Composer Alexandre Desplat on Choosing Luc Besson Over ‘Star Wars’

The maestro behind some of the cinemas’ most marvelous scores shares his thoughts on true passion.
By  · Published on November 21st, 2017

The maestro behind some of the cinemas’ most marvelous scores shares his thoughts on true passion.

If you haven’t seen Alexandre Desplat it would likely be that he is working on his next score. The film composer has been notoriously busy for the last thirty years. When it came time to score his fiftieth feature, fate had another direction for him. He was originally attached to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which would’ve made him the first composer to score a Star Wars film that was not John Williams. Although he wished to have completed that, Luc Besson asked him to score Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. That was an opportunity he could not refuse.

It would be an experience that Desplat had never experienced before in all his film scores, he would be composing with a humungous live orchestra, creating music on an epic scale. Despite Valerian not living up to expectations, Desplat’s score is certainly one of the highlights. Now he shows no signs of slowing down. He is already working on two new scores for 2018 including Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk. He will also likely be in this year’s Oscars conversation for his score in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Incredibly, Desplat was able to carve out some time to speak with us about Valerian, what he does in his spare time, working with del Toro, and his new collaboration with Wes Anderson.

Was there a certain idea of what you want to do with the science fiction elements of Valerian or did you just approach it like any other film that you typically do?

I received a call from Luc [Besson] and I went on the set in Paris. I asked him straightly why he chose me. Why he wanted me to do his score. He had worked with his composer for many years. He said to me something real simple. I was worried that he would ask me to do something like Eric [Serra]. It’s not when I write. He has his own style and I have my own. [Luc] said to me “I want a classical orchestral score, classical in terms of instrumentation and a lot of melodies and I think you’re the person to do that for me.”

So, I was reassured and that’s where we started. This step was an important step of course. And then you know, Valerian is a graphic novel that I used to read when I was a child in a magazine called Pilote which had great graphic novels and we would receive it every month. I was accustomed to the story of the characters and of the world. I knew how incredibly rich Valerian was visually and the adventures the heroes go through. They are one of a kind. They have nothing that you can compare with DC or Marvel. They’re not superheroes they’re just heroes but they’re also human beings. And there was also something there that I always liked. In these novels, there was a lot of humor. It was something very different from any other sci-fi movie that I could refer to.

I’m glad that you mentioned that you are familiar with the comic book because that was actually one of the things I was going to ask you about it.

I know Valerian didn’t do very well in America, but I think it’s because of the lack of knowledge of these graphic novels which came out in the mid-60s.

We’re not trying to copy any of DC or Marvel and that was way before Star Wars was even invented. So, to me, Valerian and Laureline were revolutionary in a way and the stories were put together were very psychedelic. You know very 60s. Some of the drawings are an absolutely stunning invention of complexity and madness. And I wish that the graphic novel would have come out and be spread across America before the movie would come out because I think it would have prepared the ground for the movie to be loved because what Luc did. Of course, he updated the stories and added some characters, but for the most part, all the characters come from the drawings and the stories of the novel’s pages. It’s very faithful to the originals. That’s something to be appreciated and I really loved when I when I first saw the drawings and you know what the costumes looked like and the spaceships.

I mean the spaceship of Valerian which comes from the novel of 1965 or 67. The Millennium Falcon is a very similar ship.

It was really exciting to work on a movie like this. I had never done this kind of huge project, so it was really exciting.

Do you have a favorite genre that you like working in it whether it’s like drama or science fiction or animated? Do you just take every project as it comes?

Well, I consider myself as much as a filmmaker as a moviegoer. I pick my movies you know. I don’t go see everything but I’m happy to see 2001: Space Odyssey or Casablanca there’s no difference between all these movies they’re good movies. That’s what makes them interesting to me. It could be sci-fi, love story, historical drama what counts for me is the fact that they’re made by great directors with a great point of view who bring the audience to be elevated and at the same time entertained. That’s what cinema is. And if it’s good cinema I don’t mind. And also, you know by writing new music for only historical drama I’d be dead because I would write the same music all the time. I think a composer should challenge himself by getting close to danger and doing the score for The Danish Girl or The Queen and then doing [the score for] Godzilla shows that I won’t go far from where I just left my pencil. I do the small indie film and then I run to the huge blockbuster with monsters because I just feel that that’s where I’m going to be troubled. You need to be troubled if you want to progress and get better and proven and enlarge the scope of your capacities and energies as an artist.

Yeah, I can totally see what you mean. I don’t want to be like pigeonholed into one specific genre. It’s more about what the film says to you.

Cinema is a wide landscape. Why should I be punished doing the same thing all the time? I don’t want to be punished. I want to enjoy myself and also, I must say that Luc Besson has shown us so many human qualities. He is very faithful to his team. He works really hard. He’s passionate. And these are qualities I like. I was so happy to be working with such a man who’s got a vision and so much passion.

I have another question for you here about how you transitioned from working on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to Valerian.

No, I changed because Star Wars went very late. It got delayed for two months. And I wanted to do this film with Luc and had I stayed in Star Wars I could not have made this movie with Luc. Yes, and I chose that moment to go for Luc because I was committed and that was it.

It wasn’t so much like you had to follow any specific beats from Star Wars at large and you wanted more freedom?

Well, definitely when you work in the Star Wars movie you have the shadow of John Williams over your head. There’s no doubt that you’d be under a lot of pressure, but I knew that pressure well because I did the last two Harry Potter films.

Right, it was working from a John Williams score again.

Yes. Exactly. So, having this incredible shadow over your head and the responsibility of writing some proper good music for a sequel that was universal. So that was not something I feared.

I know that you are extremely busy. Outside of Valerian you’ve done the score for five films this year. Where do you find the time to do this?

