Billion Dollar Composer: Alexandre Desplat Has Ears of World’s Top Auteurs

Alexandre Desplat
Brigitte Lacombe

Helmers from Clooney to Frears describe maestro's creative impact

It all started a little over 10 years ago, when “Girl With a Pearl Earring” opened and everyone who heard its haunting, magical waltz theme asked, “Wow, who wrote that?”

The “who,” as everyone in the business knows by now, is French composer Alexandre Desplat. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his music in the romantic ode to one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous paintings, then followed it with a startling score for “Birth” — its fairy-tale flutes and child-like celeste serving to deepen that film’s almost ungraspable mystery — and he quickly became one of the most sought-after composers in Hollywood.

Except that he lived in Paris. And still does.

And while Desplat is content to call Paris home, he has quietly opened a second studio in L.A. to make it easier to confer with directors here and, as necessary, compose too, as he recently did with “The Imitation Game.”

Desplat was no novice when “Girl With a Pearl Earring” launched him on his now prominent path. He had been practicing his craft, mostly for French films (and especially for Jacques Audiard, including “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “A Prophet”) since the early 1990s.

Since his arrival on the U.S. scene, he has added a plethora of A-list filmmakers to his resume including Roman Polanski, Stephen Frears, Wes Anderson, Ang Lee, David Fincher, Tom Hooper, Terrence Malick, Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and George Clooney. And in August, he became the first composer to preside over the jury at the Venice Film Festival.

He’s been Oscar-nominated six times since 2006 and eight of his films have been in the running for best picture. He has won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, a Grammy and three Cesars. He remains among the most prolific of modern composers, sometimes scoring as many as seven or eight films a year.

Why so many? “I am new in Hollywood,” he says. “I had already written 50 scores for cinema before entering the Hollywood scene. It’s not like I was 25 (he’s 53). So the opportunities that I have now to work on great films with talented directors, I have been waiting for so long.

“Some directors have been very loyal, calling me back,” Desplat adds. “And after a while there are so many of them: Frears, Audiard, Polanski, Clooney, Anderson …

I have a project with a friend who I did my second movie with. Should I say ‘No, I’m a big shot now?’ I haven’t found a way yet to say no. So it makes my life very full of music.”

Desplat’s approach is to discover the specific sound of each film. “I don’t think first of melodies, as much as I like to write melodies,” he says, instead he ponders a story’s light, color, pace, camera movements. “I try to imagine what texture, atmosphere, sounds will really embrace and stick to the movie. Then comes melody, orchestration, in a more elaborate way.”

For “The Queen,” that meant a sly harpsichord and a musical wink. For “Grand Budapest Hotel,” the Eastern European sounds of balalaikas and cimbaloms. For “Argo,” it was a Persian vocalist and percussionist plus Turkish and Greek players performing on Middle Eastern instruments. For “Tree of Life,” Desplat composed a meditative, minimalist symphony. For “Monuments Men,” it was a classic-sounding World War II-movie march (that, for the finale, was whistled by the entire London Symphony Orchestra a la “Bridge on the River Kwai”).

His musical diversity may be due, in part, to his uniquely international heritage. His French father and Greek mother met while attending college at Berkeley in the 1950s (“they found Eden in America,” he says). Long steeped in world cinema, especially American films, he has wanted to compose for films since he was 15. His musical influences are eclectic, from Bernard Herrmann and Georges Delerue to Miles Davis and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Yet virtually every score is firmly rooted in classical orchestration, giving them a timeless quality.

“The Queen” director Frears recalls his first meeting with Desplat, after an earlier composer had delivered music Frears thought was “catastrophic.”

“Alexandre came in at very short notice and knew what the tone should be,” he says. “In the end, it’s to do with intelligence and wit. Alexandre is a very cultivated, sophisticated man. You work with these brilliant people, and if you’re smart, you listen to them.”
Frears and Desplat have since collaborated on four more films (including “Cheri” and “Philomena”) and are planning a fifth.

For Hooper, “The King’s Speech” director, what comes to mind about Desplat is what he calls “that sense of playfulness, of experimentation, curiosity, innovation that led us to do something that might have seemed fun, but of little use.” By that he means employing the original EMI microphones that King George VI used for the speech rallying the nation at the onset of WWII while recording the score at Abbey Road in London.

“He realized the opportunity to encode in the score a signature that was utterly specific to the movie.”

Adds Hooper: “He’s brilliantly sensitive about protecting great performances— doing an intimate, choreographed dance so that he’s supporting and amplifying it rather than simplifying and reducing it. And it’s all done with humor and charm and speed.”

Some of Desplat’s most unusual music has been the result of his three collaborations with Anderson (on “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and this year’s “Grand Budapest Hotel”). “Music is, obviously, a big part of almost any movie, and the ones I’ve done are especially dependent on it,” says Anderson. “Alexandre has been right in the middle, creating the whole atmosphere and voice of these movies. We try to give the music its own identity, unique to that movie.”

According to Desplat, on “Grand Budapest” they began the conversation with, “How about writing for zithers and cimbaloms and balalaikas? Let’s have fun! The movie takes place in some kind of mythical Mitteleuropa in the ’30s, so the idea of mixing all these instruments together was appealing.”

For Gareth Edwards, who persuaded Desplat to score his “Godzilla” earlier this year, “the biggest surprise is that Alexandre has a wickedly dry sense of humor. I had some of the best times on the entire film around his house, chatting about movies and music, both sarcastically mocking each other whilst we worked.”

Now preparing to conduct his first all-Desplat concert with the London Symphony (Dec. 11 at London’s Barbican Hall), Desplat is quick to praise his wife, violinist Dominique “Solre” Lemonnier, who as his producer is always in the booth monitoring every musical detail while he is on the podium conducting.

Clooney met Desplat on “Syriana,” then hired him when he directed the “Ides of March,” and for “Argo,” which Clooney produced. Three years ago, he advised the composer, tongue in cheek, to “start practicing his French” because he had written a part for him (a French farmer with scarf and beret) in “Monuments Men.” Desplat has a memorable scene with Matt Damon.

“Alexandre is a good friend, so it’s hard to be unbiased,” writes Clooney in an email to Variety. “But I love every score he does. The ones I’ve seen up close have all been labors of love for him. He’s an artist in a world of technicians. And if you need a guy to play a Frenchman helping the Resistance … he’s your guy there too.”

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