Composer Alexandre Desplat sat down with whynow to discuss how his process for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio differed from his acclaimed work with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs and working with Del Toro, who had been trying to get Pinocchio off the ground since 2008.
Alexandre also discussed the evolution of his collaboration with Del Toro and the importance of using solely wooden instruments in the score.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio has been a massive success for Netflix since its release in December. It is a hot favourite to sweep the Animated Awards this season—a long-time passion project for the acclaimed director.
The film saw Del Toro reunite with the French composer Alexandre Desplat who won his second Oscar for his score for Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, his first coming for his score for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with a further nine nominations in his career that has spanned over three decades.
Alexandre is responsible for some of the most recognisable film scores of the past two decades, including the final two Harry Potter films, The Imitation Game, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and his extensive collaboration with Wes Anderson, stretching back to Moonrise Kingdom.
The score for Pinocchio was solely recorded on wooden instruments, reflecting the nature of this distinct take on the much-loved Carlo Collodi source material. Gris Grimley’s illustrations for the 2002 edition of the story also heavily influenced the film. This version of Pinocchio is a musical, much like the 1940 Disney take on the story. However, that is where most similarities to the Disney film end, with this being a darker (as one might expect with Guillermo Del Toro) but still hopeful take on the story, transposing it to Fascist Italy pre-Second World War.
The score has been singled out for high praise and, while missing out on an Oscar nomination, received nominations at the Golden Globes and BAFTA awards. The score saw Alexandre and Guillermo composing completely original songs for the film, different to Del Toro and Alexandre’s previous work but a challenge they have more than matched with a distinctive set of musical numbers matching the singular tone of this adaptation.
Alexandre said that his personal process differed from his previous animated work with Wes Anderson for Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs, “Each director has their own approach to music and his own way of communication with his collaborators. The storytelling, visual and sonic worlds of Guillermo Del Toro and Wes Anderson are very different.
“Therefore, the music has another type of function. Still, with both directors, they expect me to open an imaginative process to emphasise their own vision. Though keeping my integrity as a composer, my scores for Guillermo or Wes reflect perfectly their artistic personality. It is the most difficult part of the job”
Pinocchio was a passion project for Del Toro, so he had a significant say in many areas of the film’s development. Alexandre said the score was no different, underlining their collaborative process that stretches back over five years.
“Since The Shape of Water, the relationship with Guillermo has only solidified and he trusts my suggestions, or at least is open to a discussion, which is an important and solid bridge to build with any director. Guillermo listens to my demos and gives me very few notes. It usually starts with the melodies (for the songs and for the score) played on piano, and his love of music allows quick reaction and feedback”.
One of the critical components that makes Pinocchio’s score stand out was the decision to use wooden instruments. Why was this so important to Alexandre?
“It is always an inspiring process for me to find an instrumentation that belongs to each score. Here, Pinocchio is in wood, and I just suggested to Guillermo to use solely the wood instruments of the orchestra and any other wood instruments; harp, guitars, mandolins, accordions, recorders and others. This creates a rather more intimate and softer sound than if I had added the brass section, cymbals and so on.”
A crucial part of Alexandre’s process is focusing on the particular film he’s working on. Still, the composer denies the influence of any previous works that might have fed into his score for Pinocchio.
“It is important to me that each score be inspired by the film you are composing for, not by an existing piece of music or an existing film.”
An area where Pinocchio departs from Alexandre’s previous work is that it is a musical with songs sprinkled throughout the film, a unique challenge for both Del Toro and Alexandre.
“We started writing the songs three years ago – way ahead of the animation process to allow the animation to be completed. I also wanted to link the melodic motifs of the songs to the melodies of the score to create continuity. Interweaving songs and score avoids a juke-box type of sensation. We were very lucky to have a stellar cast who could act and sing very well: This included Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, David Bradley and the young Gregory Mann.”
Alexandre explained that he did not return to the original source material on this occasion, indicating a desire to keep Guillermo and his vision as singular as possible.
Pinocchio is a story adapted on several occasions previously and to great success. Surely it was a challenge for Alexandre to re-interpret a widely loved story?
“Not really, because Guillermo and Patrick’s script is very different from the original story. Guillermo’s passion allowed for a lot of freedom and creative licence.”
Alexandre concluded by saying it was a joy to work on the film with some marvellous British musicians. Highlighting the global nature of the film with puppet and animation studios working on the film in Mexico, the US and the UK, the score being no different.
While a favourite for Best Animated Feature, it is worth singling out Alexandre’s score and its role in bringing Guillermo Del Toro’s singular vision to life, allowing his passion project to feel truly distinct. It is clear from speaking with Alexandre Desplat that this was a labour of love, with Guillermo himself heavily involved in the shape of the score and accompanying songs resulting in a gorgeous, at times haunting, score that captures the sadness and sense of optimism that Del Toro captures in his take on this most iconic of stories.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is streaming on Netflix now.