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Alexander Desplat – Composer

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In scoring the music for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, composer Alexandre Desplat invented a portmanteau theme that is note-for-note the same played forwards and backwards. The inverted versions don’t sound the same because they are orchestrated differently. But the mirror theme cleverly reflects the story of the movie’s title character who is born looking like an old man and ages in reverse.
Benjamin Button “has all the elements of a big Hollywood movie that I’ve always dreamed of doing,” says the prolific Parisian movie composer, who recently received an Oscar nomination for his work on the film. “It allowed me to get close to the classic scores by composers I’ve always admired, like Max Steiner, Eric Korngold, Franz Waxman and Alex North,” he notes.
Much of the score is wistful, filled with longing, and there are also “sorrowful elements in the themes because death is part of the story,” says Desplat. The music also helps to illuminate Benjamin Button’s character. “On the screen he is rather internal, and the music helps to bring out his real emotions. The sense of loss I think is the deepest emotion he has.”
The film was “very complicated to score because the arc of the film is so complex,” says Desplat. “When you have an epic movie like Gone with the Wind, you can play the main love theme very early in the movie,” he observes. “In Benjamin Button, you have to wait until the middle of the film when Benjamin and Daisy are both adults to bring in the love theme. Otherwise it would be very weird to use it when early in the movie Benjamin is this crinkled, old, short man as he’s watching a girl 10 years old.
Though Desplat had the luxury of recording the score with an 87-piece orchestra, he used it with restraint. “Composing big schmaltzy melodies would have been inappropriate for this film,” he says. “Though the orchestra is rather huge and the sound is very generous, it rarely plays very loud,” he adds. Desplat frequently breaks the orchestra down into smaller chamber-like units, creating many different colors.
Because the story is largely set in New Orleans, Desplat was able to interpolate jazz into the score without making it overt. He says: “I didn’t want to do a jazzy score, but I used elements of a jazz band, like Johnny Hodges’ saxophone sound or Tommy Dorsey’s muted trumpet. Classic American Jazz was part of my music education as child, because it was my parents’ favorite music—they had both graduated from the University of California at Berkeley where they grew to love it.”
Desplat has had a busy career, providing music for films such as Girl with a Pearl Earring, Syriana and The Queen. “I’ve been lucky to do very interesting films working with top directors,” he says. His latest work includes scores for upcoming films Cheri, directed by Stephen Frears, Julie and Julia, helmed by Nora Ephron, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

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