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Immersed in Movies: Composer Alexandre Desplat Talks ‘Argo’

Immersed in Movies: Composer Alexandre Desplat Talks 'Argo'

With “Argo” seizing momentum in the Best Picture Oscar race after its impressive SAG and PGA victories over the weekend, there’s also potential spillover in other categories, including Original score. Alexandre Desplat is a five-time nominee, at the top of his game in “Argo” and long overdue for Oscar gold.

But even though Desplat is one of the industry’s most prolific movie composers (he had more than six last year, including “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “Rise of the Guardians”), “Argo” is a very special score: For the first time, Desplat was able to personalize his love of Middle Eastern music by mixing indigenous instruments into a classical orchestra, recruiting half a dozen musicians from Turkey and France along with sexy Persian pop star, Sussan Deyhim.

“My mother is from Greece and my father is from France but traveled a lot and loved Egyptian music and spoke Arabic, and there was always something about my brain that heard all these sonorities,” Desplat recalls. “And in my training, I was always interested in world music. And through the years, I’ve learned to write with instruments and to understand their rhythm patterns because it’s a very sophisticated music. And this was an opportunity to work with Sussan Deyhim, who I’ve admired for many years. So, yes, this was an exciting project, and I knew that in the end I could put musicians together in a studio from all around the world and blend a sound that only could belong to this film.”

Desplat views Ben Affleck’s acclaimed Iranian hostage thriller/comedy as three movies in one. There’s the Iranian story in which he was able to weave an otherworldly sound to underscore people surrounded by danger who don’t know how to cope with it. Then there’s the wacky Hollywood story in which he uses a combination of period rock music (“When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin) and more humorous cues in keeping with the escapades of John Goodman and Alan Arkin, as they pull off a fake movie as cover for Affleck’s bizarre escape plan. And then there’s the thrilling and improbable airport escape, which has a more symphonic sound.
And yet there’s hardly any music at all in the first half-hour, which is indicative of a restraint that’s very effective. “There’s a sense of danger that never stops, propelling both the characters and the story, which is what I tried to convey in the score,” Desplat continues. He achieves this with the use of the ney, oud, kemenche, and Persian percussion.

However, Desplat utilizes Deyhim’s voice to introduce a haunting lament in one of his favorite cues, “Scent of Death,” when Affleck’s character arrives in Iran. The composer remembered hearing Deyhim doing some rhythm patterns in a cabaret and so he wrote for her a rhythmic motif — a sort of scatting — and trained her because she doesn’t read music. The music then swells with the Middle Eastern and symphonic orchestras. But throughout Desplat creates a distinctive sound by combining Deyhim’s voice with the Turkish flute (hey) and Turkish violin (kemenche).

There’s also a sadder side to Affleck’s character having an unstable life, in which he drinks and struggles to maintain contact with his young son, and so Desplat finds time for gentleness in “Missing Home.” With this, the “Argo” theme, and “The Mission,” Desplat proves once again why he’s the master of melancholy.

And in Desplat’s other favorite cue, the climactic “Cleared Iranian Airspace,” he dispenses with the Middle Eastern instruments and goes strictly for a more traditional classical sound.

“‘Argo’ is a movie about hope and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a tragedy,” Desplat reminds us. “I’ve been to screenings all over the world and I must say that people are gripped and at the end they all cheer when the plane goes off. There’s a communion there that’s very strong.”

Meanwhile, Desplat has another busy year ahead: “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (about a perfectly composed concierge) with Wes Anderson; “The Monuments Men” (about a race against time to save great works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them) with George Clooney; and “Venus in Fur” (about an actress who attempts to convince a director that she’s perfect for his new movie) with Roman Polanski.

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