Composer Alexandre Desplat tells Tiffany Pritchard about bringing Alan Turing’s frenetic mind to life through his score for The Imitation Game.
Alexandre Desplat is no stranger to working on film scores at breakneck speed.
In the past 12 months, he has composed music for six titles, varying from grand-scale productions such as Godzilla and Angelina Jolie’s Second World War epic Unbroken to Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic The Grand Budapest Hotel and Morten Tyldum’s quietly intense The Imitation Game.
This year he has garnered Oscar and Bafta nominations for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for The Imitation Game.
While Desplat begins work on some films from script stage, he prefers to start later in the process. “When reading ink on paper, it can be a bad movie,” jokes Desplat.
It is when the director comes on board that a film’s story and overall tone can change altogether, he suggests. “The director is crucial to the equation, and [for me] the picture is the master of your imagination - it allows your mind to run free,” says the French composer.
In the case of The Imitation Game, Desplat initially had to turn down the project due to scheduling conflicts. Thanks to production delays, he was able to unite with Norwegian director Tyldum, though at a much later stage than usual.
“I came on board at the last minute. And because I’d never worked with Morten before, I was very grateful to learn he was a strong director with definitive ideas, who also had a musical quality to his work,” says Desplat.
He describes the director’s style as rhythmic, where each image flows together in harmony and with a melody — something he attributes as a gift. Tyldum’s music background (he was a keyboardist in a band before entering film school) was also impressive to Desplat, allowing them to freely exchange technical notes about the music.
After he completed the score in just under three weeks — something Desplat is starting to consider routine — the composer and director worked closely in creating compositions that mimicked both the underlying sadness of Turing’s life and the impending pressure to crack the code.
“Music should never mimic what’s on screen; it should add another dimension,” explains Desplat. “In The Imitation Game, it’s people trying to find ideas; only the ideas are intangible. You can draw an equation on a blackboard, but that doesn’t evoke emotion.”
He instead centred on Turing’s frenetic mind, together with the insurmountable energy generated from the team of scientists around him. “I try to combine sounds which I think can bring different colours to the screen,” says Desplat. “For me, it’s a mix of intellectual concept, intuition and my love of storytelling that decides the instrumentation I’m going to use.”
Beginning from the film’s opening scene in which Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is under interrogation at a police station through to his adolescence at boarding school, Desplat interlaced a web of arpeggios; played by three programmed pianos, a harp, an electric piano and a celesta. As the ensuing conflict builds, woodwinds and strings from the London Symphony Orchestra were integrated, giving a more epic scope.
Desplat describes the music as having an ambivalence; an effect he tried emulating by precisely writing one portion of the music, while other sections were constructed randomly around the harmonies by a computer program.
“It is both the chase and the speed that are crashing together inside his head,” says Desplat.
“On one hand, he carried this sadness of losing a friend he loved very much, and on the other, he was thinking a million times faster than you and I about ideas we can’t imagine. I wanted the score to add to these dual aspects of his mind.”
Desplat, himself, could also be considered a Turing-like genius. After learning piano and the flute from the age of five, he went on to become a professional flautist. But after hearing John Williams’ Oscar-winning score for Star Wars in 1977, Desplat’s musical inspiration catapulted him down a different path.
“I decided to teach myself orchestration and conducting — I read many books and scores — and thanks to my parents’ influence I grew up listening to music from all genres, from classical and jazz to South American and African beats,” he recalls.
His early work commenced in theatre and short films based in Paris, and eventually segued to feature films with auteurs such as Jacques Audiard, landing him César nominations for A Self Made Hero in 1997 and Read My Lips in 2002.
The composer’s résumé transitioned to Hollywood’s big leagues when he was asked to score Girl With A Pearl Earring in 2003, earning his first Golden Globe nomination.
The accolades have not stopped since: with more than 100 films under his belt, he has been honoured with six Bafta nominations (including a win for The King’s Speech and a nod this year for The Grand Budapest Hotel), seven Golden Globe nominations (with a win for The Painted Veil that featured Chinese pianist Lang Lang) and eight Academy Award nominations.
His double Oscar nomination this year gives Desplat two chances to win his first golden statuette. “I’ve won a Bafta and a Golden Globe, and yes, it would be nice to complete the set,” he says.
In addition to teaching and giving concerts, the prolific artist has also completed original scores for forthcoming films including Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, Matteo Garrone’s The Tale Of Tales and Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette.
He is also rumoured to be reteaming with Roman Polanski on D. Desplat gives credit to the film-maker, with whom he worked on The Ghost Writer and Carnage, for reminding him it is the detail that makes a good film.
“I tend to think about music the same way. It’s an accumulation of great detail that makes a piece. It’s not just a brushstroke, it’s all the minute elements plus the stroke that makes the greater whole.”