‘Pinocchio’: Alexandre Desplat on Songwriting With Guillermo del Toro and Using Only Wood Instruments (EXCLUSIVE)

To capture the essence of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio,” on Netflix Dec.9, composer Alexandre Desplat came up with an ingenious idea: a score performed only with wood instruments.

“I always like to find an ensemble of instruments that reflect the film or soul of the film,” the composer tells Variety as he shares two exclusive cues from the movie. “Geppetto’s a woodworker, and Pinocchio is made of wood.”

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Desplat pauses. “Hold on, one second,” he says during our Zoom call before leaving the room. When he returns, he holds up a wooden figurine of Pinocchio to the screen.

“This little wooden boy, as they called him in the film — I thought by using wood instruments, it would do something different than just having a symphony orchestra,” Desplat explains, toying with the miniature puppet in his hands.

“I’m sure nobody notices, which is fine. We don’t want anyone to say, ‘Oh, it’s in wood!’ when they’re listening to the music,” he says with a laugh.

From an assortment of woodwind and percussion instruments to a piano, mandolin and guitar, Desplat believes “it was a good challenge for me to find another sound,” adding that there’s a “softness” to the sound of wood.

“There’s no timpani. There are no cymbals,” Desplat explains. “The accordion is also in wood… So, that’s the idea. It’s as simple as that.”

Desplat last worked with del Toro on 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” which earned him his second Academy Award for best original score. For “Pinocchio,” the composer collaborated with del Toro for the first time on a collection of original songs.

“It’s like a Lego game. There’s a big castle to build because there’s this history of incredible songwriters before us for cinema and for animation — from the Sherman Brothers, Richard Rodgers to so many great songwriters,” Desplat says about working with lyricist Roeban Katz and the director-writer. “So you’re trying to have a conversation with the past, and at the same time, you try to play with this Lego castle that you have in front of you and build the most beautiful object that you can.”

For the song “Ciao Papa,” it was essential to incorporate glimpses of Pinocchio’s innocence into a “very sad and utterly melancholic moment.”

“It’s the farewell to childhood, the farewell to his new home that he just discovered, the farewell to his father — who still doesn’t know how to love him,” Desplat says. “So in the first draft, we had all the elements that are in the song — and then with Katz, we added a bit more innocence and poetry.”

Desplat also decided to create a melody for “Ciao Papa” that “any child could sing.” “The combination of these two words — ‘Ciao,’ which is Italian, and ‘Papa,’ which works in any language — I felt that if the melody was as simple as these two words, it would be very easy to remember and to catch for anyone.”

On “The Pine Cone” melody, Desplat sought to capture Geppetto’s grief during a pivotal moment in the film. “He loses his child, and that’s a very heavy moment,” he says. “So it had to be dramatic, and at the same time, extremely moving without being over the top or too romantic… It’s difficult to find the music of grief. It’s such a deep pain.”

Although Geppetto’s son, Carlo, appeared for a limited time on screen, Desplat says that “emotionally, he’s the center of the whole story.”

“Pinocchio is Carlo — he’s the reincarnation of Carlo. And it takes the whole film for Geppetto to admit that Pinocchio is his son replacing Carlo,” he explains. “That’s what Geppetto wants — he wants to find his little son again that he lost during the First World War.” Therefore, for “Carlo’s Theme,” the composer decided to make the melody the same for both characters.

“It’s not only Carlo’s theme. It’s the theme of the little boy, of the lost soul — and of the hope that you have on your children to become one day, another person,” Desplat says. “As Pinocchio becomes Geppetto’s son, the theme takes over and becomes Pinocchio’s theme.”

While Desplat considers the stop-motion feature a “film with songs,” he’s optimistic that “Pinocchio” will “become a musical one day.”

“I think it would be great. We have a beautiful way of extending the film,” he says. “But so far, it’s a film with many songs … [and] they’re not too long, so they don’t impact the base of the film or the base of the story. I think there’s a good balance between songs and storytelling.”

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