For the busiest man in movies, life during quarantine hasn’t been all that different from the way it was before. Taking a rare break from work in order to field a phone call from his recording studio in the heart of Paris, ultra-prolific composer Alexandre Desplat admitted that he’s been undeterred by the global shutdown: “It’s been very quiet in the streets, and it’s sad not to see my friends, but aside from that things have actually been almost the same as normal for me. I’ve still been able to go to the studio — every day I am here!”
Desplat never slows down, even when the world stands still. You wouldn’t expect anything less from someone who’s scored at least 70 different films since he broke into the English-language market with “Birth” in 2004 (he’d previously written music for “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and several high-profile French hits, but the delirious waltzes he orchestrated for Jonathan Glazer’s drama established him as a major force on the international stage). Desplat’s range and virtuosity is unrivaled in modern cinema — who else could score “The Tree of Life” and a “Harry Potter” movie in the same year? — and much of his finest work has managed to outlast the films that inspired it (e.g. the lusty and febrile music he layered over “The Painted Veil,” or the suite of seductive intrigue he contributed to the similarly underrated “Lust, Caution”).
But it’s Desplat’s bone-deep love of cinema that keeps him going, and has pushed him to collaborate with so many of today’s most notable auteurs. Even a tiny sampling of his CV includes the likes of David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), Matteo Garrone (“Tale of Tales”), and Tom Hooper (not “Cats.” ). And because of the speed at which he works — in addition to the eagerness with which he stretches himself — Desplat has managed to become the go-to guy for several iconoclastic filmmakers at the same time. Paul Thomas Anderson has Jonny Greenwood, and Barry Jenkins has Nicholas Britell, but Guillermo del Toro, George Clooney, Jacques Audiard, and Wes Anderson all have Alexandre Desplat.
And Alexandre Desplat has all of them, which has come in handy at a time when so many people (in the film industry and far beyond) have been stripped of their purpose. Having recently completed work on Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” the relentless composer was involved with at least two other movies when the pandemic first crept across the Western world. The most urgent of those: Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky,” a Netflix feature adapted from a Lily Brooks-Dalton novel about an Arctic scientist trying to stop a group of astronauts from coming back to a ruined world. “I was very lucky,” Desplat said, “because George had just finished editing his film and was ready for me to start scoring, so the timing was perfect.” A process that started in Los Angeles is now being finished over the internet.
However, Desplat has devoted the brunt of his quarantine to another Netflix movie: Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio.” And it’s giving him a fresh challenge just when he needs it most: Songs. “Guillermo is very excited about the project, and what I’ve seen of the stop-motion animation is just beautiful,” Desplat said. “But for me it was really nice to be able to write songs for him. I wrote a lot of songs in France between 1985 and 2004 when I started doing movies in America, but after that I never had the opportunity. So this is a great film for me because there were seven or eight songs to write — it’s very difficult, but it helps when you have actors who can sing.” The cast includes Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, and Tilda Swinton.
As thrilled as Desplat has been to carve out some extra time for “Pinocchio,” he’s also devastated not to be in Cannes right now, where Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” was due to premiere before the festival was indefinitely postponed. If it’s possible for anything to sadden the composer more than losing out on the French Open — where his “favorite player of many years” Rafael Nadal was scheduled to win his 13th championship — it’s not having the chance to premiere Anderson’s latest on the Croisette. “I saw the finished version of ‘The French Dispatch’ quite a while ago, and it’s just amazing,” Desplat said of the forthcoming Searchlight release, which has been described as “a love letter to journalists set at an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional 20th century city.” Desplat kept gushing: “It’s so incredibly strong and different… the way that Wes is expanding his talents to another dimension with each film is just wow. This one is incredible. It’s beautiful. It’s fun, it’s mad, it’s everything.”
