An Interview with Philippe Sarde by Marco Werba
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Although popular in his native France for his light and tuneful film scores, Philippe Sarde has gained a notable reputation in America for his more symphonically-oriented film compositions. First brought to Stateside attention when he scored Roman Polanski’s TESS, Sarde subsequently provided notable scores for GHOST STORY, QUEST FOR FIRE and PIRATES. He has also enjoyed regular collaborations in France with directors such as Robin Davis, Claude Sautet, Alain Corneau, Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Granier Deferrer. Interviewed in France while working on the score for PIRATES, Sarde discussed his experiences and attitudes towards film music.
Do you enjoy scoring music for films?
Music is something I feel very deep inside. My mother was an opera singer, and ever since I was a small boy I’ve been interested in music. I became involved in film music when I was very young. I am now 37 years old and I’ve made a career that many composers who are even in their seventies have not made. At the beginning of my career I was always present on the set during the shooting to better understand the problems connected to a film. When I understood the film procedure, I stopped going to the set.
Has that understanding given you a particular approach that you employ when scoring a film?
I think that the “shape” is fundamental for both film and music. It can change the original essence. It’s useful to know how to manage a theme, how to vary it to obtaining several feelings that change from story to story. It doesn’t matter if three bars of a music that I am writing are similar to three bars that I wrote some years ago. What is important is that the shape is different. The way I’m doing it is new and has a different approach. There are not so many composers in France who regularly write film music and live with film music. We are maybe twenty or thirty but not many more. It’s a difficult job and sometimes composers forget that, first, you have to know all the secrets of a film, and then the secrets of music. I usually write descriptive music. I give a lot of importance to music for a movie. I like to do something that helps it, no matter how much I have to work or how much I have to write. I always try to to do my best to understand which is the correct music for a specific actor or scene. I can’t write the same way for a male actor as for a female actress. I write music differently for Alain Delon than I do for Catherine Deneuve.
Do you work well with directors?
The truth is that I am a difficult person to work with. I’m difficult, I’m expensive and I hate “fashion!” What I mean is that I really hate commercial tunes. I would prefer to rob a bank to get money instead of writing pop cues! Sometimes, for a scene that needs “source music” I have to write music in fashion, because it comes out of a radio, but that is due to contemporary reality and not used in a descriptive way.
Are there are particular directors with whom you prefer to work?
I try to cooperate with directors who give the same importance to music and with whom I can seriously discuss the points where the film needs music. Some directors just ask you for music in scenes the lack quality, but I don’t work anymore with this kind of director. I need people who understand my needs and my qualities. Of course, I am the one who writes the music but the director is the one who makes the movie, so I have to respect his point of view. At first I try to give him a general impression of what the right music will be without going into details of instrumentation. It’s not easy to explain how the final product will be.
I am very demanding also while I work with an orchestra. I make them repeat the music over and over again until I get what I want. If a conductor or some musicians don’t understand why I make them repeat the performance, I immediately stop working. We have to be a team that works together and we have to become familiar with each other.
For me, musicians are like actors. Like a director, I try to squeeze them to receive the maximum of their artistic qualities. And I like to mix various kinds of instrumental colors just like a director likes to mix various kinds of stories. I feel I am a director. I imagine things the same way he does.
Do you give a lot of importance to melody in film scoring, or do you prefer to write contemporary music?
I think that melody is fundamental. Atonal or dissonant music can be used, but always with a melody on the background. You have to consider that the audience is not prepared to listen to atonal music. It’s dangerous to use, and must be done only for a scene that really needs it. What is important to avoid is creating a fashion because, after a couple of years, it dies. I always tried to avoid films and music that were “in fashion.” I prefer to work for movies that are not related to a specific time period. You can be modern even if you dress in a classical way.
Are you satisfied with your career as a film composer?
You’d think, after all the scores I did and after all the experiences I had, that I knew everything about film music. But the truth is that I still don’t know so many secrets; but I hope to know then one day. I wake up every morning concerned about what I know, about what I have to learn.
The film business is a compromise and you can’t escape from it. You have to accept it. Usually I listen a thousand times to my music right after I record it. Then I don’t listen to it any more until I happen to see the film on tv. Sometimes, when re-listening to my music that way, I find the music good but some times I find it bad, and this discourages me. Most of the time, though, I fall in love with what I write, or even the idea of what I have to write.
