ScoreKeeper Exchanges Spells with HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS Composer Alexandre Desplat!!
Published at: Nov. 9, 2010, 11:48 p.m. CST by scorekeeper
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here conjuring up a curious little spell straight from the deathly hallowed halls of Hogwarts exclusively for the muggle masses who frequent Ain't It Cool News. In case you haven't heard, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1 (2010) is set to release in theaters on November 19th. Even those tempered by the last couple HARRY POTTER films are curiously awaiting the first of a pair of films adapted from the final book of the series.
Through the first six films there have been four composers who have taken the podium to summon the magical music of the young wizard and his friends from Hogwarts: John Williams, William Ross, Patrick Doyle, and Nicholas Hooper.
For THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, a brand new composer has been accepted into this exclusive club.
Alexandre Desplat is no stranger to film scoring enthusiasts. He composes mountains of meticulous music as fast as our ears can pick it up. There were eight movies to his credit last year and around six to his name this year. His work can be heard in an eclectic array of films from the U.S. and Europe including THE GHOST WRITER (2010), NEW MOON (2009), FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009), THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008), THE GOLDEN COMPASS (2007), LUST, CAUTION (2007), THE PAINTED VEIL (2006), THE QUEEN (2006), HOSTAGE (2005), and BIRTH (2004).
As the composer for THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, Alexandre Desplat has not only reinvigorated the the world of Harry Potter with a refreshing voice, but also elevated the quality of craftsmanship we've come to expect in a HARRY POTTER score. Desplat's score is an emotion-infused roller coaster ride which constantly tugs at the heartstrings. Even the explosive and phrenetic action music reeks of emotion. This is a brand new HARRY POTTER score that I believe fans will flock to and ultimately embrace.
On December 21, 2010, Water Tower Music will be releasing a special Limited Edition Collector's Box Set of Alexandre Desplat's score. Along with the soundtrack on CD, the set also includes a second CD with additional score, a DVD with a 5.1 audio mix of the score and a seven minute featurette of the scoring session along with interviews with composer Desplat and producers David Heyman and David Barron. The set also includes a movie poster, a seven-inch double sided vinyl disc of the score, two 35mm film cells cut from the movie reel, and (my favorite) a page of sheet music from the recording session at Abbey Road Studios autographed by Alexandre Desplat! A great item for Christmas lists' of Harry Potter uber-fans.
The regular soundtrack will be released on November 16, 2010 by Water Tower Music. It features twenty-six tracks of Desplat's score totaling more than 73 minutes of music. My favorite cues on the album so far are "Sky Battle," "Bathilda Bagshot," "Lovegood," "Rescuing Hermione," and "The Deathly Hallows."
Last week I had the pleasure of talking with Alexandre Desplat about his score for HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. He's the consummate artist consumed by his passion for music. I latched on to every word as if each were tiny lessons to be soaked up by my impressionable brain.
I absolutely love interviewing composers who understand intimately what they're doing. They offer mountains of insight and perspective into their mysterious worlds. Alexandre Desplat is steadily rising amongst the ranks of my favorite composers. With each new score, Desplat offers rich tapestries of heartfelt emotion, titillating color, and intense energy displaying an innate sense of craft that is rare amongst film score composers. It was my sincerest pleasure talking with him. I hope you enjoy our quaint little chat.
Are you ready? Here we go...
ScoreKeeper: Thank you so much for taking the time to call me from Paris. It's not every day I receive calls from France. I'm really excited to be talking to you about your score for HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1 (2010).
I want to start at the beginning. Nicolas Hooper had composed the scores for the previous two films and there were even rumors floating around that John Williams would perhaps return to end the series. How did you ultimately become the composer for THE DEATHLY HALLOWS?
Alexandre Desplat: I frankly don’t know. I just know that when they called my agent said that, “They were really hoping that it could be you for HARRY POTTER 7.” I thought, “I suppose they fit into my scores.”
They had spoken with people around, people who work with me, directors, engineers, musicians, and they showed how they felt and thought I was the right person for the gig. I really don’t know…I never had an explanation where they said to me, “We trust you, because you were…” [Laughs] or “...because you are French.” There might be some answers from the producers somewhere on a DVD or something, but I don’t know. I couldn’t really say.
SK: Was this an automatic choice for you or did you have any reservations accepting it?
AD: No, not a single reservation. I’ve seen all of the movies through the years and I worship John William’s work. He’s the greatest master of music. He’s a symphonist and I am a symphonist. Having looked at the scores, I’ve always been orchestral, so there was no other. HARRY POTTER is such a global moment of cinema that if you like movies, there’s no way you can refuse. It’s “an offer you can’t refuse” as we heard in THE GODFATHER (1972).
