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A Minute With: Composer Alexandre Desplat on the art of scoring film

Composer Alexandre Desplat arrives at the 2013 Critic's Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California in this file photo taken January 10, 2013.
Composer Alexandre Desplat arrives at the 2013 Critic's Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California in this file photo taken January 10, 2013.

By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As a teenage cineaste and budding musician Alexandre Desplat had a habit of devouring as many movies as he could in a week around his regimen of schoolwork and flute practice.

But it was not until the French composer, who earned his sixth Oscar nomination last month for the film "Philomena," began discovering the music in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut and Francis Ford Coppola did he consider film scoring a real job to which he could aspire.

Now Desplat, 52, is one of the most in-demand composers in the film industry, scoring movies as diverse as mega-blockbusters in the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series to dramas like "The King's Speech" and Wes Anderson's comedies.

The composer's work will also be featured in Anderson's oddball murder-mystery "The Grand Budapest Hotel" that will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on Thursday and George Clooney's World War Two drama "The Monuments Men," which gets its North American release on Friday.

Desplat, who typically splits his time between Los Angeles and Paris, spoke to Reuters about composing a score for a film that can stand on its own, how Judi Dench helped guide one of his compositions and getting inside of Anderson's head.

Q: What's the first thing you do when you sit down to compose?

A: I don't sit down. Sometimes I just walk, like I'm doing now. Sometimes I'm on a plane or on a train or on my Vespa in Paris. I always tend to think that composing is not playing an instrument, composing is having something in your head that's steaming and it has to go out. It has to become sounds and be written. It's an emotion that you can't repress.

Q: Do you start working with the script or the early cuts of the film you are given?

A: The script is a good guide because it gives you the subject. You can say it resonates with you or it has a story that you've never scored before but it's still paper and ink. It's not yet images. ... I have to wait until the movie has some sort of shape. That's when my imagination starts to be struck by moving images because only the image can show you what the music can add to what is already on screen.

Q: What was your focus scoring "Philomena," a story about an Irish woman searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier?

A: If I had just composed the script I might have written a very tragic, dark, extremely sad music. But when I saw the cut and the intensity that Judi Dench brings to the character, and the way she has this restrained pain, sense of loss and forgiveness, the music has to shine as much as she shines. Otherwise, the music would drag her down. So this absolutely enlightened performance, when you look at all the close-ups of Judi Dench, the music has to emphasize that and respect that in a way that the script would not have given me.

Q: How do you approach writing music for films as idiosyncratic as Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel"?

A: Wes' movies are of another world. They come from Wes' world, which is a very specific and special work of his own. ... Musically we enter in another dimension, a fifth dimension. So I use my imagination in the same way that he does and try and create first an instrumentarium - a bunch of instruments that would be toys that we play together - and then we decide together if it's a dark melody, a happy melody, no melody ... but again it's very much the picture we work with because Wes' directing is very precise, very detailed. And the music has to be as precise as the picture.

Q: How has film composing changed in the past decade?

A: It seems sometimes that after more than 600 years of sophisticated, extremely scientific and incredible music, there's a kind of a laziness in what I hear in many movies now. Don't get me wrong. It doesn't have to be a big score. It can be very minimal. ... But it's just a matter of sophistication and craft. I would say for the last 10 years it's lost that a bit. There's always a wave like this. When synthesizers appeared everyone was a composer suddenly ... It kind of went away but now it's coming back because of (computer programs) Garage Band and Logic. And so now anyone can be a composer because you can buy a keyboard and a computer and just put things together. But putting things together doesn't give you a mind and a storyline and something that's interesting.

Q: Do you believe film scores can stand on their own as art without the movie as an accompaniment?

A: Of course! That's what I've dreamed of since I wanted to do that job. I wanted to be a film composer because I heard scores that could stand alone, from "Vertigo" to "Star Wars" to "La Dolce Vita," because this music has so much history. They're weighed with the history of music. They come from somewhere, they have a past.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)

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