Two-Time Oscar Winning Composer Alexandre Desplat Reflects On "Little Women"
Alexandre Desplat (photo by David Giesbrecht)
Insights into scoring the film, collaborating with writer-director Greta Gerwig

Composer Alexandre Desplat, a 10-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner (for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2015, and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water in 2018), is once again in the awards season conversation--this time on the strength of Little Women (Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures), his first collaboration with writer-director Greta Gerwig.

Desplat was drawn not only to the opportunity to work with Gerwig but also the brilliance of her script, based on the novel by and the writings of Louisa May Alcott. Desplat observed that “the great genius of Greta is taking that story and making a puzzle which is glimpses of what stand out in the characters’ minds.” 

This “nonlinear approach,” he said, is akin to how many of us recollect our lives. He noted you may have a vision of going to the beach one day with family and siblings and then your mind gravitates to not the day after but maybe a year before or a year later. “The moments aren’t chronological in your head,” noted Desplat in terms of how we perceive when we look back on what was important to us.

Desplat loved the challenge of musically doing justice to those moments. At the same time, he felt the constant throughout of crafting a score that had to reflect the energy of the protagonists--most notably the four March sisters, Jo (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) circa the 1860s. “Their vital energy was irreplaceable,” assessed Desplat. “The score had to be in the same vein as that energy, innocence, youth, consorting, kindness, benevolence. It all had to be captured. You couldn’t take a distant view. You had to be there with them in the same frame, allowing us to dance with them.”

Desplat recalled Gerwig offering him “something special” in terms of guidance, at one point envisioning a mix of Mozart and David Bowie as the feel she’d like to attain--reflecting the time period while also underscoring that the March family was different from others in that era. Desplat arrived at a mesh of classical chamber orchestra with the energy of a pop song. “What I saw on screen the first time was full of life, youth and freedom.” Similarly, continued Desplat, Gerwig gave him “a lot of freedom,” letting him write and suggest many ideas for various scenes, using them in different settings like a choreographer.

Intimate and dynamic
Desplat was also conscious of not making the music feel too big. Instead of huge, it had to be precise, concise and comforting, reflecting the people in the house, a family that didn’t act too grand or pretentious. “We are watching girls growing up,” he said, citing their desire to be independent, to be heard, to reach for something.

The score is thus both intimate and dynamic, what Gerwig envisioned as a musical without lyrics. 

Gerwig said of working with Desplat, “From the first sketches he sent me to listening to him record the glorious score with an orchestra in New York, every step of the process has been a joy. He has taught me how to work with a composer: how to listen, how to give notes, how to wait for it to develop, how to step away, how to dive in. I am a better filmmaker for having worked with him, and I sincerely hope that it is not the last time.”

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 The King’s Speech directed by Tom Hooper. 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. Then came the win for The Shape of Water in 2018. And earlier this year Desplat was again a nominee, on the basis of Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

This is the sixth of a 16-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 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,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.

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