A Conversation with Philippe Sarde by Jean-Pierre Pecqueriaux
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.4/Nos.14/15/1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Philippe Sarde was born June 21, 1945, in Neuilly-sur-Seine. His mother was an opera singer. When he was still very young he enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied composition with Noel Gallon. He wrote some classical pieces which he now consider~ as being of little interest, and felt himself attracted by the idea of working for the cinema. In 1969 he met Claude Sautet who gave him his first chance: LES CHOSES DE LA VIE. Since then he has worked on approximately 110 feature films.
How do you choose a film: because of the screenplay, the subject or the director?
The director is most important. He decides everything that will be done in a film. As far as I am concerned everything depends on the director, he is the prime mover – though in some cases it can also be the producer. In the U.S.A. a producer can be as important as a director. Filmmaking is an adventure and I only agree to take part in this adventure if the people I am working with are dedicated. You have to make everybody happy: the producer, the director of the film, and especially yourself. After a certain period you become more and more assertive regarding the things you are able or not able to do. At this moment I wouldn’t venture upon a project if I wasn’t sure to give 100% of my talent.
You work a lot with Sautet, Lautner, Granier-Deferre. Do they understand the role of music in a film? Do they sometimes intervene in your work? Do they try to influence you to use a certain style?
This happens with every director. The three you mentioned and, for example, Tavernier, Corneau… There are many good directors in France and each one has his own approach towards film music. I have my proper style, but I begin by trying to understand the style of the film and the approach of the director. A film composer’s art is collaborative. When you compose music for a film like LA GUERRE DU FEU, TESS or COUP DE TORCHON, I would not expect the director to leave me completely on my own. You have to know what the director wants and form a team; and though music must correspond with the images, it can sometimes be used as counterpoint, but it must complement the film.
Do you choose the scenes you have to score when you read the script, or when the picture is finished?
That depends. Generally there are three ways to work:
1. When the screenplay is very important I discuss the score with the director, and I compose and record the score before shooting begins. I have often done this with Tavernier and Granier-Deferre.
2. Secondly I can watch the film when it’s finished or nearly finished, and my inspiration comes from the images. This is the traditional way.
3. Finally, I can board the train half-way. After seeing some rushes I may be inspired to write the music while the film is being shot. The director attends the recording and edits the picture to the music. In my opinion, this way you obtain the best results.
So, your music has an important part in a film, it is no mere complement?
Not any more. I have worked with people who considered music to be wallpaper, but I don’t work with them any longer. Music must be an important element in a film, not a casual addition. Sometimes we must add it in order to hide little imperfections, but that’s not my trade.
Do you always agree with the director’s choice of the scenes to be scored, and does the director always agree with you about the musical approach you plan to take?
If we agree to work together and we agree about the conception, the director is bound to like what I have composed. Since I don’t use a weather cock, it may be necessary to change one or two things during the recording, hut that also happens when shooting a scene. Musicians are like actors and it is almost fatal to change an interpretation even a little bit, but one must be vigilant, because the atmosphere of a scene can be completely altered by music. I have to follow the instructions of the director during the recording sessions, but there is room to discuss and alter: editing a film is something alive, it’s not dead.
Normally everything will run smoothly but there can be a different interpretation of playing or recording, all this means 50% of my music, even if I don’t change a note of what I’ve written. The music can be played faster or slower; film music is all atmospheres – so changes may affect the atmosphere of several scenes. Consequently, sound editing, the choice of instruments, mixing, it’s all part of the creation in the conception of a film. I work for the cinema, not against it. There are a lot of people who compose casually for films, but in my case film is a passion; not only watching films, but the whole business of the cinema fascinates me. Music is a way to absorb myself in everything which is my life. This kind of life suits me very well and I don’t see why I should go and look elsewhere. I can easily write a symphony, a quartet, etc… What’s the use of composing it putting it in a drawer so that no-one can hear it?
Do you always follow the same writing process: you start with the story, the environment, or do you focus sometimes on the characters or the actors?
