Words by Helen O'Hara
There have been many cases where a composer had a special relationship with one director, returning to work with them time and time again. But few composers can boast as many successful and ongoing relationships as Alexandre Desplat, the two-time Oscar winner (from 11 nominations) who has teamed up multiple times with Wes Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen Frears, Jacques Audiard, and George Clooney.
The Midnight Sky, his latest collaboration with Clooney, is the reason that we sat down with Desplat this week – via Zoom, from his base in Paris. The film tells the story of an unspecified disaster that has devastated life on Earth, leaving Clooney’s Augustine isolated at an Arctic science station with only a mute child as his companion. When he realises that a crew of astronauts, who have been exploring one of Jupiter’s moons, may be able to survive the disaster if he can only get word to them, he heads out on a perilous mission across the ice.
It’s technically a science fiction film, but one more concerned with regret and grief than bombast or adventure. And with its handful of characters isolated and often silent, it falls to Desplat’s score to communicate much of the emotion and story of the film. We talked to him about that challenge, and the particular difficulties of recording in a time of Covid, in this conversation.
*This discussion contains spoilers for The Midnight Sky, including parts of the ending.
Congratulations on the film, and on your Golden Globe nomination. Or are you blasé about nominations at this point?
Never blasé. It's incredible luck. Amongst so many scores, there's only five and I'm one of the five. I'm blown away not blasé.
Obviously, you've worked with George Clooney before, and I know that you like to compose only once you have a film to work with. But at what point does he call you? Is it as soon as he starts pre-production to give you some warning?
Yeah, usually he sends me almost the final version of the script and we have a chat about it. Then he disappears shooting and I come back when the movie is almost completed in the editing room. I can then have my brain and my eyes, [to] start working and start thinking and start exploring. As you understand, it's hard for me before I see images to understand what the film is, because there are so many ways of shooting a script.
Do you work better with a deadline? At that point, you may only have weeks to work.
You mean do I procrastinate? Yes. No, I would never do that! [laughs] But I must say that finishing one job and doing another one allows me not to be lazy. Otherwise, I would just go on a hill and watch the sea somewhere and do nothing. Just be a vegetable, lulled by the wind.
Your credits suggest you’re very bad at being lazy, but OK. Due to Covid, this one was particularly difficult to record. Was it frustrating when you first realised that you were going to have to oversee the sessions remotely?
Yes, I was actually really worried that it would take much, much more time than usual because of the triple connection: Los Angeles [where Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov were based], London [where the London Symphony Orchestra were performing at Abbey Road] and Paris [where Desplat remained]. Different timetables and time zones. How would I be able to somehow conduct the orchestra without being there and having somebody else conducting for me, which I am not so keen on doing? I always like to be conducting, being in the pit with the musicians.
I was not really relaxed when we started. I could feel that no one was relaxed. But everything was smooth. At Abbey Road, the link was perfect. The orchestra was there, George was up early, and everything worked. Except that I could not wave my arms [or] watch the musicians closely, walk towards them, write something on their parts at the last minute, or whatever. Also, for George, I think it's the first time he couldn't hear the orchestra altogether. I was also worried about that, that he would be frustrated and anxious. The musicians were very far from each other, which is also very difficult, musically. So yeah, I was worried but finally, we got to a point where we could work together. I think we got to an adequate spot where it sounds really great. It could have maybe sounded better? I don't know, we will never know.
For George [Clooney], I think it's the first time he couldn't hear the orchestra altogether. I was also worried about that, that he would be frustrated and anxious.
I’m interested that it didn’t ultimately take longer than usual, given the fact that you had to record the sections separately to give the musicians enough space.
Yes, [recording in] pieces is tedious. I was worried that things would not align properly musically, the interpretation, once we put it together. We had to keep in mind what we had recorded the day before, and what were George's notes. When we're in the studio recording, George hears the flutes and says, ‘Oh, maybe this could be blah blah blah’, or ‘Could we change something in this string passage?’ It was hard for him to change anything. [Yet] somehow it was quicker than I thought it would be.
But with so much music to write, did you end up with a time crunch on this?
