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.
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.
I asked some of our readers for questions, and I really liked this one. When you’re at home, would you rather sit down with the Batman Begins score or the Muppet Treasure Island score?
Muppet Treasure Island. And I have to tell you something horrible. I find it really difficult to listen to my own scores for many reasons. Number one, the nightmares keep flooding back in, but number two is a much more pragmatic thing. I live in a 5.1 Surround Sound world when I record this stuff, but when I have to go listen to things in stereo I think that someone just robbed me, just made my world smaller.
You don’t have a booming personal system at home?
You know the expression, “The shoemaker’s children?”
I have a pathetic system at home because I have a fantastic studio. At one point I had a pair of great speakers at home, and I came home one night, and my wife was in the sitting room flicking the remote. She’s going, “These remotes! I can never get them to work. I can’t get a sound out of this thing!” It’s only then that I remembered I borrowed the speakers, took them to the studio, and never brought them back home. So it’s pathetic. It’s pathetic.
You’re walking around shoeless because you have a really good studio.
Exactly. My kids are going, “What’s thing ‘music?’ We never hear any at home.”
[Laughs] What CD or vinyl album is on your player right now?
Hang on, hang on, hang on. [He checks] I just got all the old Yellow Magic Orchestra albums which I couldn’t find and don’t exist on iTunes. What else am I listening to…Russian choirs. I love Russian choirs and I found some crazy CD from the Soviet Army Chorus. It’s all over the place.
I was going to say. What’s the connection between Japanese electropop and Soviet choral music?
None! None! I was listening to Charles Ives, to answer the question, and I was listening to Radiohead. I think that’s about it right now. It’s pretty eclectic around here.
How many projects would you say you turn down every month?
Quite a few. I can’t really tell you how many because I feel so guilty about it. I’m terrible at returning emails and phone calls. Most of it, I think they didn’t really mean to phone me. It must have been an accident. It’ll just go away. That sort of thing, you know.
And I love working with my friends. Right now I’m working with Jim Brooks on [Everything You've Got] and soon I’ll be working with Gore Verbinski [for Rango]. So it’s nice to work with people you’re comfortable with because you can push a little further than you did the time before.
Do you ever think that you’ll personally reach the heights that you ascribe to Moroder and Midnight Express?
I’m not that concerned with that. I think incrementally I get better at saying what I’m trying to say, but I haven’t gotten there yet. You asked if it ever felt like the 25 year old getting his first assignment, and in many ways I don’t think that ever changes. I think the moment it does, it’s game over. You stop trying. You stop learning and discovering new things.
If you had to put what you’re trying to say into words instead of a film score, what would that be?
[Laughs] This makes me laugh because I taught Chris a word, a German word, while we were making this movie. This was a very long post-production set and we have a word in German that translates very badly into English but I think every artist should have in front of them at all times. It means ‘to ruin things by improvement.’
So, just be aware of the moment of creation. Don’t polish it too much because it’ll get boring.
You can hear Zimmer’s score in front of Christopher Nolan’s images when Inception opens this Friday.
For more fun, we’re awarding 10,000 Reject Points (which you can redeem at any local sporting goods store for an awkward stare from the cashier) to the first person who correctly identifies the German word Zimmer mentions at the end of the interview: