Alexandre Desplat is a composer who particularly delights with being in the company of women. Arriving in Hollywood from an already-impressive career in France, the musician’s scores for a woman convinced of boyish re-incarnation in “Birth” and Vermeer’s object of artistic obsession in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” set the tone for an emotionally lush, empathetically understanding style that’s highlighted no end of female characters in scores like “Coco Before Chanel,” “Julie & Julia,” “Fanny” and his Oscar nominated soundtracks for “The Queen” and “Philomena.” Desplat has often played women striving to make their artistry and independence heard, mixing his talent for memorable, gossamer themes with determination in “Coco Before Chanel,” “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Suffragette.”
Now Desplat’s talent for gilded melody, feminine feeling and conjuring the past combine to write an iconic cinematic book with “Little Women.” As heard numerous times through the decades in cinema and television, such composers as Max Steiner, Adolph Deutsch, Elmer Bernstein and Thomas Newman have put their melodic imprints on the renditions of Luisa May Alcott’s autobiographical 1868 novel. Now what might be the most lavish adaptation by “Lady Bird’ filmmaker Greta Gerwig once again brings together the March family. As comprised of the determined writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the artistically inclined Amy (Florence Pugh), the seemingly conformist Meg (Emma Watson) and the piano playing Beth (Eliza Scanlan) “Little Women” charts the Marches through their love, loss and togetherness in a tale spanning the decades from the Civil War home front in New England to the glimmerings of female independence.
The notable difference in Gerwig’s take on Alcott is a positively modernistic time-shifting structure that lends a particular stream-of-consciousness flow in contrasting the characters in youth and maturity. It’s a dreamlike quality for Gerwig’s significant step up in Hollywood craft that’s beautifully befitted by the well-honed and prolific melodic skills of Desplat. With a score that’s the equivalent of faerie dust, the composer’s sparkling percussion, delicate piano, lush strings, and segues from belle of the ball rhythm to the period’s source music evokes a sense of optimism. Centering the score is the spirit of Jo, who’s lifelong desire to be heard as a writer is central the score, most strikingly as it accompanies Gerwig’s lyrical end montages.
With that adored filmmaker in the company of a composer who’s been walking down the Oscar aisle just about every year (last winning for casting a romantic spell between a mute and a fishman), “Little Women” marks another love letter to the spirit of sisterhood for Desplat, one that just might strike a little golden man’s fancy.
“Little Women” is a big cinematic step up for Greta. Why do you think she turned to you to score it?
Desplat: Greta told me that she was obsessed by my score for “Birth,” and that one day she wanted to do a movie that I would compose. I loved “Lady Bird,” and thought it would be great to work together. You could even say that “Lady Bird” deals with the same topic as “Little Women,” because it’s main character is a young woman who want to be creative, and to have no limits in her desires and dreams. But where “Lady Bird” had a troubled relationship with her mother, here it’s one of kindness. Another interesting difference is “Little Women’s” absence of the father figure, which makes the film all about how the sisters and mother bond through love, even if they don’t have much money. Yet they still have their dignity, dreams, joys and fights. You always fight with your siblings and love them one second later. In the end, the scope of “Little Women” was certainly larger than “Lady Bird,” but it’s not as if Greta did “Titanic!”
Gerwig: I was so excited to have a larger cinematic canvas to play with in “Little Women,” and to create a world that didn’t exist. While this movie didn’t have songs, I always viewed it as a musical, which is how I described it to Alexandre I knew that I needed a composer who could be both completely modern and completely classical, as there would be an aspect of the score that would be cozy and traditional, and then a side of it that would be spikey and strange. I knew that Alexandre had both of those elements to his music. Though I didn’t really start working with Alexandre until after the movie was completely edited, he’d given me a few sketches during filming that I could play when I was setting up shots or working with the actors. That allowed me to anticipate what the film’s musical landscape would be like. Because his score was the last element, I truly didn’t have the film until I the final music in it.
One aspect that really sets this “Little Women” apart from its previous versions is it’s time-jumping structure. How do you think your music made the film cohesive in that respect?
Gerwig: I was playing with both the idea of time and authorship. I wanted to introduce the film with them as adults, and then have childhood be the snow globe, halcyon days that they’re trying to get back to, but trying to learn from and quite understand how that’s all gone. That idea allowed me to introduce the idea of is that what really happened, or is that how you remembered it, or wrote it down? That idea of authorship is about Jo wanting to be a writer, but also Louisa May Alcott writing Jo as her avatar – but also me interpreting Jo and Lousia May Alcott allowed me to introduce the idea of an author in the filmmaking. So Alexandre and I talked a lot the idea if the movie that’s playing is in Jo’s head, the author’s or all of us? There are moments in the film when that becomes very explicit when the movie music starts back up, and when it goes away. So he was able to play with that reflexivity and meta-ness and also play with the idea of childhood versus adulthood just in the structure. Take for example when they’re on the beach all together and they’re all young. You hear this glorious, romantic score that just killed me. Then as adults you see Jo and Beth alone on the beach, and it’s just the outline of what we’ve heard before. That’s the kind of element of storytelling that I didn’t have until I had Alexandre’s score. He was able to strip away and add so we could enjoy the fullness of childhood, but also the excitement of fiction and then what the intimate moment of reality is.
