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Immersed in Movies: Composer Alexandre Desplat Talks 'Argo'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 28, 2013 at 2:45PM

With "Argo" seizing momentum in the Best Picture Oscar race after its impressive SAG and PGA victories over the weekend, there's also potential spillover in other categories, including Original score. Alexandre Desplat is a five-time nominee, at the top of his game in "Argo" and long overdue for Oscar gold.

Argo, streets

And yet there's hardly any music at all in the first half-hour, which is indicative of a restraint that's very effective. "There's a sense of danger that never stops, propelling both the characters and the story, which is what I tried to convey in the score," Desplat continues. He achieves this with the use of the ney, oud, kemenche, and Persian percussion.

However, Desplat utilizes Deyhim's voice to introduce a haunting lament in one of his favorite cues, "Scent of Death," when Affleck's character arrives in Iran. The composer remembered hearing Deyhim doing some rhythm patterns in a cabaret and so he wrote for her a rhythmic motif -- a sort of scatting -- and trained her because she doesn't read music. The music then swells with the Middle Eastern and symphonic orchestras. But throughout Desplat creates a distinctive sound by combining Deyhim's voice with the Turkish flute (hey) and Turkish violin (kemenche).

There's also a sadder side to Affleck's character having an unstable life, in which he drinks and struggles to maintain contact with his young son, and so Desplat finds time for gentleness in "Missing Home." With this, the "Argo" theme, and "The Mission," Desplat proves once again why he's the master of melancholy.

And in Desplat's other favorite cue, the climactic "Cleared Iranian Airspace," he dispenses with the Middle Eastern instruments and goes strictly for a more traditional classical sound.

"'Argo' is a movie about hope and 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a tragedy," Desplat reminds us. "I've been to screenings all over the world and I must say that people are gripped and at the end they all cheer when the plane goes off. There's a communion there that's very strong."

Meanwhile, Desplat has another busy year ahead: "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (about a perfectly composed concierge) with Wes Anderson; "The Monuments Men" (about a race against time to save great works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them) with George Clooney; and "Venus in Fur" (about an actress who attempts to convince a director that she's perfect for his new movie) with Roman Polanski.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Argo, Interviews , Features, Oscars

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.