Actors and actresses are of enormous importance. I don’t write the same music for Catherine Deneuve or Isabelle Adjani, for Alain Delon or Yves Montand. That is a capital issue for me. The actor’s face, their expressions, the way of photographing, all this is part of my conception of film music. I’m more than just a composer: I’m a film composer.
Has it ever happened that you have replaced someone at the last moment – a sick composer, or someone whose score they didn’t like? And, if so, for which picture?
Maybe it has happened, but they have never told me the other composer’s name.
In fact you are a music director.
Let’s say I’m a sound director, a music director who composes his own music for a screenplay that already exists in images.
That’s what Alain Corneau said about LE CHOIX DES ARMES…
We work well with directors who feel that music is important. It cannot hide faults in a film.
Certain films contain a lot of music; others on the contrary contain only 2 or 3 themes. Is this a deliberate choice on your behalf, or sometimes just a question of time?
No, it’s a deliberate choice. The question of time never arises. If I don’t have enough time to score a film, I won’t do it. Sometimes a simple score demands as much time as a long one. Writing for 100 musicians is much more difficult than for a solo flute but sometimes it’s difficult to find the necessary ideas for a total expression. In LE REVE DU SINGE a solo flue was playing from beginning to end. It was much more difficult to devise the several variations of this single theme written for flute, for a film that complex, than finding a musical expression for a large orchestra. Time doesn’t really play a role in a situation like that. If you don’t have the time to do it, you must be honest enough to say you can’t and won’t do it.
Have you ever been replaced by another composer, or dismissed at the last moment?
We have heard that you often compose your film scores before the movie is completed. LE JUGE ET L’ASSASSIN is one example. We wonder what discussions you have had with the director when writing such a score. Since the mood of this music (agitated strings, accordion, ballads) seems so appropriate to the story and setting, what advice, did the director give you about the kind of music that would be needed? Also, did Arthur Honegger’s music influence the main title of LE JUGE?
The discussion between Bertrand Tavernier and me was very simple. We have worked together before and we dreamed up the style together: a mixture of ballads, accordion, etc. The accordion player had found an old accordion from 1890, which was rebuilt to give it the required sound and this was mixed with a quartet.
If you analyse it, you’ll find that the music is the history of the film. To me, they are character motifs: the accordion represents the popular side of certain people with regard to the assassin; the judge is represented by sumptuous strings (the quartet) and also by Philippe Noiret’s acting and physical appearance. The accordion plays a kind of desperate music, expressing the frame of mind of the assassin, played by Michel Galabru. Either Bertrand Tavernier or I made suggestions about the use of the instruments. I was inspired by the characters to produce a certain musical climate: so the music mirrors the three major characters.
As to the second part of your question: I like Arthur Honegger very much. I didn’t listen to his music before doing LE JUGE, but I heard his music when I was five or six years old, so his oeuvre is part of my musical heritage. I consider this comparison a compliment.
Your relationship with Claude Sautet has given birth to some very different music scores. LES CHOSES DE LA VIE was your first one: a simple flute motif with an allegro later on in the score. Was all this music written after the film had been completed, or with prior knowledge of the story?
The score was written after the movie was finished. It was my first film and I wrote the music one month before mixing began. I was called in at a very late stage as the director probably thought it over very carefully before entrusting his film to a twenty-year-old unknown composer. In the picture there was a scene which was very difficult to stage: a car accident, without any sound and with “invisible” music if I may say so. I was trying to create the impression of a void this car was travelling in during the accident. The rest of the music was thematic, so relatively easy to score, but the car accident had music throughout; we had a flute and violins, but also tried for some musical tricks which were almost impossible to create at the time (1970). Now this is very easily done.
Also, UNE HISTOIRE SIMPLE, using a simple quartet sound shifting between major and minor keys, catches the resourceful character of Romy Schneider in the film. I can understand how that could have been composed after reading the script. But there are other scenes: when the friend (Roger Pigaut), about to commit suicide, is walking through his impersonal place of business and the piano plays staccato notes over the legato strings: that kind of insightful music seems to suggest that you were composing for a finished film.