I’m afraid of myself sometimes, because if I judge negatively what I wrote for a film then I don’t have the energy to continue. The film industry is full of traps, all one after the other. You have to know how to jump over them. It looks crazy but it’s the truth. The more you realize that the more you try and stay away. Working for films is frightening — if you are not ready to do it you’d better stay in bed!
The problem is that I don’t know how else to make my living writing music. When I was in Italy a reporter asked me if I was “il maestro Sarde.” I said yes, and he said “I thought you were 70 years old!” The truth is that I am younger and feel younger than most of the people that regularly work for films. In France there is a lot of competition and I always have the feeling that someone will soon be ready to knock me off and replace me! I had the chance to work with good directors, but you never know how long you will have this opportunity. I’m really worried about giving what people expect me to. If I don’t keep my promises I will betray them – but moreso, I will betray myself. Every morning, when I wake up, I ask myself what must I do? Where do I start? What do I have to write? Then, after one or two coffees, I forget all my problems, all of the good and bad people that judge you, and I start working.
Philippe Sarde on Scoring QUEST FOR FIRE
You composed a very good score for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s QUEST FOR FIRE. When were you brought into this project?
My working relationship with Annaud started when the film was almost finished. During the editing he showed me some scenes to open my imagination, and I started working on those scenes before the movie was completely finished. This score was very difficult because the film had no dialogue; just music and sound effects. It was not easy to create music that had to give the feelings of the images and take the place of the dialogue and its meaning. It was a great but difficult experience that I would never repeat. I’m always scared to repeat myself, so I try different musics for different films.
I am working right now with Roman Polanski on PIRATES. There is dialog but I wrote an hour and a half of music so the problems are the same. In a movie where there is so much music, the themes have to tell the story. It doesn’t matter how much music there is, but it is essential that the music have a meaning. It can’t be just a casual support. It can sometimes be in the background, but never without reason. Why put music in a film if it doesn’t add anything to it? After QUEST FOR FIRE, some directors asked me to score other films without dialogue. I refused, since it’s too difficult. It’s crazy!
For QUEST FOR FIRE, you have not only used the London Symphony Orchestra, but also the London Philharmonic, the Ambrosian chorale and the percussions of Strasbourg. The orchestration and conducting was done by Peter Knight. How did you work with him?
Peter Knight was a good friend of mine and a great orchestrator; unfortunately, he died some months ago. Talking about him is like giving him an “hommage.” We worked together on about forty films. For QUEST FOR FIRE, we had an enormous responsibility. We used the two orchestras you mentioned but they did not perform together. I used the London Symphony when I needed full symphonic music, and the London Philharmonic for the brass section. I also needed a particular sound for percussion, and the only ensemble in the world that was able to do that was Les Percussions de Strasbourg. I wanted all the percussions in London, so I organized a removal expedition from Strasbourg to London with all the material I needed.
In the score you sometimes used the sound of stones. Were these sounds natural or artificial?
They are some artificial and natural sounds that were incorporated into the soundtrack by sound effects specialists. Annaud called me from Canada while he was doing the mix. He said that those people working on the sound for hours and hours, after listening to my music, realized that no sounds were needed while there was music. This was a great satisfaction for me. It’s rare that a director decided together with sound technicians not to put sound effects over the music, especially when there is no dialogue!
The music you wrote for QUEST FOR FIRE is symphonic and uses a lot of dissonances in addition to particular instruments such as the pan flute and bass flute. Was this choice yours, or did the director have this preference?
The director always contributes ideas to obtain the music he wants. Annaud and I wanted to have a primitive sound, and this is why I used the pan flute and bass flute. I wanted a particular sound so I asked the player not to blow fully into the instrument but laterally, sideways. I had a big bass flute specially built in order to get a deeper bass sound. I had to write short music lines for the player since, to obtain a good sound; a large quantity of blowing was required!
The film also has a very pretty love theme.
The director and I decided together than a love theme was needed. But not a leitmotif. You will only find it in particular scenes. At first I used dissonant music to reinforce the feeling of incomprehension between men. Then, when the friendship starts, I used the love theme. Slowly the characters become more human, they learn how to live. They discover fire and love.