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

Is it safe to say that you’re as big a fan of contra bass and synth as you are of quiet piano and strings?

Uh…I do like my bass, don’t I? [Laughs]


Well, I come from a world where electronic is not some sort of cheap substitute for whatever the real thing is. They are the real thing. The influences on this movie are so much, you know, Kraftwerk and Neu! and Faust and all those German bands. All of those things.

God, listen. I wish I was as good as Giorgio Moroder was in the opening of Midnight Express. I remember seeing that and it just blew me away.

Do you think you get resistance for blending electronic and orchestral?

The more resistance I get from purists, the more I know that I’m on the right path. Only in so much that I think music needs to evolve and metamorph into all sorts of new areas all the time. There’s a sort of a certain amount of academic fanboys out there that don’t realize that I spent just as long studying and learning about electronic as other composers studying and learning about straightforward orchestra. There’s nothing I do that’s slapdash and not thought through.

We do live in a modern age. For better or for worse – you might like it, you might not like it. That’s besides the point, but there’s an aesthetic at work that’s entirely my point of view and entirely my aesthetic. In fact, it’s sort of Chris’s and mine because we seem to be working well together.

You have been studying and learning a long time. You’ve been working for three decades, but do you ever feel like the 25 year old getting his first assignment?

I always feel that. Because the blank page never changes. It’s always a blank page unfortunately. I worry…I mean, look…worry is not the word…not the word to describe it. I freak out completely. I usually have a melt down in the middle of the score.

The reason I value people like Chris Nolan is that I can phone him in the middle of my deepest, darkest anxiety and tell him that I have no idea what to do. He’ll talk me through it. The reason I value my collaborates like Mel Wesson and the music editors is because I can play them something when I’m completely lost, and tell them that it’s either the worst thing I’ve ever done or actually quite good, and which way should I go? Should I throw it in the trash or should I go with it?

That’s what filmmaking is about. There was a moment on Dark Knight that Chris wanted me to score something in a very dark, action-oriented way and very fast and very frantic. I did the exact opposite. I did the slowest thing with the orchestra that you could possibly do, and he looked at it, and he went, “Oh yeah! I suppose this works, too.” Knowing that it was the right way to go. Knowing that it wasn’t at all how he imagined it.

Again, on this movie, there was a moment – and it’s small, an 8 bar section – I was resisting his idea, and he said, “You know, on Dark Knight, you were maybe a couple of days ahead of me, but on this one, I’m a couple of days ahead of you. You’ll come around to my way of thinking.” And, of course, he was right.

What was the sequence in Dark Knight?

It’s the sequence right toward the end where the bomb is about to go off on the boat, and the guy takes it and throws it out of the ship window.

I’m not telling you which sequence it is in this movie. [Laughs]

That collaboration is fascinating. I get to talk to a lot of directors, and for example, the director of Toy Story 3 told me about how he spoke with his grandmother for the last time as she was dying and how he used it for a particular sequence in the movie. Is there something comparable in film scoring or do you go through the same emotional process?

Absolutely. More than anything, and I hate it, that you talked about Toy Story 3 and his grandmother dying. My mother died while we were making this movie.

Oh, god. I’m sorry.

No, no. I can’t give it away, but something else happened to somebody on the crew which was very similar, and it was someone we’re all very, very fond of who was right there at the beginning of this and who has a great musical opinion.  I can’t say the name, so this story will never resonate, but I tried to keep their spirit going while writing the score.

I’m sorry to hear that.

No, no. Don’t be sorry. These things happen, and at the same time I think what you’re getting at is a very valuable thing to get at. I keep saying that I try to write from a point of view, but really what I mean is that I write from somehow deep within me. The reason I’m fragile about playing my score for the first time somebody hears it is really because they ultimately expose who I am. Nothing is done casually, and nothing is not done with the best of intentions and the best of convictions.

You don’t write music because it’s a blockbuster or because someone pays you money. That’s totally uninspiring. You write it usually from great pain.

So that makes this interview really no fun. [Laughs]

Well, you’re sort of giving a sense of immortality to the person by placing them in the music.

Absolutely. I really went back and forth a hundred thousand times whether or not I should put their name on the album or on the score. You know, like “For…” but I just thought, I thought it feels like we’re leaving the private world behind.

Sure. We can make the interview more fun now.


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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