Six-time Academy Award Nominee Alexandre Desplat is a remarkably versatile composer with a distinct voice who has collaborated with some of the world’s top filmmakers. His films this year range from Wes Anderson’s The Grand Hotel Budapest, to George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, the blockbuster action thriller Godzilla, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. Desplat’s compelling score for the Alan Turing biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch features lots of keyboards, clarinets, and fast arpeggios which support the pacing of the film and capture the story’s thrilling intensity and the humanity of characters who are racing against time to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code during WWII.
In an exclusive interview, Desplat discussed his collaboration with Tyldum, the tight schedule he was under to deliver the film, how he created themes that resonated with the storyline of a film that has an extremely complex structure consisting of many flashbacks and flashforwards, his themes for Alan Turing and his friend Christopher, how he strives to find a sense of continuity when he scores a film, why the chronology of music is important, why he finds each collaboration with a director a new adventure even when they’ve worked together before, and his upcoming projects including Suffragette. Check out the interview after the jump.
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: It was a very unpredictable situation for me to do this movie because I was scheduled to work on Unbroken. And then Unbroken got changed so I could do The Imitation Game first. I was extremely moved and impressed by all the prep that went into the film and the way Morten gathered all his talent and the way he put that into this very rare and special film. I was really impressed. The problem is that I only had three weeks before the film would start, so I took the challenge and I jumped on the film.
How do you deal with the challenge of scoring a film when you only have 3 weeks and it’s already edited?
DESPLAT: It’s extremely delicate actually because at least the pace is right and I can jump just over the rhythm of the film. It’s actually much better. When the movie is still searching for its rhythm, it’s actually hurting me because it’s not yet connected. Music is precise. The bars or a beat makes a big difference, and so it was actually a great moment for me to start, but it was hard.
Do you create your own demos that are pre-orchestrated and then it goes to your team of orchestrators?
DESPLAT: Yes, exactly, because I’ve always made my demos and I’ve always orchestrated my own films until I came here (the U.S.) and I slowly but surely started to have help to put on paper the demos. Before that, I was doing the demos myself. We had very low French budgets sometimes. So that’s what I do. The director comes to my studio. He hears my very precise and detailed orchestrations that I play on my own computer, and we adjust and we change this or that. Maybe we use more violins or arpeggios or something else.
How do you balance the energy of the action that we see up on the screen with the humanity of the characters and their story?
DESPLAT: I tend to like trying to find a sense of continuity when I compose a score, and in this particular film, the structure is extremely complex. It seems clear and simple, but it’s actually complex. There are a lot of flashbacks that resonate with something in the flashforwards and I needed to get a handle on the person. I think that’s almost one of the most extensive things I do when I start working on a film is to find how I’m going to start and how I’m going to end, and how I’m going to be able to run this thread that’s all along the film and find the musical expression, whatever the mood is. It could be darker or more tragic or more heroic. There’s a sense of continuity. For example, in The Imitation Game, when the camera at the end of the film has those beautiful shots of the young boy, the young Alan, and he’s meeting with the professor who’s telling him his friend Christopher is dead, and the camera is pushing in on him, I play Christopher’s theme that we heard very early on in the film. There’s a simple continuity there. It’s the accumulation of these moments that I can slowly but surely play that make it even stronger. That’s why the structure is very important. So, it’s not just the moments. It’s the strategy of the music, the chronology of music which is important.
The music has a great rhythm and flow and you use keyboards, clarinets, and fast arpeggios to support the pacing and convey the intensity of a war situation that’s set in a mathematical world. Can you talk a little about your strategy and how you go wide at certain moments without losing the intimacy?
DESPLAT: First of all, I would almost say that the war is a red herring. The war is just a pretext for the whole story, because the bulk of it is Alan Turing’s trauma, Alan Turing’s genius, his dream for an invention of the century, and the way this theme comes together and his relationships with other human beings that I think is the crucial thing to do. I never thought the orchestra should be big. I thought we should focus on him and that’s it. Of course, at times, we open the music wider like in the crossword puzzle sequence or when the ships are sinking. There are those moments where we have a bit more scope for the film, but it had to be focused. The other thing is that it’s very hard to understand what’s happening in someone’s brain and what goes into their experience and their death, and the music has to say a lot. There’s something else I’ve learned doing movies like The King’s Speech where the characters can’t express themselves very well or vaguely. Alan Turing’s brain is moving so fast. I just wanted to convey that feeling. That’s why we have this very fast, computerized piano playing and arpeggios all over the place and then have an orchestra around that, because I felt the electronic stuff was not sufficient to express the period. Otherwise, what we see on screen will seem too cold, too gimmicky, too trendy somehow. So, it wasn’t a big size orchestra, but it’s what you need to give movement and exploration. You move the depth of field to express more depth and more scope.
What character or situation did you find the most exciting to create music for?
DESPLAT: With this one, I’m crazy about all of it and I fell in love with the film. I want to be in the film, like an actor would be in the film. I want to be inside the story. I want to jump into it. That’s how I feel and this film offers that. It’s very exciting.
Is part of the fun of being a film composer the fact that every director you work with has a different vision and a different way of working?
DESPLAT: Yes. It’s an interesting thing that I like. Every time it’s a new human adventure, even with the people I’ve worked with before. Their films are different and they offer a new opportunity. It’s a new score each time.
How did growing up in France influence your music and inspire you?
DESPLAT: I always wanted to be a film composer. So very early on I started collecting soundtracks and paying attention to how movie music works. Actually I’d like to have the opportunity to conduct for the rest of my life. There are so many parts of music that it’s actually a pleasure for me to work with an orchestra, or a jazz band, or a choir, and use every element that the musical tool box can offer. When we did The Grand Budapest Hotel with Wes Anderson, we used cimbaloms and balalaikas, and it was fantastic. The world of music I love so much, and I can change the costume depending on the part, and I’m actually in the film.
What are you working on next?
DESPLAT: Suffragette and then some other projects that are coming up.
Alexandre Desplat photo on front page by Brigitte Lacombe. The Imitation Game opens on November 28th.