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Interview: Alexandre Desplat on Composing for "Argo" & "Zero Dark Thirty"

Matt here! Knowing my music background, Nathaniel asked me to speak with Alexandre Desplat for his fifth Oscar nomination. Desplat has composed scores for over 100 films including Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The King’s Speech, and The Tree of Life. This year alone, he wrote for Moonrise Kingdom, Rust and Bone, Rise of the Guardians, Zero Dark Thirty, and earned his latest Academy Award nomination for his work on Argo.

Desplat conducting his Rise of the Guardians score

Not only is Desplat impossibly prolific but he produces music of unprecedented diversity. Who could have guessed that the same man behind the jaunty storybook sounds of Fantastic Mr. Fox also wrote the cloudy chords at the end of Zero Dark Thirty? [more...]

I asked Desplat how he approached Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, two vaguely political thrillers set in the Middle East. “Writing music for films is not just writing music,” he said. “Zero Dark Thirty is a tragedy. Argo is about hope. This is what I consider. Composing is to think, not to play. The first thing I do is read the script and process the emotions. Some composers try to give the scene assistance, but I try to go into the screen itself and find how the characters work and the lighting and the dialogue.”  

Both films coincidentally end with powerful moments aboard a plane, yet their scoring couldn’t be more different. Desplat said, “In Zero Dark Thirty there is no hope aboard that plane. With Argo, I needed to make the danger seem otherworldly at first, but so emotion can come out of the danger. At the end, when the plane takes off, it’s the first time we hear the full orchestra. We know color.” 

Two Best Pictures. Two Planes. Two Entirely Different Feelings

Despite the attention that he's received for those Best Picture nominees, it's arguably Moonrise Kingdom that contains the year’s most miraculous musical experience. It so effortlessly blends the sounds of Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams – two composers that can be both mournful and sprightly simultaneously. Desplat was the perfect choice to fill the gap between the two. “For Wes, I wrote a suite of different pieces to fit different moods of the picture and I was very surprised at Cannes by how well he edited it all together. I was especially moved by the use of the ‘Cuckoo Chorus’ in the last scene.” 

Having worked with directors like Wes Anderson and Terrence Malick, who have a deep understanding of orchestral music, Desplat voiced his confidence in his own work – “Everything you write belongs to you and you only and has your touch. No one else’s. That is magic.”

With a schedule and filmography as full as Desplat’s I asked him where he gets enough inspiration for all of it. “Writing music is something crazy. Something that burns you. You can’t stop. It’s a fire inside you. It’s what turns me on. With Zero Dark Thirty, there was a very short schedule. But I knew the movie was incredibly inspiring and I needed to try something different.” 

An artist as prolific and consistently excellent as Desplat deserves all the appreciation he can get. Someone should hand him an award just for the piece that accompanies the slow-motion post-wedding walk in Moonrise Kingdom

Is the fifth time a charm for Desplat? Will he defeat a deep, talented pool of composers to win his first Oscar? Regardless, it won’t be the last time he’s nominated. “I’m just excited. Excitement! Each morning I’m like a child with a new toy or a teenager reading Playboy for the first time!”  

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Reader Comments (8)

Desplat has done some wonderful scores (personally, I think he should have won for Benjamin Button, and should have been nominated for The Ghost Writer), so I wouldn't mind seeing him win this year...even if I found the Argo soundtrack relatively underwhelming.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Bill -- oh yeah that Ghost Writer score was amazing. and Birth! I want him to have an Oscar but I really think Argo is subpar work -- at least in the context of what he is generally able to do! Not a bad score at all just not Desplat Genius.

February 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I loved The Ghost Writer score, too! His best ever?

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I loved the ZD30 score. Very understated. Parts of it reminded me of Constantin's ending score in The 400 Blows. I feel like anybody who questions what the film was trying to do should really listen to what Desplat does with the score though that ending is pretty self-explanatory (and if it does not seem that way I question that viewer's film literacy).

Birth still remains my favorite of his, along with being the best of the late cinematographer Harris Savides.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Wow just looked at his catalog on IMDB. Unbelievable.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

His nomination should be for ZD30. Very subtle, delicate, emotional, ultimately powerful work.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Desplat's score for "Girl With a Pearl Earring" first caught my ear... and I was blown away by his work on "Birth." That he was universally overlooked for "The Ghost Writer" is a travesty. I'd just hate to see him finally win the Oscar for a score that's not in the pantheon of his best work.

(Incidentally, I'd hate to see it happen with Thomas Newman as well... give us another "The Good German," and then we'll talk).

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael F.

My favorites of his have to include The Painted Veil and Benjamin Button.
The Argo nomination is totally The King's Speech all over again. Good but great score for the biggest crowd pleaser gets recognition when at least two stronger work of his were left unnoticed.
I hope Danna wins this year.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRic

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