Can Alexandre Desplat finally win an Oscar after eight nominations? Will the Academy continue to shower love on first-time nominees? Will Hans Zimmer return to the podium for the first time in two decades?
These questions will be answered Sunday when the Academy Awards are handed out in one of the most wide-open of all 24 categories.
Here’s a look at the nominated composers and their thoughts on what they were attempting to convey with their music. Odds come from online sites in London where gambling on the Oscars is legal.
Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything
Four of the last six composers to win this category were first-time nominees, and six of the last seven Golden Globe winners have gone on to take home the Oscar. Clearly history makes Johann Johannsson the front-runner for his traditional orchestral score flavored with treated pianos, crystal baschet and pipe organ.
Johannsson told Billboard: “The essence of the film is very much the relationships. It’s really about [Stephen] Hawking the man and Hawking the physicist. We tried to reflect both sides of him, but the score skews toward his emotional life and love life and his sense of wonderment for the world of physics.”
Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel
The quirkiest of the five scores, Desplat gets my vote for his use of folk instruments such as balalaikas, bazoukis and oud against small string ensembles. Integrated wholly into the fabric of the film, the score is used extensively to match the pace of the action rather than cue emotions or identify characters.
Desplat told Billboard: “What we do with Wes [Anderson], which I try to avoid [generally], is record every instrument separately and give him the stems so he can still use the instruments to get more surprising moments. He plays with the rhythm of the cuts, which is very important to the film.”
Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game
Working against Desplat is the fact that he is up for two of his scores, which tends to split the vote. John Williams, the king of double nominations, has lost four of the times he was up for two in the last 30 years, though he did win for Star Wars when he was also up for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. James Horner and Thomas Newman have also lost in years they were double nominees.
Desplat told Billboard: “When I heard the sound of the [code-breaking] machine, I thought it was great. Unfortunately, it’s not a regular beat so I had to cheat. There was a spotting note that the music would stop [when the machine started]. I did the opposite — I started there.”
Hans Zimmer, Interstellar
Hollywood’s most famous working composer has only won one Oscar, and that was two decades ago for 1995’s The Lion King. As they say in baseball, he’s due. Working in his favor is the effectiveness of his score and in the modern era of lines being blurred between sound design and music, Interstellar pushes the edge of the envelope. That said, the Oscars have been bouncing between the traditional and the modern — The Artist followed The Social Network — and last year the statue went to a space movie with sound design/music hybrid.
Zimmer told Billboard: “We gave ourselves rules — no action drums, no kinetic strings — and then figured out what was appropriate. When Chris [Nolan] said the organ, I could see how the organ pipes are the afterburners on the Saturn rocket. It seemed like a great opportunity to write for an instrument that is neglected.”
Gary Yershon, Mr. Turner
The last time a British period piece won the score Oscar was at the 1999 ceremony when Stephen Warbeck took home the musical or comedy score Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. (It was the last of the four years in which two score awards were given.) It helped that Shakespeare in Love also won best picture. A theater composer, Yershon’s score for Mr. Turner may be too challenging for many voters, its effectiveness resting in the way the cues get longer as the film plays on.
Yershon told Billboard: “There’s so much on the screen, the acting is so detailed and very particular that music doesn’t have the function it can have. It’s not a traditional screenplay. It’s built in a series of thematic layers and I guess the music is more potent if used selectively.”