Musical Memes and Trading Coffee for Car Chases with Hans Zimmer

“Who doesn’t want to be inventive and weird?”

Hans Zimmer is one of the greatest, most prolific film composers alive with a plethora of scores so recognizable he’s taking them to Coachella. Anyone whose themes are so powerful they can be appreciated under a music festival’s haze has to be remarkable. He’s also willing to piss off his publicist by digging into goofy questions long after his schedule has told him to move on. And by God, I respect that. Zimmer sat down with me to discuss his new online MasterClass, trading coffee for car chases, and musical memes.

Hans Zimmer: I’m excited that you are Film School Rejects because I am definitely a music school reject.

Q: You’re doing the DIY thing and putting on your own school.

HZ: Something like that. I know so many people that wanted to make a movie ‐ that needed to make a movie. And they didn’t go to film school, they just made the movie. Same with music. You stay in it because you’re basically unemployable in the real world.

That seems to be true for a lot of aspects of moviemaking: directing, cinematography, writing. It’s either movies or making commercials.

HZ: Right, And I would rather make movies.

Tell me a little about the class and how that came to be.

HZ: They’re incredibly cool people and they wanted me because I came with a bit of a different point of view from a lot of composers that they asked. When we started making the class I realized how incredibly hard it was. Everything I’ve learned over the past 30-odd years, I learned by doing. By hanging out by directors, by hanging out with musicians. I had to put that into words, these things that were instinctive. Things that came naturally, I had to actually explain [in the class’s videos and assignments]. I learned a lot because I had to figure out what my system of getting through a movie was.

Everybody has to go through that kind of articulation as they get older though. I mean, for example, you’re talking to a German in English when really my best form of communication ‐ certainly my most successful form of communication ‐ is playing a tune. This is all is a translation of the essence of what I’m really about. And everyone has to do that. Does that make sense?

Yes, especially when you’re constantly collaborating with other specialists that speak different artistic languages. Has learning this skill been applicable to your composition work?

HZ: Sure! I have a studio surrounded by young assistants and a lot of these assistants have become great composers in their own right: Harry Gregson-Williams (Chicken Run, The Martian) and Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road, Wonder Woman) to name two off the top of my head. Everybody’s learning just like I did.

Starting out, I got my first job in film because the composer on The Deer Hunter (Stanley Myers) had bought himself a very beautiful and very expensive Italian espresso machine and he had no idea how to use it. So I made coffee, he taught me about the orchestra.

That’s a good trade, I think.

HZ: It was a good trade! It was a good trade for both of us. He hated writing car chases ‐ I got good at writing car chases.

His incredible generosity, his giving me credit almost straightaway and including me in all the meetings, well ‐ I didn’t go to film school. I’m not even a film school reject, but my first jobs were with directors like Stephen Frears and Nico Mastorakis and I would be in the room. Something happens when you’re in the room with great filmmakers. You just keep your mouth shut and try to learn something. You see where the real problems are.

I try to bring a bit of that spirit into any of my mentorship. It’s not just war stories. It’s about why certain things work out and why certain things don’t. But hey, at the end of the day, we all work the same anyways.

We all work ridiculous hours, we are obsessed, we are relatively asocial, and we are completely passionate about this thing called film.

In this business we’re all, to some extent, workaholics-

HZ: Here’s the thing. I’m gonna stop you at the word “workaholic.” Here’s where musicians can teach the world because the operative word in music is “play.” If you manage to go through life with a certain amount of playfulness ‐ and you have to take your playfulness with a bit of seriousness ‐ life becomes a different thing.

I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be a workaholic. Look at it this way: no kid wants to go to bed. They always want to carry on playing. Why is it we are always up in the middle of the night? Because we’re still having ideas. People are still playing, the music is still happening. Why would you want to go to bed? The amount of time you’ll sleep when you’re dead is much higher in relationship to the time you have on this earth. So go play.

I was a trumpet player for about twelve years, so I know what you mean. We’d play before school, after school, during school. And then we’d only ever hang out with other band kids.

