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Immersed in Movies: Composer Alexandre Desplat Talks 'Rise of the Guardians'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 7, 2012 at 4:28PM

There is no movie composer today more prolific than four-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat. Why, this year alone he has "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo," "Moonrise Kingdom," and "Rust and Bone" in Oscar contention along with "Rise of the Guardians"...
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"Rise of the Guardians"
"Rise of the Guardians"

There is no movie composer today more prolific than four-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat. Why, this year alone he has "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo," "Moonrise Kingdom," and "Rust and Bone" in Oscar contention along with "Rise of the Guardians," despite the fact that the DreamWorks animated feature isn't skewing adult enough and has underperformed at the box office so far this holiday season.

However, "Guardians" certainly sparked Desplat's imagination, even if he was embarrassingly late for his first meeting in London with the DreamWorks team because he was so immersed in composing the score for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." It offered a varied musical opportunity wrapped around childhood innocence, adventure, and wonder. It even took him back to his childhood in France when he joyfully watched a stop-motion short about the Sandman every night before going to bed.

"I was able to have a full symphonic orchestra but keep it very small, and in a blink go to the full speed of a 100-piece orchestra blasting the brass," Desplat proclaims. "The orchestra is a huge toy you can play with, but the great thing about this movie is that the action is just a motor for the emotion."

There's usually something haunting about Desplat's music, the way he slowly weaves a theme that underscores the sense of loneliness or melancholy about a character. Here, in "Guardians," there's no better metaphor than when Sandy streams his golden sand and it magically transforms into creatures that inhabit the dreams of children.

"The Sandman theme, which I call 'Belief,' is the main title and maybe the most emotional," Desplat continues. "I always dreamed of being able to compose for a film a wonderful melody that would rival 'Someday My Prince Will Come' or 'Over the Rainbow.' And I tried to write a theme that could capture that soul, that beauty. And that's how 'Still Dream' [performed by Renée Fleming] became a song. At first, I wrote a theme without even thinking of a song. And at some point the filmmakers suggested it could become a song. So that's the first aspect of it: finding the emotional theme of dreams of believing in dreams. It's a melody that is not patronizing: it's challenging with a lot of arpeggios, which is not always easy to sing."

Rise of the Guardians

Judging from the music, Desplat views all of the iconic fairy tale characters as solitary figures. It is only when they are united that they truly come alive with passion and purpose. "Sandman looks like a lonely man," Desplat suggests. "North seems to be lonely in his workshop; the Tooth Fairy is surrounded by all these little birds, but you can also feel that she's a lonely person. It's very strange and this resonates strongly with me. It allows you to go deep into their little souls."

For Bunny, Desplat conjured a Bach-like "Easter" theme only with choir and saxophones. "It's quite a strange thing," he says. "He's from the country and is surrounded by nature and I tried to capture that. Tooth has a soprano sax on her first appearance that comes back here and there. Jack Frost has a very important recurring motif. The flute is his instrument -- he's got the wind. I was a flutist so I always enjoy injecting flute motifs. Pitch has a motif which is very weird -- a blend of three different instruments: tenor sax, trumpet, and a singing flute. I didn't want to have too long of a melody for him. It had to be short and efficient like a panther; something that strikes…boom!"

But Desplat failed to find a suitable theme for Santa (known as North), the blustery Cossack. He finally realized that his voice (performed by Alec Baldwin) was stronger than any music he could write. The closest thing to a musical signature Desplat could find was a gentle theme when North explains to Jack that everyone has a core using a little Russian puppet. "Funnily enough, it's a very gentle theme. It's actually more interesting to bring in contrast and show his sensitivity."

While director Peter Ramsey readily admits the Spielberg influence in "Guardians," Desplat is more circumspect. He doesn't think in terms of reference but of the symphonic tradition in movie scores. "I come from various directions like Maurice Jarre and Georges Delerue and John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and Franz Waxman and Nina Rota. But my voice is a result of all these voices that I've loved and have crystallized into one."

Listen to the full score and view a scoring session featurette here.

This article is related to: Features, Animation, Immersed In Movies


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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.