Creating The Music For An Unlikely Romance
♦ Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water won the director a Bafta last month and it looks like the film should do well this Sunday at the Oscars. Here’s the genesis of the film part three…
SOUND OF WATER: THE MUSIC
Guillermo Del Toro collaborates for the first time with Oscar®-winning composer Alexandre Desplat on THE SHAPE OF WATER – and both were immediately on the same page about all that the music might convey in a film where two characters use everything but words to connect to each other.
“This is probably the easiest relationship I’ve ever had with a composer because Alexandre truly understood the movie and its essence and his music is completely imbued with that,” says Del Toro. “A good composer flows with the camera moves and the emotion of the moment — and I find Alexandre’s punctuation of those things is impeccable and never obvious. Great scoring always adds another layer to the story, and Alexandre knows how to integrate music with dialogue, action and sound design.”
Desplat says watching an early cut of the film hit home with him in a deep way. “I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful love story – and I felt you could transpose this situation in the film to any type of difference between human beings. But the crucial thing for me creatively is that I was really stunned by the fluidity of the camera,” he recalls. “The camera never stops. It’s always in motion so you have a sensation like water in the flow of the movie. There’s nothing more inspiring for music than a story that flows because you can just surf on it. This story was very special on that level.”
As he began talking with Del Toro, Desplat discovered they both admire many of the same composers — especially Nino Rota, who composed for the Italian masters Fellini and Visconti, and George Delerue, who composed for Truffaut, Godard and won an Oscar® for George Roy Hill’s A LITTLE ROMANCE. “They were composers who never forced emotion,” observes Desplat. They were always trying to bring true, deep feeling to their music without overdoing it. And that was the approach here. The music is not pushing you, not manipulating you. Rather, it’s the music of Elisa’s heart beating and that’s what we were trying to achieve. It’s not simplistic at all, but it’s meant to be something simple in an organic way.”
They chose to develop a distinct theme for each of the main characters in a back-and-forth process. For Elisa, Del Toro always heard a waltz, with its lively one-two-three rhythm and Desplat suggested the accordion as a vibrant and distinctive way to work with that idea … the Del Toro suggested adding a whistle. “I always thought Elisa’s rhythm and tempo would be very waltzy,” says Del Toro. “But I also felt we need something more than the accordion and I thought, why don’t we use a human whistle? Whistling is not used enough in movies, but is eminently human. So we did it.”
Desplat found the instrumentation brought him deeper into Elisa and her wellspring of vital energy. “There’s an innocence that we tried to capture with her thematic music. She’s smart yet she’s somehow innocent. She likes sex but at the same time she wants pure love. So there’s something ambiguous about her, something romantic and lyrical, which was beautiful to play with in the music.”
The fact that she is mute only made his compositions that much more significant. “With a character who doesn’t speak, you have more space,” Desplat explains. “You can expand the sound more and say things with many different colors in the instruments. In a way you can be more talkative musically.”
For the creature’s theme, flutes dominate. “So much of the creature is about breath, about oxygen or the lack of oxygen, so flutes seemed to me to reflect the creature,” says Del Toro.
Desplat ran with that idea. “I suggested we change the lineup of the orchestra to have 12 flutes — alto flutes, bass flutes and C flutes — but no clarinets, no bassoons, no oboes. There’s very little brass, only in a few cues, so it’s really the strings and the flutes that bring the qualities of fluidity and transparency that water has. We added to that some piano, harp and vibraphone, instruments that have a pearl-like quality.”
Then, Desplat composed a love theme for the duo. Says Del Toro: “We wanted the love theme to be very emotional, not sentimentally artificial, so it’s a variation on Elisa’s theme.”
Del Toro doesn’t usually attend recording sessions, but this time was different. “Alexandre said to me I would love for you to be there to say ‘more emotion’ or ‘less emotion.’ And we had such a unique collaboration that I felt I was not an intruder into the process but could bring more ideas to it.”
The day of recording the orchestra was a highpoint for Desplat. “I loved it,” he says. “Being on the floor with the musicians and sharing my ideas and adjusting things was a great pleasure. It’s always amazing to hear an orchestra blowing your own music back at you.”
As for his rapport with Del Toro, Desplat says: “For me Guillermo is as much as an artist as a director. It is the way in which those two things combine in him that makes his work so magical.”
That rare combination is what gave the entire cast and crew the courage to take a dive into this underwater story of such swirling cultural, political and personal resonance. Sums up Sally Hawkins: “Guillermo has a unique ability to go straight to the heart of things. He grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let you go. That’s the experience I went through making the film and I hope that’s the experience people have watching it.”
If I told you about her, the princess without voice, what would I say? Would I tell you about the time…? It happened a long time ago-
in the last days of a fair Prince’s reign… Or would I tell you about the place?
A small city near the coast but far from everything else…
Or perhaps I would just warn you about the truth of these facts
and the tale of love and loss and the monster that tried to destroy it all…
–Giles, THE SHAPE OF WATER
Read the first and second parts here