Alexandre Desplat shares anecdotes from his music making career including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Morning Becomes Eclectic.
Transcription: Jason Bentley with Alexandre Desplat
JB- Hello Sir.
JB- How are you?
AD-I'm very well thank you.
JB- You look like you're in the thick of things. Everything is moving around you.
AD- Yes, yes they should stop moving around me. Could you stop moving?
No, it's a great week.
JB- I'm sure, it's a very exciting time. You've got the big Golden Globes this coming Sunday here in Los Angeles. But thank you so much for taking the time to be here at KCRW. So The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, now this is just a magical story about a man who is born essentially at age 70 - he's born at 70- and he ages backwards. It is set in New Orleans and I believe in the late 1800's, the turn of the century, and it's about the passage of time and his life and loves and also his loneliness as a result of his exaggerated condition. What were some of the challenges approaching this as a composer and with music, because it is a very magical idea?
AD- Yes, well you know David Fincher is a director who has a very precise point of view on every aspect of his art history and the music is one of them, where he knows exactly where he doesn't want to go. And I think that was the first statement that he made -- that he didn't want the score to be overdramatic, overwhelming to the audience.
And I think that was the first direction we tried together to find both in the themes, the size of orchestra and how we could also shape the movie with music following the dramaturgy, without being to the nose or to obvious. We just gave sort of challenges I guess.
JB- Where did you personally go for inspiration because there are so many possibilities the script ,conversations with the director or even New Orleans which provides a backdrop. It is of course a very unique ,magical and spiritual kind of a place. But where did you start in your own mind?
AD- When you are composing, it is a very intuitive thing especially when you write for films. So I must say the many aspects that inspire me -- of course the colors that I see when I watch the first dailies or the first edit, but also the actors. The script by Eric Roth is taking you through a whole century -- not every movie can do that. It starts in 1919 until nowadays, or 2004 when Katrina is hitting New Orleans. And yes, it's set in New Orleans but not only in New Orleans because the character moves around the world -- first in a tugboat and then following Daisy to Paris, which is good for me. The inspiration is a very strange thing because it is also a match with what is playing into the picture. And as you said New Orleans being the central place, there is a lot of music coming out of the restaurants, the bars. Almost as much as there is score, there is source music jazz of the era.
But we also tried to avoid getting too close to that. We left the Jazz to the jazzers and the score to the score composer.
JB- There is a certain elegance and simplicity to this score which really plays well in the film. I wonder, how did you manage to capture the idea of time moving backwards? Did you try and grasp that musically?
AD- Yes, well there is this opening scene in the movie -- it's like a little sequence of its own -- where there is a clock smith who lost his son during WWI. (13:02)
JB- Mr. Gateau?
AD- Mr. Gateau. You might have recognized the voice actually. He has got a French accent if you noticed. He decides to change the way he was building his clock and he makes it going backwards hoping that maybe his son will come back from war if he reverses time. So, this whole idea of time reversing was ticking in my head and I just suggested to David that I could maybe try and find a tune, a little pattern, a little hook that could be played forwards and backwards and he said ‘Yeah, great, try’ -- which I did for a few hours and days. And I came up with this theme for Benjamin Button, for this character who is a very innocent, kind and generous character because whatever happens to him he is always benevolent to mankind. And I wrote this theme that can go forward and backwards.
JB- Shall we listen?
JB- This is Mr. Gateau the cue from the Benjamin Button soundtrack. A beautiful package here. Nicely done.
AD- Yes, very beautiful.
JB- It is a two-CD set. So, it's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Alexandre Desplat is my guest on KCRW.
(Mr. Gateau theme plays)
JB- It's music from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Alexandre Desplat is my guest in the studio and that was the cue Mr. Gateau. Your score is so listenable, which I can't always say about film scores. Many times, film scores don't make sense to me unless I'm seeing the picture. The arrangements and the instruments don't add up. But your approach seems to be more rooted in a musicality or a tradition perhaps connection to classical or jazz, that makes it very listenable.
AD- That is the best compliment you can say to me. The great composers I have admired and who I have hoped to come closer to in my musical education, all these great composers for films and all their films – they all have this musical quality that the music stands alone and that is always the goal that I try to achieve, to be able to write music for the movie, dedicated to the movie, but that can also be listenable.
I don't know if I can achieve that always, because some movies are not so easy to create a real musical piece for, but in that very case, yes there was such a huge opportunity and such a beautiful canvas to give colors to that it was possible, maybe it was easier to create a real piece of music.
