Writing a piano piece for Alicia Vikander, indulging his love for American jazz, persuading Meryl Streep to sing on a score of his — it’s all in a year’s work for French composer Alexandre Desplat.
Desplat, who won the 2014 Oscar for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is as busy as ever. Forced to step away from “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” when post-production ran months later than expected, he still has four scores in contention for 2016 honors: “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “The Light Between Oceans” and “American Pastoral.”
Doing a wild animation film like “The Secret Life of Pets” was “something I always dreamed of doing,” he says via phone from Paris. Desplat admires the Tex Avery cartoons of the ’40s and ’50s and cites “the virtuosity and humor” of their music by MGM composer Scott Bradley.
“We [he and director Chris Renaud] didn’t feel that a pure orchestral score would be sufficient in terms of energy, color and fun,” Desplat recalls, thinking “maybe some jazz would work.”
So they booked an all-star big-band of top L.A. jazz players at the legendary Capitol Studios. “This was a more bouncy, funny kind of score than I had ever done for animation before,” he says. And Desplat, who is a flautist, happily got to play most of the flute solos himself.
For “The Light Between Oceans,” Desplat had to start work even before shooting. Isabel, the character played by Vikander, is an amateur pianist, so director Derek Cianfrance engaged Desplat early in order to create a piece that Vikander could learn, and ultimately played on camera.
Taking his inspiration from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Desplat “went to the piano and tried to find something that was simple and clear.” Cianfrance liked it so much that Desplat made it the film’s main theme — a conceit that was once popular in films (he cites the 1944 classic “Laura”) but rarely happens nowadays.
“It’s not just music in the scene,” says the composer. By turning it into a primary voice in the score, “there is a flow, a dramaturgic continuity. It’s all connected.”
The film, set off the western coast of Australia, demanded a symphonic score. But the downbeat nature of the film also meant striking a careful balance: “Music can make you go from sadness to an immense sadness. There is a limit; if you go too far, it becomes schmaltzy. In such a big melodrama, we were always trying to be careful and not go over the edge.”
“American Pastoral,” by comparison, “is not a melodrama. This story is a tragedy.” Desplat had read the Philip Roth novel, about 30 years in the life of a New Jersey family torn apart by the daughter’s becoming a violent ’60s radical, years before.
Director-star Ewan McGregor, it turns out, was a French horn player. “French horn can be very epic, and at the same time, very dark and moving,” Desplat thought. “Maybe there’s something there.”
He called for eight French horns, which provided “an epic Americana sound, not in a bombastic way. I wanted them for a strong but restrained sound.” Much of the rest of the score needed to be “quiet and gentle, as we feel the father’s heart breaking slowly but surely,” calling for a more intimate piano-and-strings approach.
“Florence Foster Jenkins,” the comedy-drama about the New York socialite who thought she was a great soprano, marked his fifth collaboration with British director Stephen Frears, whom he considers the modern successor to Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. Desplat earned Oscar nominations for Frears’ “The Queen” and “Philomena.”
“It was an opportunity to mix an orchestra with the jazz sound of the 1940s,” Desplat says. “We didn’t want to mock her. When there are tender moments with her husband [Hugh Grant], we’re not winking at the audience. It’s pure tenderness between them and the music plays that.” Otherwise, he notes, the score “really looks back to the ’40s.”
Although Desplat had nothing to do with the many songs Jenkins performs badly, he did write an opening number for the score that he thought might feature a wordless soprano voice. “It would be silly to have a session singer when we have Meryl Streep singing in the film,” he told Frears.
“We convinced Meryl and we recorded at Abbey Road. She was fabulous. She knew the tune, we did a few takes and that was it.”
Desplat is already writing his next big score for French director Luc Besson: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” a space opera based on “a comic book that we used to read when we were teenagers,” he says.