By Rudy Koppl
When the magical birth of an old man evolves into a new born infant and then passes away, it’s the sheer artistry of director David Fincher and the gently haunting music of Alexandre Desplat that breathes magic into the life of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Not only do Desplat’s compositions play in the mystery of time moving backwards for one and forwards for all others, but seeing the de-aging process of Brad Pitt is nothing short of miraculous. Many scenes including the war at sea, making love on the beach, the bookends of a train station clock being put up and then left in a basement to tick backwards forever, or just a simple humming bird, have their unique signature in time, whether it’s 2005 or the uncanny artistic look from a book of ancient photos in the early 1900’s. It’s the collaborations of Fincher and Desplat, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, cinematographer Claudio Miranda, makeup artist Greg Cannom, and costume designer Jacqueline West that unfolds the mysteriously quiet nature of Benjamin Button right before our eyes. The breathtaking look and sound of the film, the magnificent make-up and editing, the subtly gentle nature of the moment and how the smallest thing we do or don’t do will affect our destiny forever. When all of this is combined we journey into a dark, but spiritually uplifting world that teaches us how precious life really is. No matter how twisted or backwards it may be, it’s a gift, a spark that lights a fire of love and joy leading us into eternity forever.
Year after year Alexandre Desplat has scored the classics waiting for his time in the sun. Sometimes his music is so good that its realization outweighs the quality he writes for. Over the years I’ve interviewed Alexandre many times and as time moves on his humility for his efforts has grown. He lives his films and stops at nothing to please his directors, always giving them more than they envisioned. Over the years Desplat has worked with Ang Lee, Jonathan Glazer, Peter Webber, Mike Binder, Lasse Hallström, Stephen Gaghan, Richard Loncraine, Stephen Frears, John Curran, Chris Weitz and a list of French directors that will make your head spin. For his latest collaboration with David Fincher, Desplat’s music had to be atmospheric, intimate, and gentle, not being symphonically overwhelming because the film is convincingly subtle in a detailed way. Alexandre explained one interesting development, an explosion of ideas from typewriter to screen that actually gave the film its detail, “Eric Roth’s story, it was really developed from a short story. He made it much more interesting, rich, and more sorrowful. The short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922 was some kind of a joke and this movie’s never a joke. There’s humor, but it plays to a really deeply emotional score.” It was a delicate task for a composer who created compositions for parallel tales embedded within the story of Benjamin Button. Like altering the time continuum, as Monsieur Gateau points out in the beginning of the film, the reason he had designed his clock to work backwards was in an effort to reverse time, the war, and bring his son and all the soldier’s home to live out their lives as it was meant to be. Fincher then reveals the soldiers in battle running backwards from the front lines as if it could come true. The idea of destiny changed forever at the cost of a dream and undying love, only to resurface years later as the dream disappears.
It was a brisk, but sunny afternoon on Tuesday December 9th, the night after Desplat attended the premiere of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, just minutes before Alexandre would take his ride to the airport and leave Los Angeles once again. The push for awards was running at an all time high in Los Angeles by all the studios and all the great hotels were booked, so Desplat located himself in the house of composer Marc Shaiman for the week. He was no stranger to the place, he actually mocked up his score to Firewall when he was over here recording on The Eastwood Scoring Stage three years ago. I drove high atop the Hollywood Hills to talk to the French composer about his wonderful experience with David Fincher and his moody score. The parking was impossible, especially on a narrow road on a mountaintop surrounded by houses. Finally I found a place and was greeted by Mark Shaiman’s assistant who sent me upstairs to one of many of Shaiman’s studios. In it’s darkness with only a bit of light peeking through the blinds Alexandre arrived and began enthusiastically talking to me about working with David Fincher, the challenges he was confronted with when scoring something he’s certainly never dreamed of before, and his music that celebrates the precious gift of life.
Taking on this film must have be one of your greater challenges; the tone of your score is radically different than your other films.
