Harry Potter Fan Zone recently caught up with composer Alexandre Desplat to talk about his music for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
What was the first piece of music or melody that you wrote for this film and how did the rest of the music evolve from that idea?
I worked many bits and pieces, that’s always the way I build my soundtracks. I take a lot of notes on a music pad, on a music writing little book. And so I take notes from these. And, and it’s many of them, it’s not just one. One of the ideas was the opening titles, the theme of “Obliviation”, and most of the “Ministry of Magic”. These three were the three I started to play around with, which means trying different ideas. But I can’t say that one was leading the others. ‘Cause at the same time I was also playing around with “Hedwig’s Theme”, making many questions of how I could twist the neck of this theme and make it different and bring it into my own little world of music. Except that at the end it did not happen because there was not enough room for the scene to be in the version that I’d written. So it’s really a complex process, it’s not just one theme, it’s many, many ideas and themes. I just record ’cause I know I’m going to use a rhythm pattern that I’m going to use and reuse and display here and there.
“Obliviate” seems to be a reoccurring theme in the film. It’s somewhat of a much darker version to “Hedwig’s Theme” in a sense that the track has a sense of flight to it. Could you talk about that track, and how you came up with it?
Well, first of all it, has nothing to do with “Hedwig’s Theme”. It’s completely away from the “Hedwig’s Theme”. There’s not any combinations of notes that sound like “Hedwig’s Theme”. That’s important to state. And if I may add to that statement that I loved the “Hedwig’s Theme” and I was actually impatient to write a version of the theme. But unfortunately, the movie was repelling, it was not. Because of the nature of the film, this theme, didn’t match. So, that’s the first thing. Now “Obliviate”, it is the seeds of the score. Actually this piece is the most important piece. That’s the piece around which the whole score was built. The idea was to find a theme that had a sense of sorrow, loss of innocence, but still with a propelling motor, and also a sense of wide sound to deliver an epic kind of feeling to it. Actually, this piece opens the movie. It’s the first melody that you’ll hear. And it’s music that goes with the theme where the three heroes leave their families, their homes to go to the unknown. They go on the road to fight the dark forces and it captures their anxiety, their fears, their sadness. And that’s why this theme will be recurring in various shades all over the film.
Fans really love “Hedwig’s Theme”. How did you go about choosing which scenes would feature it?
Well, it’s very easy to understand that. The movie being so different from the previous ones because it’s the first time our heroes are away from Hogwarts. They’re not children anymore. They’re young adults. And the theme of Hedwig is really related to the early days of Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione. We tried really hard with David Yates to use it at very specific moments. Some of them did not make it until the end of the process, unfortunately, because they were kind of bringing the children to childhood while the movie was doing exactly the opposite, bringing the children into adulthood. So it’s only a few moments when he’s leaving his house, we see Hedwig go in the sky, away from Harry’s hand, when Hedwig is killed, also, by one of the Death Eaters. We’re not related anymore, neither to Hedwig, neither to the childhood of these heroes. That’s why and how the theme is not recurring more than that, sadly, because it’s a fantastic melody. Fantastic.
When you wrote the original ballad, what moment was the most difficult to write in music?
Certainly, this “Obliviation” cue which opens the CD one of the most difficult pieces. Because it sets the mood of the film, and of course, I always like to take time finding the overture. I always enjoy writing the overture of a film. Could it be in, in The Ghostwriter, in The King’s Speech, in Benjamin Button, there’s always a strong overture that will set the tone of the film. And I think maybe that’s the thing that was the most difficult. Then there was another scene which was really tricky. It’s when Ron is leaving and Harry and Hermione are on their own. That was also very difficult to find the right balance between the epic fantasy of the moment, of the film, and the restrained emotion of the moment. The despair that they’re losing their dear friend. So it was, maybe these two were the most challenging ones.
