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HomeAwardsContender – Composer Alexandre Desplat, The King’s Speech

Contender – Composer Alexandre Desplat, The King’s Speech


Peter Cobbin, chief engineer at Abbey Road Studios, discovered the original microphones that were used by King George VI in the EMI Archives. (Photo by: Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company)

2010 was rather a busy year for composer Alexandre Desplat, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his score in The King’s Speech. The film led the pack with an impressive 12 nominations – more than any other film released last year. It’s the second film with a ‘royal motif’ for Desplat. He also scored The Queen in 2006, which brought him his first Academy Award nomination. He’s also scored films about wizards (Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows Pt 1), vampires (The Twilight Saga: New Moon), and world class chefs (Julie and Julia), to name only a few of the high-profile films from his prodigious output for the past several years. He has in fact scored over 50 European films, first becoming known in the U.S. with his evocative score to The Girl with the Pearl Earring in 2003 for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, and European Film Awards.

I asked Desplat what special challenges The King’s Speech presented, and how was it different from his other recent projects (Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, Tamara Drewe by Stephen Frears, and David Yates’ production of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 1)?

“In many films you amplify the action or you amplify emotions – the big landscapes where you can let the horses gallop under your music. On this one it was very, very subtle. The film needed music, but it had to be a very subtle, understated, restrained score.  It seems irrational but it is more difficult to make an intimate score than a big score,” he said.

The very nature of this project demanded a more precise handling of the cues, “so that you don’t intrude into the performances of the actors, which is something that I love and respect so much. I listened to the way they deliver the lines and the pace, so that when the music comes in, it is at the right moment and with the right color, the right tone – that’s one of the first challenges.”

Alexandre Desplat

The King’s Speech is about a man who can’t talk and who eventually, over the course of the film, learns to communicate effectively because his life literally depends on it. How did the story influence how Desplat did the score? “The music is the voice of Colin Firth, he cannot express himself so the music has to bring it out and bring out his emotions that he can’t show because he’s a Prince and then a King… And you know the Brits, they never complain. So that’s something that the music can bring out – the suffering, the pain that he can’t express.”

Desplat explained that he approached the score by trying to find a theme, or a hook, that wasn’t actually very well formed or shaped, since Colin’s character can’t speak a complete sentence. “So I suggested to (director) Tom Hooper, a theme that would be a repeated note actually like he’s stuck and the music just loops, he can’t really go anywhere. I think it’s subtly done so that it doesn’t feel obvious, but I think that unconsciously when you watch the film you feel that something is trying to emerge and can’t. There is the impossibility of the theme, of the melody to find a shape, and it only finds a shape actually very late in the film when in the rehearsal at Westminster Abbey – finally, the two characters (Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth) become friends. They seal their friendship and their partnership, and that’s where the theme for the first time blows up and gets a real opportunity to have a shape.”

There were other challenges as well as that of telling the story of a man who can’t speak properly. For instance, having only three to four weeks to compose the score at the same time as serving on the Cannes Film Festival jury in 2010. Desplat laughed as he recalled that director Tom Hooper was a bit concerned when he first saw that he was on the Cannes jury. “I actually explained to him that I had a studio in my hotel room so when I was going back from screenings or parties I would just try for a few hours to nail ideas and colors and instrumentation ideas at night or during the day.”

Desplat worked with the London Symphony Orchestra for the classical pieces, and he aimed to match the feeling they conveyed in his own material with a studio orchestra for the score. “I used a chamber music orchestra, not too big, not too small, in between, like Mozart would have done or Beethoven, and with a piano because there is a lot of the Beethoven Piano Concerto, so I thought that there should be a continuity there.” To finesse the continuity even further, Desplat’s sound engineer, Peter Cobbin – the master engineer at the Abbey Road Studios – had discovered the original microphones that were used by King George VI in the EMI Archives.

“Recording both the score and the classical pieces with the orchestra through these microphones made it a special blend, a special color, and I think all this together, the choice of the instrumentation and the choice of the recording through these microphones made it a unique sound and a unique piece like if it was one only composer all together,” Desplat commented, clearly still thrilled by the use of these amazing historical treasures for the film. “I say that of course very humbly, I’m not comparing me to Mozart or Beethoven – I’m just saying that there was a way there to make it really strong and together.” When Tom Hooper heard about the discovery, the speeches were then re-recorded under Cobbins’ supervision at Abbey Road, using the royal mics. “I mean, how many movies come to you about a man who has to speak into a microphone and how many opportunities do you have to find the very microphones that this man was using in the ’30s? It’s classic, yeah.”

Desplat has kept up a nonstop pace for several years now and thrives on it. He admitted that a film like Twilight or Harry Potter requires a big chunk of time and cuts down the other films it’s possible to work with in that period, and is now in fact working on Deathly Hallows Part 2. “But again, when you’ve been dreaming of working with Polanski, with Stephen Frears, doing a Harry Potter, doing another movie with Chris Weitz – how can you just say, ‘Mmm, I don’t know.’ It’s now that I have the energy and the desire. I don’t want to be 70 and think, ‘oh maybe I should have done that at that time.’ It’s the best moment of my life, and also I’m writing quicker than before – sometimes. Not every day. (laughter) I do have more abilities and my brain is roaring. I should use my brain now.”

Desplat is profoundly grateful to be able to work in a field that marries the worlds of film and music – in effect, the perfect job. “I’m a cinephile. My passion for cinema has been as strong as a passion for music since I was in my teens,” he said.

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