Desplat: It’s crucial that the score links it. What I loved when I first read the script was that Greta wasn’t repeating the how the past movies told their story. We’ve already been there, so let’s move on. Greta had the great strength, intelligence and talent to take the story and make it more like how your memory works – in how you remember the past and have grown into adulthood. It’s how these characters anticipate their loves and desires. Yet the music couldn’t jump that way. It had to link everything together. So the music is like a ribbon that knits the storylines together. The score keeps you in the same mood of what the characters are living on screen. The only thing I did at times was to of course change the tempo of these moments, because memories are made of moments, not of chronological order. That might make these moments more nostalgic like when they’re at a beach, tenderer when their father comes back or more energetic when they dance, run and embrace, when they have fun. But the orchestra is the same. I don’t change colors, but keep the sound similar so we have this string orchestra with two pianos. That gives us four hands, which represents the four girls. It captures what Greta told me about how she imagined the score sounding, which was “Mozart meets David Bowie.” It’s a classical orchestra that calls back his piano concertos, which is some of the most beautiful music ever written for that instrument. The rhythm has the energy that comes from a Bowie song. It’s bouncing and jumping, yet is played by strings.
Yet it might have been anachronistic to totally go that “Bowie” route.
Desplat: Greta and I actually thought about it at first with. But what she did in the art direction is as far as you could go. It’s having a score that is “period,” but still doesn’t sound that way. I think it’s as simple as that. If I’d used electric guitars and drums, it would have been “Come on!” I think the audience is smarter than that. And we always have to respect them.
Why do you think that Alexandre has such an affinity for doing scores that play strong female characters?
Gerwig: I’d never thought of that. But I’d say that as a composer, I think Alexandre is very intellectual and also very emotional. His scores are never just one thing. They’re not just an idea or an intellectualization of what the film is. Nor is it purely emotion. He’s playing with both. For me, that’s what I was interested in for “Little Women.” Not only the structure of the film, and also the characters themselves. They’re very intellectually engaged in the narratives of their lives, but also overwhelmed with emotional life. The heart is driving these characters’ stories. I don’t know if that’s exactly “feminine.” But that complexity is what he was able to answer. He doesn’t flatten one part of them. And maybe that’s what it is about his writing is that he’s able to get inside the contradictions of the characters, and why the female characters that he scores feel particularly rich.
Desplat: I’ve done a few scores that are set during the same period as “Little Women.” I guess I’m at ease with femininity because I was raised was raised with two older sisters and female cats (laughs). So I was always, more at ease with women than with men when I was younger. Since childhood, I could understand their struggles, their dreams, their desires and who they were.
Though part of the film takes place during The Civil War, there’s a dreamlike quality to the movie that feels like characters that are living in their own bubble. The way you use bell percussion captures the feeling of a privileged gilded cage in a way.
Desplat: Yes. It’s like families who are not rich. They struggle and the parents work hard. But their kids have memories of happiness and joy. That’s what Greta created so beautifully, especially with the beautiful natural scenery of where their house is. It’s the way you see the seasons change around it that keeps you in this beautiful environment that childhood should be. They way that Louisa May Alcott and Greta bring the story to us is made of that.
Gerwig: It goes again to me as viewing their childhood as having a “snow globe”-like feeling. I wanted that in all ways, whether it was the exterior of their house. It might be drab. But when you open it up it’s like a magical jewel box. So I wanted his score to create a magic circle around these people. He did that. If you read the literary criticism of the book where a lot of critics noted that it’s a book in the tradition of “female utopias,” where Mr. March isn’t there. He’s gone to war. So you have this kind of idyllic community of women existing on its own. And I wanted the score to have that utopian feeling.
In that way, your score also calls back Bernard Herrmann’s approach to Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which is about a family in this sort of dream existence during a gilded age – of course minus the tragic aspects.
Desplat: That’s a compliment for me because that’s a beautiful score. It’s certainly a different score than others by Herrmann, who’s known mostly for his suspense thrillers. It all goes to the beauty of what Greta has put together that resonates with my music. Just look at the costumes here, which are incredible. They’re period, yet contemporary. It’s also in how the girls’ hair is styled. She has the talent of bringing this story so close to our times. You could even see Jo running in New York today with the same outfit.
Which of the sisters do you identify with most?
Desplat: I guess Jo is the one that I can refer to the most because she’s the writer and she’s the one who’s locked in her dreams. Amy moves on when she realizes that she can’t be a painter. Beth’s story is cut short, and Meg is more taken by the tradition of being the wife and a mother. But Jo keeps the dreams of her childhood vivid and doesn’t want to go into adulthood in the way that her society decides. She wants to keep her freedom and her dreams as they were when twelve. That is the lesson for any artist – to keep this genuine innocence. It’s hard cause we use it all the time. It’s hard to bring back.
What did you particularly learn from working with Alexandre?
