Interview: Alexandre Desplat on Suffragette (2015)
By Scott Holleran
Five years have passed since I interviewed film composer Alexandre Desplat about his work on The King’s Speech and other movies (read the 2010 interview here). In the interim, he has won the Academy Award for his music (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and scored many motion pictures, including this year’s The Danish Girl and Suffragette, which is the subject of this recent interview, conducted by phone from his home in Paris.
Scott Holleran: Which instrument is most prominent on your score for Suffragette and why?
Alexandre Desplat: I wouldn’t say that an instrument is more prominent. I would say there’s a beat, an inexorable beat that is there, some kind of war drum, that takes us from the very beginning to the end. I am a strong feminist myself and, having been raised by a mother who is a feminist and two older sisters, I was aware that this was a struggle for many years. I thought [when composing Suffragette] that the struggle goes on and we still have to fight for women to be the equal of men and that this would [best] be conveyed by a war drumbeat that makes you feel that the war goes on and that it still goes on because men seem to be forgetting that women are still like us. It’s mostly orchestral because I wanted this modern struggle to be [conveyed as] something permanent, to be closer to us [today], [so] I wanted something kind of bluesy. The piano comes again and again—it’s a bluesy way of going from major to minor, a blue note that makes the chord change. [Mr. Desplat plays a score sample on his piano].
Scott Holleran: What emotion do you seek to induce, evoke or match in scoring Suffragette?
Alexandre Desplat: There’s a lot of feeling the power of these women gathering. The character played by Carey Mulligan at first seems strong but fragile and not political in her sense of her life. Slowly but surely, she changes. [In the music] [t]here’s the strength and sense of gathering to become allies—the hard life they’re going through, which is like slavery—all these elements [are there with] the loss of her child. It’s the idea that it’s a very cruel world [for women]. I tried to bring this fragility and strength in with the orchestration.
Scott Holleran: Did the director of Suffragette, Sarah Gavron, provide you with requisites and, if so, what are they?
Alexandre Desplat: No, not really. We went through it together and tried to create bridges together. We worked very closely. I think she liked this pulse pushing us towards the end of the film. It’s a very strong demonstration where the suffragettes break windows. At the end, we go very slowly towards the tragedy in the history of women’s liberation when this suffragette sacrifices herself for the cause. It needed that moment for men who were in charge of the country to change the rules and laws. The victory is actually in the ignition. The music follows that trajectory. There is also a sense of bravery but it is balanced with a sense of deep, desperate emotion. I tried to make a link between the audience and the suffragette, so we are always in sympathy.
Scott Holleran: Surveillance is a theme of Suffragette. So are terrorist bombings. The music for the climax at the derby is tense and purposeful. Do you put yourself in the role of the character that dominates the scene when you compose the score and what is your starting point for composition?
Alexandre Desplat: I like the way you phrase it because I kept wondering what my process is and I only realized a few months ago that my goal is to be inside the film—to be inside the frame, in the back inside the picture—and to come back from the front. I try to move into what is in front of my eyes. I try to forget that I’m outside [the movie]. First, you have to learn the film and the camera, the movements, how the lighting works—and the writing. Yes, I’m really stepping into the film and focusing my energy into that [scene].
Scott Holleran: Suffragette depicts acts of terrorism. How did you approach the scenes involving the initiation of force by the story’s martyrs?
Alexandre Desplat: They’re not killing people, which is a major difference. They’re hurting goods, belongings. They’re demonstrating. They have the sense of life and protection of life and they know what it means. The only killing they do is this suffragette who kills herself. But she kills herself without killing anyone. The jockey was wounded but he did not die.
Scott Holleran: You’ve said that composing is thinking, as writing is thinking, in order to find the soul of a film. What’s the soul of Suffragette?
Alexandre Desplat: La condition feminine; the status of women.
Scott Holleran: What is the dominant idea underlying the theme of The Danish Girl?
Alexandre Desplat: It’s a very complex film. It was difficult to score because you want to avoid any oddity that would make the main character strange or different. You want to bring him into our ordinary life as someone who’s very clear in his choices, as clear as anyone else. It took us a while and maybe it took me in the wrong direction. I had to learn to look at the wife with the eyes of love. We [come to] understand what was driving him. The force that was driving his wife was her love for him. So, love is her driving force. His driving force is to become who he always thinks who he has been since he was a child.
