Rapid Round: Alexandre Desplat Names Favorite Director, Predicts Beatles' Place in History

Alexandre Desplat Oscars - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Alexandre Desplat Oscars - H 2015

Having composed the score for 'The Secret Life of Pets,' he reveals his favorite films — animated and not — and the music he'd take to a desert island

For his latest film, Alexandre Desplat, the Oscar-winning composer of 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (whose other credits include 2010’s The King’s Speech and 2011’s Carnage), has turned his attention to mainstream studio animation. He’s the musical wizard behind the blockbuster The Secret Life of Pets — and, he says, he’s a huge fan of animation, going all the way back to Tex Avery. He previously composed the scores for DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians and Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox. A native of France who lives in the Montparnasse section of Paris, Desplat, 54, spoke to to THR about working with Roman Polanski, which musicians will still be remembered 100 years from now and how American music has impacted everything.

Where do you compose?

Composing is a state of mind. It’s day and night, all the time, especially when you’re on such a big machine, where you have to produce so many minutes of music. You go to sleep thinking of what you have to write and what’s coming up in the morning.

Do you have a favorite film?

I’ve always been a film lover — that’s why I’ve always wanted to write music for films. But if I had to choose three films: Barry Lyndon [1975], Chinatown [1974] and The Godfather [1972]. And in animation it would be The Jungle Book [1967], 101 Dalmatians [1976] and all the Tex Avery films.

No French films in there?

Polanski’s French. [The Chinatown director] was born in Paris.

There was a British radio show called Desert Island Discs. You’d choose just a few pieces of music to take with you on an island. Name yours.

Debussy’s Preludes for Piano, played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, a great pianist. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. You Must Believe in Spring, the album by Bill Evans. And one last one, Edu & Tom, which is Edu Lobo and Tom [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, who did The Girl From Ipanema.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I drink tea and go to art galleries and museums. I have no favorite museum, but it could be the National Gallery in London; it could be the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Every city has a great museum.

Is there a particular artist who inspires you?

There’s so many. Let’s say one — he’s Japanese, 18th century: Utagawa Hiroshige. And also Joan Miró.

What are you reading at the moment?

I read all the time. I’m reading some interviews with [composer-conductor] Pierre Boulez. [Before that] I was reading interviews with [composer] Karlheinz Stockhausen.

How many films do you work on at the same time?

None. It’s one by one. Because I work so much, people think that I have a team writing for me, but that’s not why I chose to write music for films. I chose to write music because I like to write music. So every single note that comes out of my studio is written by me, and I wouldn’t be able to do two movies at the same time. I wait until I’ve finished one, and then I do the other one.

Do you know what you’re doing next?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Have you seen it yet?

I’ve seen the first draft, yes.

Confidentiality agreement?

Of course.

Is there a contemporary composer you particularly admire?

A French composer: Pascal Dusapin, a concert composer. [I love] the way he thinks, the way he orchestrates, how prolific he is, his intelligence. He’s everything an artist should be.

Have you ever written a concert, ballet, something not film?

I wrote a piece two years ago: Pelléas and Mélisande played in concert in London and Paris.

Any desire to do an opera or ballet?

It might happen, sooner than later. [It would be] something that really can keep me in this world of fantasy — not fantasy in the American sense: the world of imagination that movies can bring to me.

Worst professional experience?

Worst was when I was a young composer and producers would not respect the music and the composer — not just me, but all the composers feel that the composer’s treated as a butler. That’s something even Mozart suffered from. And when this can still happen 300 years later, it drives me crazy.

Does that happen a lot?

It still can happen, unfortunately.

Were you ever fired? Did you ever quit?

No. If I commit, it’s like being on a boat: the tempest comes right over the boat. You just go to the end of the journey.

Best experience?

Working with Roman Polanski. He loves music so much, and he gives total freedom to his composer. This is pretty amazing. His desire is for the composer to be completely free and bring new ideas. He’s greedy about it; he’s so excited when you play him a piece of music that surprises him. He has no fear. I’ve done his last three films [Ghost Writer, Venus in Fur and Carnage], and we’re working on a new one soon. He doesn’t use any temp music ever. He doesn’t need a crutch.

Directors often fall in love with their temp scores. Is that bad?

It’s become the poison of film music, and I wish producers would prevent this from happening. It completely kills the world of creation, of imagination, that the composer can bring to a film. If the composer is there to bring something new, the temp track can only kill it, because after two or three times of listening to a sequence with the same music, you’re hooked. It’s the way the brain works. So can you imagine after 100 times? The challenge is to seek something else. That’s why I love Wes Anderson, that’s why I love David Fincher, that’s why I love Polanski, because they want to look for something else.

Is there any film you didn’t score that wish you’d been able to?

Some films that I love, I love them also because of the music. Vertigo, for example, is a movie where the music is doing 70 percent of the job. Could that be replaced? I’m not sure.

Is there a popular composer who’ll live on 100 years from now?

Well, in 100 years I don’t know what will remain of popular music. What remains of popular music from the 19th century? Not much. But the Beatles will remain, because they invented something. They invented pop music, which is a mix of folk, blues, rock.

Anybody more recent?

Right now, there’s not one name that comes to my mind. Will Serge Gainsbourg remain? In France, yes, but worldwide? I’m not sure if Serge Gainsbourg will impress somebody in New Zealand 50 years from now.

We all still listen to Edith Piaf.

But she came before Anglo-Saxon popular music took over the job, and now it’s become the standard.