Strangely, it’s the only finished film by Sautet I have scored before seeing it. You have described perfectly well the mood of the theme, which shifts between major and minor. There is a quartet of strings, but there is also a 70-piece orchestra which is hardly heard – a kind of phantom orchestra! It sounds as if I had composed symphonic chamber music; we hear the quartet for strings with a piano, some wood and brass and then there is an orchestra behind all this, like a mist: it all reflects the ambiguity of the character played by Romy Schneider.
As to the scene regarding Robert Pigaut’s death, I scored this when the film was finished of course. It’s music which obeys the laws of timing and editing, so it was done afterwards. Some music was written before, some during shooting. For example, I wrote the sentimental theme for Romy Schneider after I had seen a sequence with Romy when shooting began; that was enough for me to imagine the mood of this woman in the film.
When you write music before shooting begins, are you always satisfied with what you have written? Do you change the music very often?
The music for LE CHOIX DES ARMES was recorded before Alain Corneau shot his picture, but I re-recorded two or three scenes once the film had been completed. I did two or three adjustments, re-recorded two or three pieces to better match the music with the images, I don’t want to put the director in a straitjacket, so I re-score certain cues sometimes. In fact, I may make another version of the same music, because things have been changed during the shooting, or because the director asks me to. I have no rules, film scoring doesn’t have them. You must put forward a set of rules at the beginning, but once started you forget all about them to give way to the suggestions of the director or your own ideas.
Writing music in advance is sometimes very difficult, because you must have a very good notion about the evolution of a character, and also the director may not divulge all the secrets of his mise-en-scene. The final result may not match the film 100%. You have to adjust, but that doesn’t bother me. I work with people I know, and even if I don’t know them very well, after a period of time I begin to sense what they want.
I don’t begin writing after just one visit with the director, but after several discussions. Before writing a theme for an actor, one must meet him. It’s difficult to compose music for an actor you don’t personally know. Writing music for a movie is writing music for characters – it’s the same as writing a song for a singer; you must have heard him before and be aware of his singing abilities. And if you know them, you’ll write even better.
What you are looking for in the first place is a kind of understanding and complicity with the director?
Of course. That’s what they are also looking for. It’s not easy to have such a dialogue. With certain directors you can’t talk about music, you must discuss the film and the composer must then transform the cinematic code into a musical one, but in any case we all talk about the same thing: emotions.
This means that the musical concept in films has changed over the years?
To me, it has always been the same for 15 years. I don’t know what the others do, or how they work. It doesn’t interest me, because writing film music is a solitary profession in every way: from conception to composition. There is no dialogue. There are no technical problems to overcome, such as camera operators may have with a new camera, a new film stock. Everyone is master of his own small artistic enterprise. There are no rules. I follow the rules everyone seems to use nowadays.
How much time do they give you to write a score? Do you happen to work on two films at the same time?
No, that’s impossible. You can’t work on several films at the same time. One movie at a time is tiring enough! I try to score a film in one to four months. It really depends upon the picture, the amount and the importance of the music, and the time I’m allotted. An American film takes more time. On Marshall Brickman’s LOVESICK I began working in June, and I recorded the score with the New York Philharmonic in October; that means five months, six months even if you count mixing and everything else.
It was the same for LA GUERRE DU FEU, TESS and GHOST STORY. All the films done in America needed a lot of time and work. As a rule, a French film takes me between one and two months to score, sometimes six weeks or even fifteen days. It depends. If you need only one theme, it can be done in perhaps three weeks.
Has it already happened that you haven’t been allotted sufficient time and so you have had to change things?
It’s up to me to say if it’s possible. Generally, having a limited time is a wonderful discipline. The director and I may decide that a certain cue takes e.g. one minute and 37 seconds: that’s wonderful. If a cue takes 15 minutes, what are you going to do? Why not 14, 13 or 17 minutes? The time you have been allotted facilitates things, because a limit has been set.
