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Alexandre Desplat’s Twin Takes on WWII: ‘Imitation Game’ and ‘Unbroken’

Alexandre Desplat’s five 2014 releases are as diverse as ever, from the quirky sounds of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and the action pulse of “Godzilla” to the wartime drumbeat of “The Monuments Men.”

But it’s his last two films that are bound to draw the most attention at awards time: “The Imitation Game,” due Nov. 21, and “Unbroken,” slated for a Christmas release. Both are powerful, fact-based dramas focusing on quietly heroic individuals.

In the case of “The Imitation Game,” the story of the mathematical genius Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) charged with breaking the German code machine Enigma during World War II, director Morten Tyldum posed a challenge: “I wanted music that could be subjective, inside this head of this awkward, brilliant mathematician. At the same time I wanted music that would depict the epic scope of the war; a tender, fragile love story; and the thriller element, the spy story. I wanted music that felt classic, yet at the same time had elements that were unique and contemporary.”

It was a tall order, especially in three weeks, the time given Desplat to craft his score. The composer met with Tyldum at his Los Angeles studio and suggested mirroring the complexities of Turing’s thought processes with three pianos.

These pianos, Desplat says, “were programmed, or should I say computerized, with random algorithms, as an homage to Turing’s invention. These fast scales and arpeggios have a dual task, playing both the fast activity of Turing’s brain, and the chase — the ticking clock to crack the Enigma code.”

“Alexandre has so many ideas,” says Tyldum. “He doesn’t just want to impose his music. He’s so willing to take notes, to move things around. To me, the music became its own character.”

For “Unbroken” — Angelina Jolie’s film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-seller about Olympic track star Louis Zamperini’s ordeal as a Japanese POW — Desplat navigated a delicate balancing act between pathos and hope. “We had a few scenes that were visually painful but needed to be uplifting for the audience,” Jolie says. “We relied on Alexandre to help guide the audience emotionally through music, to redirect the feeling and help lift the spirit of the viewer.”

As opposed to “Game,” Desplat had more time and a personal advantage: He met the real man behind the story.
“A few stars were aligned,” Desplat recalls. “I asked if I could meet Louis, chat with him, learn about his musical world, his sound world.”

It turned out Zamperini’s house was only two blocks from Desplat’s new L.A. studio, and the composer — a runner himself — often ran past it while in town.

“The orchestra is much larger (than ‘Imitation Game’), but I always kept the orchestra to a gentle dynamic. Never fortissimo,” says Desplat. “He’s a hero, but a human hero, not a superhero. So when the orchestra swells, it’s very powerful but without overwhelming either the character or the film.”

There is also a sparing and subtle use of choir. “A delicate touch was required,” says Mike Knobloch, Universal president of film music. “It’s almost like the hand of God, touching Louie’s soul and spirit at his lowest point.”

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