tries to be exactly as it was in 1867. “Oh no, they wouldn’t wear this and that.” No, it goes beyond. What is interesting in this story is that it could be today, you know? The questions that are being asked could be the ones of a young adult, or teenagers today.
And the emotions these young actors managed to convey are also very beautiful. Whatever age they played, they were so moving and so interconnecting, and again, that’s Greta. Only the director can have the actors interconnect, and it goes through the body language, the way the camera moves around them, the way they dance together.
That’s very musical, and it’s funny because I did not realize until late that it was a ballet, and that there would be music all through the film. It’s not a score following the emotions and the actions. No, it’s the other way around. It’s like the music had been written before the film was shot. It was just overwhelmingly beautiful for me.
DEADLINE: Did Gerwig offer any other notes, before you went about crafting your score?
DESPLAT: There were two things, the end of the 19th century and today. By taking that in consideration, I could build a little orchestra that would make sense. First of all, not something too big, because I didn’t want the score to crush [the actors’ performances], to be over the top. I’m using strings, so we have the patina of old instruments. I wanted to have this agitated and full-of-light sound, and I thought, “There are four girls. What could I do with the number four? Oh, I could have four hands. If I take two pianos, I would have four hands playing, like it’s one hand for each girl.” If it was four hands on one piano, you’d have the lower register and the upper register. But if you take two pianos, the four hands can be on the high register, or on the low register.
I played with that idea so that when you listen to the score, you hear one [hand] on the left, one on the right, and they interweave, and give a lot of fluidity and light. They sparkle, and at the same time, the strings give this gravitas and elegance. But I worked a lot on the chord changes. I didn’t want the score to sound, harmonically or melodically, like Schumann or Schubert. I wanted it to sound like today. So, for example, the rhythm of the opening scene is clearly a rhythm which would not happen in the 19th century. I just had to capture the energy of what was on screen, and try to condense it into the score.
DEADLINE: Obviously, the pianos and strings served as the foundational elements of your score. But which other instruments were in the mix?
DESPLAT: Aside from the strings and the two pianos, there’s quite a lot of harp, flute, clarinet, some celeste. There might be some vibraphone, I think, here and there. So, it’s pretty simple. It’s not a huge amount of instruments.
At some point, I remember Greta [asking], This story that we’re watching, is it a real story or is it the book that we’re watching being written? And at the end, we understand that: Oh, we’re actually not seeing a real story; we’re reading the book with images, and she said to me that she wanted the audience to feel that these characters were in a snow globe.
DEADLINE: Therein lies the magic of your score.
DESPLAT: Exactly. So, an orchestra, not too big, with all these tinkling sounds that create magic, and refer to childhood, and all these moments on the ice, the snow, Christmas morning. Nature is very present—the forest, the trees, the change of seasons, the beach, the waves. So, it’s the sensation of being in a snow globe, and not being sure if you’re in a dream or in reality. And maybe, the book is a dream. You’re writing dreams; you’re just putting them on paper.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? Are you still working on Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch?
DESPLAT: Oh no, that was done long ago. That’s behind me. No, I’ve been working with Guillermo del Toro on Pinocchio.
DEADLINE: What have you enjoyed about those two projects?
DESPLAT: The French Dispatch is an incredible, sophisticated story by Wes. The great thing with Wes is that he has no fear about what the music can do, and how we can assemble instruments that [one would not expect] to be assembled together. We’ve done that in the past with Mr. Fox, or Isle of Dogs, or Grand Budapest.
It’s always a strange set of instruments, and here again, we’ve played around with different types of instrumentation to create something weird. There’s a lot of bassoons and solo pianos, which we never really used in these movies; solo piano [is] rarely used in cinema now. And it’s a very, very challenging film. It’s incredibly virtuoso mise-en-scène, and I think to this day, it’s his most accomplished movie.
Pinocchio is a stop-motion movie, and I’ve been writing songs for that film.