Composers Shed Light On "The Shape of Water," "Three Billboards," "Wonderstruck"
In a Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015 file photo, Alexandre Desplat accepts the award for original score in a feature film for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at the Oscars, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP, File)
Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat teams for 1st time with director Guillermo del Toro; Oscar nominee Carter Burwell reunites with directors Martin McDonagh, Todd Haynes
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Composer Alexandre Desplat is an eight-time Academy Award nominee, winning in 2015 for Best Original Score on the strength of director Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Now in the new year, Desplat is once again in the Oscar conversation, this time for The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight), which recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score. The Shape of Water marked Desplat’s first collaboration with writer/director Guillermo del Toro, himself an Oscar nominee back in 2007 for Best Original Screenplay for Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Shape of Water is a fairy tale set during the Cold War era of America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works as a janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute, is trapped in a life of isolation. Her life, though, takes on hope, when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment—a hybrid man/sea creature with whom Elisa makes a special connection. Elisa and this amphibian man (Doug Jones), who too is mute, fall in love.

A relationship between mutes, steeped in a rich emotional silence, is a premise that the film’s DP, Dan Laustsen, DFF, earlier described to SHOOT as being “very cinematic.” The visual becomes all the more important in showing their special connection, against a backdrop of espionage, danger and government Cold War era secrecy. Similarly the music takes on an essential role. “With a character [Elisa] who doesn’t speak, you have more space,” related Desplat. “You can expand the sound more and say things with many different colors in the instruments. In a way you can be more talkative musically.”

Entering the project, Desplat recalled that when he saw a cut of the film for the first time, he was “in total awe over the beauty of it, the pure emotion that Guillermo had put into it. There are some things you watch and they have found a balance, with everything in the right place--like a piece of music where all the chords and melodies, the structure is just right. That’s what I saw in Guillermo’s film. So I had a lot to live up to in trying to score it. How can we have the audience feel the love between two characters who don’t speak? How do we do that without being too romantic, sugary or over the top? How can the sound be warm and tender? We ended up being influenced by the sound of water. The water is warm, tropical, the music needed to convey that sensation of warmth, longing desire, comparative to swimming in warm water. Water opens the film and ends the film. Water is present throughout the story. Music needed to get into that flow.”

“Flow” is an apt description in another respect, explained Desplat. “The camera was always in motion in this film. It never stops. It is always in motion, flowing, which is extremely musical.”

For the hybrid creature’s musical theme, flutes dominate as del Toro observed that the character is about breath--oxygen or the lack thereof. Thus the writer/director felt flutes seemed to best depict the creature, a choice which Desplat embraced, relating, “I suggested we change the lineup of the orchestra to have 12 flutes--alto flutes, bass flutes and C flutes--but no clarinets, no bassoons, no oboes. There’s very little brass, only in a few cues so it’s really the strings and the flutes that bring the qualities of fluidity and transparency that water has. We added to that some piano, harp and vibraphone, instruments that have a pearl-like quality.”

Desplat’s first career Oscar nomination came in 2007 for director Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Two years later, Desplat scored an Oscar nod for David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In 2010 the composer garnered his third nomination for Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. A  year later Desplat was again an Oscar nominee, this time for Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. In 2013, Desplat was nominated for Ben Affleck’s Argo. A return engagement with Frears yielded another Best Original Score nomination, this time in 2014 for Philomena. And the same year Desplat won the Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel, he was also nominated for Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game.

Carter Burwell
Whereas Desplat teamed for the first time with del Toro, composer Carter Burwell continued his collaborative relationship with writer/director Martin McDonagh, most recently on Oscar contender Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight). Burwell also is generating Oscar buzz this awards season for his work on Wonderstruck (Amazon Studios), which again brought him together with director Todd Haynes. Back in 2016, Burwell earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for Haynes’ Carol.

Burwell first scored for McDonagh on In Bruges (2008) and then Seven Psychopaths (2012). The writer/director naturally gravitated again to Desplat for Three Billboards, set in the fictional town of Ebbing where we’re introduced to Mildred (portrayed by Frances McDormand), a grieving mother consumed with rage because the rape, murder and incineration of her teenage daughter has gone unsolved after a year. Mildred rents three billboards on the outskirts of Ebbing. Passing motorists read the successive billboard messages which taunt the town’s sheriff (Woody Harrelson) and ask why no progress has been made in the case. Thus begins a quest for justice that is full of anger, sadness, emotion yet is darkly comic as we delve into Ebbing, its characters and their stories.

Besides the collaborative ties to McDonagh, Burwell also worked on the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple which was the first feature film for both the composer and McDormand. Desplat noted that he, McDormand and McDonagh “all go back quite a ways.”

As for how McDonagh has evolved over the years, Burwell observed, “Martin is now more experienced as a film director, so he was more confident in his own choices. That said, it was still not easy to decide what the musical themes of this film [Three Billboards] would be. Some characters are only scored at the start of the film, and some only at the end. Ultimately the themes of Fran’s [McDormand’s] character, themes of loss and vengeance, carry the entire score, but it took us a while to decide on so simple a solution.”

At the same time, Burwell shared, “Honestly I feel Three Billboards would work as a film without music. The writing and acting are so strong and provocative. But I know Marin wanted to make, basically, a western, and that genre requires strong themes. In this case, just two themes really. But sometimes two is enough.”

As for Wonderstruck, that film continued Burwell’s fruitful working relationship with Haynes, yielding not only the aforementioned Oscar nomination for Carol but also two primetime Emmy nods in 2011 for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, which included a win for Best Original Dramatic Score for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special.

Wonderstruck introduces us to Rose (portrayed by Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl who in 1927 runs away from home in New Jersey and makes her way to Manhattan to find someone who was an important part of her past. Fast forward to 1977 and we meet Ben (played by Oakes Fegley), a deaf lad beset by personal tragedy, who finds a clue about his family that leads him to run away from rural Minnesota to New York. Based on the children’s book “Wonderstruck” written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, Haynes’ film connects not only two stories, two eras and two runaway 12-year-olds but also provides viewers with a path into the deaf culture.

Burwell observed that the biggest creative challenge that Wonderstruck posed to him “was how to write non-stop silent movie music [from the 1920s’ era] but within a 21st century language. The music couldn’t be as melodramatic as the scores that survive from the silent era. Because of the nature of the story, the score had to lead the audience but also leave them in a state of slow-burning anticipation.”

Burwell added, “I suppose the biggest lesson learned was that, in order to do all that, I had to develop enough thematic and orchestrational material so that I could modulate between small and big gestures while never stopping the music.”

This is the eighth of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.


Guillermo del Toro, writer-director; Vanessa Taylor, writer; Dan Laustsen, DFF, DP; Sidney Wolinsky, editor; Alexandre Desplat, composer; Paul D. Austerberry, production designer.


Fox Searchlight trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh, shot by cinematographer Ben Davis, edited by Jon Gregory, with music by Carter Burwell and production design by Inbal Weinberg.


Trailer consisting of excerpts from the feature film "Wonderstruck" (Amazon Studios) directed by Todd Haynes and shot by DP Ed Lachman, ASC


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