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Prolific Composer Alexandre Desplat on Scoring Philomena

Posted in News on January 7, 2014
Photo: AnnaMaria DiSanto

Five-time Academy Award nominee Alexandre Desplat is one of the most coveted film composers in the world today. Noted for his creative collaborations with top film makers including Wes Anderson, Stephen Daldry, Roman Polanski, George Clooney, David Yates and Nora Ephron, Desplat, who is French, first gained attention in the U.S. with his scores for Birth and The Girl with the Pearl Earring. The Golden Globe winner then went on to set the sonic mood for an incredible litany of diverse films, among them The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The King’s Speech, Syriana, Julie and Julia, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Argo, which won the Oscar for Best Picture last year. Desplat’s current project is Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench. BMI recently caught up with Desplat and obtained some insight about his work on the compelling film.

You have an extremely impressive and diverse resume. What’s the key to composing across all genres of film and making it seem so natural from a listener’s perspective?

I guess I was raised with many cultural influences and this gave me a taste for diversity. When music becomes the world you seem to be fitting in, your passion slowly discovers millions of sounds, rhythms, melodies, instrumental colors, and if your curiosity is strong enough, the excitement never ends. The history of music is so vast that you can learn forever from it. Every film is a new challenge and if you have the technique and the desire to do so, you can write for any type of instrumentation, from a full symphonic 100-piece orchestra to a cello and African harp duet. The film decides what the music should sound like and what emotions it should convey, and, at the end of the day, hopefully your style remains perceptible. Cinema is made of many types of films, but there is only one kind which I like to watch and to score: good films. There is no hierarchy between good films. Just a different musical approach to invent. Should I only score period movies or only thrillers? It would be like asking an actor to play the same role again and again. A nightmare!

Tell us about your latest film, Philomena, which is an extremely emotional work that is still funny at times. What were you trying most to convey about this true story through your score?

Philomena is the center of the story. She is such a wonderful character, strong, sensitive and the drama she went through is so compelling that it makes her story universal. I did try to mirror her personality and the music we hear throughout is a simple, broken but tender melody. A melody and a sound that brings us back to the fair, where she met her lover and from which the story starts.

What were some of the challenges and pleasures working on this film?

Working with people I deeply love, Tracey Seward, the producer, and Stephen Frears is a pleasure. Stephen is brilliant, funny, witty and one of the best directors alive. I have been very lucky to work closely with him since The Queen. Pleasure comes from the way the film is directed of course. Meaning the camera moves, the way actors are directed. It makes my inspiration just flow, effortlessly. Challenges were many. Write the best score possible for Stephen, and try to capture the delicate sensitivity of Lady Dench’s subtle acting, at the same time emphasizing the wit of Steve Coogan’s writing and acting.

Did any characters particularly speak to you?

In real life? No, but they spoke to me through the film, yes. Philomena can remind us of many older women, who have gone through a lot of dark moments in their life but have kept a positive spirit, no matter what. And Stephen depicts beautifully how she, a nurse with a simple life, enjoys every single moment in life while Martin’s cynicism makes him a very unhappy man.

Can you describe your experience collaborating with director Stephen Frears?

We talk, we tell jokes, we laugh a lot, and at the end Stephen reminds me how much he loves Bernard Herrmann, which I also do, so we understand each other very quickly.

What other projects can we expect from you in 2014?

Godzilla!