SK: How about the books? Had you read the books prior?
AD: Yes, I had. I had the books. I had read them in French actually, because my daughter was crazy about HARRY POTTER, so I had read the books and I watched the movies again of course before I started writing. Aside from STAR WARS (1977), what other franchise can we think about which has lasted for so long and gathered so many spectators? It’s really special.
SK: I’ve only heard the music. I haven’t seen the film yet. It’s going to be another week before I get a chance to see it.
AD: You shouldn’t have to.
SK: Well, I’ve been listening to the music and I’m hearing all fresh material. I’m hearing a new score for a new film. I’m not hearing a lot of musical material from the previous films. Am I missing anything? Were there elements from the previous scores that you’ve incorporated into your score?
AD: No, aside from once or twice I…I can’t remember if there is a moment where I, I think maybe twice. I quote John William’s “Hedwig” theme for a few seconds, two or four bars maybe, but that’s about it. The rest is completely fresh, you’re right. That was quite a challenge because I was actually excited in rearranging John William’s theme, but the movie is very different from the previous ones. It’s the first time that the characters are not in school and aren’t going to school and escaping. They are on the road trying to hide from the dark forces and it’s the first time that he has no friends around. Even though there are some great moments of humor, it’s a much darker film. They are on a journey and this journey brings them to other lands, different countries, different worlds of music.
SK: I haven’t read the books so I don’t know what happens in THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, but as I’m listening to your music, it’s piquing my interest. There is so much emotion. It's so dark. It's so beguiling. I'm anxious to find out what happens in this film!
AD: [Laughs] Good!
SK: You are known for composing emotionally expressive music. I would say you understand emotional expression in cinema better than any other composer working today. There’s a surgical precision to the emotion you express on screen. Even the action music in DEATHLY HALLOWS reeks of emotional expression. As a creative artist that has now entered the world of Harry Potter, what is the emotional framework of Harry Potter than makes his story so unique?
AD: Well it’s the story of a young boy who has lost his parents. He’s an orphan and that’s the seed of everything. This boy is abused by his stepparents who locked him in a closet…But he’s got this incredible talent, but he doesn’t understand how it works and how he could tame it. He has learned through the years to become who he is now, a young adult with super powers that he only tries to use it when he has to and a little boy who had the greatest of friendship and loyalty and his friends are also very loyal and very faithful. So that gives you already a great canvas to write. It’s fantastic human qualities that I enjoy and I can work off of.
Then you view the movie and in the movie there are more ways to pick up on the deepest emotions and psychology of the characters. That’s what I’m interested in. When a movie has nothing to offer or only one layer, I don’t know where to go, because I just wont be inspired. Give me two, three, four, or five layers of complicated characters and then I will be able to resonate and give some expression to that.
SK: Was there a particular aspect of Harry Potter’s character that you felt was the most difficult to capture musically?
AD: You mean in the film?
SK: Yes. I’m wondering specifically about the complexity of the character himself. Was there a facet of this complexity that was difficult to capture.
AD: He’s a rather dark character, you know. The funny one is Ron and Hermoine is the parent one. Harry is a very repressed, silent boy. He doesn’t speak much. He doesn’t show much of his emotions and so the music has to show that. That’s what the music is also trying to bring out, his repressed suffering and his silent emotions. I think that’s what I’m trying to bring out.
They are indentured, they are on a journey, so the music also has to have this dark feeling of losing innocence, of going away from something that had at the best built you, which is the school they studied in and they need to erase it from their past and move to dangerous grounds.
SK: Between harmony, melody, rhythm, and instrumentation, as a composer what’s more important to you? What comes first while you are writing and how would you rank these various ingredients in your composition?
AD: Well, certainly enough it comes out together. I don’t hear melody without sounds. I hear melody with instruments. I would not write this kind of melody from the trumpet or for the flute. To me, they deliver a different emotional content, which maybe answers your first question about how I bring emotion to my scores. It’s also the instrumentation, which does that, so it’s a mix of things.
I have a taste in orchestration which is I guess very singular or that belongs to me, which is I like transparency. I like things to be heard. I don’t like to write something, which sounds very thick. I like single lines, many cutting points that insert into each other and that leaves a lot of air in between the lines which is also a great tool for me when I work on a film, because it lets the dialogue go through. It doesn’t make a wall of sound. Do you know what I mean? Of course, when there’s a lot going on, like in a chase with the cars and helicopters and these big things, then of course I’ll add more layers and thicker sounds, but as soon as I can I take my foot off of the pedal of the accelerator and I try to go where less-is-more and that’s I guess the way a composer…I just always include simplicity. If you listen to the great musicians I love, like Mozart or Bill Evans, they have to have this obvious simplicity in a jewel case of great complexity.
