Fresh from rocking Coachella, movie score titan Hans Zimmer is coming to Auckland to perform one show only, Hans Zimmer Revealed. He spoke to Madeleine Chapman about some of his most recognisable scores and how he avoids repeating himself.
Whether he realises it or not (he definitely doesn’t), Hans Zimmer has scored the past five years of my life. Going to university and now working as a writer means I’ve spent thousands of hours listening to instrumental music while I write. When I had final exams I would catch the bus into uni and sit in the library for 12 hours while completing two hours’ worth of work. On those days, I’d listen to ‘Time – 10 Hours‘ all the way through. When I was pulling an all-nighter and didn’t want to risk dozing off mid-sentence, I’d listen to the Frost/Nixon soundtrack to keep the pressure on and make me tense up with nerves. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best choice.
On the few occasions I have tried to go for decent runs in the past five years, I make sure to listen to ‘What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World’ from the Man of Steel soundtrack. An incredible lifting number that’s the perfect length (5:27) for me to warm up, run, sprint, and cool down before the final note is played.
Zimmer isn’t all about pounding drums and a blasting organ, though. When I’m walking to work or just want something nice to listen to while cleaning my bedroom, I might throw on something from The Holiday or Driving Miss Daisy.
It’s truly impossible to get through all of Zimmer’s incredible work – from The Lion King to Gladiator to the Dark Knight trilogy – but I’m trying. At this moment I’m listening to ‘Journey To The Line’ from The Thin Red Line, which many (including Hans himself) believe to be perhaps his greatest work. And it’s easy to see why. When The Thin Red Line was released in 1999, its soundtrack began the trend of booming, vibrating scores that have since been heard in almost every movie with any sort of action or drama. I would encourage you to listen to ‘Journey To The Line’ while reading this interview. It’s an unedited transcript because, despite English being his second language and many attempts to say that he’s not verbally articulate, Hans Zimmer is incredibly eloquent and everything he said was great.
And if there’s one composer who’s qualified to score the words of Hans Zimmer, it’s Hans Zimmer.
Hi Mr Zimmer, it’s an honour to speak to you.
If you knew me, you wouldn’t call me Mr Zimmer and you wouldn’t use the ‘honour’ word either, but for now I’ll take it.
I don’t have a whole lot of time with you so I’m just going to jump right in and go sort of chronological.
I listened to the Rain Man soundtrack the other day and I hadn’t heard it in a long time.
You and me both [laughs].
As soon as I heard it, it reminded me just a little bit of The Lion King. They seem like quite different movies but when you look at the story, they both deal with the loss of a father and sons coming to terms with that loss. Have you found that certain sounds or vibes in your music can be traced back and connected to the emotions you felt when seeing the movie?
No, they can be traced back to losing my father. I think the only place to write from is a personal point of view. Lion King was the most surprising thing for me. At first, I didn’t really want to do the movie. I kept thinking it’s this Disney animated thing, they’ll want princesses and big Broadway numbers, and I kept saying ‘I don’t want to do Broadway’. Little did I know. But it became interesting and I remember sitting there one day and going ‘what am I going to write about these fuzzy animals?’ Then I looked at the story and the story was about the loss of a father. And I lost my father when I was really young and I never dealt with it. I don’t think kids really deal with anything, they just sort of compartmentalise and put it aside. But music was always my refuge. So suddenly I’m sitting there and the only thing I can write about is actually something which is pretty dark and serious for me. I have to dig all that stuff up. I just had to be willing to say okay, I’m not going to hide, I’ll just do this. I am going to make this really personal.
Everything I’ve done, in one way or the other, is really personal. Even Pirates [of the Caribbean]. Even something as crazy as Pirates, there are bits in it which I can’t even really tell you why or how or whatever, but they’re personal.
When I was listening to the full Lion King soundtrack, there was a ten second snippet at the end of one of the songs that I don’t remember hearing in the movie, and didn’t recognise at first, but then when I listened to the Sherlock Holmes opening theme, I thought ‘oh that sounds a bit familiar’.
Uuugghh I torture myself! I don’t do it consciously but it just happens, you know? Every time I write a tune, I’m forever running around the studio getting everybody in. ‘Is this any good? And if it’s any good is it something I stole from somebody? If I didn’t steal it from somebody, did I use it before?’ It happens.
Well I was about to say it was just ten seconds in the Lion King but then it was this whole, beautiful opening theme for Sherlock. Do you sometimes create something in a movie that doesn’t quite go with that current movie but then you can use it later where it does fit?
