In an era of percussive, growling, exhilarating Zimmer-esque film scores, it can be refreshing to hear a score with a lighter touch. Light, but also intentional, meticulous, and whimsical. Alexandre Desplat, one of the most prolific and decorated film composers of our time, brings together the minimalist, the classical, the quirky, and the Dada in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch.
A longtime partner of Anderson’s, composing the music for Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Grand Budapest Hotel (for which he won his first Oscar), Desplat knows how to inhabit the world of his films. In The French Dispatch, his score brings life to the fictional, Frenchy but not quite French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé.
We got the chance to sit down with Desplat and talk about his partnership with Anderson, his influences for the film, and the idea of an American dream of France.
Emilia Yu: Can you tell me a little bit about the kind of initial process for composing the score? You’ve obviously worked with Wes Anderson a lot. At what stage did you come on?
Alexandre Desplat: I always receive the script rather early on, which allows my brain to subconsciously work while I’m doing another score or two or three. And then I watch the film and start giving motifs, themes, melodies to Wes. Usually we try and get together the instruments that we want to use, depending on the film. Once we have the musical colors, instrumentation, I can start writing and playing what I’ve written. He comes to my studio for a few hours, gives me notes, then he goes back to the editing room and reorganizes the music. So that’s why when you see a Wes Anderson film, you see that the music is totally interweaving with the editing and the pace of the film.
EY: You mentioned choosing the instruments at the start of the process. A lot of the score seems very piano based, but there’s a wide range of instruments that have their moments and pop in and out, like harp, harpsichord, banjo, tuba. How did you decide on those?
AD: There’s always something on the shelves, the banjo, or the mandolin, that we feel we just have to use that we bring into the equation. Yes, the piano is the center for the film because it’s a very active score, especially in the second, third, and fourth act. But in the first act, when we see the painter, the crazy painter in the prison who does abstract paintings. It’s a vast, silent room. He doesn’t talk much so we didn’t want anything that would be too sophisticated or too organized or with too many instruments. And the situation is kind of crazy. He’s painting a naked woman, that’s his model. And this model is not actually a model. She’s a guard. If the music was all over the place, you could not process what is happening in the story and on the screen. The piano is just there because it allows the silence to exist.
EY: The music feels very meticulous, like the movie. There’s no extra stuff. There’s a lot of moving parts, but nothing’s slipping under the radar.
AD: Yes, absolutely. It was to the bone. There’s no flesh, there’s nothing. Everything’s crystal clear. And this piano is the element that takes us to the other stories. And we add whatever instruments on top, you know, the harpsichord, as you said, the tuba and banjo.
EY: I read that one of your influences for this was Erik Satie. And that’s definitely present. You can really hear that minimalist, wandering sound. I’d love to hear your other influences, or how you’ve been influenced by this work?
AD: When I first read the script, it felt very influenced by Dada. I mean, this thing with the painter, the guards, it’s very provocative and you can be free, fun, sarcastic, but you’re still creating an artwork that was very Dadaist. And to me, that composer is very Dada. That’s why there’s some also some solo piano. There’s something about the provocative human that Satie was, and maybe that’s there in the score. But it’s also playful, with more instruments, unexpected structure, instruments that drop or appear suddenly.
EY: The playfulness is definitely there. And there’s also this nostalgia which I think runs through a lot of Wes’ filmography and the scores that you’ve written with him. There’s this kind of longing for a different era. Does that resonate with you?
AD: Behind the extravaganza and the virtuosity of Wes’ directing, the subjects are always rather deep – if you look at Moonrise Kingdom, or Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Grand Budapest, there’s something always dark. I mean, French Dispatch starts with the death of a man. And though everything seems jaunty and light and happy, it’s like a creative veil that hides the darkness of the story. I think I’m inspired by that. I’m inspired by this poetic language that Wes has invented.
EY: This film is obviously very French, or at least it’s French-inspired. It’s set in this fictional town, which is kind of how Americans might see France or Paris. As a French citizen yourself, what did you think of that concept?
AD: I knew that when Wes was shooting in France, it wouldn’t be the real France. It would be through his eyes and through his mind. And his mind is very special. I mean, it’s France and it’s Wes, on his planet. And he has a very, very, very special planet. His films show that he has a world of his own imagination. Yes, there are some references to French great artists, but if you look at the buildings, the clothing, yes it looks French, but there’s something different. It’s just a little bit off.
The great talent of Wes was to not try to imitate a French film. And I’ve seen many directors try to imitate American movies, or dream of doing a movie in America. And most of the time, it doesn’t work. You have to do what you know; you have to be yourself. You can’t just try and imitate or come close to what an American or French or Japanese film is. You have to come with your vision of what it is. It has to go through your filter. And that’s what Wes did. I think he really swallowed all these influences and then he created something else with it.