SK: That's one of the primary characteristics that attracts me to your music. Your orchestration is very clean and open; however, you compliment it with rich harmony. You have an extensive harmonic vocabulary that I find lacking in film music today. How did you utilize harmony in HARRY POTTER?
AD: The music that appealed to my inspiration are coming from the classical world, could be Mozart or the music of the 20th century, because for some reason the music of the 19th century was never really in my environment as I was learning how to love music. I was always fascinated by the music of the 20th century, starting with Mahler and Puccini and Debussy and of course the Russians. So this music, that’s where the harmony started to be more complex, more rich, more challenging.
The other element which has structured my love of harmony is Brazilian music, (Antonio Carlos) Jobim, but also the jazz musicians that I mentioned, Bill Evans and of course Miles Davis and (John) Coltrane. I’ve played a lot of this music and I’ve also played a lot of African music, which gave me another approach of rhythm and a sometimes simpler way of using harmony, but never simplistic…
There’s a narcotic way of using harmony in ethnic music with me at least from the orient that has this openness, but still a very rich simplicity, a rich simplicity and that’s what I like. That’s what structured my harmonic language. I was never a rock and roller. I never played in a rock group and played rock and I guess I don’t listen much to rock and roll and I guess that’s because mostly of the lack of complex harmony. I have always been more inclined listening to black music for the energy and for the harmony. I prefer blues with one chord or two chords when not all of the blue chords are put together, but just one or two chords. When a guitar player sings the south of America, you are just staying in one chord. I prefer that actually, so that explains it all I think.
SK: When you are composing melody, does the melody sprout from the harmony? Are you harmonizing your melodies or does it happen simultaneously?
AD: It’s simultaneous, but I’ve learned when I’m stuck that if it flows like a river, when I’m stuck I’ve learned that sometimes I have to go away with the harmony and use only the melody to find it’s perfect shape.
SK: Did composing the score for HARRY POTTER offer you any opportunities to do something musically that you have never been able to do before?
AD: I think so, yes. I can’t really name it, but I really challenged myself trying not to do anything I had done before. I would say that yes every piece of music is an upgrade and that’s all the fun of it and then all of the danger of it, otherwise it would become very technical and you would then say to me that “The album is boring.”
SK: There are several pieces in your score like “Sky Battle” and “Bathilda Bagshot” and “Rescuing Hermione,” which are unusually bombastic compared to some of your other work. You are not necessarily known for such rousing energetic music like these pieces exhibit. Was there a unique challenge to composing pieces like this or did you find it a rather comfortable process?
AD: I like doing that actually, but you know I have not been offered many movies that have what we said before that have both, that can be action driven and still have a deep social content or deep emotional content, something that could resonate in me. Action just for action’s sake is difficult for me to gravitate to. Do you know what I mean? To find an empathy, and HARRY POTTER with its seventh movie has that deep emotional content which I can really bond with, so it makes it easy and I like…I like to do fast energetic pieces. I did that before when I did HOSTAGE, when THE GOLDEN COMPASS…it’s just that I don’t do that so often. I’ve not been offered many movies of that kind and there are not so many of them.
SK: “Sky Battle” has so many notes in it! That had to have been extremely laborious!
AD: You know the fun of it is that I know that it’s going to be played by the London Symphony Orchestra who recorded STAR WARS and SUPERMAN (1978) and all of these great scores. I know that I can challenge them, because it’s really fast. This piece is really challenging. [Laughs] When I first saw the musicians open the folders on their stands and start looking at them to think they had to play, I could see that there was a challenge there and I like that, because it means that I respect them. I respect their incredible craft and virtuosity and I think they enjoyed that I share that with them. I’m on the podium. I’m conducting them. So we are sharing the same energy, the same momentum and I tried to give them as much generality as I can.
SK: Well they must have loved you for that. If they’ve ever gotten tired playing whole notes that was the remedy.
AD: That’s for sure, because even in my music, in my more quite music there’s rarely whole notes, even if it can sound like whole notes, I’ve learned not to write whole notes for musicians, because they hate it.
SK: I know exactly what you mean...This is the seventh film of a major franchise and we touched on this a little bit earlier. Take me through your excitement and your fears. Were you nervous while you were writing? Are you nervous now that it’s about to come out? How are you feeling?
