Interview: Composer Alexandre Desplat on ‘Isle of Dogs,’ Wes Anderson, and a Career Spent in Film

For Alexandre Desplat, composing was a natural pursuit. The two-time Oscar winner (with seven additional nominations), and Grammy winner is halfway to an EGOT. He began with short films, moving into feature work in the late 1990s.

His career really started to accelerate around 2005, and by 2006 he earned his first nomination for “The Queen.” He followed that the next year with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

In 2009, he worked on his first collaboration with Wes Anderson, and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” earned him his third Oscar nomination. That film led to “Moonrise Kingdom” three years later, and then his first win for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in 2015, when he was double-nominated with “The Imitation Game.”

This year, he and Anderson teamed up again on another animated marvel, “Isle of Dogs,” from Fox Searchlight. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the composer about his early days, some of his career highlights, and what keeps him excited about working in cinema. Please enjoy our conversation.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I wanted to start off by saying that congratulations on “The Shape of Water” last year. That score was so inventive and so you.

Alexandre Desplat: Thank you very much.

KP: As we look through your career, you do have a very specific style, but it’s really developed over time. How did you originally get into composing scores for film?

AD: All these great composers I would hear in movies, I liked how they were producing the emotions through film, and I would go buy the volumes. [Bernard] Hermann, [Georges] Delerue, and John Williams, and I would be amazed that this music I loved in film could stand alone. And it became a passion, a passion of music and cinema. I really wanted to do that. Friends of mine even say that I auralized. Early on I wanted to be a Hollywood composer. It was long ago.

KP: When was it for you that you really transitioned and started to do film compositions?

AD: I started doing short movies like I think everybody should. Because, not only [do] you make friends that will become directors of feature movies, but you learn your craft and you try to understand in a short form how music can work and what film is about and how to accompany a narrative and storyline.

Also there’s no money, so you have to learn how to deal with that and create a sound that is not horrible, bring energies together to record without any resources. That’s something which I think is very important. Not be spoiled early on so that your brain gets ideas that are not obvious. How many times have I recorded for short movies – because I did many of them with my partner playing violin twelve times so we have twelve violins. Myself playing several flutes or piano, and my sister playing several trumpets. Just to create an orchestra with no money. You learn a lot from that because you learn about sound, about technique, about how a movie works and how music can be recorded because you must not forget that a soundtrack is recorded. It’s not live music. So you can experiment with anything. You can hit a bowl with a knife for ten minutes if you want and create a soundtrack. I don’t advise that to anyone! (laughs)

KP: What are some ways you worked to develop your style as a composer and to create your unique voice?

AD: I think that’s the hardest thing to explain and to analyze. If I look back to my influences, there are thousands of them. I couldn’t say that this composer or that composer or that jazz man or… What I know is that my two main influences are French music and American music. A third influence, world music. What we call World Music. Music from other countries and other civilizations. Aside from that, there’s nothing specific. I never took composition lessons. I didn’t have a mentor that I would like to imitate.

So I had to find [it] by myself and the only way I found was to work or compose again, again, again, again, and again. Write and write until I realized what I liked to write and what I did like… It’s a good start. You eliminate things. It’s not always logical or something you do conscientiously. Sometimes your subconscious guides you. But only by repeating the work again and again you can, I think, find your own style. It takes awhile. It took me awhile to understand what my style is. Even though today sometimes I hear chords or motifs that are from my very first soundtrack or my very first theater music that I wrote. You can hear there were seeds there. The seeds needed to grow.

And finally, with time and hammering that you can find the style. I’m sure some – I know – that some great genius find their style right away. Mozart did. (laughs) It took me a bit longer. And you know, in cinema, I think also that composers that were not concert composers before found their style working several times with the same director. So their world of music crystallized at the proximity of the art of another artist, which is the director. You know, like Hermann and Hitchcock and like John Williams and Spielberg or Lucas. The music really became what they are because they work with these directors several times. They developed a style that was so strong that it became their style.

KP: And you’ve worked with Wes Anderson several times now. Do you feel that working with him has influenced your style?

