And the Oscar for Most Prolific Composer of 2009 goes to: Alexandre Desplat.
The Paris-born composer (“The Queen,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) has written music for nine films over the past 12 months, six of which are potentially eligible in this year’s round of awards-giving and two of which are presumably major contenders for next year’s honors.
Titles in play include “Julie and Julia,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” “Coco Before Chanel,” “Cheri” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” His latest film with director Jacques Audiard, “A Prophet,” is France’s entry for foreign-language Oscar honors; “L’Armee du Crime” has not been released here and two others are still in post-production.
Why so many?
“In the last two or three years, I’ve been called by more directors,” he explains over lunch on a recent visit to L.A., “directors I’ve dreamed of working with — Stephen Frears, Roman Polanski, Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, David Fincher. … All these gentlemen are amazing artists. So what do you do?
“Chris Weitz called me back after (our collaboration on) ‘Golden Compass,’ and said he’s got this ‘New Moon’ in the ‘Twilight’ series. I just want to say yes to all of these people. I work twice as much as I used to, but maybe I also work more quickly. I’ve improved,” he adds with a laugh.
Desplat, who recently won composer of the year honors at the Ghent Film Festival, burst on the American film scene in 2003 with his charming score for “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and has since become one of the busiest composers on either side of the Atlantic.
This year’s entries include a surprising array of styles and sounds to match the diversity of the films.
“It’s most difficult to score a comedy,” Desplat says of Nora Ephron’s “Julie and Julia.” “Where are the limits? When does music become gimmicky or stupidly funny? Both stories, in New York and Paris, were love stories, so it’s more that side that we embraced, with lightness and wit. Most of the time the music is in a gentle, soulful, Manciniesque mode.”
For the young-vampire sequel “New Moon,” Desplat recorded 80 minutes of lush, alternately mysterious and powerful music with the London Symphony Orchestra. In early discussions, director Weitz cited the music of a fellow Frenchman of an earlier generation: Maurice Jarre (“Doctor Zhivago”). “He wanted symphonic, lyrical music,” Desplat says. “Of all the movies I’ve done, it’s the biggest love story — the sense of longing, Bella for Edward. Here the emotions are not contained.
“There is a love theme for Bella and Edward, and another for Bella and Jacob,” he adds. “Some moments they are very clearly exposed, but sometimes I don’t play the themes in a very clear way. She is in love with the two of them, so the themes tend to blur.”
Desplat also enlisted the London Symphony for his warm and delicate score for “Coco Before Chanel.” “I thought, what drives Coco Chanel? An incredible energy, a broken childhood, a will that was unstoppable, and that’s exactly what I tried to bring in the music.
“For the opening cue, at the orphanage, I could have written a slow, sad, emotional piece, for her loneliness and difficult years. I chose not to go there. Instead, we have a little ‘motor,’ a musical motion starting, so we feel subliminally that this little girl is not being overwhelmed. She has a special energy that will enable her to confront anything.”
For “Mr. Fox,” Desplat went in a wildly different direction: banjo, mandolin, flutes and whistling. “I suggested to Wes that, because we were working with puppets, we should invent an orchestra of instruments that puppets would play: little things, they could whistle or play little flutes. Even the strings are few, just a quartet or quintet.
“Wes is like his puppets, very excited and happy to find new colors and sounds. It was a crazy, funny experience.”
“Cheri” utilized a string trio (violin, viola, cello) and the LSO. The composer cites the original Colette novels as a starting point: “She is an author who always hides the emotion behind the lace and elegant manners but, deep inside, it’s a very universal, moving story. The music (suggests) time passing by in a nostalgic, sad way, but, like a stream flowing, it can’t stop.”
Already recorded — but still awaiting release — are Desplat’s major scores for next year. Polanski was in a Swiss jail when the composer recorded his score for “The Ghost,” although “we discussed all the main themes and he heard (via demos) almost 80% of the score. He has a very accurate and very smart way of working with music. I learned a lot,” Desplat says.
For Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” Desplat recorded “at least an hour” of music last year, “because Terrence wanted to have the music to edit to. I know there’s more to come.”