Exclusive Interview With Alexandre Desplat

Exclusive Interview With Alexandre Desplat

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Sony Music

Release date: 11th July 211
Running time: 68: 22 minutes

Composer: Alexandre Desplat

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 Film Review
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 Film Review
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 Soundtrack Review
Alexandre Desplat Official Site

Golden Globe and BAFTA winning composer Alexandre Desplat has written some of the most beautiful and evocative scores for films in recent years including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Ghost Writer (2010) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:Part 1 (2010).

He joins us now for an exlcusive and in-depth chat about his most recent work, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011) and The Tree of Life (2011), as well as his hero John Williams, his jazz influences, the magic of Harry Potter and the wonder of Terrence Malick.

What first drew you to music? Do you remember if it was merely the sound or also the idea that it could be used as a form of expression for your feelings and imagination?

“It was certainly feelings and imagination. My parents listened to a lot of different kinds of music so I was always surrounded with it and my older sisters were always playing piano. So there was a variety of ideas and influences. I remember the first record I owned was a Mozart record, it was telling Mozart’s story with a narrator and I kept listening to this over and over. So there was a feeling of what words and music could convey and I guess this must have been very influential for me.”

Alexandre Desplat

You were also exposed to a lot of American Jazz during this time too, were there any particular jazz musicians that had a strong impact on you during that time?

“My father travelled a lot to the States and he brought back records from Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. He was listening to classic jazz which I loved. I actually wanted to play the trumpet because he was also listening to a lot of Armstrong and I enjoyed the energy the trumpet had.

I studied the cornet when I was between 7 and 9 because of the jazz music I was hearing at home. Late I learned jazz chronologically to understand the music. I was going from Armstrong to Stan Getz, for example, it seem very weird to me and I couldn’t understand the link. So it took me a few years to connect all these different eras; swing, the bop, the hard bop, bossa nova influence, the free jazz. Of course now there’s a few that remain very, very strong in my influence and that’s Bill Evans, Miles Davis and maybe Duke Ellington.”

Alexandre Desplat

Was John Williams a big influence or hero for you as well?

“Oh yes, absolutely! He’s the one who showed me that there was a way of writing contemporary music – the music of my time – that was influenced by the classical work of the 20th century, which is my favourite century for music, and that you could use that in the cinema.

I was always surprised when I was with friends, while I was studying music, and they would not be able to listen to Stravinsky, they couldn’t get it. At the same time they would go to cinema and listen to the music of Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They would hear music that was very contemporary, very modern and very challenging. I loved the idea that we could elevate the spirit of people through music and their sense of music through cinema. I must say that was also an important part of my decision to write music for films.”

The films you’ve been involved with over the years, do they also reflect what you like to see and the kind of stories that move you?

“I’m not very good at bombastic violent movies I think. I just don’t feel it at all. I like movies that have many layers and that can speak to my soul. I’m very versatile I think, I write for many kinds of cinema but there’s a limit to that. I will never do twice in a row a comedy, fantasy or drama. I always try to challenge myself and to keep the excitement and therefore be inspired by projects. Also of course, the directors!

There are some directors you dream of working with when you’re a moviemaker like I am – I consider myself a moviemaker because I am part of this collective artwork – you dream one day that they will call you! Stephen Frears, Roman Polanski, Terrence Malick…I’ve been really, really lucky to have been approached by these really great directors who know how to tell a story with a camera.

Sometimes it’s not only the project; it’s also the connection with the director which makes it exciting and sometimes very easy. Some directors I know immediately where I’m going or where I should go. I find very easily the tone because I connect with them and the sensitivity. I’m talking specifically of Stephen Frears and Roman Polanski, that’s true of them. With others it’s more difficult, you need to search a bit a more, which is good too. There’s a great treasure in feeling this intimate connection with some directors who have the same sense of restrained emotion and sense of dark humour which I enjoy and share.”

Alexandre Desplat

Were you familiar with the Harry Potter universe before composing for the films?

“Oh yes, I was familiar, first of all through the music because I was always waiting for the John Williams CD’s to be released at the very beginning of the series but also because my older daughter had read the books, and second of all because I’ve read all the books and seen all the films even before I was asked to write the score.”

For Part 1 you brought back John Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme, are there some familiar elements in Part 2’s score as well?

