Hans Zimmer talks ‘Inception,’ Freaking Out, and Letting the River Take Him

There’s a musical quality when Hans Zimmer speaks. Sometimes stammering his way through sentences, the native German sounds equal parts Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Jeremy Irons in Die Hard with a Vengeance. All of that is lifted by a sunshine sense of humor that seems to get out in front of him and lead the way.

Over a three decade career, Zimmer has built a reputation for quality in film scoring. It could easily be said that he’s had the privilege of working with some of the best directors in the business, but it could just as easily be said that it is they who have had the privilege of working with him.

His most recent work can be heard through the booms, haunting piano keys, and ever-present synth modulations that support Leonardo Dicaprio as he steals around the dreams of Inception.

Yesterday, it was I who had the privilege of speaking with the composer about the fear inherent in every new job, the connective tissue between Japanese electropop and Russian choirs, and what he’s trying to say with his music.

What was your gut feeling when you first learned you’d be doing the music for Inception?

Gut feeling? Show me the script!

And you got to see it.


What did you think?

Usually scripts don’t come to life until you have a really good director and a really good actor attached to them. One of the things about Chris’s scripts – and this is a thing that goes back to Batman Begins with us – when he gave me Batman Begins, it was printed on red paper so you couldn’t photocopy it, but it was impossible to read. I was trying to read it on a flight from London to Los Angeles, and I just gave up around page 2 or something. His thing has always been: “You don’t read my scripts anyway. Why do I give them to you?”


That night, I actually read the script – he hadn’t printed it on red paper – and it was just a phenomenal read. A great piece of writing. Inception – part of it is that it’s so well written. It’s just a joy to read for someone who loves reading. My first reaction was that, wow, the writing’s great, and that’s where a movie starts. With great writing, you’re halfway there.

Did you enjoy the challenge of not being able to see the film before scoring it?

By that point, we had spoken for such a long time. I’d seen all the designs, I’d seen all the archetectural plans, I’d met all the actors, and I’d been to the set. In a funny way – I had sort of made the movie in my head as well. So, Chris’s whole idea of not locking me into the cuts or the mathematics and mechanics of the movie so my imagination could run riot was actually really good.

You once said that point of view is the most important part of composing. What was your point of view for Inception?

Quite simply that I could score something that subconsciously would be deeply emotional and nostalgic. Just keeping my eye on the love story.

Well, I’ve heard the movie described as cerebral and challenging, too. Is that also how you’d describe the music for it?

No. In fact, I’m always surprised by those comments because I think – alright. If you – I’m making this up as I go along, but if you think about getting into a boat going down the river and letting the river take you whever the river wants to take you, and it takes you on this rather amazing journey, and it takes you on this great ride as opposed to you fighting it all the time or figuring out how the boat works. I think the version of just letting it be swept away by the emotion and by the wonder of it is better entirely than thinking it through cerebrally.

If you want to, we can dissect the score and the movie intellectually, but I think ultimately that’s a bit like what Frank Zappa said about “dancing about architecture.” That phrase keeps turning up, and I think it’s because people are bored of being bored. People are bored with having sequels and dumb movies presented to them.

The score flows very well together, but the nostalgia moment hit me when Edith Piaf’s voice comes in out of nowhere…


…and then flows back out.

It’s sort of the ghost of nostalgia. The ghost of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a little exotic. It all heads toward that moment. That’s really the idea.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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