One of the things that I did with him that I hadn’t done before was to cut the movie “dry,” and then to play it for him without music. So he watched with absolutely no score, which I’d never done before. But as a filmmaker, I realized that the imagines in my montages had to have integrity outside of what a composer can do for them, or cover their faults. That was an exercise that forced me to frankly be a better director in terms of making sure the film would have as much integrity as it possibly could. This was like working with an actor, or a costume designer. It was working with someone who responded about what was interesting to you, and having you being open to surprise. So it’s very much a conversation. And the truth for me is that I can’t write music, but I know when I hear it and it’s right. Because “Little Women” has so much music, I felt I really got to get into a conversation with him.
There are a lot of striking musical montages in the film, especially in the end where Jo decides to write, and put together her book. At the conclusion, just when you’d think the music would go up with her triumph, you actually bring it down with a sense of uncertainty.
Desplat: That music starts with low key chords, like there’s something that’s going to happen. Then silence, and then she starts writing. The music grows and grows and grows. But I wanted the music to go back into her head. I didn’t want the music to explode and smash the walls. I wanted it to just fall down, like the water in a brook might. You see this incredible book being made with the leather and the gold, and then I come back down with just a piano chord at the end. That also reflects the delicate touch that Greta has brought to the film. It’s incredibly detailed.
Gerwig: A montage in the classic sense of film theory going back to the earliest days of movies is that you’re making meaning with the juxtaposition of images. So for me, it was finding that ebb, flow and play of reality, fiction and past and present to create something that was emotional and cubist at the same time in terms of how we edited them.
There’s a real seamlessness as well as to how the score transitions to the “source” tunes here.
Alexandre was very involved with the source music that we chose with our music editor Suzanna Peric, who’s just extraordinary. For example, take Beth who plays piano. I didn’t want her just playing normal songs on a piano. I wanted her playing Bach, Schuman and a very expansive 19th century classical repertoire on the piano, and how that would weave in what the other music was. Similarly, he was also a big part of, the pieces that the characters are dancing to in ballrooms, even though they are pieces that he didn’t write. There was no part of the soundtrack that he didn’t touch.
When you look at the wonderfully melodic French composers who’ve succeeded in Hollywood, where do you think you stand among them?
Despat: Well, they inspired me for sure. Georges Delerue and Maurice Jarre were my idols, Michel Legrand was in another dimension as a great songwriter and melody writer. If you listen to his scores, what stays is his talent for writing incredible melodies. I learned a lot from listening to them, and I’m proud of being one more.
Now, do you think you’re saving unapologetically lush themes and melody in today’s Hollywood?
Desplat: I like melodies. I still think I have to improve in my writing before being as good as Henry Mancini, John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith. I think being able to write melodically is something you need to learn, and be able to do as a composer, which is a lot of work. It’s good to write chords and textures. But to me it’s not enough. When the movie is calling for it, I’m happy to be able to, to try and write a melody. Of course there are some scores like “Zero Dark Thirty” where it would be wrong to have too much melody.
What’s coming up for you?
Desplat: I’ve written three scores since “Little Women.” One is a film for Costa-Gavras called “Adults in the Room.” It’s based on the book written by Yanis Varoufakis, who was the economy minister of Greece during the big financial crisis of 2015. I’ve done “An Officer and a Spy,” which Roman Polanski has adapted from the Robert Harris book. It’s the stunning story about how, uh, one of the prosecutor, author of Alfred Dreyfus becomes his defender. Then I did Wes Anderson’s new movie “The French Dispatch.”
What is it like for you to be continually invited back to the Oscar “club,” especially as there’s a strong likelihood that “Little Women” will bring you another nomination, if not win?
Desplat: We’ll see. It’s a fantastic honor. I’m very fortunate. I’ve been treated with the best benevolence ever since I’ve arrived on that scene with “Girl with the Pearl Earing.” Every year. I’ve had great movies and great directors calling me with opportunities to write good music. If I’d been given bad movies, I wouldn’t be heard. I’ve been fortunate. The chances of being nominated are very small, because there are only five nominations. Would I be nominated this year? I don’t know. I never thought about that while working on “Little Women.” The only thing I thought about was the deadline! I have to sleep less. I have to work more to make it! That’s what I think when I work on a score. Nothing else!
Gerwig: All I can say about the music’s Oscar chances when I listen to the score is that it makes me cry every single time I hear it. So I think the soundtrack should get a prize just for that! If I had it my way, all of my collaborators would be acknowledged because they’re so extraordinary, and none more than Alexandre. It’s an enormous score. It’s beautiful, soaring and everywhere. When he saw the finished film, he remarked to me that we were making a ballet!
Do you see this as the beginning of a beautiful friendship?
Gerwig: God, I hope so! I hope he’ll work with me again. I’ve never been so nervous as when I showed him the final movie with his score. I’m in awe of what he was able to do for it. His love for cinema shines through it. Composing music for film is what he’s always wanted to do. And he has such a knowledge of cinema and how it works that I think his good opinion was one of the things that I coveted through the process. If he’d work with me again, I’d be very eager to exploit his talents!
“Little Women” opens on Christmas Day, with Alexandre Desplat’s score available on Sony Classical HERE
Listen to Alexandre Desplat’s soundtracks HERE
Visit Alexandre Desplat’s web site HERE