Alexandre Desplat states the obvious: “I’m not a woman. I’m not American.” Yet, it turns out the French composer was the perfect fit to give musical voice to Greta Gerwig’s filmed adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved post-Civil War classic about the four March sisters, Little Women.
The film, which opens Dec. 25, has received glowing reviews, as has Desplat’s lilting score, which was nominated for a Golden Globe earlier this month and on Monday made the 15-position short list for best original score for the Academy Awards (the final nominations will be announced Jan. 13). Desplat, who won two Oscars for composing music for The Grand Budapest Hotel and for The Shape of Water, talked to Billboard about working with Gerwig and how her suggestion that the music be “Mozart meeting Bowie” influenced his score.
The vibrant music for the opening scene -- Jo exhilaratingly walking through New York City -- sets the tone for the whole film. How did that come about?
I usually like to introduce the film and the music with the opening titles. It’s a great help for a composer to bring the audience into the work that we’re going into. This opening gave me the key to the rest of the score. I started with that scene. That’s the first music I wrote and that’s where I found that I wanted to have only strings and two pianos. I wanted to have the number four because of the four sisters. At first I thought a string quartet, but that would be too small, so I took a 40-piece string orchestra. But I thought, “If I have two pianos, I have four hands.” It’s concept. It’s nothing that people can hear when they watch the [movie], but I know and I play with it because it gives me an invisible line for what I’m doing. It’s numbers and it’s fun to do.
What instruction did Gerwig give you?
This opening came from an earlier conversation I had with Greta when she sent me the script. I always try to ask, “What do you expect from me as the composer? Do you want me to do something grand? Melancholic? Lush? Huge? Small?” And she said with enthusiasm, “I’d like the music to be a mix of Mozart meeting Bowie.” It doesn’t mean anything, but it does mean something if you let the energy come into your system and you get something of that and this opening is about that.
What do you think when she referenced Mozart and Bowie?
I think energy, pulse, melodies, joy and rhythm because Mozart has a lot of rhythm. And Bowie, of course, there’s something pop about the art direction of this film. The way they dance -- they don’t dance like they would be in a period movie with every moment tailored like it’s 1867. [Gerwig] took the challenge of making them dance differently and have fun and be excited like kids nowadays would dance if they were 15 or 13. There’s a youth about Mozart, because we know Mozart was a child all his life, and for Bowie, there’s something extravagant about him that we see in their characters -- they want to be different, they all want to be artists, except for Meg maybe.
This version of Little Women is told in a non-linear narrative. Did that make it more challenging to score given how often the film is moving backward and forward in time?
Not at all. It’s actually more exciting because there’s no twists and turns, there’s moments. And in the way I wrote the music and put the orchestra together, there’s continuity. It doesn’t change sounds, it’s not going ADD. It does take you by the hand through the film with melodies that come back, not always because there’s a character or two characters, just because the moment fits to this melody or this sound. It’s exciting to see a film that is as bold as that narratively.
This is a classic story about American women. Given that you’re not American or a woman was it hard for you to relate at all?
No, but it is one of the points that also gave me the desire to do the film. I was raised by women. I have my parents, but I have two older sisters and I would learn from them about what is a female and what is a girl and what is an adolescent and what is a young woman and I was very close to them. When I was 15, I was not living with my parents anymore. They were on an island in the Caribbean and I was back in Paris, where I lived with my sisters between 15 and 19. I was very close: From their first loves, first artistic desires -- they played piano at home, they were great musicians. Even though I’m not a girl, I can put myself back into the great memories of that and the feelings of that.
There’s a great deal of physicality in the film -- the sisters and their neighbor Laurie are often hugging or lying on on each other. How did that fit into the score?
It’s like a ballet. The way the music is used is like a ballet. The music is almost nonstop from the beginning to the end, which I didn’t expect. I thought there would be some moments where the music is tucked into the mix, and, [instead], it dances with them.