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Composer Alexandre Desplat, known for his work on films like The King’s Speech, Argo and The Grand Budapest Hotel, sought to keep the “innocence” and “vibrant heart” of the Pinocchio story alive through his score in Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming stop-motion film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.
Using only wood instruments, such as a violin, piano or harp, he wanted to connect music to the 1883 novel by Carlo Collodi on which the film is based.
“I think the real key to it was always the emotion, trying to keep the vibrant heart of Pinocchio beating, and make sure that we always feel this innocence that he has,” Desplat tells The Hollywood Reporter as part of Netflix’s Playlist series. “He doesn’t know anything about anything. But he believes in everything. He’s so open-minded. That’s the beautiful thing about Pinocchio.”
The film, which was produced by Netflix Animation, the Jim Henson Co. and ShadowMachine, was a passion project of del Toro’s since 2008 and marks his animated feature film directorial debut, which he co-directed with Mark Gustafson. Del Toro also wrote the screenplay with Patrick McHale and Matthew Robbins. Del Toro and Desplat have known each other since Del Toro’s DreamWorks days, and they collaborated on Del Toro’s The Shape of Water.
Starring Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard and Cate Blanchett, the film also features original songs written by del Toro with Desplat and Roeban Katz.
Pinocchio will be released in select theaters on Friday before it hits Netflix on Dec. 9.
Below, Desplat talks with THR about scoring the film, working with del Toro and more.
How did your involvement with Pinocchio begin? I know you previously worked with Guillermo del Toro on his 2017 film The Shape of Water.
I knew that Guillermo had a project for a while — to one day direct Pinocchio — and suddenly he was ready to go, and I received a script, and he told me, “You’ll see, there are some chapters which are meant to be songs.” Not like a real musical where everybody’s singing but just chapters where the characters would sing, and that’s where we started because, as you know, these stop-motion pictures, they take ages to be made. If I’m not mistaken, it took them 1,000 days of shooting, so it’s quite a bit, and that’s where we started. I met with Guillermo in the studio. We started fooling around with the songs, the ideas, the characters, what music or what lyrics should convey which character, and so that’s the very beginning. Then we brought in Roeban Katz, a friend of mine and a lyricist, to work with us on the lyrics. And at some point, we’re ready to go with the actors to record the songs. That was [two or] three years ago, a long time ago during COVID. And the great news was that we had a cast of people who could sing. A wonderful boy — well, he’s not a boy anymore, but [Gregory Mann] was 10 at the time with this marvelous and pure innocence — and I knew that Ewan was a very good musician and that Christoph was a great musician, so we were very, very lucky to have these people on board. The funny thing is that we recorded them in all these [different] places.
So it sounds like you waited to see the finished film before you started to compose the score?
Yes, that’s always what I’m doing: watching what the film is offering, whether it’s animation or live-action, I need to watch. I like to see what’s happened on the set, how the actors move, how they react and interact. The beauty of the production side always is that they’re so inspiring. I’m often asked where my inspiration comes. It doesn’t come from sitting watching a tree. It may come from sitting watching a piece that I’m working on and the beauty of it.
Once you had seen the film, what was your process in composing the score? I know you used only wooden instruments for it.
Well, I’ve always tried to find some concept for [a film] that I’m working on. What can be different from this film to the previous and the next, and by combining instruments or sounds, you can create the sound of a film. [In] The Girl With the Pearl Earring, all the instruments were almost muted. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, it was just a little instruments, these little tiny little things. And Pinocchio, I thought, you know, Geppetto is a woodworker. From the start, it’s about the trees, so let’s just challenge that and see how it goes and what comes up.
How involved was Guillermo in the score? Did he give you some guidance or did he let you have free rein?