Speaking of Ron’s departure. That was very good. That really brought back memories. My question is how did you get to know the characters to write a theme about them, like Dobby. I mean, how did you manage to create Dobby’s theme?
Well, I like Dobby a lot because he’s got an innocence and a courage and some kind of a sense of humor that he does not even know about, which is really great because of his innocence. He’s a pure spirit, and I like that a lot. Actually, it was rather fast to write a theme for Dobby because I had many ideas that could work, and he’s very touching. He’s a very touching character and we haven’t seen him for a while in the story. And more so he’s a very brave little elf, you know. He’s a very small person, very tiny little creature. But still, he has no fears. And I like his statement at the end of the film when he says that he has no master. And I’m a great Mozart fan and admirer. And he would have said the same, “I have no master”. I guess that’s why I like Dobby so much.
Well, how did you research it? I mean, were you allowed clips, or did you read the book or…
I’ve read all the books and seen the movies many times. He’s just one more character but with a special kind of personality.
Thank you for speaking with us this morning. And I believe this is your first time scoring for a Harry Potter film. You said you read all the books and seen the films. How does scoring this film, both these parts, rank in your career for you?
Harry Potter has become such a huge, global thing that when I was approached, when I was asked to write the music for that I was really thrilled. I’ve been a big fan of the John Williams scores since I first chose to become a film composer. So to me, as far as I taking over John Williams’ baton. The baton, you know? It’s John Williams’ wand. And I must say that, when you start working on a film like this, you’re thrilled because you’re excited, but you’re also very scared of the challenge because you know that every single note that you write will be heard. And it has not only to be perfectly right with the film and driving the emotions and the dramaturgy of the film, but also that all your peers will hear the music with much more scrutiny than any other score that you’ve written before. So it’s big, big challenge that I took with great joy and very seriously.
At what point in the film process were you brought in? And so were you given a rough cut of the film to work from?
I was asked to do Harry Potter One, but I was too young, so my mother didn’t want to let me do it. No, I’m kidding. I went on the set, I think a year ago or so during the end of 2009, beginning of 2010. I went on the set, met with David Yates. We had a chat about how the music could work, what we should try, not try. So it was an early process. And we started working together closely from June, 2010.
How did you deal with the task of composing a good soundtrack that will continue the Harry Potter tone and charm the audience as the previous soundtracks have done?
It’s a challenge for a composer for films to always try and write music that could stand alone, away from the film. That’s how I’ve admired the masters of the past, whether it be Nino Rota, Donna Herman, Jerry Goldsmith, or closer to us, John Williams. Therefore, when I start working on a film, especially a big movie like Harry Potter, I always keep in mind that the music should be able to stand alone. Which means that not just following notes or chords to the film, but I’m trying to also have some kind of musical integrity inside the pieces of music. And that’s something you learn from working on movies. As a composer, it’s not something you define, it’s a goal to aim every morning. And when you start working and writing music, you have to keep in mind that you are a composer. Yes, you are a composer for films, but you are a music composer, and you have to pay your respects to the last musician who inspired you. In that case, make sure that when your CD will be sitting on the shelf nearby to masters that I have mentioned, or even the classical masters from Debussy, to Ravel, to Mozart or whoever, that at least you’re not too ashamed of yourself.
I’m a big Mozart fan, too. So that’s nice to hear. My question is about the orchestration for the film. I was wondering if you chose particular instrumentation for different themes and how you chose the instrumentation you did. And if the scores from the previous Harry Potter films had any effect on what you chose.
