54 Small Talk On the eve of his first concert in Hong Kong, Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat reveals the joys and challenges of performing for a crowd
W hat do quirky comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, dramatic biopic The King’s Speech and thriller Zero Dark Thirty have in common? Aside from the fact that they all won Academy Awards, their scores were written by Alexandre Desplat. The French-greek composer has been making audiences smile, laugh and cry for the past 30 years with the music he has written for more than 170 films. As he prepares for two concerts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Desplat explains his creative process and reveals why he loves Star Wars.
When a director approaches you, what’s the first thing you do?
I read the script, of course, which can decide if I’m inspired by the story and the narrative. Sometimes I’m called when the movie is almost completed and in the editing room. For example, for The King’s Speech, the editing was over when I was called in. Same for The Queen and The Shape of Water. Some movies are really ready to go [when I begin composing], which is always better for me because the movie has found its final balance, shape, energy and pace, and I can just surf on it.
You recently wrote the score for your first western, The Sisters Brothers, which is rumoured to be in the running for the Oscars. Was it challenging to compose for a western?
It was quite a challenge to keep myself away from clichés and try to proceed differently than if I was just mimicking what Leonard Bernstein or Bruce Broughton or Bob Dylan or Neil Young have been doing before me. I had to get rid of the reference of a western and try to transpose the story into another world. Get rid of the horses and hats and the story could be a film noir, it could be a detective story. The score is about a kind of dark fairy tale with killers chasing each other and finding treasure.
What sparked your interest in composing for cinema?
I think it was when I was watching Italian movies. Fellini movies with Nino Rota’s music, and all of these French movies I could see on TV, Francois Truffaut’s films with scores by Georges Delerue. Then there was this striking moment when I heard the score of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown by Jerry Goldsmith. And another very strong one was John Williams’ Star Wars. John Williams understood all the music of the 20th century and all composers— from Stravinsky to Ravel to Debussy—and digested all of that into one single sound. I was so impressed by that. I was 15 or 16.
Composing for film involves lots of work in a studio. Does performing your music for a live audience—as you’ll be doing in Hong Kong—excite you?
It’s a great pleasure because in a studio my only audience is the musicians I’m conducting and the few people in the control room: the director, the producer, Dominique “Solrey” Lemonnier—who’s my artistic director and will be with me in Hong Kong. Before performing live, I try to modify what has to be modified from the studio sound to the orchestral sound. The music I write seems quite simple, it’s very transparent, you can hear every line very clearly, so it seems simple when you read it on paper, but when you play it live you realise how difficult it is because everything can be heard. The third flute can be heard, the trumpet that plays bar 55 for three bars has a solo that will be very precise and can be heard. It’s not simple to play live because it’s as transparent as a tree in winter—you can’t hide behind the leaves. But we’ll get there—i’m very excited to play with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Alexandre Desplat performs with the Hong Kong Philharmonic on January 4 and 5, 2019. Tickets can be booked at hkphil.org