'Philomena' Composer Alexandre Desplat at Polo Lounge: Ban Temp Tracks, 'Capture the Soul of a Film'
Six-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat, currently nominated for Philomena, gave an audience of about 70 people his thoughtful insights into his career and his creative process at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel Feb. 23. Desplat told his interviewer Ashley Irwin, president of the Society of Composers and Lyricists, that he doesn't smoke or drink, but he is a music addict, traveling with pocket scores and constantly composing in his head.
"I'm a composer, and it could be on my Vespa, in my car, when I'm swimming," said Desplat, who occasionally illustrated his musical ideas by joining pianist Randy Kerber at the piano. Desplat is a flautist who, for some reason, writes piano-centric film scores. "Strange," Desplat observed of his sensitivity to the piano, which he uses to unlock deep emotions. "The piano plays me."
Desplat noted that his 2003 Hollywood breakthrough score, Girl With a Pearl Earring, was actually his 50th feature, and contrasted its passionately wide-ranging melody with the far simpler, haunting five-note theme of Philomena, which expresses the Judi Dench character's prudence, strength, and paradoxical emotions regarding the son she conceived out of wedlock and only rediscovered after her son's death. "It's both melancholic and joyful," Desplat said of Philomena's theme. "If Mozart is my idol over any other composer, it's because of that."
Desplat said he could always tell when Philomena director Stephen Frears, which whom he's worked four times, is severely displeased. "He says, 'Hm, maybe it should be darker,' which means you can put it in the garbage."
Desplat inspires unusual trust from directors, including Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Angelina Jolie (Unbroken), Ben Affleck (Argo), and The Grand Budapest Hotel's Wes Anderson, whom Desplat compares to Fellini: "Fellini has his own world, and Wes has his own world." Desplat doesn't try to create his own musical worlds. "I'm a collaborator," he said, explaining how he composed a one-note theme for Tom Hooper's The King's Speech, to symbolize the hero's agonizing stutter and his obsession to overcome it so he can save England with stirring oratory in World War II. "Tom Hooper is extremely sensitive to music, very precise," said Desplat. "Tom kept saying, 'He's stuck, he's stuck.' So he can't have a melody. When he manages to give that speech after five reels, you finally hear the melody of the King."
Desplat said he found inspiration in Elmer Bernstein's heroic 1963 "The Great Escape March" when composing for George Clooney's The Monuments Men, but apologized for the costume he wears onscreen with Matt Damon: "I had a stupid beret." But getting razzed for that is not the composer's main concern: he confessed that when he reads negative reviews of his scores, "I cry for days."
Desplat sounded one ominous note, warning filmmakers not to rely on temp tracks, and instead to emulate Polanski. "He knows music very well," said Desplat, "He doesn't use any temp tracks ever. He says, 'Surprise me.'" Because of Polanski's legal troubles, which struck during the production of The Ghost Writer, the director didn't get to listen to Desplat's brilliant finale and another crucial piece (for the scene of Ewan McGregor on a ferry) until he saw the film. "He never heard two of the big pieces," said Desplat. "He trusts the composer. I think we should go back to that. Composers are handcuffed because of a temp soundtrack. Once you've heard something five times...it's Pavlovian, you want to hear the same sound."
Desplat prefers a sound that responds to character: "I like it when the composer can capture the soul of a film, the deep, strong, solid core of emotion."