The scores of the previous Harry Potter’s have no influence on me in terms of orchestration. We knew that we would use a symphony orchestra. That’s about all there was as a choice. Now you could notice that, if you listen carefully to the soundtrack that I’ve laid out the orchestra, what is called, which is having the first violins on the left, second violins on the right, and spreading the strings differently to when they are just spread in a normal orchestral way. That’s the first thing. I wanted to do that to have a wider sense of the melodic lines played by the violins, and it was a huge violin section. And sometimes many of the pieces, we brought in the string section almost doubled. It’s twice bigger than the normal section. So it goes up to almost a hundred players, just for the strings, which is really, really huge. And we have used that a few times to add more weight to the sound. The other thing that you can hear in the orchestration is that I’ve left, almost all the time, out of any melody climbs, the oboes. There’s very few lines with the clarinet. Most of the melodic lines are played by the strings, the flutes, or the brass. And added to the orchestra a few instruments which I felt was, appropriate like a Shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. I added the hand drum which is some kind of a hybrid between a steel drum and a that you play with your hands. With your mallets. There’s some electric guitars here and there that you barely can analyse are there but are there. That’s the kind of tools that I have used to create different colours inside the orchestra.
When writing score for a film like Deathly Hallows (action packed blockbuster), how is your process different than it might be for a film like Fantastic Mr. Fox (more light-hearted, animated comedy)? It actually seems like both of these films came with some pre-existing ideas and themes, Deathly Hallows with all the established music of the first six films, and Fantastic Mr. Fox with Wes Anderson’s signature style. Is it easier or more difficult to create original work when you are coming into a project that already has a basic foundation for the music?
I think it’s more difficult. I think it’s more difficult to take over from such a long series of films with such great scores. It is, in a way, more difficult, is not the word, but it’s more challenging. Put it that way. But it’s really such a challenge for me. I always try and I’m happy that you mentioned Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox seems to be a very small score with nothing really big. But, in fact, it was a lot, a lot of work to find the appropriate instrumentation, the melodies, and to make all that work to the picture very accurately. So, there’s two things: the weight of the previous scores, and of course, the weight of the master, John Williams. The weight of six movies before you. Having done so many millions of viewers through the whole planet. And then it’s the amount of music. It’s the number of minutes. It’s almost two hours of score, which is of course much more than I did for Mr. Fox. The enterprise is much bigger. It’s like sailing on a speedboat. You have to be very, very good. You have to be a very good skipper. But being the skipper of a big ship, cruise ship, is another story, you know? You got to know the sea as well. But in a different way. And it’s another challenge.
I’d like to know which characters did you most enjoy or connect with while writing? And what was your favorite scene to compose for?
I mentioned Dobby before. He’s a character that I really like. Shall we not, just continue on him. I liked, there’s a scene which I really liked scoring. There’s two of them. There’s the scene when Ron comes back. And Hermione and Harry are listening to him doing a little speech. And I really enjoyed trying to find the colour of this friendship. You know, it’s like writing a love scene. But it can’t be a love scene because they’re not in love. They’re just friends. And it’s on the edge. It’s very difficult to not become too emphatic or too cheesy. If the music is too romantic, you know, they’re not in love. So that was a challenging that I really loved because I liked the scene a lot. And the other one was actually the sky battle. ‘Cause I like doing very, animated, strong, quick pieces. And my career was built mostly on more intimate scores. But I’ve always actually written these kind of very fast, driven pieces. But they were not movies that were seen or they were in shows that nobody saw in America. But now I can prove also I can do that. Which was really fun. It was a lot of fun. I love playing with an orchestra and trying to find dynamic the orchestrated tool. The toolkit that you can you can work forever with. There are so many options. There are so many colours that you can create. But it’s just a fabulous device.
Going back to Ron’s departure. Do you tap into your own memories of, say, similar events happening in your life?
You’re always connected to emotion in a scene. That’s actually how I decide to sing or not. If there’s nothing that resonates in me, I don’t want to go because I know that I’ll be struggling to even write two notes in a row. I always try to find the emotions that have a deep meaning for me. And, of course I’ve been through, like everyone, through separations and so low and loss, could be the loss of love or the loss of someone you loved. Someone who passed away. Someone disappeared from your life. Someone who lost his mind and couldn’t find his way back to sanity. It’s also sometimes how a movie can resonate in you from what you’ve read in books. From what you’ve experienced in other movies. You know, it’s the way inspiration comes is a vast subject. But, I guess, yes, that scene where friends are trying to find new boundaries, and find a way of getting together again. That’s something which I think is very moving. And these three kids are abandoned. They have no family, they have no one to turn to. And this sense of solitude is very strong. And I’ve always liked in my solitude.
