In the early 2000's, the Canadian composer Benoît Charest started working on the score for an animated French film called The Triplets of Belleville. Little did he know that the film and one of his songs (“Belleville Rendez-vous”) would be nominated for two Academy Awards and win both the Canadian Genie Award for Best Motion Picture and the BBC Four World Cinema Award. He also probably didn't expect that 13 years after the film was released he'd be traveling the world playing the soundtrack live during film screenings.
If you're anything like me, you've already seen The Triplets of Belleville, can remember the theater and friend that you went to see the film with, and you also own the soundtrack. The film, which chronicles a grandmother's journey to save her grandson from the French mafia with the help of three singers called the Triplets of Belleville, is easily one of the best animated films of the last century. (And, if it weren't for the fact that Finding Nemo came out the same year, it probably would have taken home the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Damn you, Nemo!)
[jump] Though the animation is a big factor in its greatness, so, too, is the soundtrack because — spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen the film — there's no dialogue in the movie. That's right: not one word is spoken (although there is a bit of unintelligible murmuring at times). Because of this, it is Charest's masterful score that upholds the entire film, keeping it not only interesting for its 78-minute running time, but enthralling, nerve racking, and exciting, too.
While Charest was at his home in Montreal practicing the guitar, an instrument that he's been playing since the age of 13 (“I'd need about five lives to learn enough to consider myself good enough to brag about it,” he says), he hopped on the phone with SF Weekly to discuss the making of the film's soundtrack and his upcoming two-week spate of live “cine-concert” performances at SF Opera Lab.
Benoît Charest and his orchestra, as well as the film The Triplets of Belleville, play at SF Opera Lab from Thursday, April 14 to Saturday, April 23. More info here.
So how did you get involved with the film? Did you meet Sylvain Chomet?
I vaguely met Sylvain through common friends. I knew that he was starting this thing, but I think he had a musician on the gig already. So anyways, one morning I got a call from Sylvain and I got a voicemail on my old answering machine, and he asked me if I could come by his studio with music that I had. I think that he had previously heard one or two soundtracks that I did the music to. And I went over with my CD with different little music that I had done on it and had him listen to it. There was one song on there that I wrote for a friend of mine, a director, who was doing a documentary on the servitude of women to high heeled shoes. She wanted me to write the score, so I wrote this little tune and she thought it was much too playful for the subject. I really liked that song and basically that was the first demo for the “Belleville Rendez-vouz” song. Because when Sylvain heard that in the studio he said immediately: That song, does anybody own that song?” I said, “No.” And he said, “That's the song for The Triplets.” So that little song that I’d written —- I think the original words were “my little girl's got high heeled shoes” or something like that — it was too funny for a dramatic subject, so I never ended up doing the other gig. And then when it was Oscar nominated, she actually wrote me an email saying, “Aren’t you glad I didn’t accept your piece?”
That’s great. It worked out. Tell me about why you decided to introduce so many different styles of songs in the soundtrack.
I think the film is not a Disney movie, so it's not always cheerful or funny. It goes through different periods in time and to illustrate the movie and the mood I had to tap into different genres. As a musician that likes so many styles to the point where he doesn’t know which one to adopt or follow a career, that was perfect for me.
Do you still feel that way? In terms of not having one exact style? And do you think that's worked out in your career?
As I say pretentiously, I’m a jack of all trades and a master of all.
I know that guitar is your main instrument. Did you incorporate a lot of guitar in T.O.B.?
There is, but I don’t write music to put myself in front as a guitar player. I think that it’s more a question of knowing music and harmony than the instrument you play. A very good example was Henry Mancini who was a clarinet or saxophone player, and he wrote all these wonderful tunes and arrangements. So I basically write for any kind of instrumentation depending on the project or what is needed.
So when you start working on a new project, do you start with the guitar?
It all depends on the style of music. I figure out more harmony on the piano. I’m not a proficient piano player, but I can play chords and sequences of chords and I know the harmony enough to be able to write from the piano. An example would be if I have to write something a little more modern techno or electronic, you wouldn’t use the guitar. I’d go directly to using interesting sounds.
Didn’t you recently do an electronic project of sorts?
Yes, I did a score for I don’t know the exact finished title, but it had to do with Slender Man. It's a documentary on HBO. And I think that’s coming out soon. That was a very ambient heavy soundtrack.
When you're asked to do a soundtrack for something, I’m assuming you get a chance to watch the footage for the film beforehand to get a feel for it, right?
It doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes some projects…like with the example of The Triplets, I had an idea of the style of the drawings, but a lot of the music I did beforehand so they had to animate on it. Especially the places where they play music, the music was all done before. And then they animated based on the music. It depends, some directors prefer you to just write music and then they get inspired to do the editing and all that stuff. And sometimes you have to work really closely with the picture.
I love the song “Cabaret Aspirateur” where the triplets make music using a vacuum and the grill of a fridge. In the live performance, how are you going to perform that song?
We do a bit of that. We try and emulate it. It’s kind of difficult to completely render because of the micing, but I think we create something close to the original.
How many people are in the orchestra?
Eight in all.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
That depends. I can’t really answer that.
I’m assuming you've played live sets for the movie before?
Yes, we did about 12 gigs in the US last month and we ended up in Macau and Taipei. And we're playing New York, Prospect Park in July, and then we're going to Australia and New Zealand.
Does it surprise you that the film is 13 years old but it's still being played all over?
Yes, I am surprised. When it came out originally we tried to do something with it, but we kind of aborted it. I was going through a difficult phase in my life so I abandoned it completely. And then about two or three years ago, I thought why not try and do that, just play the movie and play the soundtrack because I think it would work. And then we did that at a Jazz Festival two years ago and then booked some gigs in Quebec. Everything was working out and then we did this showcase in Los Angeles about a year and a half ago and that's where I met the agent we're working with right now and it was a perfect match. The venues they're booking me in I think it's perfect for this show.
What are you working on now? Anything new coming up?
For the moment, a couple of things, but nothing sure. That’s the reality of being a film composer. They always call you last minute and say, 'Oh, yeah, we forgot about the music.' So I get called last second. And things fall through. Things are a little more difficult than they used to be. There’s so much available and free music out there right now and people that write music. And there's so many schools producing players and composers that it is rough. Everyone wants a piece of it. And especially when you're young, you're ready to work for free just to get your folio together. And the whole process makes it that much easier to produce music than it used to be. Before, you'd have to know what to write on a piece of paper so that the musicians would play it and you'd have to record it. Now, you can fiddle around in your room until you do something that sounds like the right kind of music. So I guess this the same phenomenon with photography. It used to be that you'd have to know about light and exposure and composition, now people just go click click click and they'll get great photos. It’s a bit of the same phenomenon in music.