Interview in Cannes: 'The Tree of Life' Composer Alexandre Desplat
by Alex Billington
May 27, 2011
Every once in a while I get a rare opportunity to interview a person I consider a true genius. I'm an admirer of movie scores and my very favorite composer is Alexandre Desplat, of lots of scores like Syriana, The Queen, Golden Compass, Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Un Prophet, Fantastic Mr. Fox, New Moon, The Ghost Writer, The King's Speech, and finally Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, plus A Better Life, Ides of March and Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 coming up. I met with Desplat on the beach at the Cannes Film Festival the day I saw The Tree of Life for an in-depth chat on scores and inspirations.
I recorded the audio at the interview and this is my transcription, best we could get it, since he has a very heavy French accent. It's interesting speaking to a composer because it's a challenge to figure out what to ask, especially right after seeing something as abstract as Tree of Life. But I decided to cover not only his inspirations for scores, specifically Tree of Life, but how they came about and how he crafts them. I think we get into a few great topics, and I hope you enjoy this interview with the one-and-only Alexandre Desplat.
Directly to the right-> is a sampler for Alexandre Desplat's The Tree of Life score. I suggest you play the music (with headphones) while reading through this interview, as it'll add some great background to go along with the answers!
My first question: how do you choose the projects you work on? Or I guess I would ask, do they choose you?
Desplat: Every film is a human encounter. It's people trying to collaborate and create something together. And I'm one of these many people. So the first thing is to try and be able to work with people that you admire, people that you think you can be elevated by. And Terrence [Malick] is one of them. He's a director who's… not only because he's a legendary director because he stopped working, just because his work is incredibly different and spectacular. He's got his own voice that looks like nobody else.
So it's this kind of desire that would make me tremble for a movie. So when it's Terrence Malick or Roman Polanski or Stephen Frears who calls me, I can't say no, because I've admired their cinema and I've always been thrilled by the way they use music in their films. It was, of course, a long way before getting near to these directors. And on this long journey you meet other directors, you meet editors, you meet producers and people you bond with. So when they come to you with a project, even if it's not really a legendary director, you want to work with these people that you like and who like you.
So it's also the meeting of working with people you like or you would like to meet or people whose projects resonate in you, because that's also crucial for inspiration. So it's a meeting of all those things that make it possible. And when I think a project is not for me or a relationship with a director is not for me, I try to avoid it. I've got my own personality and I'm not sure I can work with everyone on every project. There's some things I wouldn't do.
Do you find it daunting to work with someone like Terrence Malick who has films that have iconic scores from composers like Ennio Morricone? Is it a daunting task approaching this kind of film?
Desplat: Of course it is. It is, it is. When my cell phone… When I entered Terry's number in my cell phone and for the first time it rang one day and I saw his name, I was not sure it was my cell phone ringing. So it is daunting, of course. But he's a very kind man, and very savvy, very curious. So after a while you just write and… the deal was very stressful, as you know, we delivered the music before. So after a while you just send in music with no limits. We kind of create a bridge between each other. And you have to trust him, he has to trust you. So after a while the way of his legend vanishes a bit.
You said you created the music for this film before it was shot?
Desplat: Before it was edited…
Did you have the chance to come back once it was edited or did you just hand it over to Malick and let him work with it from that point on?
Desplat: I did! But when I did, my last session with him it was still being edited. I never saw the film. I have no idea. I'll see it tonight [in Cannes at the premiere] for the first time. I've seen little bits and pieces. You know, one scene here, one scene there. I never saw it.
Do you wish you could have more control over the final cut of your music in a film?
Desplat: No. I trust that the director has this ability. It is his piece of work and you have to give him… you know, the DP gives him the images, the editor helps him in editing, the sound design… It's a collaborative craft, a work of art. And I'm just one of many… and… no.
For example, Maurice Jarre told me very early in my career to never go to the dubbing theater, which, of course, I followed. I never go there because I know it's the worst thing, because it would be very difficult for me to hear that the music is not at the right level or being chopped up, or whatever is happening there. You have to trust that the sound engineer, the mixing engineers, and the director will do the best choice. That's the only thing you can hope for. It's not in my hands.