JB- This next cue is one that really struck me in the theater, in the moment. There's an instrument, I think it's the French horn, I'm guessing. And it moves into the room and the space like an aroma, it just comes in. And it's the cue, "Meeting Daisy." This is when Benjamin first meets Daisy. At the time he is elderly. Daisy is a child and that melody, with the horn section, is just staggering.
AD- It's actually three flutes and three trumpets muted and of course they move through the room because they are on the left and right side of the orchestra. We tried to have this kind of magical left, right sensation almost as if the balance was moving from left to right. So you feel in balance, like they are like they feel in balance because there is something that strikes them. But you can't play your love theme there because she is a child and he is an old man. It would be really weird to have a big "da da da da" theme.
Maybe, you might have noticed that this theme -it's the first time we hear it- and it will become Daisy's theme. It's related to the same chords as Benjamin's theme, D major. It is the most Ellingtonian, the most inspired by the jazz of that era. Ellington, being one of my favorite composers of all time in jazz. But played with the orchestra it doesn't sound jazzy; of course, there is no rhythm section and the instrumentation is also hiding it's colors.
JB- It does have a jazz feeling to it. We'll also follow this with the next cue, "A New Life," where you interpret the same melody with different instruments and a different energy as Benjamin moves out into the world. So, here's music from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Alexandre Desplat is my guest on KCRW.
(A New Life plays)
JB- It’s the score for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Alexandre Desplat is my guest in the studio and that was another cue from the film score and I did drop a bit of dialogue in between those two cues, which was Benjamin himself.
AD- Yes, and I would like to just mention that it is Brad's voice even when the voice is a bit distorted and weird and he says "I am seven," that is Brad. And also Ren Klyce, who is the sound designer, who is fabulous, did a great job on Daisy's voice when she's a child. They also used Cate Blanchett voice and they tweaked the frequencies and it makes it so connected to the grown up character.
JB- So it's not just a visual manipulation.
AD- No. Everything is manipulated. That's what I like about this film. It's a fable, but after a while you forget everything. You think it's a real story, you’re following real characters. I think you lose the distance that you could have if it were a fable. There is no distance after a while; you are completely into the story.
JB- Well, I like how they ask you to suspend your disbelief and then just let the story play. The story being this wide-eyed journey is also a great romance between Benjamin and Daisy. And there is a point in the film when the two enjoy a kind of a golden age between them. They're very much in love, but ultimately they realize they're like ships passing in the night and so it's tragic. There are a couple of cues I wanted to play that touch on that and we have "Meeting Again" and follow that with "Nothing Lasts." So this really touches on their passionate relationship and how truly tragic it is.
AD- Yes, that's one of the most beautiful things about the film is that love cannot be achieved by Benjamin because all the people he likes or loves are just passing through. They're meeting him and they go in another direction. And Daisy -- who's the woman or the girl-- she's the love of his life, there are only a couple of moments in the movie where they'll be able to connect and be together, deeply, intensely and that was quite a challenge with David. We wondered how we could create this love story without being …
JB- Too over the top?
AD- Over the top and also, when can we do it? It's only at these two moments, so it had to be some kind of magic moments with the score so that it would really reflect this climax.
JB- Alexandre Desplat is my guest on KCRW.
("Meeting Again" and "Nothing Lasts" plays)
JB- It's nice to enjoy the stillness and the quiet. The score is The Curios Case of Benjamin Button; Alexandre Desplat is my guest in the studio. He's the composer for this film and that was a cue I wanted you to explain your method and your process there, as you were saying off mic. You kind of chose to reverse things or play things in a minor chord for the melody, but it is the same notes.
AD - Yes, it is the same notes playing backwards -- its first played forwards then backwards and in this very late cue in the end of the movie when, when Benjamin is dying away becoming a real child and fading away from life -- I just tried to change the chord and I was thinking about Cole Porter, you know from in one of these songs when he says its going from major to minor, and I just went to minor and to check how it worked and it worked pretty well so I decided to use the same melody but with the minor chords. I remember one thing the orchestra was fabulous and had marvelous musicians and one of them is the flute solo, Jim Walker, and I asked him a few times to try and get more emotions and he couldn't really grab it and so I stopped the orchestra and started explaining to him, showing him what was on screen, because you know the orchestra is not facing the screen when we are recording, they’re back is to the screen, they can’t see the action. And anyway they're watching their notes, they can’t really watch the movie and I insisted on him to take a break and watch and explain to him that this was a baby dying away in the arms of the love of his life and he went back on stage and he made a fabulous performance with the flute. As you might know I was a flute player and was very picky about that and so everything took place, the theme going backwards and the minor chords and the fabulous flute solo.