On each film I score I stretch or explore some world that I haven’t been to before and this one has a wide range of possibilities. It was not only the emotions, but I was concerned with how you make two people love each other or have a relationship when they really don’t make love until late in the film. The first time they make love is in reel five or six, far from the beginning. When Daisy and Benjamin first meet you understand that there’s a very strong connection, but they’re children even though he’s an old man, but a child. You can’t really play a love theme there because it would be weird to have a deep sensual melody. It’s a very strange and complex architecture that you have to find, that’s the biggest challenge, the architecture of the movie and how you build the music throughout.
How did David Fincher discover you?
In a brothel in New Orleans (laughter), he actually knew several of my scores because the film was temped with almost all of my music. From Lust Caution, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Syriana, The Queen, but also a lot of pieces from Birth. I had to ignore the temp, there’s really not much connection to it. If you heard it you might think it captures the mood, but it’s still very different. Birth is David’s favorite score of mine and that helped a lot when connecting with David. The music of Birth is also a music which is on the thin red line, trying not to play any genre, which has both qualities of being sorrowful and still magical and strange. That’s what we were trying to aim for in Benjamin Button.
When you worked with David how did he communicate what he wanted from you?
He’s very detailed, he knows where he wants to go and he’s very experienced. David’s made so many big features, videos, and commercials, so he knows about the importance of the music in a narration and how dangerous in Benjamin Button it could be if the music went too much into one direction or another. He never wanted me to do a genre score, a love story, an epic story, a sad drama; all of these things together had to come out in one voice, a hybrid. The music should be able to change color; it’s almost the same music all the time. Depending on the scenes, how the light hits the music changes the colors, but it’s gentle, soulful, still light and moving forward with repetitive patterns, and it just repels you and keeps you in empathy with the characters. David wanted the music to focus on how we can connect the characters and not play to the situations. It’s always the subconscious and the subtext that we were trying to aim for. He has great communicating skills because he hears very quickly what he likes or dislikes, he knows it’s a high or low one, he can hear the difference in the instrumentation and rhythm, he has the talent of hoping I will deliver something that I’ve never done before, which is important because some directors just want you to do the same crap that you’ve done before.
The feel and look of this film is very different than the usual cinema, it has this quietness to it and an artistic look to many of the sequences. Did this dictate the way you had to score it?
Definitely, I write film music because I am inspired by what I see. My eyes are a very strong vector of emotions, so I’m a great transmitter of emotion and I transmit them in sonic emotions. I like to go to museums, see exhibitions, I like the visual a lot, and I even like to look at architecture. Definitely the grain of the picture, how the light is playing, like how David photographed Cate who is always flushed, sparkling in the light, vibrant, it’s incredible how radiant she is. We also go back to the real world where Cate is in the hospital, the reality, which is very harsh and with a lot of contrast white and black, where the whites and the blacks are really strong and then we go back to this old fashioned sepia, foggy and weird, a very rich and detailed picture, it’s very inspiring and important.
The editing of this film is unique. Not only are we dealing with Daisy on her death bed reliving Benjamin’s story through a diary, but Button’s life evolves backwards as we move through the storyline. Did the way the story was edited influence your music?
The editing is something crucial for the rhythm of the film and the composer has to deal with that, he has to connect with the pace of the editing. We know we are going back and forth from 2005 to the past, it’s very important because there are many scenes where we’ve tried to link the past and the future together. We go into the hospital and the music lingers on, there’s a moment when Caroline/Julia Ormond, the daughter of Daisy, hears that she has a father who was not her father, who is Benjamin Button. There’s a music there that lingers on and gives even more drama to her reaction. We tried at times to connect both worlds, past and present. We also didn’t want the music to be chronological like changing colors as we move through the century. It has the same color at the beginning of the movie or at the end, it’s the same instrumentation, I didn’t change it and add more jazz or whatever because we followed Daisy and Benjamin (the main characters) throughout the century. It’s just the same world that he lives in, his undercurrent coming out and down through the story, through the drama, and that’s how I tried to link the films structure.
