French film composer Alexandre Desplat is responsible for the soundtracks of some of the biggest films of the past few years, including Twilight: New Moon, The King’s Speech, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (parts one and two) and, more recently, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game.
His latest project saw him writing the music for Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken, which comes out on Boxing Day. We talk to him about what makes a film stand out to him and what it was like working with Jolie.
What made Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken stand out as a film you wanted to work on?
I didn’t know about the main character of the film, the American Second World War prisoner Louis Zamperini, until I received the script. When I discovered what he went through it was hard to believe that this was a true story. I found it very exciting – I have never made a story about a hero like this. The way Angelina presented it was interesting – she wanted to make it more of a spiritual journey than a tale of bravery and action in war; it’s more about resilience and how one man tries to survive.
What style of music lends itself to this kind of plot?
The music in my score is very epic, but I have made sure that it never gets in the way of the plot. As a film composer I try never to manipulate a scene or alter it with something too big and loud – it’s about trying to give the film a human side. That’s what we want to hear in Unbroken – what Zamperini is feeling. It’s him we have to follow and to empathise with. I have included plenty of silence in the score to respect what he is going through.
When you start working on a film, what process do you go through as a composer?
The first question you ask yourself is ‘am I needed and what can I bring to this film that is not already in the script?’. It’s your duty as a film composer to try and offer the director some option that he or she may not yet have thought about. It could be the placement of the music, the type of orchestration you use, the themes you create for characters or situations, and whether or not the music is big or small – all these questions are important. On some films you can work really closely with the director, which is something I particularly like. If I didn’t like collaborating with directors I suppose I would be out of a job.
Do you usually have a sense of what you want to do with a film right away?
Not always. It’s a bit like making a sculpture. You’ve found a beautiful bit of marble in a quarry somewhere and realise that you can do something with it. But when you have the huge block delivered to your workshop, you realise you only have three weeks or so to sculpt it into something meaningful. Sometimes it occurs to me that I could have had an easier life and stayed at home instead of composing. But while there may be this moment of uncertainty, there is also this wonderful chance to create something, so you take your tools and start hitting and hope to hit it in the right place, making sure any mistakes can be repaired.
What is Angelina Jolie like to work with?
Angelina loves the collaboration process with film composers. She likes the idea that composers suggest things and view things in new ways to give her new options. She’s smart enough and generous enough to do that. She also has a great instinct and is brilliant at bringing you towards the target she has been aiming at for months and years, while still respecting your decisions. We sat down together every day to work on the soundtrack for Unbroken. When I talk to directors I like to show them what I have put down and then we adjust and correct and improve things until we have found the right balance.
You’re conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in music from several of your films, including Harry Potter, The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel, this Thursday. How do you go about condensing whole film scores into pieces for the concert hall?
You have to include the music which has more substance and which at the same time resonates most in the memory of the people who have seen these films. I also always include music that will be a good challenge for an orchestra. I want to make sure that when I raise my arms in front of the LSO they enjoy playing my music and not just humouring me by playing it!
LSO on Film: The Magic and Majesty of Alexandre Desplat takes place on Thursday 11 December at 7.30pm Barbican Hall, London. Visit barbican.org.uk for more information
Unbroken will be out in cinemas on Boxing Day