AD: I think it has. I would say that I will take this word again, I have crystallized in Wes’s films things I have done before in small scale or tentatively. Wes gave me the opportunity to develop them, to expand them, like in “Budapest.” My first, very first feature I wrote the music for, I used the cymbellum and guess what? In “Grand Budapest,” there is a cymbellum. There’s several cymbellums actually. And I wrote a little ballet in, I think, ’89 and I used two gypsy ballets. I love gypsy music. I used to go to gypsy clubs in Paris to listen to music and drink vodka when I was in my twenties, with my wife who is a violinist. And, you see? Many, many years later, hear I am, writing “Grand Budapest,” and I can remember what I’ve learned by writing this music years ago and develop and experiment. Wes gives me this opportunity of putting together strange instruments – a strange lineup of instruments. Unexpected, unheard before. At least by me!

KP: When you’re working on a film, where do you start? Do you read the script or do you go with the film as it’s edited so far?

AD: I read the script because I want to know if it resonates with me. When it’s a director I’ve worked with I know they tend to do great films, so even though I read the script I wait for the film. But the most important thing for me is to watch. It’s the images that give me the spine that I can really put the flesh on like being there. In a movie, I like to watch. I need to watch. I need to watch the film to understand its DNA and capture the vibration of the camera and the light and the actors. Only then I can play with them because it’s like a dance, what I’m doing. With music, I’m dancing with the actors and with camera. “Shape of Water” is perfect example of fantastic film for a composer where he can really dance and play with the actors.

KP: It really is that way. In so many ways, I feel like, particularly with “The Shape of Water,” the score is another character and you don’t get that in a lot of films.

AD: Yes, because this film gave a lot of space to music. The more I go, the more I want to do, the more I feel that I want to be in the film, like an actor on the set, playing, being alive. So I listened to the voice of the actors, which I watch with the picture, like I’m in the theater. Because I did a lot of stage music and I like the proximity with the actors. I’ve always loved actors and actresses. I always love these crafts that they have and the challenge is to go on stage and say the lines… I wait for the film to be structured before I can really work.

KP: When you’re looking at a film, do you tend to start planning the score out in your head based on a character or is it based on the story in total, or a scene?

AD: You know, I think in any play or movie, what stays with you once you’ve left the theater, it’s the characters, it’s not the story. The story, you remember a few things, a few lines maybe. But what stays with you is the character. The personification played by the actor or actress. All the reaction you can have with this character resonates in you. To me, it’s the main thing to deal with the characters. And as a director places his camera, what his point of view is and how he embellishes or downsizes a moment or another of a character, how he brings out his psychological issues or his past or future, the music I write plays with that. I think maybe that’s why I have good relations with directors because I like to do that.

KP: Character is always what we remember most, especially when we have great performances and really memorable people. Is it different for you when the film is animated, like with “Isle of Dogs?”

AD: It is not different, because the way Wes designs the puppets that he has in his film, there’s a perfection there. The fur of the dogs, the eyes, the movements, the energy he gives with his camera moves. To me they’re like real people. I don’t of course get to work with the actors again, the way Bill Murray or Jeff Goldblum or Jason Schwarzman or all these great actors, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton. They’re really great at giving a real, strong performance each time. Wes gets the best of them. They’re an incredible bunch of talents. So they’re real to me. It’s like watching real people. They’re dogs, but I don’t really feel that they are animals. They are characters and I think that’s an amazing talent also.

KP: The sound and the score in “Isle of Dogs” is very distinctive and unique. What are some things that you did or had to learn to create that sound?

AD: The challenge for this one was kind of like “The Shape of Water.” There’s not a melody line like in a classical way. The melody is played by the drums. By the big, Japanese Taikos. That’s the melody. To me, they are an instrument as melodic as a flute or violin. They’re not much used, but they are melodic. So the driving melody of the film is the Taiko drumming. And around that there are these strange combination of instruments as we like to do with Wes. With saxophones, recorders, french horns, male choir, giving these very low sounds. There’s some piano… There’s double bass, which plays a jazzy, walking bass motif that drives and accelerates as the movie gets even crazier and the spy story becomes even more complex and becomes really frenetic and dangerous. So that’s the approach. We’re in a world of childhood. The movie starts with a little boy playing Taiko drums. We are in childhood territory in another world. And this little boy is going to go to an island with armor. He’s got armor and a helmet and he goes with his friends, the dogs that strike an army with him. He’ll combat, he’s going to go through adventures on an island. It’s like a Prince Valliant adventure. And the drumming reflects that, that we are here with this little boy. But I’m not playing the music of a little boy, I’m playing the music of a knight. You see what I mean?