Actually, I had a lot of time. George was almost two months early in the schedule. So I could start without being pressured, without stress. Well, everyday stress, but not as when you have to write an hour and a half in five weeks or so six weeks. I must say it was very comfortable. I could make mistakes. Usually, you can't.
Did anything good come out of this way of recording? Is there anything that you would take forward and do again?
The good thing is that it was recorded. That's about the only thing that I enjoyed about it. No, the other good thing was to be able to have a background on Zoom, where you can make anything appear, like a hill, a sheep, a car, a view of the sea, whatever you want. But concentration-wise, it didn't help [laughs]. Aside from being practical and efficient, there is not [much] great about it, because musicians are musicians, they're not machines. I'm not one either. There's nothing better, for George and for many directors being in the studio when an orchestra is blasting a chord and the melody. To share that moment is something really special. For us, it's going to church. Believing in God or not believing in God, when you go to these places it’s a moment, something you share with others. Like when you get into the opera, it's the same at Abbey Road. There's something theatrical about it that's really challenging and exciting.
This film relies a lot on music to communicate what the characters are thinking, so you have to do more heavy lifting than usual. Was Clooney upfront about that immediately with the script? Or did that come a little bit later?
It did come later. At some point he told me, ‘I want you to write it like a ballet,’ which, you know, didn't make much sense before I saw the film. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I'll write a ballet for you George, no problem, easy. It's only an hour and a half of music, who cares??’ [laughs] Easy come easy go. Piece of cake. But I was really worried when I saw the film. There was so much silence and so much unspoken emotion, and the music had to convey all that. It was daunting.
There were some very important decisions because as you said, the characters are very often silent. George has a great talent in bringing you into the music world because he loves music, so it's easy to communicate and, and for him to guide you. Even without musical words, he loves music so much that you can feel his sensitivity to it, and his guidance comes very quickly. He's very clear about that. He said very early on that bringing out the emotions was the key.
We never spoke about being bombastic or, you know, like a big, big sci-fi movie with a lot of action and spaceships blasting each other. It was more about keeping it in a jewel case. The strings became the best option to do that because at the end of the film [while editing] George had used Debussy's Clair de Lune. We know the piano version, we know the orchestrated version. Both were inspirational in the fact that there's a piano here and there, and there's the orchestral version, where the strings are really at the centre. I took that option of having a piano, and a big string orchestra, very strong and present. When we go outside, in big action moments, then the full orchestra jumps on. Otherwise, we keep this very, very warm, lush, sensitive, trembling of the string section.
There was so much silence and so much unspoken emotion, and the music had to convey all that. It was daunting.
Did you try to create different sounds for the story strands on Earth and in space, or emphasise the commonalities between them?
The goal was to connect both stories almost subconsciously so that we could feel there is a connection between what's going on between George’s character in the base on earth, and the spaceship. It could be with motifs, with sound, sometimes electronic sounds. I tried absolutely to keep them connected by some kind of link that the movie will unfold.
This idea of keeping the score sort of “human size” is something you’ve talked a bit about – but what’s the key to that? Is it simply limiting the brass and woodwind sections? Are there particular instruments or particular sounds that make it feel too big?
The brass and the percussion only appear when we're in danger, and mostly when we're outside the base on Earth, or outside the spaceship. Mostly they're not playing. So if there was something [musically different] happening, it's not between Earth and Space, it's between inside and outside, which is the same on Earth, or in space. They're in danger the moment they go outside, wherever it is. They're in trouble, and that's where the big orchestra comes in, and we feel the weight of danger that is surrounding them.
One moment that stuck out to me was in space when we see tiny floating blood droplets, and both the visuals and your music (“Blood Drops”) start off almost magical and very quickly shift to something terrifying. Does a moment like that take time to come together or is it pretty quick when you see the film?
It came quite fast, this moment. I knew it had to grow. It shouldn't be too big right away. We had to enjoy, if I may say so enjoy, these droplets and the weightlessness and this ballet of blood that's happening under our eyes. It had to be delicate and light and beautiful, and then slowly morph into something scary, or feel a sense of panic.
