He has six Academy Award nominations and more than 150 composing credits in film and TV, but Alexandre Desplat is still keen for a new challenge. How about scoring five tonally different films in one year?
"I'd never done an epic movie about war like 'Unbroken,' never done a monster movie ['Godzilla'], never done such a referential kind of score, paying tribute to my elder idols," he says by Skype from Paris of his Elmer Bernstein-esque work on "The Monuments Men." "Never made a movie about a mathematician, trying to convey with music this quick brain which goes faster than everyone else ['The Imitation Game']. I'd never done a movie set in the middle of Europe ['The Grand Budapest Hotel']."
That last project, Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel," is the director's third film with Desplat, who says they have developed a signature sound.
"I think we found that in the first movie, on 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.' He allowed me to do things I'd explored in previous films of mine in Europe," says Desplat. "It's as if he summarized all these quirky ideas I had before using mandolins, cimbaloms, and put them in one box — banjos — and shook the box: ssshhhhkk, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.' Then shook it up again, 'Moonrise Kingdom,' and then again for 'Budapest.' But yes, there is a box which belongs only to Wes."
Anderson and Desplat delighted in mixing sounds from Switzerland, Russia and others for the film's fictional Central European nation, and in shaking out individual parts of compositions.
"Wes would like to try it like this or like this, 'How about just the melody or the harmony here, or how about the rhythm, but played on the instrument that plays the melody?' So we have this kind of Rubik's Cube that we turn around. He's so inventive, perhaps the most inventive director on that level."
"Budapest" and its main character, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), exist simultaneously in the vital present and fabled past, thanks to Anderson's layered storytelling.
"The music had to be elegant, this little touch of memory," says Desplat. "[Gustave] was already flamboyant; for the music to be flamboyant would be too much. This gentle melody gives Gustave more heart."
For "The Imitation Game," which Desplat scored in just three weeks, his aims were simultaneously more machinelike and no less human: "To try to convey the speed these geniuses have — their brains go at the speed of light, much faster than anyone.
"I thought there's a quality to the keyboards I could use to represent the computer. All the fast arpeggios are played by a computerized piano bank from Abbey Road. Some of them are programmed exactly as I played them. Some others, I just played the chord and the computer randomly plays up and down the scales, so it creates quite an interesting blend of arpeggios.
"But that's just one element. That's just the neurons," he says with a smile. "Then there's the orchestra, which is trying to give body and warmth, and create suspense, and a bit of the tragedy. What is his wound, why does he suffer and why does he have so much difficulty to communicate?"
Desplat praises the film's restraint, especially in allowing its star, Benedict Cumberbatch, to portray protagonist Alan Turing's inner turmoil with circumspection.
"The music helps bring out the unspoken suffering," says Desplat. "And Benedict plays it incredibly; he's wonderful, really wonderful."
That restraint includes the moment in which young Turing receives life-changingly terrible news, yet pretends not to care.
"It's exactly what I try to do with the music, find this fissure. The way the camera moves and the music is playing, it shows his heart bleeding. That is a beautiful moment. The actor is fantastic and it's well-directed."
Where he had to mix elements of the espionage, mystery and drama genres in "Imitation Game," Desplat says there were no fewer than "six movies" to score within Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken." The stages mirror subject Louis Zamperini's evolution from child to Olympic hero to bombardier to castaway to prisoner of war in brutal Japanese camps. The score eschews histrionics for simpler virtues.
"The music should have some kind of dignity and elevate our souls; it's not an action movie or a war movie. It's about spirituality and resilience," he says.
"When on the wall, there's a little crack — a fissure — the music has to go exactly there, otherwise you overwhelm the character with honey. It needs to come from this little spot and bleed from that.
"The first thing I said to the orchestra — it was a big orchestra, the London Symphony, at Abbey Road — you should never play more than mezzo forte. It has to be strong, that's why you are so many, but we have to feel the strength held back. It comes from inside him."