With Tree of Life, I felt there were various segments of the film that individually had their own theme. I'm wondering if that was your approach, at this point of the film during this part of the story, the creation of the universe piece, each would have its own theme.
Desplat: Yeah, there was a kind of a roadmap to have a theme for the kids, for Hunter, the boy, who is fantastic in the film, a theme for the father, a theme for the love that the mother is delivering to the children, a theme that would be river-like, like the storyline, that would follow the storyline that life goes on, a theme for the temptation, a theme for the darkness when a child's innocence is being jeopardized.
So yes, there were many themes. But I had no idea what the chronology would be. So it was, again, ideas, colors I would throw to Terrence and he would say, “Oh yes, I like this. Oh, this I don't like. Or maybe it should be more this, some of that.” We would exchange like that for months and months, almost two years, maybe more.
I noticed there were a lot of choral pieces in it, and also piano pieces, which I felt related to Brad Pitt's character playing the organ. Where did the inspiration for those individual sounds come from?
Desplat: Well, obviously the religious world in which the father is living is very strong. He's in a very strong religiously based education and the education he gives to his children is very religious based. And therefore, since he plays, at the church organ and piano at home, we had to be aware of that in the score. I could not go too far away from that… I had to take that into the equation. I had to think about that, that there would be, at some point, some connections between the classical pieces and my score.
How do you determine what instruments and what sort of sounds to use for particular films or particular themes?
Desplat: Actually, that's one thing that I love particularly is the orchestration. I love to… I think composing is not only the thinking and building an arc and developing, but it's also creating a sound. And each movie is different. And each director has his own sensitivity in terms of sounds and music. And I have to adapt to that. And I try very early in the process to find a sound that belongs to the film.
If on The King's Speech the piano appeared very early because of the various pieces, classical pieces that were in the film, and because we decided the piano was the most evocative for the king's character. On some other movies I would not use the piano. It happens that on the Terrence Malick's movie there is piano. But most of the music is very transparent, floating, eerie, with a lot of plays. And the sound that I created for Terrence is very unique. I think it belongs to this film and not to any other film. I can't think of any other films… The violin played by Dominique here, this piece with the violin is very strange; a several multi-track violin piece. It is also very special, very unique. I never did that before in a film.
So it's always trying to give an identity to each film and not just repeating the same colors again and again. Of course I've got my taste and the instruments that I like. But still, I try to twist them in a way that's different each time.
How do you differentiate yourself every time making a new score? Do you ever re-listen to some of your past scores again?
Desplat: Never. I never listen back. I hate it. I find everything awful and really miserable. [Laughs] So I don't. What I do is… the only thing that I find is always listen to a lot of different things, from Imogen Heep, to Stravinsky, or Jopin or Bill Evans again and again. Or recently I was listening again to Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet to Alexander Nevsky.
So I just try to keep myself in a very agitated musical world. But the key is not to do twice in a row the same kind of film. And if you look at my filmography, I never do twice… It's rare that in a year I would do several romantic comedies or several thrillers or several action movies, which I don't do much anyway. Or let's say fantasy movies…
What about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Don't you have two of those?
Desplat: That's true! That's an accident of life. And it's the same thing with things recurring… So it's actually the best way for me to do that, to escape from repetition, is to go different ways. And when I do The Queen for Stephen Frears and then Cheri or Tamara Drew, it's three very different movies, and I think the scores are very different. So even with the same director you can do some things which are very different.
Do you like to challenge yourself in creating a score that you would not say is your own sound? To you, something that you've never done before?
Desplat: That's the idea, yes. I hope to do that as much as I can. When I did The Ghost Writer I had never used two bass clarinets, and a double-bass clarinet, and four flutes singing. I had never done that before. So not every director and not every film allows that. Some films push you back into the frame, or directors, and that's the way it is, and you have to deal with it. As soon as the frame can expand, like with Terrence or Roman or Stephen Frears, that's really great. Or even on Harry Potter by using the Shakuhachi, it makes no sense. It's not in Japan. This instrument is there and it creates a color that is nothing Japanese, but is part of the sound that I can create for the film.
What kind of discussions do you have with filmmakers, especially someone like Terrence Malick, when you are working on this kind of film?