When you are scoring a film does it happen that you are thinking music from morning till evening?
Even during my sleep; musical nightmares are frightening, you hit upon a theme and this happens during the night. I think it is the same with every composer
Does it happen that you get up during the night to write down some notes?
It may have happened that I got up during the night to write something down, so that I could work it out the following morning. The piano and the music paper are never far away.
Do you always compose at the piano?
No, I compose in my head, then I check certain things on the piano, and then I write it down. There are no rules. The piano may disturb you because you may have imagined it differently. You try certain harmonies on the piano and generally you hear the music in your head at the same time. But since I am a piano player I do tend to go to the piano, but not to compose; it takes shape in my head. I like the interplay between the piano and the fingers…
What discussions did you have with director Roman Polanski on TESS? Your music seems to have the passion and strength that the film lacked. Did you orchestrate this music?
Roman didn’t want his players to overdo it. He always said to me; the music will show the passion and it will give life to the characters. I want to show people with a restrained passion, but this doesn’t mean the guy isn’t burning inside. I was asked to explore these feelings and to illustrate them musically.
As to the second part of your question; I never orchestrate my music. I make very extensive sketches and give them to the orchestrator, whom I work with very closely. It gives me the chance to have a second view concerning the music. Somebody else has a look at my music, so I learn to see it in a new light. When you have a little time, say 2 or 3 months, and when you haven’t come up with anything for two months, you may be left with a mere 8 days to write down everything. You must create some distance and the only way to do this is by using an orchestrator. You need an orchestrator, who breathes new life into what you have written during 3 months on your own and you can tell him what is possible and what isn’t. Doing the orchestrations myself would hinder my sense of imagination. You need very precise ideas about instrumentation, I myself think about the instrumentation before writing the music itself, so the orchestrator will do exactly what I want, but if he does have some good ideas about using a particular instrument or certain harmonies, why not incorporate them, since they may be beneficial?
I think it’s only in France that people don’t like the idea of using an orchestrator; it is looked upon as bizarre. In America it is the most normal thing in the world. Every American composer has an orchestrator and the results are sometimes better than if you did the whole thing yourself, as is the case in France; writing the script, taking care of the lighting, shooting the film. The result is all that matters. An orchestrator is also an artist and he may have another point of view about what you have written, he may change a couple of things to put them in perspective.
You don’t usually conduct the orchestra, but you use Hubert Rostaing, Carlo Savina or Peter Knight. Do you give them complete freedom or do you oversee?
No freedom at all. It’s my music they are conducting. No-one has any freedom, neither the orchestrator nor the conductor. These people work for me and I try to approach them with humility, certainly not as a dictator. But they do what I want. They work for me, not for themselves. They have to orchestrate or conduct the way I want it. I’m not going to work for two or three, months and then let somebody else in who is going to change things completely. I’m open to suggestions but if I don’t like them, I won’t accept them, because I’m the only one who knows what the music in the film must be like.
More and more film music recordings are done in England…
About ten years ago I stopped working in France, because the musicians didn’t accept my endless rehearsals of the same music. I was very young and I told myself I couldn’t go on this way. I don’t rehearse for my own pleasure, but because something is wrong. A viewer shouldn’t hear there is an orchestra; he must have a general impression of the music, he may recognize certain elements, but he must not be able to analyse it completely, otherwise the atmosphere is lost. The viewer mustn’t be aware of a saxophone when he sees Philippe Noiret or Alain Delon walking along the street. My problem is interpreting Delon or Noiret walking. Music must be transparent and the musicians must rehearse it any number of times. They must not be a bunch of people reading music they are not familiar with, so rehearsals are needed, and I myself must create the nature of the sound with the sound editor, and again rehearsals are needed.
In the past in France this way of working wasn’t consistent with either the budget or the state of mind of the musicians. I felt I couldn’t work like that any more, so I went to England. I was one of the first to do that and others followed. It doesn’t mean I don’t record in France anymore, but I also bring a number of soloists to England, I do an exchange between French, English and American musicians.