What scene in the film inspired you and opened up the idea for your score?
I started several things at the same time. I started looking for Benjamin’s Theme and for Mr. Gateau’s Theme, which is the opening sequence with the clock maker; it’s like a pre-opening title. I followed several tracks at the same time to try and grasp what I could of the flavor, mood, and scent of the music. The first theme I nailed was the Russian sequence in Marmont with Elizabeth Abbott, his first love affair with Tilda Swinton. After a lot of research I wrote Benjamin’s Theme, which I had the idea of a melody that goes in two directions. It starts forward and then it’s played backwards, that’s the way the melody is built. You really don’t notice it unless you pay close attention, but the notes go in one direction and on the second part of the theme it’s the same notes but in reverse, like Benjamin Button is living his life in reverse. So coming back to the idea of the opening sequence and the last sequence, what is important at the end of the movie is not the connection with the clock, but it’s what is just before, which is the death of Daisy, so I didn’t connect the clock to Daisy. I actually connected it to just before that, to the moment when Benjamin Button has decided to live his life on his own, to grow younger by himself and leave his family because it would be impossible to raise a child, to have the love of his life raise him as he’s getting younger. That is connected to the parable, which is at the beginning of the movie and when he leaves, that’s where it’s connected. These themes only happen there and never in the middle. This is called Postcards and it’s the first cue on the soundtrack.
What other themes did you create for the film?
There’s the Marmont’s, the Russian Adventure Theme, the love affair. Also Mr. Button has a theme, when he runs to the canal at the beginning and we hear it again when he’s dying. There’s this long scene on Lake Pontchartrain where Benjamin takes his father and we hear it again when Benjamin is waiting for his wife to deliver the child, he has this fear that his child will be a freak like he is, so I had this idea of using Mr. Button or his fathers theme there as a pressure, an obsession that could frighten him. We have Daisy’s Theme, a Duke Ellingtonish piece because she has these slow, sensual, dancing movements, so I wrote this theme that chromatically can give us the feel of who she is and how she walks and talks, the life that she’s living at the front of the 50’s trend in New York. There are a few other themes here and there, but sometimes they just vanish and disappear.
How many instruments did you use and what was your main approach to the orchestration, it sounds very intimate?
We used about seventy musicians, but I wanted it to sound like a chamber orchestra, which means the musicians had to play differently. They couldn’t play loud and had to be very aware of who was playing what because you could hear everything. It had to sound like twenty five or thirty players like a Mozart chamber orchestra. They had to carefully listen to each other. It had to keep this intimacy, a preciseness of colors, which was really hard to find. In this score there are many solos; it’s like a concerto for orchestra, where every single section at one point has a solo. It could be the mute trumpet, the saxophone, the French horn, there’s one French horn, the solo violin or the leader, who also has a little solo, the alto flute, who plays the theme when Benjamin is dying at the end, but still it was wide enough in terms of sound and the generosity of electric power. If it was just a chamber group it would have been too intimate, too small, it would be frail, so I needed a larger group that could play to your ear. Like a string section tastefully giving some depth to the score. Not only did I have them play Benjamin’s Theme forwards and backwards, but also I thought about Cole Porter from major to minor, so it goes from major chords to minor chords, I inverse the chords and at the very last moment you hear his theme at the end, it’s in reverse, it’s in minor chords. Also instrumentally I’ve added a few colors I haven’t used before, which was to replace the French horns by a saxophone section. They played just like a French horn section in the orchestra on the left hand side of the stereo image; it’s an alto, tenor, baritone, and bass, sax. Also I used an electric guitar, which I rarely use in my scores. I wanted this score to be lush, big, but never loud.
When it came to the wartime action sequences, it’s so strange; your music was very illusive, almost transparent within the picture.
It was there until the shrapnel hit the boat and then it was gone. I’ve always tried to keep the sense of death and solo very present, so that you feel sorry when they stop the boat and they see all these corpses floating after the ship has been sinking because it was hit by a torpedo. You can see hundreds of corpses on the top of the water and it’s not fear, it’s not danger, it’s a mix of things and the main emotion that you should feel is sorrow because all these men are dead and it’s sad. With a little tension, that’s what I kept at the front. The action really didn’t need me, what for, there’s so much going on. It’s quickly cut and there are loads of short flashes, loud noises, machine guns, hitting metal, huge explosions, they really just didn’t need me.
What are the most important parts in the film for you musically, where your compositions and the film are in perfect harmony?
The opening sequence is very important because it sets the tone for the film, what the music will try to share with you, what experience you will live through the movie. This includes the second musical part when Mr. Button is running to put his baby into the canal, to throw him away because he’s a monster. That was very important to show the lyricism of the story. The first meeting between Daisy and Benjamin, that was very important and it took me a while to figure out their connection, how I could do it. The other one certainly is the love affair in Marmont between Elizabeth and Benjamin, its one moment and then it’s gone. Like sometimes in life, you could be in love with someone for a few weeks and then it’s finished, it’s over, and you’ll never see this person again, that’s how life is, it goes forward and it doesn’t stop. It’s like a train that can’t stop and will never stop, there are no stations, and it goes on and on. I liked the way the music plays on Lake Pontchartrain, when he takes his father to Lake Pontchartrain, there’s something very magical about that. Then there’s Daisy’s accident, when she was hit by the taxi that was a really great scene to score. Above all the Love Theme because it had to be very deep and subtle at the same time, it’s not Dr. Zhivago, there’s no epic war or so many things happening, it’s just that at last they’ve connected once and they connect for the last time physically, so much later in the movie it had to be very distinct for the audience to recognize the theme there. You can’t play it again and again, like in a movie where you can play the Love Theme and everyone remembers it because it has been played so many times, in this film it’s played only twice.
One of the most memorable parts in the film is when Daisy says “Sleep with me,” and Benjamin responds, “Absolutely.” This goes into a breathtaking sequence with the lighthouse, the Florida Keys, and the space shuttle taking off. There’s a full moon and they’re naked on the beach.
That’s what I’m talking about when I’m referring to the Love Theme. This is really beautiful, a marvelous moment in the movie because at last there’s this release of happiness that Benjamin and Daisy have been seeking. Even though Daisy had her life in New York, she was happy there, but never was in a deep relationship with anything, so at the very moment when they have this strong connection that’s been waiting for so many years to happen, the images are so inspiring. The second time is when Benjamin comes back, he’s so much younger, he’s twenty five and she’s much older, but they make love for the last time. Then the film progresses as Daisy goes to the old house where Ben is at the piano, he’s now just a child. That’s the Love Theme with the flute once again. They actually connect twice in the movie, even though they make love in the story more than twice, but we don’t always see it.
When Daisy has Benjamin’s daughter and they are together in her hospital room your score is extremely haunting.
My score is in two parts, first he’s in the waiting room while she’s delivering. There’s this fast thing going on and you feel this great anxiety as we hear Mr. Button’s Theme, his father, in the background of this twister. Then he goes into the hospital room and he bends over towards the baby and we see that it’s a lovely little girl, she’s normal and not a freak, and there’s this kind of floating music there, very strange. It’s something I wrote based around Daisy’s Theme, it’s not Daisy’s Theme, but it’s from Daisy’s Theme. It’s a transposition of sorts.
Is there music when the flood rushes into 9th Ward and we see the final shot of Monsieur Gateau’s clock still ticking backwards in a basement as the flood waters rise from the floor upwards?
There is music there; you can hardly hear it, but what it’s doing is very subtle, you can even hear it on the CD. When the baby dies I just use the string orchestra and one alto flute, which is playing very airy or breathy. It’s very beautiful how Jim Walker played that and in the background you can hear saxophones with Dan Higgins and other players, who little by little vanish. It’s being played note by note as it becomes slower and slower until it’s gone. At the end a very last note, we do this until it’s almost into the clock, but there’s so much going on that we lose it, but it’s there somewhere in the background.