There's another scene in the film where they're in a kind of shed that is suddenly sinking because the shed is on ice and the ice breaks (“The Ice Breaks”). There, again, you have to make decisions in the way you orchestrate. Do you bring big brass in? Or do you play what is inside the body of the actors and of the characters? I always try to favour the characters so that the audience can share their feelings. There, the panic is so sudden that I chose to leave all the big, large, heavy sounds and use only the high strings, to get the idea of a spinning, panic attack sound. It's always a choice that you have to make and submit it to George and if he likes it, great.
Do you ever disagree?
Really not much. It's usually because I'm a bit too shy. I’m being driven by so many European movies [that are] more laid back and restrained and delicate. Not too much music, not too loud, all this dialogue. My main issue is always to get rid of that and become more punchy. When needed!
It’s fascinating that you work with so many different directors again and again because they have such different styles. Jacques Audiard likes much more pared-back, stripped-down music, whereas Guillermo del Toro likes something more melodic. Do all these relationships give you have a chance to try something new each time?
It's exactly that. As you say, Jacques Audiard is not too fond of melodies. He likes textures, and suspended sounds, and repetitive patterns. But then I love the great action movies of the 50s or 60s or 70s, so I love doing that. With Guillermo, I didn't do so many love stories. The Girl with a Pearl Earring, maybe, was one, or The Painted Veil, but not so many in my filmography. So when I did The Shape Of Water [Del Toro’s film, for which Desplat won his second Oscar], I was excited to be able to do that again. I'm sure there are moments in The Shape Of Water where you hear maybe some high strings, very stripped, with one little sparkle of piano or something tinkling somewhere. It's all these things that are part of myself, that I try to reinvent each time.
The final track on this score, “A New World Ahead”, has a real lushness to it. Was that your romantic impulse coming out maybe?
Absolutely. We needed to feel at the end of the film that there are these two persons who will be having a baby together, they're going to recreate mankind, and so there's hope. They're going back to the planet, we're in a big spaceship, something solid and wide. It's not just two lovers in a hotel room in the 6th arrondisement! Something big is happening because of these two people. Almost three [people] now. Mankind will survive. So we had to feel this emotion, this strong love allowing mankind to continue.
On the subject of genres, are there any kinds of films that you still have an itch to try?
What I've tried to do is to avoid some types of films, maybe. I don't do many if any, horror movies. I don't do many action movies. I don't do many comedies since I've been working in Hollywood. I did some when I was working in France more, before my Hollywood career, but I haven't done that for a while. Although actually, in Wes Anderson’s cinema, in Fantastic Mr. Fox, even in Moonrise Kingdom, there are some comedy moments. But it's a very special kind of world. It's Wes's world.
Has it been fun working with him again on The French Dispatch?
Yes! We are already reteaming on another one. I can't wait to see how people react to this one. It's really different. Not in terms of style, because we know he has such a strong style. But he's inventing, inventing, inventing again in the narrative and in the way he tells the story, but also the way his camera moves.
You’re also reteaming with Del Toro for his animated Pinocchio, and writing songs for that one.
I wrote songs during the lockdown a year ago, and we were actually on a session a few days ago with the actor who plays Pinocchio, who's a very, very good singer also. It's wonderful. That's very exciting as again that will be a very beautiful stop-motion movie. The images I saw are very poetic.
Will you be back in the studio for that or will it be remotely recorded again?
Never again! On Pinocchio, we have a few months before the animation is completed so we should be fine. I'm doing another one with Guillermo as we speak, Nightmare Alley, which I hope we can do live. And if we can't, well, we'll see where we get. Obviously, coming to England is difficult. But if it's not a huge setup like we had on George's movie maybe I can do it in Paris. We don't have huge studios here anymore. The last one was Davout, which is a hole on the street now. So we have to be inventive.
How was working with Netflix on The Midnight Sky and now Pinocchio? Does that affect you as a composer?
It's been smoothissimo. Smoothissimo! They made everything possible for me. They were ready to put me in London to do quarantine, they were ready to help, and that's the best thing you can hope from a producer. I've nothing to complain about. I wish I could. Somehow Netflix is everywhere in the world in a blink, you just have to click and boom, you can watch a film. And that's, magical. It's not the same experience as climbing the stairs of a theatre, sitting with people around you, and sharing the laughs and cries, but at least it exists. If there was nothing that would be a disaster.