JB - Do you find that you have to coach the musicians in orchestra like you have just described?
AD - You always have to, you come with your own little world and you have to bring them to your world… you have to bring them into your own obsessions and in my case not too much vibrato, intonation should be perfect, because the music I write is very much like a chamber music even though it is a big orchestra there is many soloists, many things occur, it is rarely a broad massive ensemble, its mostly transparent…
JB- And when you say chamber music you mean the intimacy?
AD- Yes, and the preciseness, the precision of everything -- could it be the ensemble or the intonation? It has to be perfect. So it is very, very challenging, it’s very hard for the musician, its very difficult. It sounds very simple, because my music is very simple in a way, but the simplicity is really hard to get and really hard to grasp.
JB - As your starting point, do you write at the piano?
AD - Actually, you know for me composing is a mental process and I am not a pianist. I can, of course, I use the piano as a tool. I could say that the piano plays me more than I play the piano. But it is a mental process that goes from, when I wake up at five in the morning and I hear what I was seeking for the night before and I couldn't find -
JB- So you're just hearing things in your head…
AD - Yes, yes of course and it could be on my Vespa driving in Paris or as I am falling asleep on a plane -- it is all these mental things that just obsess you all the time. It is like a trance.
JB - I wanted to ask you about your versatility as a composer and maybe moving out in scope from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you've done many, many films, the ones that people may be familiar with include Syriana, The Queen, Birth, The Golden Compass, Lust Caution, The Painted Veil. But I wanted to ask you about how you are able to move from Syriana to The Queen or to this project. How do you reinforce that kind of versatility, creatively, to be able to engage each project, or is it more that there is a consistency in your sound and you bring that to each project.
AD - Well, I think its several points. The first major thing is my passion for movies. I don’t write movie scores just to write movie scores. I write movie scores because I love cinema and that has always been one of my obsessions. When I was 15, 16 I was going to movies all the time and I was focusing on the music and getting obsessed about how good the music score could be and how much it could bring to a film. So, first of all, my love of cinema make me respect the films that I am called to score. The second element would be, how do you get into this dramaturgy, acting, directing, without being intrusive, how do you respect the film that you are being offered, and the third is how do you keep your style, if any. And, I think somebody said ‘the style is the man.’ I think my style has become through the years, what I said before, the way I like to write a melody, the way I like to hear an orchestra sound and the way, also I like the music to react to a picture.
I try to avoid things; we have some things we dislike aesthetically, be it in paintings or in architecture. When I work on a score I always avoid a few things, which are to me, maybe too obvious. Also, I come from a European language of cinema where music is rarely following the action, which means that the music has to create a world of its own, a parallel world to the world of the film even though connected, strongly connected, and I guess that makes me different for every film because every film being different, I can adjust to this very slight difference. And also, as I go to the movies and watch movies, I don’t only watch comedies, or dramas, or action movies, I watch everything, I like cinema ,so why would I only write romantic films or action films or I don’t know to be blocked in only one section of the cinema. I would hate it. So I am just, I am just trying to enjoy what films can inspire me.
JB – Well, I think it is working out for you. (AD laughs) I think its working out. (Both laugh) I got a good feeling about you. (Both laugh) I want to just remind people that the soundtrack itself is exceptional -- the packaging, the presentation. It is a two CD set, your score is on disc one and disc two are some of the source keys from the film, interspersed with dialogue bits, so it is a very thoughtful package. So the movie is fantastic, go see the movie, but don’t forget to pick up the soundtrack itself. Music by my guest, Alexandre Desplat and were going to go back to a couple cues, I want to fit in a few more things. I definitely want to fit in the Benjamin and Daisy cue which closes the CD. This a beautiful piece of music. And also try and fit in, "It Was Mice to Have Met You" and perhaps "Sunrise on Lake Pontchartrain." It’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on KCRW.
("It Was Mice to Have Met You" and "Sunrise on Lake Pontchartrain" play)
JB - Sunrise on Lake Pontchartrain, is the cue from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Alexandre Desplat is my guest in the studio he is the composer behind this film and many others that you know. I want to thank you sir, for being here.
AD - My pleasure, it was a great honor.
JB - Were kind of wrapping things up, but all the best in the next few days with awards season upon us I wish you all the luck in the world. It is an amazing film and fantastic score, and the soundtrack, don’t miss out on that.
[PLAYLIST GOES HERE]