In my spare time which means I have no spare time. That’s what I do. I wake up in the morning, I write music, and when I go to bed at midnight I think about what I have to write in the morning. I think I’m just crazy.

Maybe I should have I should have a life and spend more time with my friends and be going to concerts and having dinners with them, but I’m just obsessed with music and films. Even though I started very early on writing music for films I’ve always dreamed of working in Hollywood. It came after many European movies. When I did Valerian, it was my 50th film. I’m not counting you know what I did for TV or theater or commercials songs. I was 44 and I knew that I had to work hard to improve to be at the level of these masters that I adored. I would worship musicians like [Jerry] Goldsmith, [Barnard] Herrmann, and [John] Williams. When you start doing that and at the same time you want to continue working with your fellow filmmakers, then you have no more life because you think your time between French movies, English movies, Italian movie, German movies, and American movies and it is many movies to align one after another and that’s where I am now.

I was pursuing the dream that was mine, of becoming a Hollywood composer. There’s no other way I can think of at the moment. Maybe in a few years, I work less, but right now, and especially after the Oscar I find myself working more. Funnily enough, after the Oscar I knew there was a there’s always a temptation to go loose and think, oh that’s it now I’ve arrived, I’m on the top of the hill I’m not going to work anymore. I’m going to go play tennis every morning and go to the swimming pool and see my friends. But no, that’s not the way I felt about it. After the Oscar in 2014, I think for the last three years I’ve been working like a dog just because I do not just suddenly change my state of mind and my discipline and my work just because I got an Oscar.

What is important is the movies you do. And when you stop writing good music you’re dead. Your life has no meaning anymore. To me, the meaning of life is to write music. So I just go on and on and I think I improve after every score. You know step-by-step you get better because you learn things from your mistakes and from the dangers that you get close to and you correct that on the next score.

Valerian was one of those challenges where I knew that I would have to work really hard to make it work because it was ninety-eight minutes of score, a huge orchestra, and for the first time I was conducting and recording with a French orchestra. The French Symphony Orchestra in Paris.

The largest orchestra I may have conducted in France for a score might have been sixteen musicians maybe sixty-five. Right here we were talking ninety-five musicians. Another challenge is to be to be respected by your peers of musicians which I respect a lot. But you know sometimes with film composers there is a difficulty in trying to convince the classical world that a film composer can have some technique and a world of imagination of his own.

I saw that you were inspired at an early age to pursue composing for film like was there specific movies or composers that you really loved?

Oh, there were many. Really really many. From Toru Takemitsu, [Henry] Mancini, [John] Williams, [Franz] Waxman, and of course many French. Williams, of course, I mentioned that. But even to stay on the American side, even jazz composers like Mancini and Quincy Jones influenced me a lot.

And of course, the European composers have been very influential on me on many levels. I don’t think I would have become a composer if I had not been attracted by that career in America.

I saw you recently completed work on a much different science fiction story. Can you talk about what you what instruments you might’ve used for The Shape of Water and what were your inspirations?

Oh, but it’s not a science fiction movie at all. It’s a love story.

It’s not really sci-fi, it’s a very real world set in the 60s in America in which there is a creature, that’s it. That’s the only science fiction element that is in the film. The rest is about love, sharing, respect for differences, humanism. Guillermo del Toro is a humanist. This movie is the most beautiful movie he’s done since Pan’s Labyrinth.

But there were many dark sides and monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth and in this one the humans are the monsters. Not the other way around. It’s a movie about love about how you should love your neighbor who’s gay, you should love the cleaning lady whose African American or mute. And you should be able to love a creature which comes from another world different from you but also has a mind and a heart.

It’s not a sci-fi movie at all. It’s an unpredictable love story. A staple of our times about building walls and pointing at the differences of people around us. You notice that in the movie the dominant white male happens to be the monster.

[The setting]. In a few seconds when the movie starts the audience has grown into believing in that world because the reality of it is so strong. You are in 1962 somewhere in America you believe in it.

There’s this creature coming from somewhere but it’s not as if you were exploring another planet and you have to make an effort to understand where you are and what the new species is that you’re discovering. No, this one is in the real world and that’s the great invention of Guillermo. He can keep us in a world that we can believe in and the metaphor of a parable can be quickly adjusted to our own sensitivity.

Yeah, he’s done that countless times, again and again, like you mentioned Pan’s Labyrinth before and even Devil’s Backbone. He seems to use his inventions or creatures just to show what the real world is like.

Yeah, but this one to me his ultimate masterpiece.

I’m not saying that easily and often in my comments. If you look at what I said in the past in my interviews I don’t think I’ve ever said that. This movie to me is a masterpiece.

You have a new collaboration with Wes Anderson coming up with the Isle of Dogs. What can we expect from that? Do you have something unique in mind?

That’s another incredible artist who has his own world ready to be shared with the audience. He has such a distinctive voice that’s always unexpected from the audience. It is also unexpected for me before I start working with Wes. It’s our fourth movie together. And each time it’s been a surprising journey because you start with a preconceived idea of what the movie will be. And so therefore what the music will be. The movie comes to you and you start working Wes and realize that he takes you far far away from the obvious.

Isle of Dogs, is one-hundred times more sophisticated than [Fantastic] Mr. Fox because it’s stop-motion but also it’s just way out there. The detail of the set and the beauty of the puppet’s, it’s amazing. In terms of the music, he took me also to a place I’ve never explored: mixing Japanese drums [Taiko] with a bunch of saxophones, a male choir, and recorders. It’s an instrument terrarium. I’d never imagined that this would be put together and thanks to Wes it will come out and people will hear something they’ve never heard. Because I’ve never heard that before. I’m not saying that it’s good, I’m just saying that it’s different.

Valerian is now out on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD.

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