French film composer Alexandre Desplat is, with no exaggeration, a legend in his field. He’s scored almost 150 films – nine this year alone, including Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Moonrise Kingdom — and received four Academy Award nominations, five BAFTA nominations, five Golden Globe nominations, and two Grammy nominations. His body of work includes such lauded films as The King’s Speech, The Tree of Life, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Part 2.
His latest film, DreamWorks Animation’s Rise of the Guardians, posed an interesting melodic challenge, as it’s a children’s movie that pits classic icons of childhood (Santa Claus, Jack Frost, Sandman, Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny) against evil.
Spinoff Online talked with Desplat about his collaboration with Rise of the Guardians director Peter Ramsey, how the film’s stunning 3D animation convinced him to accept the job, the differences (and similarities) between scoring live-action and animation, and which directors he’d love to work with.
You’re a busy guy – that’s putting it lightly. You’ve composed for just about every genre of film. So how do you tackle a children’s movie as opposed to, say, a Zero Dark Thirty or a Tree of Life?
Certainly Zero Dark Thirty is not for children! [laughs] This film has a lot of soul. Even though it’s an animation movie, I think of it as a live-action film because Peter Ramsey directed it as a live-action film. And so the characters built by William Joyce have a lot of density, they’re not transparent. They’re very wisely crafted, in terms of human beings. So that gave me a great opportunity to bounce and just infuse music to that. It’s happened to me — you go into a movie and unfortunately there’s no density in the characters. And it can be a live-action movie, funnily enough. And you try to whoosh through the music, and it doesn’t work.
That’s an interesting point you bring up — the density of a character being your jumping-off point.
Of course, because if there’s nothing to vibrate with, it will not work. The music will not be part of the film. When I saw King’s Speech, it was obvious. These two characters, they vibrate. They have so much weight. And very early on in the film, you don’t have to wait until the end of the film, it’s just there — and so the music can just come around them, swirling around these characters. I’m into the film, I’m not distant.
With Rise of the Guardians specifically, you have this group of characters — almost like a team of superheroes — to work with, and it struck me that you had a bit of a different soundtrack for each character.
Yes, it’s kind of a tradition to have themes by characters. But not always; sometimes in the film, we decide that it’s not the character, it’s the situation that’s more important. But actually, yeah, I open the film with showing all the themes of the characters … like an overture, like an opera. Like Wagner would do. So that’s where we started, trying to frame every character with his own soul, his own dreams, his own fears, and his own emotions.
What inspiration did you use for each character? Were you given key words by Peter Ramsey and the producers?
There are always key words. When we talk about Jack [Frost], he likes to have fun, but he’s very insecure because he doesn’t know where he comes from, he’s not a Guardian, he’s invisible — he can’t be seen by the kids. He’s a suffering character. He’s in pain despite his happiness. So that’s something you have to find — you have to find the theme that will capture both sides of his character. For Sandman, he’s a gentle hero. I love Sandman — he’s my favorite character.
Maybe that’s because he doesn’t speak at all, so perhaps he gave you a different set of challenges when it came to speaking for him through his score?
Yeah, maybe! I can bring out more. I was mentioning King’s Speech, and with George VI the music expresses what he can’t express.
Yeah, with George VI it was his stutter. I can imagine that anything vocally uncommon, or the lack of vocals altogether, poses a really exciting opportunity for you.
Of course, you can bring out his emotions and his psychology and his fragility. And so, yeah, Sandman is sweet, and still he’s a great hero. He’s very brave.
You mentioned that scoring animation and live-action doesn’t really make a difference as far as the characters are concerned, but what about collaborating on the score when it comes to an animated versus live action film? Do you come into the process at a different time for one or the other, or is it dependent on the director and a particular film’s production?
Well, I was contacted very early on, and I saw the drawings of William Joyce to introduce me to the characters and who they were. And then I saw, a few months later, some of the 3D, which is incredible. And it’s the second meeting when I saw it in 3D that I decided to do it. Because it was so beautiful, there was no way I could not.
Wow, so the 3D was what sealed the deal? That’s very interesting!
Well, the characters, the team — these people who I could find so much involved in the creative process, with so much energy and positive energy, which is not always the case. Sometimes you go to a meeting and you go, “I don’t want to go there! I don’t want to spend three weeks, a month or two months of my life with these people. I prefer to stay home!” [laughs]
So in that vein, is it accurate to say that every project for you at this point in your career is a passion project?
It is, absolutely. Pure passion. And as you noticed, every one is different. So the real work started when the movie was almost finished. It took me three months from mid-June to mid-September.
How do you decide which instruments to use? Say, between orchestral strings or electric guitar, whether or not to infuse vocals?
Well, that’s my craft. That’s my imagination. My task is to present to the filmmakers a sound. And we all agreed from the beginning that it would be an orchestral score. But you notice that there’s no oboes, for example.
I also noticed that there’s something very classical about this score. It doesn’t have the guitar or synth-heavy pop riffs you sometimes expect of a more modern film, or a film catering to a younger audience. It really mirrors the fact that these characters are classic icons.
It doesn’t try to be hip, no. There was no room for pop instrumentation; it didn’t feel right. In Argo I use it a lot, in Zero Dark Thirty, but in this movie there was no point. They’re in a realistic environment. In Guardians we’re not in a realistic environment. Even though I say it looks like a live-action movie, it’s timeless. And these Guardians, they’re timeless, they’re forever.
You’ve worked with so many amazing filmmakers: Roman Polanski, Stephen Frears, David Fincher, Terrence Malick, David Yates, Wes Anderson. Is there anyone who’s still on your list that you’d really love to work with?
There’s many of them, are you kidding? [laughs] From the masters of the ‘70s like Scorsese or Coppola. Michael Mann. Of course, Paul Thomas Anderson is a fantastic director, James Grey. There’s many of them! Guillermo del Toro! [laughs]
Hey, you have the hook-up after Rise of the Guardians, since he produced. Speaking of Wes Anderson, are you going to be working with him again on Grand Budapest Hotel?
I think we should, yes. I can’t wait!
Rise of the Guardians is playing nationwide.