No, I just ditch them. My friend [composer] Henry Jackman keeps saying I should just park them in iTunes or something, but I just ditch them. It’s funny you’re talking about Lion King, I found a tape a couple of years back which was my original ideas for the main theme for Lion King, and there were 48 tracks. All of them, they were okay. If I’d played them to the directors, they would’ve all gone ‘Oh yeah that’s alright’ but none of them were exactly what I wanted to say. So there were 48 average tunes until I came up with the one I liked. So no, I found the 48 tunes but in a funny way, they have ended up in the bin.
Then on the other hand, sometimes there’s a fragment of something and it sparks an idea and you can’t expand on the idea. As you said, in the Lion King, there was ten seconds of room and I couldn’t expand on the idea. And then you go back and you get to expand on that idea, which is fun. Sometimes you’re just not good enough yet. You have an idea and a tune, you know it could potentially be good, and you return to the idea over and over throughout your life, just trying to get good at it, get it under your fingers.
You mentioned not wanting to accidentally repeat something you’ve already used. How do you feel about temp music, especially in blockbuster movies?
Well I work with directors who don’t use temp music.
So you don’t have to deal with temp music these days?
No. God, sometimes I wish they would put some temp music in because they want to go and screen the movie and I haven’t written anything and there’s just this big blob of emptiness. It’s a funny thing because my stuff gets temped a lot and then I hear cousins of it. I seem to have cousins all over the world [laughs].
What’s it like when you watch a movie and you go ‘hhmm that sounds a bit like something I wrote’?
I don’t know, I have a bit of a laugh. Sometimes it’s improved. Sometimes I go ‘Oh wherever that person took it to, god I wish I’d done that.’ Sometimes it’s not [laughs] but I’m never angry about it. I’m very possessive of my stuff and very private when I write it, and very precious about it. Because oh god, the first time you play it to the director…Tom Newman [composer Thomas Newman] once said to me ‘It’s the oddest thing, you’re working on something and it sounds great. And then the director comes in and you play him the same thing and it sounds tiny and why does it sound mono?’ It just sounds terrible. So that period, the writing period, editing period, we are very fragile beings. I just have this thing that once it leaves my room, once it’s with the orchestra, once it’s on the dub stage, once it’s in the movie, it’s not mine anymore. Do whatever you want with it. And it’s liberating because I need to move on.
You’ve worked with Christopher Nolan for over a decade on the Batman movies.
I’m glad you said that because most people think we did three Batman movies, they don’t realise it was 12 years of our lives. Which was a pretty large chunk of life.
That’s the thing. When I think of DC comic book universe, even though there have been other DC movies besides Christopher Nolan’s ones, I think of your sound and your soundtrack. So what was it like going over and doing a Marvel movie in The Amazing Spider-Man 2?
It sort of wasn’t quite a Marvel movie because Marvel Studios wasn’t as much involved, it was really Sony. The whole thing is I was asked. I love the character and I kept thinking he’s this young kid, he’s the opposite of the Dark Knight. He probably listens to Pharrell, he probably likes a bit of Johnny Marr. So I just got all my mates in. The way we worked on the movie is we were supposed to start on a Monday and on the Sunday night we had a midnight screening of the movie on the Sony lot. Then on Monday we came in with nothing prepared and we just went ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ It was complete anarchy and it was so fun to make a movie up like that.
It was just great doing it as a band and having everybody contributing and writing really, really quickly. There was this one moment where Annemarie (my violinist), myself, and Pharrell were writing and the ideas just kept popping out, one after the other. Finally, Pharrell just stood there and said ‘Hang on, I think my head is exploding. I think I need to walk around the block.’ He walked around the block and he came back with four pages of lyrics. It was all like that. The good thing about having really good people in the room is there’s a sort of nice side to the ego that pops in. There’s a hole somewhere which needs filling so everybody’s on their A game because they want to have the best idea that fills the hole. And of course everybody goes ‘Yeah, yeah Johnny [Marr], that guitar riff, that’s the thing. Scrap my stupid little baseline.’ Those sort of things where everybody is contributing is an enormous amount of fun.
Is that quite different to the writing process on the Christopher Nolan films?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Right now it’s me in a dark room in a dark mood in a dark- how many more darks can we add? I am German so my dark is darker than anybody’s dark.
Is this for Dunkirk?
Yeah but that’s all I’m going to say. We have a rule: we can eke out the title but that’s it.
But you’re still working on it?
Yes. Because I’m obsessed and I’m crazy and I’m a perfectionist and I have too many ideas and I go home at five thirty in the morning and that’s it. I was so excited when Christmas was over and I could get back into the studio.
One of my favourite works of yours, that I always play for people because I feel like it doesn’t get played enough, is The Holiday.
A little too close to…yeah [laughs]. Actually, I like that one too. Hang on, you just gave me an idea. Should I put any of it into the tour?
I was just about to ask if you had any of The Holiday in your setlist.