Hedwig’s Theme has become the iconic theme of Harry Potter because it has the magic element but also a very sensitive element of the orphan and his quest. That was the genius of John Williams, to have captured that. We used it a little in Part 1, but unfortunately there was no more space for it because they were leaving the world of innocence and playing that theme was immediately bringing us back to childhood which we were trying to avoid. But on this last one, they’re back at Hogwarts and they’ve found their friends again, who have grown but they’re in this sanctuary of the school, so it made it much easier for us to use this incredible theme. Also, the end of the film, with its farewell to childhood, needed John Williams’ master theme.”

Alexandre Desplat

What can fans expect from both the movie and the score for Part 2?

“I think they can expect a lot of emotion, it’s beautifully shot. I wrote a theme which we’ve used as a thread, Lily’s Theme. We learn in the last episode that Lily is not only linked to Harry but to another character. We thought to have this theme floating all over the film like a ghost in the distance. We hear a voice, a beautiful pure voice singing a melody and that’s the very theme of Part 2.”

This is also my favourite piece from the score. There’s something in it I haven’t heard in the series before.

“It was important that this score would be different. I can’t compose like John Williams, he has his own voice, and he’s an absolute genius and a master at what he does so I wouldn’t copy his music and I wouldn’t know where to start. I had to use my own technique, my own obsessions, chords, way of writing a melody and orchestrations.

Many, many cues I’ve multiplied the string orchestra by four. I love using the strings in a different way, it’s just my way and I love the way they play with very little vibrato. For example the opening of the film, if you add all the strings playing there are 240 strings playing. It creates a strange, wide and deep sound. It’s still gentle, it’s never loud but it’s still thick, very big, very strong and powerful.”

Alexandre Desplat

You recorded again with Conrad Pope and the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, what was it like working with them again?

“I started working with the LSO back in 2000 so it’s been 11 years now that I’ve been very faithful to this orchestra. I really try each time to work with them and when I could not it’s because of schedules or else I would have done all my movies with them. They are the best recording orchestra in the world, they’re certainly one of the best concert orchestras in the world. For me, on the recording side, they’re just incredibly sensitive; when the string strings, brass and woodwind lock together it’s so perfectly musical that it’s a pure joy when I’m conducting on the podium

As for Conrad, I first worked with him in 2005 on Syriana, so every once in a while I call him to work with me and on these last two episodes he seemed the right person to have with me. He’s just got such an incredible technique and experience from working with John Williams that it made sense. He’s the best actually, the best orchestrator in Hollywood. I was with the best sound engineer, in the best studio, with the best orchestra – what else did I need? It was pure joy and a lot of work.”

Alexandre Desplat

Now that it’s all done, how do you feel about being part of Harry Potter history?

“I’m very proud. It’s one of the most iconic stories of all time. There was Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek maybe and this one is the latest one I guess, so I’m very proud. I hope I did a good job, I hope the music fans will like it, I hope the Harry Potter fans will like it and I hope people will enjoy what the music brings to the film. Most of all I hope they will enjoy the film, I’m just one portion of it; it’s a great joy and honour to have been called, especially knowing that the master – my master – the last master of them all, John Williams, created the themes and invented the sound of the series.”

Usually, you work from seeing an edit of the film you’re composing for, but this wasn’t the case with The Tree of Life, how did you approach it then?

“The great talent and genius of Terrence Malick is first to have a sense of humanity and to be aware of this huge sensual, metaphysical world and second is his vision. He has an incredible eye. There’s not one shot in any Terrence Malick movie that you can say “Hmm, that’s not very beautiful”. Every shot is stunning. On this film, more than ever, he collides the ordinary human being life with the extraordinary presence of life on Earth so it was an incredible adventure to follow.

I would send him demos and he would say “Oh yes I like this” so I would record it with the LSO or an orchestra here and there. He would pick from these recordings a sound, a chord, a section, a sequence or pattern and use it – or not – in the film. It was always the deal we had up front. We knew from the beginning that there would be a lot of existing music and many vocal pieces that he wanted to use for many years. I was feeding him with music and I had no idea if it would remain. I must say that was a very different experience – to give the music before the movie had been edited.”

Alexandre Desplat

Now that you’ve had a chance to see it and hear it together, what was the experience like for you?

“The movie is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen, it’s incredible and he’s a magician – talking about Harry Potter! – It’s exactly what I thought, with big portions of classical masterpieces and some of my score here and there floating around, like a river floating through the film like I always thought it would be.”

Has this experience changed your own approach to how you think about and work with music?

“The simple act of talking with Terrence Malick and sharing time with him changed my approach to everything because when you’re near a giant like him you approach life and work differently. He’s a man of wisdom and you learn from this man, on every level.”

About Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.