Composing The Folk Music Of A Made-Up Country

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Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori as hotel concierge M. Gustave and his lobby-boy confidante, Zero, in The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori as hotel concierge M. Gustave and his lobby-boy confidante, Zero, in The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Composer Alexandre Desplat is competing against himself in this year's Oscars: He's up for two awards in the category of Best Original Score. One is for the music he wrote for The Imitation Game, the World War II drama about the man credited with breaking the Nazis' "Enigma" code. The other is for his work on Wes Anderson's playful caper The Grand Budapest Hotel — a cultural mishmash that demanded equally fanciful music to set the scene.

Depending on your point of view, Wes Anderson movies are fantastic, artful creations or precious indulgences. Either way, the director is very particular about the music in his movies. The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in the fictional Zubrowka, somewhere in Central Europe, at a fancy hotel that once sparkled with activity. To give the movie its central European feel, composer Alexandre Desplat used Gregorian chant, balalaikas, and the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer heard in folk music in Hungary and Austria and elsewhere throughout the region.

Grand Budapest is almost cartoon-like: Each oddball character has a musical theme. The concierge M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, is very serious about his job — and a big flirt with the wealthy dowagers who stay at the hotel. Desplat chose mandolins to represent those qualities.

"It's all the mandolins that are doing this tremolo, and this creates a trembling, so it's a bit solemn — because M. Gustave has solemnity and elegance," Desplat says.

This is the third Wes Anderson movie Desplat has scored: He also did Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom. He says there's a kind of melancholy to the humor in Anderson's films.

"You see some very dark sides of humanity, but the way he wants to play with it and show it to us is with some distant humor," he says. "So I had to play with that and not take myself too seriously. Otherwise I would have killed the whole humor of the picture."

For film music critic Jon Broxton, Desplat's music adds to the humor. Take the musical theme that follows Willem Dafoe's character: He's a henchman in leather with brass knuckles, and his arrival is signaled first by organ and then by vocals.

"He has a choir," Broxton says, "but it's not singing. It's kind of going rum-te-tum-te-tum-te-tum, and that just brought to mind, to me, the old images of Monty Python characters."

Grand Budapest also includes some pre-existing compositions. The movie's opening scene features zauerli, a kind of yodeling from Switzerland that Anderson had heard and loved. He and music supervisor Randall Poster even found a real zauerli group in a small Swiss village, and a German-speaking friend tried to set up a recording. But Poster says it never happened; their German friend told them the group's very real lives got in the way.

"He goes, 'Well, the guy, the leader of the group, he's the baker in town. And the other guy, he's the postman in town. And it's not like the movie calls very often, so I think we would need like four or five months to get their schedules together,'" Poster recounts. He and Anderson settled instead on a recording by the Swiss group Öse Schuppel.

With these authentic international folk recordings and Alexandre Desplat's Central European-inspired score, the "Republic of Zubrowka" in The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a real place, not just one from Anderson's vivid imagination.

As for Desplat's Oscar chances, he's been nominated six times before, but never won. This year, he's doubled his odds.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Composer Alexandre Desplat is competing against himself for an Oscar. He's nominated twice in the same category - Best Original Score. One nod is for his work on "The Imitation Game," the World War II drama about the man credited with breaking the Nazi's enigma code.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE IMITATION GAME" SCORE)

CORNISH: Desplat is also nominated for his score to the playful caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel." As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the soundtrack to that movie is a cultural hodgepodge, and it helps create the fictional country where the story takes place.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Depending on your point of view, Wes Anderson movies are fantastic, artful creations or precious indulgences. Either way, he's very particular about the music in his movies. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" takes place in the fictional Zubrowka, somewhere in Central Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL" SCORE)

BLAIR: At a fancy hotel that once sparkled with activity...

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL" SCORE)

BLAIR: Where an elegant concierge and his lobby boy confidant are running for their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL" SCORE)

BLAIR: To give the movie its Central European feel, composer Alexandre Desplat used Gregorian chant, balalaikas and a cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer heard in folk music in Hungary and Austria and elsewhere throughout the region. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is almost cartoonlike. Each oddball character has a musical theme. There's the concierge, Monsieur Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL")

RALPH FIENNES: (As Gustave) Bring the table to the window.

TONY REVOLORI: (As Zero Moustafa) Yes, Monsieur Gustave.

FIENNES: (As Gustave) Bring the tray to the table.

REVOLORI: (As Zero Moustafa) Right away, Monsieur Gustave.

FIENNES: (As Gustave) Right there.

BLAIR: Gustave is very serious about his job. He's also a big flirt with the wealthy dowagers who stay at the hotel, says Alexandre Desplat.

ALEXANDRE DESPLAT: He's a fantastic lover, it seems (laughter).

BLAIR: Desplat says for Gustave, he used mandolins to give him a distinct musical statement.

DESPLAT: It's all the mandolins about doing this tremolo. And that creates a trembling. So it's a bit solemn because Mr. Gustave has serenity and elegance.

BLAIR: "Grand Budapest" is the third Wes Anderson movie Desplat has scored. He also did "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Moonrise Kingdom." He says there's a kind of melancholy to the humor in Anderson's films.

DESPLAT: You see some very dark side of humanity. But the way he wants to play with it and show it to us is with some kind of distant humor. So I had to play with that and not take myself seriously. Otherwise, I would have killed the humor of the whole picture.

BLAIR: For film music critic Jon Broxton, Desplat's music adds to the humor.

JON BROXTON: It's certainly music that accompanies the sense of humor that Anderson has.

BLAIR: Absurd humor, says Broxton. Take the musical theme that follows Willem Dafoe's character. He's a henchman in leather with brass knuckles.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL" SCORE)

BLAIR: The organ signals his arrival. Later, some vocals come in.

BROXTON: He has a choir, but it's not singing. It's kind of going, rum-tee-tum-tee-tum-tee-tum (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL" SCORE)

BROXTON: And that just really brought to mind, to me, the old images of "Monty Python" characters.

BLAIR: Rounding out Desplat's original music, "Grand Budapest" also includes some existing pieces, like this one, heard in the movie's opening scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL" SCORE)

BLAIR: This is called Zauerli, a kind of yodeling from Switzerland. Director Wes Anderson loved it. He and music supervisor Randall Poster even found a real Zauerli group in a small Swiss village. A German-speaking friend tried to set up a recording. But Randall Poster says it never happened. Their German friend told them the group's very real lives got in the way.

RANDALL POSTER: He goes, well, you know, the guy - he's the leader of the group. He's the baker in town. And the other guy - he's the postman in town. And it's not like they get the movie calls very often. And so I think we would need, like, four or five months for them to be able to get their schedules together so they can come down and sing for Wes.

BLAIR: So they settled on a recording by the Swiss group Oese Schuppel.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL" SCORE)

BLAIR: With these authentic international folk recordings and Alexandre Desplat's Central European-inspired score, the Republic of Zubrowka in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" feels like a real place, not just one from Wes Anderson's vivid imagination. As for Desplat's Oscar chances, he's been nominated six times before but never won. This year, he doubled his chances. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.