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Composers Create Music to Move the Narrative Forward

Once the get to the essence of a film, these artisans tie it all together with the perfect score

Nearly every film director will tell you the same thing: A great score is crucial to convey a movie’s hidden, inner life in a way that complements its more obvious visual imagery. And nearly every film composer will tell you that creating such a score is the biggest artistic challenge, even when he’s familiar, thanks to previous collaborations, with a director’s particular working methods.

“I’m always trying to find the heart of what a film is really about — the intangibles that aren’t usually on the screen,” says six-time Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Alexandre Desplat (pictured above). The prolific composer scored three of this season’s awards-contending films — “The Imitation Game,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Unbroken” — and says each had its own specific needs and approaches.

“I’d never done a movie on such an epic scale about just one man, with all these amazing adventures, and one that doesn’t have much dialogue,” he says of “Unbroken.” “So the music has to convey his hopes, his pain and his strength.” To this end, Desplat “tried to let the score flow in a chronological way.”

He adds, “It was the same with ‘Game.’ Both films are built in a very complex way, though it doesn’t seem so when you watch them. There are lots of flashbacks and flash-forwards, and music can help bridge all that, as you can link two scenes which may happen years apart. And that also affects the pace and rhythms of the film.”

Reuniting with helmer Wes Anderson on “Hotel” (Desplat scored “Moonrise Kingdom”) presented different demands. “Wes creates his own unique world, very different from that of other directors, and I tried to find the right tool kit to play with,” he says. “Like the other directors, he’s very collaborative, and it’s like a dance where you explore different sounds and instruments, until you find the right combinations.”

For the equally prolific Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, who rejoined Christopher Nolan on “Interstellar” after scoring the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Inception,” the big challenge was “how to deal with the different theories of quantum mechanics, gravity and time in a musical form, and at the same time keep it intensely personal. I had to figure out how to celebrate all the science and the emotional through line and subtext.”

Zimmer began working on the score “over two years ago, so that Chris had some themes while he was finishing the script, and then when he was shooting in Iceland, I was hunkered down in London experimenting with ideas and sounds.” He reports that the whole process was “a constant and very close collaboration,” kick-started by “what we weren’t going to do. So there’s no action drums or kinetic strings propelling the action.”

Instead, Zimmer and Nolan aimed for “a new vocabulary” that included “the mystical sound of the pipe organ, this very complex instrument that sort of mirrored the complex ideas explored in the film itself.”

The composing team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who scored David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network,” returned to work with the director on his thriller “Gone Girl.”

The challenge “was to create a body of work that felt as unique as the filmmaking. The music needed to sit together as a whole, traversing the veneer of the ‘perfect couple, perfect life’ without ever slipping into pastiche, while sinuously supporting their demise and the psychological study into the darker corners of the human condition. Thematically a language needed to be established where often one piece could be used to support both ends of the spectrum, within itself moving from facade to despair and beyond.”

“David always has an idea and a direction,” says Ross. “It’s our job to get inside his head and turn those ideas into music. Throughout the process there is a back-and-forth that is exciting and invigorating. It’s never a case of micromanagement; (it’s) more creating a space that allows and encourages the journey into making music and storytelling without compromise.”

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