KP: Yes.

AD: There’s nothing sentimental. Also because in the Japanese culture, you’re not sentimental. When something happens to you, you hold your emotions. You keep yourself together. And that was sort of the idea for this film. The music would never push the emotion in an unnatural way. We need the audience to be moved by the eyes of the dogs, or the boy. The music never pushes it. Never.

KP: That’s true. Did you do any particular study on the culture of Japan in preparation for this film?

AD: No, because it’s something I did long ago. Before. I’ve always loved the Japanese culture and I’ve always listened to…a lot of instruments which we decided not to use in the film. There’s nothing Japanese in the score except for the use of the drums. But even the patterns played by the drums are not really Japanese. And there’s no influence of Japanese music in the score. It’s just coming out of my head.

KP: What was the reason? Was it because that’s just how it came to you? Why did you decide not to use the traditional instruments?

AD: Because it would be on the nose… The great advantage of the drums is that they’re playing several things at the same time, several emotions and they’re full of storyline without mimicking anything in the scene. It’s just the driving force of an army led by a prince. If I had Japanese instruments, it would sound… a bit colonialist. Something that we did not even think about. There’s no way we could use this. It made no sense.

KP: What are some other new instruments that you did use, or new things you decided to try?

AD: There’s no new instruments, just the combination of them which is unheard, I think. It’s the combination of these strange sections mostly.

KP: When you finish a film and you’re watching it back, what is your thought process? Are you finding things you wish you had done differently, or are you able to sit back and enjoy the work you have done?

AD: I never listen back thinking, “Oh, it’s great!” I always hate everything I have done. Not hate, but I’m not taking pleasure, let’s put it that way. I hear what I could have improved, whether it’s a motif or an energy or modulation or whatever it is. I only hear the problems, not what is not too bad. Now, when you watch “Isle of Dogs,” it’s an experience. There’s so much to watch, so many things happening in the frame. So many fantastic jokes and references to Japanese cinema or Japanese culture that if you really dive into the film, you’re completely caught in what you see. Mesmerized. And I don’t really listen to the music. I don’t pay attention. I never listen back to my scores unless I have a concert and I have to conduct something. Otherwise, they sit in a drawer.

KP: And yet there are so many of us that just listen over and over again.

AD: Yes, but I prefer to listen to Marlow or Stachovich or Stravinsky. I try to be more intelligent. (laughs)

KP: When you first sat down to work on “Isle of Dogs” and you first met with Wes, what were some of the directions he gave you?

AD: The only thing that was clear was that it would be Taiko drums. That the Taiko drums would be the main element of the score and they would be the sound and melody that haunts you once you leave the theater. You know, they resonate because they make such big, deep sounds. It’s like plot. But at the end they resonate in your guts.

I guess the rest was trying to avoid any sentiment that we don’t auralize. It’s just obvious when we start together. If it is something that Wes thinks isn’t right, he says “Maybe we can try something else.” Maybe we try something we recorded, it’s very intuitive. We enjoy doing that… We’re building together the score.

KP: You’ve worked in a lot of genres. Drama, comedy, fantasy. Is there anything you haven’t tried yet that you’d really like to?

AD: Yes, maybe a superhero movie. I’ve never done that. Maybe that will come.

KP: That could be fun.

AD: Yeah. It needs to be the right one. But yeah, maybe I could do that. I’m sure it’s very hard and a lot of work, but I think it could be very exciting.

KP: Are there any filmmakers you haven’t worked with yet that you really hope to?

AD: Oh there are so many of them. James Gray… Jordan Peele… Many, many great directors. And older, like Coppola and Scorsese. It’s so many great… Maybe one day I’ll do that.

We would like to thank Alexandre Desplat for speaking with Awards Circuit.

“Isle of Dogs” is now available on Blu-ray from Fox Searchlight.

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “ISLE OF DOGS” ranks among the year’s contenders!