From Desplat’s perspective, “The French Dispatch” is also the most ambitious thing that Anderson has ever done. “Maybe even bigger than ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel,’” he said. “More stories, different locations, and so many ideas in every shot. So many! Wes’ brain is going so fast.” Desplat said that he found the script to be Dadaist in its construction, referencing the avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century that rejected logic, reason, aesthetic uniformity, not to mention pretty much everything else that Wes Anderson holds sacred. “Though the film is not at all set in that time period, the vibe is very Dadaist,” Desplat said. “The movement started in Switzerland but it blossomed in France very quickly, and to go back to it meant that I had Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and a great deal of music that I could refer to in order to make sure that we were in the zone of that Dadaist mood.”
Desplat was reluctant to reveal any more about the film — even demurring as to whether or not the script’s three main storylines overlap — but he did call special attention to some of the cast. “The performances in a Wes Anderson movie are always more like an ensemble,” he said. “We have that again, but here there are also really great solos and duets. Adrien Brody, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux alone or with Benicio… there are such great moments.”
Even for a composer of Desplat’s caliber, however, things don’t always turn out so well; no one who attaches themselves to that many films could possibly avoid the odd misfire, and 11 Oscar nominations aren’t enough to ensure that even his best work is always appreciated. Marvel — a studio that has developed a slight reputation for firing geniuses — brought Desplat into the fold to compose the score for “Black Widow,” only to replace him with Lorne Balfe late into post-production. Desplat gave a clear “no comment” when it came to the finer points of what happened there (“I was attached to that movie, and then I was detached”), but it’s tempting to imagine the friction that might develop between a homogenous cinematic monolith and a composer who once compared himself to a kite: “If you hold the strings too much I can’t fly.”
Desplat himself doesn’t always know which way the wind will blow, and that’s just how he likes it. He typically boards a project late in its production and refuses to start writing music until a cut of the movie is already in the can, at which point he only has six weeks or so to work his magic. “I need to see the film first,” he said. “A script is just paper; there are no camera moves, no actors, no lights. There’s some emotion, perhaps, but what works for me are the images. Sometimes a director thinks that if I start work a year before my brain will be so much better, but no, I like to work fast. I need to be involved and swim with the fish, not sit by the pool for too long.”
Desplat insists that even now, with over 100 credits to his career, he’s still white-knuckling his way through every assignment. “I’m scared each time I start a movie, believe me,” he said. “There’s always a moment of panic when you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to meet the deadline. We have this wall screaming towards us quicker and quicker and we have to be ready to jump over it at the right moment, which is just before the mix of the film. But those who have no fear… I’m not sure they can make great work. Without fear you can’t explore or push yourself beyond what you’ve done.”
Desplat has always responded to artists who’ve gone against the grain and explored the outer limits of their own talent. He had just relocated his studio when IndieWire spoke to him, and was relishing in the opportunity to bust out some vinyl records by the musicians who’ve inspired him. His quarantine faves include the “brass and bamboo” stylings of Japanese-American jazz giant Tak Shindo, a truly wild arrangement of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” by Don Sebesky, and the Brazilian singer-songwriter Céu. On the movie side of things, he’s rediscovered Blake Edwards’ submarine comedy “Operation Petticoat” (a childhood favorite), and watched “Eyes Wide Shut” for the first time since its release in 1999 (“There’s nothing scandalous about it!” he scoffed at the media’s prudish response to Stanley Kubrick’s posthumous masterpiece). He implored IndieWire readers to seek out the post-war Italian films of the ’50s and ’60s by the likes of Rossellini and Visconti, directors who Desplat is pained he will never get to work alongside — he’ll never get to know the composer he might have become with their encouragement.
Not that he’s complaining about the collaborators he’s got now, or how they’ve tapped in to the unknown depths of his talent. “I am so fortunate to have directors like Wes or George or Guillermo who are so eager for you to go further than you ever have before,” Desplat said. “With them, I can try different things, and hopefully with the same integrity as the music I’ve written before. I can be afraid and free at the same time.” These days, we should all be so lucky.
Searchlight plans to release “The French Dispatch” in theaters on October 16. Netflix will release “The Midnight Sky” and “Pinocchio” in 2020 and 2021, respectively.