Alexandre Desplat on winning a Grammy and the lesson of masters like John Williams

Posted by · 2:48 pm · February 12th, 2015

Nine Oscar seasons ago, composer Alexandre Desplat earned what already felt like an overdue first nomination for “The Queen.” (He already had “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “Birth,” “Syriana” and “The Painted Veil” to his credit.) Eight years and as many Oscar nominations later, the prolific Desplat has cemented himself as the go-to composer of his generation, with the hottest producers and directors clamoring to collaborate with him.

This is not surprising, given his talent and his extraordinary knowledge of both world cinema and world music. This year, he is a double Oscar nominee for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game” and has already won a British Academy Award and a Grammy for the former. And that elusive first Oscar may well be within his grasp.

HitFix recently caught up with Desplat to discuss Anderson's latest melancholic comic romp and the awards success he has experienced of late. Check out the back and forth below.


HitFix: What's it like to be a double Oscar nominee for the first time?

Alexandre Desplat: It was unpredictable and is incredible, especially after so many nominations in a short period of time because I think this is my eighth nomination in eight years. I was a bit shocked but very happy and honored. It's sometimes hard to believe but your work being recognized by the Academy is wonderful. And I hope we continue!

Let's talk about “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” At what stage did you come aboard?

I read the script very early on and then Wes went shooting the film. When it was almost put together, he showed it to me and I began composing.

You've collaborated with him a number of times. How did you approach the work this time?

Because it was my third film with Wes, we had already set kind of a tone in the way we had worked before – very light orchestration, trying to find the sounds that would belong to the film. Very early on this one, we discussed sounds of Middle Europe and how we could go away from using strings and woodwinds. We started putting together this incredible band and it creates a special sound…the sound of the “Grand Budapest.”

Talk more about dealing with the cultural element, not just Middle Europe and Eastern Europe but the “Wes Anderson culture,” as his work continues to maintain a unique and singular space in the industry.

I do think that Wes and I have built a sound and if someone would randomly play pieces from the scores of “Mr. Fox,” “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Grand Budapest,” not knowing which it was from, I'm sure there would be a similarity and a familiar tone. But of course “Grand Budapest” is set somewhere in this fictional Republic of  Zubrowka. It's somewhere between Switzerland and Russia, and you can use all the tools you can pick from those countries. I know that music very, very well. Gyspy music has influenced all of the music of Middle Europe. Greece and Bulgaria and Hungary and even Russia have all been influenced by Gypsy music. Gypsy music has this joyfulness but also a great sense of melancholy, just what we needed.

You've talked before about being careful in deciding whether to adopt music of a particular locale. I remember you notably avoided using traditional Irish music on “Philomena,” for instance. But you bring up an interesting point about the dueling joy and melancholy. What's it like to have this comic tone even in the darker parts? Do you like writing joyous scores?

Of course I do! I do look to write for comedy when there is a sense of melancholy or drama in the background. [“The Grand Budapest Hotel”] is fiction, but it's set in a country that is at war. It's fun to do and fun to work with Wes.

Could you comment a bit more on your rapport with Wes Anderson and how he approaches the music?

Well, music is interwoven with the editing – completely in pace with the rhythm of the film. It actually participates in the rhythm very, very strongly. He enjoys playing with the music in a way that will surprise the audience or take the audience by surprise. And that's very, very special. For instance, he likes to play with the instruments that we have. Let's say we have 50 musicians playing at the same time, they all stop except one – maybe a drum or organ or mandolin – and that creates a different element at the base of the film. Because when music stops and silence opens, it gives room to all of the sounds of the film. Music gives shape to the film.

Congratulations on winning the Grammy. How did that feel?

It was incredible because I had actually forgotten that it was that evening! I was sitting with my BAFTA and suddenly I have the text message that I had won the Grammy! I'm happy for Wes. It was a great day for him.

Do you feel it's a broader recognition, that your work is being recognized outside the cinematic world. It's almost like you're a young John Williams.

There's only one John Williams! You know how much I adore his work and his genius and how much he's given us!

OK, your modesty is noted! But do you think the Grammy win is demonstrative that your work is being recognized outside the world of cinephiles?

I guess it's starting because if you say that, you must have thought about that. The Grammys are meant to be for music, as part of an album that is heard without visuals. It's the goal I've always tried to achieve, writing music for a film that can stand on its own. That's the lesson that John Williams has given to all of us. And Bernard Herrmann has given all of us. And Nino Rota. And Georges Delerue: to write great music for a film that can stand on its own.

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