I didn’t want to make the assumption, but, have you seen the finished film with the cuts and edits and your score?
Yes, I have.
And what was your impression? Did you enjoy it?
It was fantastic, yes. It’s a fantastic experience. It was good to at least see the film with the special effects. You know, I hadn’t seen the special effects before. Most of the versions I have were still in progress with green screens and the sound was completely ordinary. It was not yet there. So, it was a great experience. Also, the grading. There was no grading on the copy I have. Oh, it was a great experience. I was so happy to at last see the film. It was a great experience. And it was the premiere in London. And the crowd was so happy, too. It was a great joy to share.
How much flexibility were you given with this film? And was David Yates working very closely with you through your composition?
Funnily enough, I’m a composer who likes to work very closely to the directors. I chose to be a composer for films, because I was a cinephile. I was crazy about films and I would go to the movies sometimes two or three times a day. And I would also be a fan of movie soundtracks. So, to me this collaborative process is very, very important. I would actually be unhappy if I couldn’t be sitting in my studio for, you know, a regular, daily basis kind of exchange with the director I’m working with. So, working with David was, as I always knew, is a regular kind of meeting where I submit the idea that I found. We’ll listen to my demos, I play things on the piano. I explain what I want to do and I adjust, I change whatever we have to do to make it exactly how the director’s point of view wishes the music to be. I mean, there’s one leader in the film for every department. And it’s the director. For the sound, for the picture, for the photography, for the light, the actors, there’s only one man who decides. And it’s the director. So, it’s good to be exactly, closely, precisely in phase with his desires. And it’s the same when I work with Roman Polanski, with David Fincher, with Jack , it’s the same.
I was wondering about the actual scoring process and what computer programs or technology that you use to help you score the film.
What I do, I play piano and I sometimes play a theme on the piano for the director. I write sketches and then I play all these into Digital Performer, which is the software. I’ve got a good setup of sounds, which can recreate a symphonic setup. Strings, French horns, flutes, and even with more detailed kind of sounds. If the flutes play, is it alto flute, a bass flute, a piccolo, if it’s played. So, I really create a very, very precise orchestrated piece. When the director hears it at my place, he knows exactly how the piece will be. He knows that the trumpet has a mute of that kind on the third beat, until bar sixty-seven on the fourth beat. So it’s really, really precisely pre-orchestrated before I send it away to my orchestrators, who on this project was my, my friend, chief orchestrator, composer, Conrad Pope.
What would be your main theme for Deathly Hallows? And in what way can this theme refer to your own style as a composer?
That’s a question you should answer, actually. If you listen to my previous scores and find what it is related to. I can’t say, actually. Blank there. I have no idea what it sounds like to my previous ones. But, what I can say is that there’s many themes in Deathly Hallows. There couldn’t only be one theme. It didn’t work, actually. Because there’s too many things happening, there’s too many different moments. They are changing places all the time. They’re on the road. They operate here, they operate there. And all the moods change all the time. There was no way to keep one theme just repeating itself and coming back. No. It was impossible. And also, this movie is very dark. And if one theme could have been recurring, full of darkness from letter ‘A’ to letter ‘Z’, it would have been very, very, very, very boring. And, so we’re actually following the characters in their journey with different moods and atmospheres. The only theme is recurring, that again is very specific, the “Obliviation” theme. And the other theme is Voldemort’s theme. Dobby theme we’ll hear at the prompt and will hear again at the end. But, apart from that, it’s more by episodes. It’s more like a journey through different countries. And you hear the music of each country as you go into the country. That’s more the way it was built.