Scott Holleran: What is the dominant idea underlying the theme of The Grand Budapest Hotel?
Alexandre Desplat: It’s a comedy, a fantasy around this fake country where dictatorship is coming to power and there are many references to our history and geography. So the music had to play with that while combining elements of melody and orchestration. There are some suspenseful chases and Hitchcockian moments. It’s a balance of comedy, drama, suspense, and history in a country that does not exist.
Scott Holleran: That’s the movie that won you the Oscar.
Alexandre Desplat: It is. When you think of Oscars when you are young, you think of big scores for Star Wars and Lawrence of Arabia, not this type of film, so there’s an irony there.
Scott Holleran: What is the dominant idea underlying the theme of The Imitation Game?
Alexandre Desplat: A man that never, never ever stops believing in his goal—in his inexorable desire for inventing a machine—and, at the same time, the inexorable power of social pressure and institution on a man which will destroy him.
Scott Holleran: As a Parisian, and as a musician, what if any is your association with the Bataclan, named for an Offlenbach operetta and located on the Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, where Islamic terrorists mass murdered those attending a music concert?
Alexandre Desplat: There are no words to name this tragedy—it’s tragic to kill people having fun listening to music. It was a beautiful moment of humanity which was destroyed that night. The best thing I managed to do was to give a concert a week later at the new big venue in Paris. Everyone was shocked and scared and we made this huge moment. It was the best homage we could pay to these young kids who got killed by brainless people.
Scott Holleran: You’ve scored two movies about taking on Islamic radicals, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, your father fought in the French resistance against Nazis and your president has said that France will fight the Islamic fundamentalist enemy with neither mercy nor pity. Do you agree with President Hollande?
Alexandre Desplat: Yes, I do. In the name of our fathers and grandfathers who fought two wars for us to be free and to live in peace, yes, I totally agree—there is no other choice. It has to be stopped. These people have to be stopped.
Scott Holleran: This year began with an attack on Paris at Charlie Hebdo by religious radicals targeting artists and it ends with the looming threat from those who exterminated Parisians consuming art, wine, food and athletic competition for pure joy. Do you say ‘Je Suis Charlie’?
Alexandre Desplat: I did say that. I held a sign at the Golden Globes. I say Je Suis Paris, Je Suis Charlie. We need to stand up for freedom, equity and liberty. At Charlie Hebdo, they were all doing great stories and comics and it’s true that nobody thought that a barbaric act would ever happen here.
Scott Holleran: But Paris had welcomed, hosted and romanticized the [Islamic fundamentalist and future dictator] Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1970s—
Alexandre Desplat: —The shah in the 1970s [whom Khomeini overthrew] was a dictator and we always think that dictators can be brought down and democracy will come out of it. What worries me is war for religion. France is one of the few countries where religion is banned from our constitution—you [are free to go to] temple or church or mosque but you don’t swear on the Bible when you go to trial or become president—so, we are, of course, very different. It is my preference that religion stays separate from [the state]. Religion here is very private.
Scott Holleran: How are you preparing for your work on a Star Wars movie?
Alexandre Desplat: I’m not preparing anything—not yet. I will wait until I can see the film.
Scott Holleran: Did you buy Adele’s new album?
Alexandre Desplat: No. But it’s hard not to listen to pop music. I can hear it at any time at a café, in my car and if you shop for clothes. Otherwise, I like to listen to baroque, jazz and world music.
Scott Holleran: Is there a movie you’ve seen that you wished you had scored?
Alexandre Desplat: The last movie I saw again was Autumn Sonata (1978) by Ingmar Bergman. Of course, there were no scores in his films. So, I would have liked to try and write for this movie where music is so much a part of the movie.
Scott Holleran: We spoke five years ago about your work on The King’s Speech and you talked about finding joy in playing the flute. When did you most recently find the joy in playing your instrument?
Alexandre Desplat: A few days ago. I took my flute because I’m going to play in a score for this Florence Jenkins [biopic directed by Stephen Frears starring Meryl Streep]. For one of the few times, I wrote a score that’s more on the jazz side. So, I kind of prepared for it myself.