Alexandre Desplat’s majestic, moving score for Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical The Shape of Water gently glides the fairy tale along. For the gorgeous film, which is generating tremendous Oscar buzz, Desplat played up the love story between mute Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and the sea creature (Doug Jones), while never succumbing to horror movie cliches when the movie turns into a thriller.
Desplat, who took home the Oscar for his whimsical work on 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, talked to Billboard about his immediate love for the film and how he set just the right tone. The conversation took place before Desplat received a Golden Globe nomination Monday morning for his score.
Was there a movie of Del Toro’s that made you want to work with him?
All of his movies, [but] definitely Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a masterpiece. But I think this movie is stronger than Pan’s Labyrinth.
What was your reaction when you first saw the film?
There are some moments in your life and in your career when you meet a movie and the director that suddenly just turns you to another dimension. I remember when I saw King’s Speech or Girl With the Pearl Earring; there are moments in my life where I was blown away and thought, “Wow, that’s why I chose to be a film composer.” These films are so beautiful and so strong, and the music can be very much part of the emotion.
What scene did you score first?
Did you score the film chronologically?
No, but finding the opening was the key for me to find the entry to the film. What is the soul of the film? It’s all there at the beginning. And actually it’s the same thing we hear at the end. Because we’re underwater, it’s a dream, everything’s floating in the room. There’s the voice-over of Richard Jenkins, and the music is already giving us audience a touch of what the story is, which is warm, a bit fragile, a bit melancholy but not too much, because there’s all these good flourishes around.
There are so many elements to to the movie, but your score, first and foremost, reflects the love story.
Yes, that’s what it is. It’s love and water, the shape of water. Love has no color and no texture. It just goes everywhere. Cuts through countries and through the skies and can go from one person to another, whatever happens, whatever they are, whatever they do, wherever they come from. From one country to another, from a class to another class. It cuts through everything.
Conversely, you avoided scored the music around the sea creature as a monster or horror flick.
He’s not a monster. And you have to keep the organic nature of these characters. Guillermo brings us into that world, and we believe in it. They’re real. They’re not fake. Very early on, after the first opening scene, we’re with them. That’s the magic of cinema, but it’s the magic of the way Guillermo makes cinema.
How did the water play into your musical choices?
The water is the main element of the film. It shows in the way the camera moves, the way the film is edited, and the way the music plays. The camera never stops. It’s always in motion. And that’s very musical and very watery, of course. It’s a flow. The music is also a flow. Everything but the color of the film is like being underwater. What I was trying to do with the orchestration is the same: to feel that we are surrounded by water and that the sound of the orchestra is like water. And so when it comes to the dangerous moments—the spies, the escape, the ominous section of the film—I didn’t want to lose that and to break the spell. We’re under a spell very early on.
It’s a fairy tale.
And the spell should not stop, so if I pushed too much the danger or the monster-like music, it would be just wrong. So the music stayed in the same tone.
Whistling plays a big part in the sonic landscape from one of the first times we see Eliza, who is otherwise mute. Was that your idea? It’s you whistling.
There’s this moment in the film in the beginning where Eliza whistles when she’s outside waiting for the bus. So we decided to use that and use that element as her voice and use it early on when we start the film because it’s carefree and so transparent and pure. And the same for the accordion; there’s something carefree and pure about the sound of the accordion. Plus the fact that I used the accordion as a South American sound more than a French accordion, playing flourishes and scales like a tango master would do [because the creature] is from South America.
How involved was del Toro in guiding you?
He came a few times to Paris. He loves Paris, so he could have some good meals. When the level of emotion was not right, we’d adjust it, less, more, until we found the right balance. But it was very fast and very, very, very smooth. [Including] recording, it was a month-and-a-half.
You do such a beautiful job with fantastical stuff, whether it’s your work with Wes Anderson or here. Is it freeing for you as a composer when you’re not tethered to reality?
It helps, of course. And there’s a lot of options that are given to you. You can try anything, and that’s what I did with this one, with the instrumentation.
Especially with the flutes. There are 12 of them. Why?
I’m a flutist so I know what they can deliver in terms of texture and sound and blurriness and softness. It’s a very soft instrument. And these, because they’re bass flutes, alto flutes, they’re playing the low register, so you hear these blurred kind of sounds. So it’s very soft, you’ll hear. There’s no trumpet playing, you know what I mean? Or anything banging. It’s all very soft, like if you were underwater.
What can say about your next collaboration with Anderson on Isle of Dogs?
Well, what can I say? It’s Mr. Fox meets an atomic bomb. It’s crazy. The richness of the visual is just incredible. The detail of the puppets. I’ve never seen that before. And a great cast again. The music is a mix of Japan and Wes Anderson and Desplat playing the room. [Laughs] Look for nonsense.