Prolific is a word readily used to describe Alexandre Desplat’s career. From his Oscar-winning work on The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape of Water to The King’s Speech and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the French composer with Greek roots has been involved in many of the most acclaimed films of our time. Accruing numerous awards over the years, he has written over a hundred scores. But for George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, Desplat was asked to write more music than he ever had before.
“I thought that there wouldn’t be that much music because it was set in space, and there was going to be a lot of silence, and perhaps the roaring of the spaceship,” Desplat tells American Songwriter. “But as we started, George kept saying, ‘There’s going to be more music, you have to be ready.’
In the sci-fi post-apocalyptic film, Clooney plays a scientist named Augustine, who, while racing to stop a group of astronauts from returning home to an epic catastrophe, discovers a little girl stowed away in his abandoned Arctic outpost. There is very little dialogue between Clooney and the girl, who doesn’t speak, so the Oscar-winning actor-director relies heavily on Desplat’s score to help carry the film.
“I realized that George offered me a huge canvas to write music and it’s a great opportunity. I was very lucky that I had so much ‘space,’” jokes Desplat. The film, debuting on Netflix from December 23rd, is his third outing with Clooney, following The Ides of March and The Monuments Men.
While each new project might be different, the composer says his working relationship with the director has stayed the same. “He is a very kind human, and at the same time, he likes music so much. He needs music to find him,” says Desplat. “I often worry that he might not like it, so it’s both a thrill and there’s a lot of angst because you always wonder if he will like what you wrote or not.”
But Desplat says even on the occasion when Clooney doesn’t like something he’s done, he is efficient at telling him. “He would say, it could be more or less that, and so you adjust or redo. He has a great ear and very quickly he can say, ‘I love it, let’s move on,’ or ‘I don’t like it, we should change it.’ ”
One of the standout scenes in the film involves particles of blood, doing what Clooney giddily referred to, during a Q-and-A for the film, as a “blood ballet,” when a character in the film gets injured on the spaceship. “The instrumentation begins as the first few blood drops come out,” says Desplat, who used strings and piano to create the panic of the moment. “It’s such a strange sight, something you don’t often see,” says Desplat.
It’s one of those moments that we go to the cinema for. “Not many movies can offer you this kind of scene where the music plays it all out,” says Desplat. “I guess that’s what George wanted me to understand, that he was going to play the emotions, all through the film, through the music. The music would be driving the audience to the story just as much as the images, because there’s very, very little dialogue in it.”
The pandemic affected the way Desplat usually operates — precluding him from traveling out of Paris to work with Clooney on the score in Los Angeles (“I was banned from America!” he says, referring to the Covid-19 travel restrictions). It also meant he wasn’t able to be with the London Symphony Orchestra when it came to recording the music. “It was very frustrating,” he says. “It could not have been recorded without technology. But it was all the way very, very, very frustrating. And I wish to not do it again.”
For Desplat, the moment the score all comes together is one of his favorite parts of composing for film — and a very necessary one for deciding if it all works together. “I love this,” he says. “When I’m in front of the orchestra, and for the first time I hear what I’ve been writing. The director is listening, sitting near you, and you hear all these great players in the room. Whether it’s in Paris, New York, Los Angeles or London. With this film, I couldn’t experience that. I was sitting in front of a large screen — with a great sound system, okay, sure — but I couldn’t be sharing this beautiful moment of human bonding. It’s like going to the cinema or the theater. What is great about it is that you’re sharing an emotion and you can feel the vibrations around you. I couldn’t feel the vibrations around me.”
As a conductor, Desplat also coaxes the sound he wants to evoke from the musicians he works with. This also proved to be tricky to do over long distance. “I know that I can bring the musicians to another level of emotion, and not being able to do that was very difficult. Sometimes words are not enough. Sometimes a face that you make, a smile, a wink, a movement of your hand transports the orchestra section or one musician to another dimension,” he says.
Each section of the orchestra — the strings, the brass, the woodwind instruments — also had to be recorded individually too, to adhere to pandemic protocol. “Everyone worked really hard and we had the best team in the world, but it was without the pleasure,” he says. Still, they persevered and created a score that pundits are already predicting will surely be in contention during awards season.
In the meantime, Desplat has two more anticipated scores releasing in the coming months, with two of his other notable collaborators, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. “I think the passion of music is something that when you’re a musician it doesn’t leave you. And so far it hasn’t left me,” he says. “When I’m offered a beautiful movie with so much emotion, so much room for the music, and the chance to work with wonderful people, like George and Grant Heslov, the producer [on The Midnight Sky] why wouldn’t I be inspired?” he says. “Collaborating with great artists, that’s what inspires me.”