Well, Guillermo wrote most of the songs with me, because he’s the one who put the seed on almost all the songs about the emotion that we had to convey. And for the score, I think the first thing I played was the main theme, which is the opening the film. I played it on piano to him, and I think he was moved, and I felt, if Guillermo is moved, I must be in the right zone. So that’s where we started. And the great thing about this film is that it’s never childish or childlike; it is so deep and not just playing for just kids. It’s playing for everyone. I would say for human beings, you know, because there’s a lot of soul in the story of Pinocchio and what Guillermo made is even more soulful. Of course, the father-and-son relationship, which for boys rings a bell all the time, especially when you’ve lost your father. It means a lot, and talking about inspiration, you go down there and try to link your emotions [that are] often present with what Guillermo was asking to you. And, of course, there’s many twists and turns in the film, adventures that we know about from the book, so there’s a great, great palette of colors, and musical colors to explore. But I think the real key to it was always the emotion trying to keep the vibrant heart of Pinocchio beating and make sure that we always feel this innocence that he has. He doesn’t know anything about anything. But he believes in everything. He’s so open-minded. That’s the beautiful thing about Pinocchio.
How long did the composition take for the film, and was that more or less on par with your previous projects?
I never do two projects at a time. I would say altogether with the recordings maybe two months or something. But the great thing that we managed to do with Guillermo is to interweave the melody of the songs into the score. So there’s many new melodies of course in the score that I wrote that I managed to… I didn’t want the songs to be chapters that just vanished. You hear a song and then it goes away. No, all the songs come back as instrumental motif through this score. They come back in many, many forms, different forms, shapes, tones, [tempo], and I think it gives the whole film continuity that would have been different if we would not have used the melody of the songs. Luckily enough, I’d written the music of the songs so all that was very organic.
I know that the film is based on the Italian novel and not the Disney version, but many will draw parallels to the Disney one, which won best score and best song at the 1941 Oscars, and “When I Wish Upon a Star” has become Disney’s anthem. Was there pressure to match those accolades?
There’s always a little bell ringing saying, “There’s been very good movies done before you arrived on Earth and [people] composed extraordinary music when you come near these kind of projects. You have quite a challenge in front of you.” But knowing that Guillermo started from quality and knowing that Disney… I mean, [Walt] Disney changed the stories of all the fairytales, he made them his own stories, and Guillermo was starting from the original and bringing it into his own world using great social and political content. Having environmental fascism in the 1930s, it creates really different voices, different strong elements that I can refer to and again, the tension that it creates. Of course there’s pressure being good when you go near the Sherman brothers or any other of these incredible composers. You try to be the best that you can.
What were your influences?
There are no influences for me. I don’t listen to anything. And if I need to connect to something, it might be something that I know. What were Italians listening in the ’20s and ’30s? They were listening to opera, to Caruso, to Puccini, and there was a lot on radio because it was the beginning of radio. There was a lot of military kind of music because Italy had colonies in Libya and Ethiopia. So I know what type of music they were playing at the time. But that’s not what we wanted to do. We also kept away from any anachronism. We didn’t want to write pop songs: It could have been just wrong, it would have have killed the beauty of what is on screen. It just seemed inappropriate.
Did you see similarities in working on The Shape of Water and Pinocchio?
There are! Again, the social and the political contents are very strong. So that’s for sure. The second thing is that Guillermo loves music, so it was a huge opportunity for me because I knew that he personally wanted me to push the boundaries and that the music will be shining. It was the same passion of work with Guillermo as for The Shape of Water.
What was it like creating original songs with Guillermo?
It was a first for us, and when you work with Guillermo and his endless desire and a smile on his face, that shows that he’s excited about the idea that we can create something. He’s a creator. He likes to create creatures, like in The Shape of Water, but it’s the same with writing the song or writing music, is creating the creature that you send out the window to the world. So this process with him is very, very… Lots of fun. Lots of work, but lots of fun. Guillermo and Katz, the three of us really, I think, nailed what the movie was calling for, which is, you know, define the characters and expand the emotion that they convey. Could it be fear? Could it be melancholia?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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