Alexandre Desplat interview: ‘The Midnight Sky’ composer
When George Clooney approached Alexandre Desplat about scoring “The Midnight Sky,” he told him right off the bat that he would have to write more music that he ever has before for a film. “When a director says something like that, you always think maybe it’s a fantasy and you’re going to be able to escape the iceberg that’s coming towards you with this huge amount of music to write,” Desplat tells Gold Derby (watch above). “But he was right. From the script to the film, there’s a big gap, and I wasn’t sure the movie would be as silent as it is now and that music would convey the emotions, the dangers that the characters are experiencing. But yes, he was right, and I had to compose a lot of minutes of music.”
It was about 90 minutes total and all of it made it into the Netflix film. Based on the Lily Brooks-Dalton book “Good Morning Midnight,” the sci-fi drama stars Clooney as Augustine, a lonely scientist who treks across the Arctic with a mute girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), to try to warn a returning spaceship that Earth is in ruins after an unnamed event devastated it weeks prior.
Long stretches of dialogue-less scenes fill “The Midnight Sky,” putting a larger spotlight on Desplat’s score. The two-time Oscar winner’s approach to the music also changed as COVID-19 hit, which prompted Clooney to tweak the film to be a meditation on human connection. As such, Desplat’s score became more dramatic, and while the movie has two very different settings — Earth and space — he never wanted the music for each to feel unrelated as all the characters were searching for the same thing.
“I wasn’t sure at first if the movie was a big space movie with a lot of action and things happening, but in fact the movie really focuses on the human relationships and the humanism of Augustine and of the crew in the spaceship, so the score also had to focus on these exchanges between the spaceship and Augustine, Augustine’s rememberings of his youth, the hope that the crew starts to believe in, the kind of redemption that Augustine is after,” Desplat explains. “It became a much more emotional film than it might have been on the page. We focused on trying to make a strong link between the Earth and the space without chopping the film into two entities that would be one music for Earth, one music for space – no, it’s the same music that develops and evolves with some big events.”
The score was written and recorded in lockdown, which meant that none of the key players were in the same room at the same time. Desplat was in Paris, Clooney and producer Grant Heslov were in Los Angeles at the crack of dawn, and the London Symphony Orchestra was at Abbey Road. The orchestral sections also had to record separately because of COVID protocols, adding another step — layering — into the process.
“That was horrible. That was really, really difficult. One of my favorite moments … is when for the first time I am at the podium conducting the orchestra and I can hear for the first time from this incredible bunch of musicians my music that I’ve been dreaming of coming to life,” he recalls. “It was frustrating. The musicians were very far apart from each other because of the COVID regulations, so I think it was also difficult for them to find cohesion. … I could not have the orchestra play at the same time. I had to do a recording by section — the strings, the brass, the woodwinds — and that’s very, very tedious and rather boring, I must say. And I know it’s very frustrating for the director because as much as he heard my demos, which are very precise and developed, he had to wait until all the layers were put together to make sure that the music was right. It’s brave and difficult for him to accept that, but we had no choice. We couldn’t do it any other way.”
“The Midnight Sky” is Clooney and Desplat’s fourth collaboration as director and composer, following “The Ides of March” (2011), “The Monuments Men” (2014) and “Suburbicon” (2017), but their first big-screen connection was when Desplat scored Clooney’s Oscar-winning performance in “Syriana” (2005). “There’s always been a very strong and flawless bonding between us because George’s love for music is so natural that very quickly we had this artistic interaction. He was just kind, benevolent and exciting,” Desplat says of their relationship. “Both as a director and as a gentleman, he has the same behavior, he doesn’t change. Some directors can be different when you work with them than when you’re in real life. He’s not — he’s just the same sweet gentleman.”