So foreign musicians are more docile and understanding?
Orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the best in the world, consist of people who understand 14 or 15 “takes”. In the past, a French orchestra didn’t. Maybe my reputation wasn’t good enough or perhaps I was too young, but there was not enough discipline in France and discipline is all that matters with an orchestra. The soloists, whom I bring from France, are superb.
You often use well known soloists or ethnic instruments, as in LE JUGE FAYARD, DIT “LE SHERIF” and LE CHOC, a synthesizer in CESAR ET ROSALIE; a bandonéon (a small accordion) and an accordion in VINCENT, FRANCOIS, PAUL ET LES AUTRES and LE JUGE ET L’ASSASSIN; or well known soloists, Stan Getz in MORT D’UN POURRI, Griffin and Rabbath in DES ENFANTS GATES, Ivry Gitlis in LA VIE DEVANT SOI, Ron Carter and Buster Williams in LE CHOIX DES ARMES… What is your gaol for instance in MORT D’UN POURRI when the saxophone played by Stan Getz almost makes the symphonic melody disappear?
Stan Getz is the best saxophone player in the world, isn’t he? Why look for somebody else? He will give you the emotion you want by means of a theme played on the saxophone. When I need another saxophone player with a harsher and rougher sound, I take Johnny Griffin. Sadly enough, only soloists with an international reputation can add something to your music which makes it quite different from a score played by a studio musician.
UN TAXI MAUVE shows even more musical sympathy for the Irish/Gallic music than you displayed in TESS. You were working with The Chieftains there, an authentic Irish group, but your own string writing is remarkably insightful towards the whole atmosphere of the Irish setting. Was this composed before the film, and did you do special studies for it?
Each time the atmosphere must be that of a country which isn’t mine, I’ll do research. I have a look at music typical of that era. I must have music that is not out of proportion with the landscape or the action. For LE TAXI MAUVE I did some research with the group, in order not to have inconsistencies in taste or style. It’s like a decorator who wants wallpaper for an English-style interior. Where else can he go other than to England to find something that resembles an English interior?
Do you also do research regarding special instruments?
From time to time I listen to certain instruments and they remain part of me, so I can say one day I’ll take Stan Getz, or a bombarde (a shawm), or Stéphane Grapelli. So things can come into my mind subconsciously or by seeing the film. Behind every image there’s a secret. I may feel it’s necessary in the film to use either no soloist at all, or if there is to be a soloist, there will be an instrument which is more important than the others. One must find something that has a connection with the story, because there is an adventurous aspect in using a solo instrument. In LE SHERIFF the bombarde gives a kind of provincial setting to the story. At the beginning of the film, there is a panorama of a city and I told myself that people won’t realise it isn’t Paris unless I do a peasant’s dance with a cabrette (a kind of French bagpipe); but we also have the rhythm and the dynamics of a police picture.
In LE TAXI MAUVE, one of the Chieftains is playing an Irish flute, so we are not in the south of France, we are in Ireland. It may be simple reasoning, but it’s very useful and you can build upon it to find something more interesting, as the shawm or the Vietnamese instrument I used in LE CRABE-TAMBOUR. That film was about people who are completely obsessed by Vietnam and what happened there. One sees boats in the ice somewhere in Bretagne and one hears this Vietnamese instrument, and it doesn’t make you think about the scenery, but about what’s in their minds. The characters or the scenery make me use those instruments and they reassure or unbalance the audience and let them take better part in the movie. Film music is not supermarket music. When you enter a cinema you must be caught up by an atmosphere which does not resemble that’ of a supermarket.
That’s why I resent making popular versions of my film music, because it is based on “chemistry” with the images on the screen. Sometimes from all this may come a theme you can turn into a commercial tune, but it bothers me. It is not part of my musical concept.