Then we see the hummingbird go by.
Actually what we are talking about, this is also when the humming bird is there. You still can hear the music fading out, very gently going away. The bird was also at the beginning of the film as well as on the boat later on.
Did the nature of the stories location, New Orleans, concern you in anyway?
It did a lot. At first I figured out with David whether we should or shouldn’t use any reference to this style of music. It didn’t work because it was too colorful and it disconnected itself from the characters. It’s an environment, it’s in the city where he’s living, but it’s not really connected to Benjamin. The only thing which is connected to him is the Scott Joplin piece, the Bethena Waltz that he’s playing on the piano. That’s the only connection that he has to the New Orleans era of music. There’s so much going on, all over the movie there’s maybe an hour of source music, of jazz; adding more jazz to the score just didn’t make any sense, so we decided not to go there. However, I really know New Orleans jazz because I was a big lover of that era when I was in my teens. I tried to bring in some colors from the jazz, what I would call New Orleans jazz and middle jazz, which is between the 30’s and the 50’s before the bop. In the 40’s and 50’s Duke Ellington would still play middle jazz even though that bee bop had arrived, so what I would call early jazz and middle jazz usually had a saxophone and trumpet in it. Here I used a muted electric guitar like Charlie Christian or the way Barney Castle or Gene Hall would play in the 50’s, and a Fender Rhodes piano. It’s these kinds of sounds that I brought into the orchestra to bring some of a jazz flavor into my score, but it’s never playing jazz, it’s never playing a jazz pattern or melody like a jazzman would. It’s the sound of those instruments that are present and I would not have used them in another score that way.
Your score sounds purely symphonic; did you use any electronics at all?
To me the Fender Rhodes piano is electronic. To me the Fender piano is more of a jazz instrument than a rock instrument, so the Fender is almost everywhere all the time, doubling the piano, doubling the harp, which can make a weird electric sound, not like a piano would sound. There’s some programming, this bass synthesizer sound that I like to use. Sometimes even the Fender is programmable and you can use it accurately time wise like a clock.
What did you love about working with David Fincher?
I love David’s amazing talent and incredible technique. He might even be one of the strongest directors of his generation. Technically he knows everything, he’s detailed, knows exactly what he wants, and he’s so savvy. He likes movies and you can really feel this. He likes what the cinema gives away to the audience, he likes to use this material, and our collaboration was very passionate.
Because this film is so different, what did you love about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?
There are so many things. I must say that the actors are phenomenal, Brad, Cate, Tilda, Julia, these four actors are excellent. Can you imagine what Brad had to do to play without his body? Act just with his face, it’s very hard and finally when he has his head and his body together, he doesn’t look like what he is in real life. It’s the ultimate performance of an actor, it’s like Greek theater where you had to wear a mask all the time or Japanese Kabuki when a woman is completely played by a man, you’re completely masked, so I think Brad’s performance deserves an award. Cate because she’s so radiant, Julia Ormond because of what she’s doing in the hospital, her performance is so deep and real. The camera is always close to her and she’s a very pretty woman in real life, the camera is so close that you see every single wrinkle because she’s not eighteen. This gives more density to her character. The last one is Tilda Swinton, the way she holds you, the way she grabs you like if she was on stage during the scenes in the hotel, the timing of her humor and the way she delivers the text is just fabulous. It’s four different ways of acting for these players, they have four very different challenges and I hope that people see that, that David took really a lot of risk by having four characters performing in four different ways, the film is unique. Every shot is so much like a painting, every shot is beautiful. Sometimes in some movies there’s one shot which is missed because of the angle, the light, the actor, but there is not one moment which I think is not 100% the way it should be. That’s David’s amazing artistry, to manage to keep that level of quality in every bloody shot and that’s amazing!
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is on release in the US and Australia now, making its UK appearance on February 6th. A double disc soundtrack album of both songs and Alexandre's score is available from Concord Records.