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Composer Alexandre Desplat Talks Scoring ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ Working With Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson & More

Composer Alexandre Desplat Talks Scoring 'Zero Dark Thirty,' Working With Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson & More

Few film composers had a more amazing 2012 than Alexandre Desplat. The French composer, who rose to prominence based on his lush, nearly operatic score to Jonathan Glazer‘s woefully underrated supernatural melodrama “Birth,” had an unparalleled 2012 which included scores to (deep breath) Wes Anderson‘s “Moonrise Kingdom,” Jacques Audiard‘s “Rust & Bone,” Ben Affleck‘s “Argo,” DreamWorks Animation‘s “Rise of the Guardians,” and Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Bigelow’s amazing chronicle of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was our main topic of discussion, and below he shares his approach to scoring the film, and what Bigelow wanted him to focus on. We also discuss his work on Terrence Malick‘s “Tree of Life,” collaborating with Wes Anderson and much more.

How do you decide what project to do?
There are many elements. First of all, you have to be called. And a certain number of directors I’ve been working with, so there’s some kind of loyalty to them. There’s a priority to those directors. And then there’s the project, of course, the subject – is it a new world and a new adventure to discover? Those are all the elements.

Can you talk about your approach for “Zero Dark Thirty?” It seems very minimal. 
I don’t know what minimal means – does it mean there’s no melody? Does it mean there’s one instrument? Does it mean there’s a hundred instruments playing softly?

It’s not a grand orchestral score…
Well, you’re wrong. It is. There are twelve cellists, nine bassists, sixteen or twenty horns. It’s a huge orchestra. But it doesn’t play loud. And it creates a very deep and dark type of sound without being in-your-face. Of course, we could have played very loud, but that wasn’t the point. In that film, you have to be inside the battle and not outside the battle. And inside the warriors’ heads. And the head of the warrior is the character played by Jessica Chastain. She doesn’t talk much. She’s the lead and she’s the leader of the war. And that’s what my score is following – her character, her chase, her personality.

What did Kathryn talk to you about when you signed on?
It’s telling the story from inside of Jessica Chastain‘s head. And at the same time it’s bringing us all, the audience, into the mud and the earth and the sad, into this horrible war, with people killing each other and torturing each other. There’s something very clinical about the way Kathryn shows these two parties at war. The music couldn’t be a score, and we kept saying to each other, ‘It shouldn’t sound like a film score that tells you everything and follows the action.’ It’s always telling the same story – we are at war, it’s dark, and it’s archetypal, because it’s two religions fighting each other. We kept talking about Akira Kurosawa and a movie like “Ran,” where the music is really into the story. That’s what it is.

You also did “Argo” this year, which is another true-life thriller, but one that is set in the ’70s. Did you look to any scores from that period when composing for the film?
No. I tend to write because I feel like music can bring something else to the screen. So if I had started using wah-wah pedals and trumpet sections, it would hobble what was on screen. So I just let the emotion and the fear play and it stays that way. It follows that route. It has to follow this very physical, dramatic arc. When [during] that final climax, when they get on the plane, I could finally release with a big, orchestral, lush moment. But until then it was all about, “Will they make it, will they not make it?” 

You worked with Wes Anderson this year. And he had collaborated with Mark Mothersbaugh for many years. You both contributed music to “Moonrise Kingdom.”
He was very loyal to his old friend, which was great, and which I understand. He gave him some tasks. And he gave me another task, which was to write a suite that would become the score of the film. But no, we didn’t collaborate. But all of Wes’ soundtracks contain different music. 

What was it like working on something like “Rise of the Guardians,” which is complete fantasy. Do you feel like you get to totally let loose?
I certainly had a huge canvas to paint on, because it’s something like an hour-and-twenty minutes of music to write. And in animation, music has a predominant role because it tells you about the life of the characters, but also the production design, and tells you the world you’re in. It’s really part of the whole dream that an animation movie can give you. It is very melodic. There are many melodies, there are themes for characters, it’s a great, fun, beautiful, moving picture. It’s not a Santa Claus movie, it’s a Christmas movie, because it’s [a] very moving picture like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It gives you things like Santa Claus but it’s about something much, much deeper. Every person I see coming out of the theater is very moved. That’s why I accepted that film; because there’s a real heart to it.

One of your most beloved pieces from 2011 was for “Tree of Life.” Can you talk about working with Terrence Malick and what that process was like?
Terrence wanted me to write the music for editing. So I started for a couple of years, sending him music. When I had a break between films, I would write some music and record it and send it to him. And then I would move forward until his next request. And that took two years. There always was, from the beginning, classical pieces that he was going to use. They were going to use my music as a link to all of that; a thread that would go through. 

Did you see different versions of the movie?
No never. I never saw the film, but I saw little exerpts when I went to the editing room in Austin.

What did you end up thinking about it?
I thought it was a gorgeous movie. It was [a] very magical movie, like all of Terrence Malick’s movies. He’s a dreamer, he’s a mystic; there’s always something captivating about his films. It was a great moment.

Would you work with him again?
You’d have to ask him.

You also did the music for Jacques Audiard’s “Rust & Bone.” What was your approach with that?
Well I’ve scored all of his movies since he started working. It’s almost 20 years of collaboration. So we know, very well, our territories. On this film, it had to be rather intimate because we didn’t want the score to be romantic. It would have been really cheap and sentimental, which would have been wrong for this story. We had to find music that would be elevating but at the same time small and modest. That’s why I did all these kind of hymns with harmonium and cello and guitar; we didn’t want it to be too much like a score. We wanted to recall sensations more than anything.

What have been your favorite scores of the year?
Unfortunately, I am just starting to receive the screeners. So there’s a few I’ve heard. I really liked “Skyfall,” I loved what Thomas Newman does. Danny Elfman‘s “Hitchcock” score was really great. “Life of Pi” was good, too.

“Zero Dark Thirty” opens wide this Friday.

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