I’m still figuring out what I’m going to play. I have to ask the band. It’s a sort of benign dictatorship where I suggest things and then everybody tells me why it’s a really bad idea. But The Holiday was a weird thing because in a funny way I was sort of writing about myself but I wasn’t writing about myself. But it was a lot of fun.
I liked the nice little homage to composers in the movie that included your own Driving Miss Daisy.
I had Jack Black sitting on the couch behind me while I was writing the scene that he is writing the music for if you see what I mean. Jack and I are friends so it’s good but it was still a bit weird.
In that soundtrack, I can listen and know who is on-screen because Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz’s characters had their own themes. Do you usually score to a scene or to a character?
Character. Absolutely character. A hundred thousand years ago when I started, Penny Marshall was the greatest teacher you could ever have. We were working on League of their Own and she knew I was still up at 3am and she’s an insomniac so she would phone me at 3am and we’d have these endless chats. I’d ask her all these dumb questions. I’d say to her, ‘How do you make a good movie, Penny?’ And she goes, ‘Easy. You protect your star.’ And what that means is you protect your main character. That means you don’t make him say something silly out of character, you don’t get him to wear a stupid suit that’s out of character. You just keep your focus on your main star, on your main actor, and everything will fall into place. And I think she’s right. If I understand the character then I know who to write about. I do a bit of method composing. When I’m working on The Dark Knight, it’s not a lot of fun to be around me. When I work on The Holiday, everybody loves me because I’m all happy and sunny and full of jokes, you name it.
Going through your very extensive IMDb page, there aren’t a whole lot of movies that would fit into the romantic comedy or comedic drama genres.
I think because I’m German they just don’t let me at it. No, I’ll give you the serious answer. The serious answer is the few comedies I’ve done that I think are really good are either with Nancy [Meyers] or Jim [James L] Brooks. Jim, to me, is the greatest writer of comedy. I remember saying to somebody who wanted to hire me for a comedy, I said ‘I don’t have that many comedies in me and I’m self-preserving them for Jim.’ And Jim takes forever to write something so I think I have a bit of time before the next one. He writes on a level that just blows me away. When we were doing As Good As It Gets, the film used to be an hour and a half longer, and the hour and a half was filled with amazing one-liners, amazing jokes, amazing speeches. He just cut all that stuff out. I mean, I can’t even tell a joke and Jim can write them and just throw them in the bin!
People might say the same for you and your 48 Lion King tracks.
Yeah, probably. But no, it’s different! The quality of his stuff, and the rigourousness with which he just gets rid of stuff. So there’s a level of respect that comes with that, automatically, where you just go ‘If he’s that painstaking and works that hard on this stuff, I better live up to that.’
The Jack Nicholson character in As Good As It Gets, I could not crack that character for the longest time. I finally said to Jim after about three weeks or so of just sitting there with blank pages, I said ‘What are you doing this weekend? Why don’t you come in and sit down on the couch.’ It became a great way of working together. He would sit there, I’d plonk around, sometimes I would see there was a spark of something, and we sort of discovered it together. Sometimes I’d look around and he’d be asleep on the couch, as well. Or sometimes he’d be starting to talk about something completely different and I had a tune in my head and I would shush him. That really goes for all the directors I work with. We make the music, it’s not just me. It’s a truly collaborative process. It’s all story. Just speak with story.
People have pointed out that a lot of blockbuster movies use music to effectively tell the audience what’s happening. So if something funny happens there’s jaunty music, and high violin notes for someone dying. How do you avoid explaining a scene?
I think task is really this: you’re supposed to encourage the audience to feel something but not to tell them what to feel. It’s more like you’re opening a door. The music’s supposed to open a door that lets you in and says ‘Okay, you can feel something’. But not take the autonomy away, not become sentimental. To use the lines that kept creeping up in the reviews of Inception, the idea of ‘shared dreaming’. We’re all sitting here and together we get to feel something, we get to have an experience. All I’m trying to do is allow people to have an experience.
I was supposed to say about five minutes ago that it was time for the next call.
Oh, I’m sorry.
I think they’ll survive it.
I will just say I have listened to a full 10-hour loop of ‘Time’ from Inception because it’s great study music.
Oh I know, I know I know I know it is. Because I don’t have words in it so you can go and do other things.
I guess that’s a success if people are willing to listen to 10 hours of one of your tracks.
There’s a version somewhere where someone slowed it down by 400% and it’s really interesting. But come to the show! We might be playing ‘Time’.
I am! I hope to hear ‘Time’ and, I dunno, maybe something from The Holiday…
You know, you actually gave me an idea. I’ll have to see. The setlist isn’t done yet…
Hans Zimmer will perform one concert only in Auckland the 29th of April. Buy tickets here.
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