HZ: Exactly! It’s this weird thing where, I would hang out with Djivan Gasparyan who’s the greatest duduk player in the world and he’s Armenian. He doesn’t speak a word of English and I don’t speak a word of Armenian, but it didn’t matter. As soon as we started playing ‐ because that was the only thing to do ‐ well, two weeks later we were still inseparable. That’s what you’re describing. The best time is when everybody makes a noise. It’s irresistible. If you put that in front of an audience ‐ you know this, you’ve played shows ‐ they become a participant. It’s different music for different audiences.

I’ve had music be different for the same audience at different times of the same day.

HZ: Yes! All these little subtleties in music ‐ and in film in a funny sort of way ‐ that’s the stuff we’re trying to hunt down. If there’s a subtext to the subtext of my MasterClass, I’m trying to hunt that down. What are those little differences? If you’re in a room with musicians, you can make music. If you’re over the internet? Impossible. It’s not even about eye contact, you don’t even need to look at each other. There’s something happening when you’re in the room.

You have to feel it.

HZ: You have to feel it. So how do you bottle that idea? One of the main requirements of a musician is that you need to learn to listen to other people. It’s only ever good if you listen to the other players and learn to support them in the best possible way. For me, that’s a sort of philosophical thing because I wish the rest of the world was a bit more into that, that people would listen a bit more.

Another thing musicians do is you don’t have to describe things like timbre or tempo changes ‐ if you listen, you can pick it up.

HZ: Absolutely. And a lack of formal training, that can be an advantage. Instead of throwing Italian terms at an orchestra, I can say “can you make this sound a bit more intimate,” or “is there a way we can make this sound more internal?” Everybody seems to know how to make that sound.

Or an action movie. You go, “hang on, this is the big action scene.” It’s not about “play fortissimo,” it’s about describing the action. Involving them as actors. Smart directors know that the musicians are the last actors they’re hiring. And they better know the story.

Are there any other composers out there with a similar outlook? Is that a common approach?

HZ: Oh I’m sure. Music is shifting. I think Jonny Greenwood (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Master) nails it. He’s brilliant. Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival), he has it. Look, watch any Scandinavian television series like Borgen or The Bridge or whatever. The music is such a character…they get the storytelling. Listen to Miles Davis, he tells you a story with every note. Any of the great musicians, they’re storytellers.

One movie last year that I think had music which told the story sometimes better than the movie itself did was Swiss Army Man. Did you see it?

HZ: No, but I now will!

It’s very inventive and strange, really characterizing.

HZ: Inventive and strange is great! If you’re making records, if you’re making popular music, all you get all the time is, “can you be commercial? Can you go ‘verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge?’” In film music they go “can you be inventive and strange?” And who doesn’t want to be inventive and strange?

Listen, I’m supposed to tell you that I have to go but I like us chatting ‐ ask me a last question, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

How do you feel about people playing with your work? There’s been a trend of internet videos involving your theme from Interstellar whenever something is spinning like that film’s spaceship docking sequence. Have you seen any of those?

HZ: No! But I’ve been watching people going crazy with the Wonder Woman theme. The Interstellar thing is great, I’ll have to find those.

You know another thing I loved? Something that influenced all my movies that came afterwards? We saw a school orchestra play Pirates of the Caribbean. And they sounded good, but they also sounded like a school orchestra. No vibrato, nothing fancy, none of that. But I loved it.

I played it for [director] Gore [Verbinski] and we tried to emulate that sound for Pirates 2 and 3. We’d play the video for the orchestra and they’d look at us like we were crazy but we wanted that spontaneity! That youthfulness and vigor.

That could’ve been me! I was playing Pirates of the Caribbean in high school. It was a formative score for people my age.

HZ: There you go! Could’ve been you and I love it. I love people taking the ideas and messing with them, I love that they’re never finished. You just throw it out there to the world and it’s really interesting what comes back. Two cellos doing “Mombasa” [from Inception] is pretty exciting. Look that up and I’ll search the Interstellar things.

So much for answering your last question in a quick way. Oh well.

Hans Zimmer’s MasterClass officially launches on March 16th and can be found at www.masterclass.com/hz