Extremely soft and incredibly far away.
This was the scene as film composer Alexandre Desplat presided over one of the scoring sessions for the film "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." The film's premiere was just a month away and Desplat was trying to get the sound of the piano to be even lighter than pianissimo.
Cut to: pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, watching and listening to Desplat's direction via a video screen. The French virtuoso had been in Vienna two days before, now he was isolated in a Manhattan recording studio two floors below Desplat and the full orchestra.
It is hardly the familiar image of composer and virtuoso collaborating together in the same, candle-lit room with long sheets of freshly inked notation paper strewn over a piano. Nonetheless, the modern motion picture remains one of the few remaining benefactors of original orchestral compositions. Though Thibaudet plays regularly with the world's best classical artists (he performs this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall), he considers being asked to play for film soundtracks no less of an honor than being asked to perform a world premiere concerto in a concert hall.
"The good composers of soundtracks, I admire them as much as I do classical composers. I don't make a difference between them -- a composer is a composer," Thibaudet insists, adding, "The movies are the opera of modern times. Had there been movies back when, Puccini and Wagner would have certainly written film scores."
The reason Thibaudet (and other world-class soloists) don't perform original film scores more often is because of the frantic nature of Hollywood post-production. The score is usually the last part of a film's production, and far less time and energy is spent in its preparation than the casting of stars and writing of the script. As Thibaudet puts it bluntly: "Hollywood can't book me three years in advance."
Indeed, that Thibaudet was available to play on the soundtrack for Stephen Daldry's 9/11 drama at all was a combination of luck and intercontinental travel wrangling. Desplat himself came to the project late, after the original composer, Nico Muhly, left the production. (Sources close to the film say there was a change in direction with music early in the fall and that Muhly's score was never completed.) The movie, based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about a young boy coping with the death of his father in one of the twin towers, required a deft touch to balance its whimsical yet somber tone.
Desplat, who has been busy of late -- scoring "The Tree of Life" and the recent Harry Potter film, not to mention "The King's Speech" -- was brought in with only three weeks to compose the music for the film.
"I realized quickly the piano would be really central, the main character, Oskar, is very acrobatic mentally, very quick," Desplat recounted a few days after the sessions. "This was to be an emotional, haunting, delicate score, and I needed a special delicateness at the piano. I immediately thought of Jean-Yves Thibaudet because he lives on this continent."
Thibaudet owns a home in Los Feliz. He met Desplat in Los Angeles through director David Fincher. The Frenchman had not worked together before but wanted to, but when Desplat inquired about his schedule, the pianist was on tour in Europe.
"I was in Dusseldorf when I got the call," Thibaudet says. "I figured it wouldn't work out. The other scores I did, 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Atonement' [both for composer Dario Marianelli], were pure miracles. I happened to be in London when they were recording."
For Desplat, the gods of far-in-advance classical music booking smiled on him: Thibaudet had a concert in Boston on Dec. 11 and Carnegie Hall on the 12th. Recording could begin Dec. 10. So between concerts and shuttle flights, Thibaudet spent nearly every other waking hour in the recording session with Desplat and a booth full of engineers and musicians creating the sound of the film.
Given the amount of hassle and money (though no one will disclose his fee) it takes to get a soloist of Thibaudet's ability, is it worth it? For Desplat, absolutely. "When you have three weeks, it simply can't go wrong. When I write music, I hear the sound, and I hear very precisely," he says. "I'm a composer who writes for recordings, so I'm obsessed with the sound. I need players who will generate that sound -- and emotion. I have to find players who match my sound. I try to create my ideal: the 'Golden Desplat Orchestra.'"
Cut to: Saturday morning, the third of the four sessions at Manhattan Center Studios. It's just Desplat and Thibaudet in the studio. They're working on the crucial last reel of the film. Desplat is trying to get the sound of the piano just right. "I play piano, my touch is really extremely light. I don't like to go deep into the keys," he says, "Jean-Yves is perfect for that, he has a range of color, tone, dynamics and nuances."
This is the case on the all-important final scene of the film: a wordless sequence with Oskar, where the five-note theme has to build and then diminish as the story concludes and the credits begin to roll. Thibaudet gets the final, faint notes with only a handful of takes.
"The music in the movie, even if it comes last, it's a huge part of the final result," Thibaudet insists. "When music is composed specifically for a film, it's like putting air into lungs."
The difficult part of the "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" score to capture was a letter-writing scene just before the finale. Only adding to the pressure was the presence of the work's patron, producer Scott Rudin, who dropped in to watch the session.
Thibaudet was in the studio alone with a monitor playing back the images of the film. In a few hours he would have to be on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
"It is quite mesmerizing to play music that reflects a story. It's very different, and very difficult," he recounts later, "getting the right feeling, the right atmosphere, the right soul, the correct phrasing with the pedal. It's so different than a recital tour -- where I just do it the way I feel, no timing. With a movie I'm part of that story, I have to go into it."
After a few takes, Desplat leaves the packed booth and goes into the studio. They exchange a few words in French. Desplat comes back and they roll the recording of the orchestra: On this take the notes seem to bounce in sync with edits of the film, the rhythm of images flashing by seem part of a whole and, for the first time, the emotions leap off the screen.
When the music comes to an end, the engineer asks for another take, for safety. Desplat nods and pushes the intercom to let Thibaudet know that was better but they'll be doing it one more time. When the intercom is off, he tells the booth: "It cannot be better. Magical. That was it."