AD: I’m not nervous that it’s coming out. It’s behind me. It’s great. I’m always nervous when I write, anything I write. I’m always very anxious that it will be good enough and that it will work and the director will be happy, that the producers will be happy, that the musicians will be proud when they play it and they will respect me. So it’s never easy. You try to do your best to give it the best music of that sort of work and lots of dedication, so yes of course writing two hours of music is not a piece of cake. It’s not something you do in a blink. It’s not something that I do in a blink anyway, so I had to lock myself up. I was locked up in London and I lived like a monk. I actually live like a monk most of the time, but this time was even worse. I would see no one. I would be locked in my house and work 18 hours a day for a few months. That’s the way it is.
SK: I would think you would be able to compose two hours of music in a blink. You score six to ten movies every year. I don’t know how you do that.
AD: That’s because I don’t do anything else. I guess also I’ve learned through the years to be quicker and more efficient, but frankly it’s because I work a lot. I have not had a life for a few years now, but it’s because I’m too passionate. Cinema and music have been my passions forever and now is the time where great directors are calling me, so I can’t wait until I’m 75 to decide if I want to…I have to think now…Roman Polanski calls me, are you kidding? I’m not going to say no.
I’ve got a lot on my desk already, but I’m going to do it and the hard thing is that I’m doing them one after another and I’m doing it by myself, so it’s a tricky life, but I’ve chosen that. I could do less. I could do only one movie a year if I wanted. I’ve decided to do more and on my own, that’s it.
SK: How much time were you given to compose the score for HARRY POTTER?
AD: I would say about three months.
SK: That seems like a luxurious amount of time by today’s standards.
AD: Yeah, but I heard how John Williams would only use three months, so I thought I would need at least three months. [Laughs]
SK: What was the most difficult scene in the movie to score? And why?
AD: The only real thing that was difficult was how we would be able to make the statement that it’s a new era in Harry Potter’s life, because as I’ve said, he and his three friends are leaving their families and they are going on the road. How do you do this shift from funny, magic, Hogwarts to the real world? So I guess that was the most difficult thing, to define the opening scene, which I think opens with the city, that was a real challenge.
SK: Was that the first cue that you wrote?
AD: The first yes, but it’s not the first, because I was working on this one and I was already searching for other themes, but this is the one that gave me the most thinking or that required the most thinking.
SK: Would you consider this to be the most important score of your career so far?
AD: No, I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t say that, because every score to me is very important and a statement here where it’s the most important because it is such a huge project….To me, every movie is a challenge and actually I mentioned Stephen Frears or Polanski or Terrence Malick, the second you write a score for these directors that have such a history of films behind them and collaboration with great composers, you’re in danger already. [Laughs]
So HARRY POTTER is…the global power that this franchise has that goes from China to Chile and expands all over the world, but maybe the only thing I can think of, but I didn’t really think about it. The challenge was more, “How do I take over John Williams and write a great score that deserves attention?”
SK: Do you think you have achieved that?
AD: I don’t know. I would never say that.
AD: As you will learn with me, I’m not of that kind. I hate what I’ve done and I would never listen to it again, so I would never say that. I’m already thinking about the movies I have to record before the end of this month. [Laughs]
SK: That’s understandable. Are you on board to do THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2?
AD: What do you mean “on board?”
SK: Are you scoring DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2? Have you been asked?
AD: There’s a rumor that I would write it, yes. That’s the rumor…
SK: So it’s not official yet?
AD: I think you’ve heard the rumor too.
AD: With rumors, you never know. There was a rumor that John Williams will finish it.
SK: Ah, yes. That’s right. [Laughs] I guess we'll have to wait and see...So what else are you working on at the moment? You said you’ve got some scores coming up. What else can we expect from you this year?
AD: Well THE KING’S SPEECH (2010) very soon, the Terrence Malick movie, and then I’ve got some French films since I finished HARRY POTTER and I still have a movie with Chris Weiss called THE GARDENER (2011), which I did TWILIGHT and GOLDEN COMPASS with, so I’d say at the end of the year I’ll be very busy.
SK: That pretty much wraps up all of the questions I had. I would like to sincerely thank you for taking the time to speak with me tonight. I know it's late for you so I'm going to let you go. I wish you well for the future and hope we can chat again sometime soon.
SK: Take care. Bye.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News I'd like to extend a warm thank you to Alexandre Desplat for speaking with me. I'd also like to thank Beth Krakower of Cinemedia Promotions for her assistance setting up this interview and a quick thank you goes to Mike McCutchen for his transcription help.