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Alexandre Desplat Talks Searching for the Soul of ‘Philomena’

Each film has a soul and the composer’s job is to find and express it, said Alexandre Desplat Sunday at what was probably the last, and certainly one of the best, awards-season event.

In a private room in the Polo Lounge, Desplat sat with about 70 guests in a conversation about “Philomena,” for which he earned his sixth Oscar nomination. During his Q&A period, which was interspersed with piano performances, he also discussed his other pics, his collaborations with Stephen Frears (this is their fourth work together), and the differences between working on European and Hollywood films.

The soul of Philomena” was Judi Dench’s performance, he said. The film was very difficult to score, because the real Philomena Lee is a woman of “great strength, great dignity,” and he wanted to honor her and Dench’s work with his music. “I wanted something very simple, restrained.” He added that orchestration is just as important as the melody, if not more so and he was careful to ensure that the size of the orchestra would not overwhelm the piece.

The conversation, in which he spoke with Ashley Irwin, president of the Society of Composers & Lyricists, was punctuated with pianist Randy Kerber playing excerpts from various Desplat scores. The composer occasionally stepped over to the piano to demonstrate his unexpected use of bossa nova elements in scores for “The King’s Speech” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” and jazz chords in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

While the awards season offered endless Q&A’s and events “in honor of” a person or film, few offered as many insights as this Weinstein Co. afternoon, which shed light on the Oscar contender  as well as his challenges, solutions and insights into the nominated work.

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