L’ADOLESCENTE. Did Jeanne Moreau advise you about the music she wanted? Did Hubert Rostaing orchestrate this? Did you have Grapelli in mind for the violin part from the start? This score has much beautiful colors in its choice of instrumentation and in the chording that one wonders it you did not score it after seeing the finished film…
Correct. I composed it after seeing the final cut. Jeanne Moreau and I had a very fruitful collaboration. She really acted as a director, who is not at the same time an actor. She behaved completely as a professional with regard to me. She knew exactly what she wanted and we exchanged ideas. She liked Stéphane Grapelli and so did I; I had already worked with him on LIZA by Ferreri. Why not once again? It would work very well with the atmosphere of the period and with the requirements set by Jeanne Moreau. Both Savina and Rostaing collaborated on the orchestrations.
LA VALISE. It seems that there are a number of jokes in this score. You seem to parody the music of Ennio Morricone, of Franck Pourcel, of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, even of American country and western music. Were these references deliberate, and are these others in this film that we have missed?
The truth is there is a lot of functional music in this film which is a parody. Generally in Lautner’s films the music is tongue-in-cheek, because he makes send-ups, and he is the only director I have fun with, because I can parody myself sometimes, or other people, by using their music or their musicians. Only a part of the score was not tongue-in-cheek, namely the piano – played by myself – which I used as a counterpart to the rest of the score.
How did you approach scoring LA GUERRE DU FEU (QUEST FOR FIRE)? A big budget was available, but the film is not a typical Hollywood blockbuster. In keeping with the images one might have expected music for a small group of musicians, with ethnic instruments. Instead, you have written a highly symphonic score.
We discussed this problem for a very long time. We could have used so called ethnic music; which would have irritated everybody. You haven’t seen the film without music, no one has done that except for Jean-Jacques Annaud and I, and using ethnic music never even crossed his mind. He was horrified by that kind of music, the small flute kind of thing, music from an era we don’t even know. He wanted the opposite effect.
I used Strasbourg percussion which has its roots in ethnic music anyway; it’s people knocking on wood, but it’s not an African group. I transformed everything which would have turned away the audience. We were showing people from the Stone Age, and I didn’t want documentary music but real film music. The film proved us right; it was an enormous international success.
It seems the film tried to show us everyday life at the time – as far as we can imagine it – while your score shows us the importance of the discovery of the fire.
Exactly. We had 170 musicians and a choir. The discovery of fire could not have been illustrated by two pieces of wood being knocked together. It’s not necessary to back everything that is shown on the screen by sound or by music, yet using no music at all would have been insane. It was a deliberate decision taken from the start by Jean-Jacques, the U.S. producers, and I.
LA VIE DEVANT SOI. Moshe Mizrahi’s films are deeply emotional, yet they are always restrained on the surface. LA VIE DEVANT SOI is most restrained in the way it tells its story and one wonders if you understood the need for your music to be sparse and non-committal, or if you had discussions in that respect with Moshe Mizrahi. You use just 4 players here; violin, viola, clarinet and cello give your music a Hebrew quality, yet the instrumentation in a couple of places recalls Mozart’s ‘Clarinet Quintet’. Was it the model you used?
I had two starting points, first of all, Hebrew music. When you make a film with a Hebrew setting it would be stupid to use, for example, protestant music. Hebrew music has a certain emotion which is very typical. If you don’t use this for LA VIE DEVANT SOl. you miss the point.
Secondly, it mustn’t be Hebrew folklore and I have it a classical quality, maybe Mozart, I was thinking of a Brahms quintet, but a classical quality anyway. Everyone visualises it in his own way, it’s a mixture of Hebrew and classical music. But the score must be like the movie, not too outspoken, even if I think Ivry Gitlis is overdoing it slightly. My first idea was to have Benny Goodman playing the clarinet, but Goodman didn’t want to play Gitlis, whom I had engaged first.
The day I interviewed Mr. Sarde, he was just on the way to getting better from a long illness, and in addition he was preoccupied by the transformations going on to his new apartment. Despite his fatigue he immediately agreed to talk to me, and for close to 3 hours he replied to all my questions with kindness and constant courtesy, for which I’d like to thank him most sincerely.