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How Composer Alexandre Desplat Captures Different WWII Vibes for ‘Imitation Game’ and ‘Unbroken’

How Composer Alexandre Desplat Captures Different WWII Vibes for 'Imitation Game' and 'Unbroken'

He’s been nominated six times and has scored five movies released this year (“Monuments Men,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Godzilla,” “The Imitation Game,” and “Unbroken”). But the latter two could conceivably land him two noms given their best picture potential.

“The Imitation Game” and “Unbroken” are fascinating for their similarities and differences. They are highly unusual World War II biopics about two lonely, tortured geniuses: Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who broke the German Enigma code with his revolutionary bombe computer prototype while tragically being trapped by England’s homophobic code, and Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the Olympic champion runner-turned war hero, who survived multiple Japanese prisoner of war camps.

“‘The Imitation Game’ is very educated and full of dialogue and has humor; ‘Unbroken’ is big, provocative, spiritual, beautiful, very hard because it’s extremely moving to see this young man trying to survive through all the catastrophes he goes through,” Desplat explains. “The great thing about this film and the difference with ‘The Imitation Game’ music is the tempo. It is absolutely the opposite. All this running and pain. But I decided very early on after trying several directions, what worked was rather slow in tempo. A lonely, very deep, strong rhythm. It uses bigger orchestration and of course is very serious.”

The frantic “Imitation Game” score is all about counterpoint, propelled by keyboards, clarinets, celeste harp, and fast arpeggio. In fact, in keeping with the electronic motif of the bombe (which Turing names Christopher in honor of his first love), Desplat combines computerized piano samples from Abbey Road Studios with spare orchestration. Some of the piano notes are precise and others are random, capturing Turing’s asynchronous thought process.

The opening track, for example, introduces a descending, rippling keyboard theme that reappears in variations in later tracks, first as a string accompaniment that sets the bittersweet mood.

Desplat, who replaced composer Clint Mansell on “The Imitation Game,” had only three weeks to compose his score and explore the enigmatic Turing. He had never met director Morten Tyldum (a musician in his own right) and had not yet seen his acclaimed “Headhunters.” But he responded immediately to the humanity and humor of the movie, the brilliant performance of Cumberbatch, and the way the narrative deftly interweaves flashbacks and flash forwards.

“Early on I suggested that we needed a mix of funk and acoustic in the piano — the electric piano, the bases, all these things, which are computerized. I thought someone playing the piano would be too romantic or classical. The piano line is beautiful and different yet trying to keep simplicity and compliance at the same time, and the film has that. 

“I tried to be very soulful and tragic in the scenes with the two boys, Alan [Alex Lawther] and Christopher [Jack Bannon]. The scene when Alan learns of Christopher’s death is one of my favorites. I use a variation on the Christopher theme. The camera pulls onto Alan’s face when he learns of his passing and it’s incredibly moving. That’s something that comes from a long journey that starts from the first playing of the film.”

Desplat also enjoyed collaborating with director Angelina Jolie on “Unbroken,” and they talked early on about the importance of casting very young men. Unlike World War II movies of the past, which often starred middle-aged movie stars, “Unbroken,” is likely to make a star out of O’Connell, according to the composer.

“These are heroes in their early twenties and it makes it very special to focus on their youth, risking so much peril, and Jack is in every shot. I wanted us to feel this deep energy that he had in his gut. Something that you can’t see but is powerful because this young man could run a very long distance and always had this drive to keep pushing.”

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