There’s retro, and then there’s “The Artist.” Shot in B&W, with little dialogue, the French period piece about a ’20 silent film star whose career collapses with the advent of talkies was predictably a crowd-pleaser and critical success at Cannes this year (Jean Dujardin in the title role won lead actor). And given the unusual and surprising visual choices made by writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, much of the film’s success rests with its lush orchestral score composed by Ludovic Bource, a score also tasked with driving forward a story that is devoid of dialogue.
But Bource, who’s scored all four of the director’s films since 1999’s “Mes amis,” says he wasn’t surprised when Hazanavicius asked him to compose for a silent film. “We first talked about doing this 10 years or so ago — but I was surprised at just how moving and romantic it is,” he recalls. “It’s really his tribute to the great silent movies and directors like Fritz Lang and Hitchcock, and the old movie-making ways of Hollywood.”
While the film, which was shot on location in L.A., is set in the late ’20s and early ’30s, the composer and director took their inspiration from a much wider era. “We listened to a lot of different people, from Max Steiner and Charlie Chaplin to Bernard Hermann and Franz Waxman, as well as going back to all the great 19th century romantic composers like Brahms,” Bource says. One interlude in the movie is adapted directly from Hermann.
Soaking in all the Hollywood and classical greats helped the composer grapple with the main challenge — “finding a good main theme that would help tell the story for the audience.” It wasn’t easy, admits Bource, who recorded the score in Brussels with 80 musicians from the Flanders Philharmonic. “I’m not trained in symphonic music, so it was a big education for me.”
Bource wasn’t on the set, but immersed himself in dailies, “so I could be inspired by the images, and then I’d write motifs and ideas, and keep some and leave others.” As usual, the pair worked closely during editing: “Michel was always changing the cues,” Bource says. “One week we’d have a block of sequences eight minutes long, a week later he’d tell me he’d just cut three minutes out. We were always refining.”
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