Desplat: That's very strange because we don't talk much about the music itself, especially with Terrence. He's a scientist; he knows everything about everything. [Laughs]
Well it's intriguing to hear this because we don't get so much of him in the public.
Desplat: Yeah. He's a scientist. He knows everything about astronomy, ontology, German philosophy, English literature, French philosophy, French literature. We can talk about Mozart, Beethoven, Rambaud whatever. It's wide open. There's no specific way of working.
And actually, I like directors who do that. Like Peter Webber on The Girl with a Pearl Earring - we spoke about art, about many other things, not only the music. Jacques Audiard (Un Prophete) the same. It's very, actually, inspiring to open the range of discussions to other notions, not just music, but just make it a really wide, artistic scan of our passions.
Do you find yourself inspired by other music or do you find yourself more inspired by other elements that are not musical?
Desplat: I'm very inspired by what is visual. It could be cinema, paintings, video. I'm very much into this… I have a strong relationship through my eyes. My emotions go a lot through the eyes. I guess that's why I work for the cinema, because it inspires me. It's always inspired me, even before I decided to become a composer. Since the day I decided to become a composer it was always for movies, never for anything else.
There's that, the video, but there's also the stories which resonate in me. They have a strong social content, many layers. I like stories which are not too simplistic. I like stories which have some kind of different levels of readings that can really be more complex. And sometimes I just need silence to put all these things together. So the silence and the vision make it the strongest thing for me.
Are you inspired by other composers? Which composers have you been inspired by the most in your life, if any?
Desplat: There's many, of course. It's a very wide range. And that's also why I like to do soundtracks, because I can mix all these passions that I have. There's no doubt that the composers for cinema were very strong in building my esthetic. But the French composers of the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th, of course Claude Debussy and Messiaen. And I've had a very strong connection with Mozart always, but not very much into the romantic.
Funny enough, I read here and there that my music is sometimes romantic, but I don't listen to romantic music at all. And in terms of diversity, I've been a big, big jazz fan. I really, really studied jazz a lot and played a lot of jazz, from Duke Ellington, to Miles Davis and Bill Evans. I wanted to play trumpet when I was a child because my father was listening to Armstrong. But I played a lot of music at events where we played bossa nova. I know that music very well.
I lived in the Caribbean when I was a teenager, so I learned about Salsa and Cha-Cha and all these Latin Afro-Cuban music like Gillespie and Duke Ellington, also bridged with Jazz. But my mother is Greek, and so I've also listened a lot to Greek music. And through the years to Balcanic music to Arabic music because my father loved music from Egypt. I'm really open to the whole world of music. So the influences are various and very… there's a lot of them.
Would you ever consider doing work outside of cinema, whether it be operas, or stage, or even albums and getting a band together again?
Desplat: I would love to, actually. I don't know if I would write an opera, maybe because of the words. But yes, I would be really excited to do it. I would certainly write a ballet or… I've done a lot of stage before. I've studied music since I was really young.
And yes, actually, an album would be fantastic. I would love to do that and bring in soloists that I admire and love and write for them and have them perform. That would be fantastic.
You said you don't listen to your own scores, but do you follow the reactions at all? Do you read anything about them? Do you listen in to what people are saying about them?
Desplat: Yea, there is no way you can get away from critics. It's all over the net. Sometimes it's useful to read things, good or bad. Sometimes it's painful. Sometimes it stupid because they say stupid things. Like you read that it's a great scene, people love your music in the scene in Birth when Nicole Kidman is at the opera and she is listening to Wagner and people think it's my music. It's certainly embarrassing. I like that people think I write as good as Wagner, but… it's part of the game.
I try not to be to… I always try to… Even the painful ones I try to understand and make it into a positive thing. You know, understand that maybe there is something I could… there's maybe something right even if it's wrong. If it resonates that way for someone, then that may be something to think about. I can be humbled always. And the great masters I've met from David Raksin to Henry Mancini, and Maurice Jarre, they were very humble. So I would be stupid to not be that way, too.
Thank you to Fox Searchlight for arranging the interview, and to Mr. Desplat for his time. It was truly an honor to speak with him. The Tree of Life will hit limited theaters this weekend.