I had the privilege of interviewing Hans Zimmer for a piece in LA Weekly, in which we discussed his use of unorthodox instruments and creation of unique soundscapes (namely regarding Man of Steel—a stirring, hopeful score for an un-stirring, terrible film). The conversation roamed afield, though, and I only used a tiny fraction of our leisurely hour+ chat.
Zimmer is a delightful, self-deprecating interview, and talking to him about his craft and process only made me love him and his music more. I’ve come to regard him as a genius of a very particular kind—a master of mood, texture, and visceral provocation, a rock star film composer who creates in a messy, collaborative, improvisational way, and explicitly for the recording studio. He fuses veteran synth and pop riff instincts with a more traditional symphonic vocabulary, and constantly tries to break new ground and reinvent himself.
Here is our (largely unedited) conversation from a few months ago. Imagine Hans in his velvet jacket, face unshaven and hair unkempt like he just rolled out of bed (even though it’s 1 in the afternoon), lighting several cigarettes but getting very few satisfying puffs because he keeps getting distracted talking. I hope you enjoy the insightful outpourings of his mind as much as I did.
Man of Steel
TG: How hands-on was Chris Nolan on Man of Steel?
HZ: He’s such a respectful guy. It really came about from a misunderstanding. At a very noisy party, I said, “I am definitely not doing Man of Steel.” Which was misunderstood as “Hans Zimmer is doing Man of Steel.” So, pof, there it was all over the internet, etc. I phoned Zack Snyder, who I’d never met, and said, “I’m really sorry. I’m sure you’ve got some proper ideas for some proper composers. It wasn’t me. This was a misunderstanding.” And he said, “It’s funny you should phone, because I was just listening to (something of mine), and it’s really interesting. We should have a chat.” We started talking about it, but I kept saying, “I can’t do it. I can only do Batman.” I was just about to start The Dark Knight Rises, and I said, “Obviously that’s the only thing I can think about. If I ever finish Dark Knight Rises you guys can have a chat with me.” And foolishly I remember saying, “Oh, I think I’m finished” to Chris or somebody, and within fifteen minutes it was like there was the phone call: “Okay, can we go and have a chat now about Man of Steel?” I kept resisting it, because I grew up with John Williams’ Superman, and I was just daunted by it. Forget if it’s an iconic piece of music or not, it’s just this fantastic piece of music. So number one, I didn’t really want to be in some competition about who has done it better. And in a funny way it really stopped me from having ideas. I was going, “That’s as good as you can do it.”
TG: But you’d sort of already dealt with that on Batman…
HZ: Yes, except after talking with Chris I pretty quickly had an idea on that one. And as I was saying to Chris when he said, “Oh come on, Hans, it’s Superman. Sure you want to do that,” I said, “When you went to Warner Bros. to talk about Batman, you had an idea. I’m sitting here, and we’re talking about Superman, and I don’t have an idea. This is the huge disadvantage.” And then the more I started talking with Zack, and the more I started seeing—because he’s so visual, he draws his movies—and the more I got into the story, things were sneaking up in my brain, and suddenly I had a shape and a form of what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it…and what I didn’t want to do, and of course what I didn’t want to do was Batman. I didn’t want to go and do yet another dark, troubled person like that. Because I think Superman, his conflicts and his dilemmas are very, very different.
In a funny way the clue for me of the whole thing was just the setting. I loved the setting, the midwest. I was thinking, We don’t really do that anymore in movies. We get so dark and psychological, and everything’s wrong, and we find fault in everything. So why not celebrate, actually write something that celebrates those good folks? Those good people you meet, those people politicians talk about but don’t seem to actually do anything about helping—farmers and blue collar workingmen—who when you’re stranded they’ll always lend you a helping hand, and their houses are never locked. Write music about somebody who is extraordinary as a child, and tries to figure out how to become more human. Once I had that as a framework in my head it actually became easy… I think becoming human, becoming a decent human being, is a fairly heroic journey, and not quite knowing you fit into a world is in itself enough conflict to make an interesting movie. It just so happens the guy can fly. That’s an advantage.
TG: What kind of palette did you use to translate those ideas?
HZ: Since there was something beyond the human in it—you know, the guy can fly—I was thinking just to do the orchestra is going to be a little dull, so I have to go beyond that. But the other thing I didn’t want to do was an electronic score. That was very much the Batman and Inception department. So I thought, leave the synthesizers at home, and see what orchestra I can invent that hasn’t really been done before which would be appropriate. I felt that to be sort of humble instruments, instruments that are part of American folklore. I got myself eight guitar pedal steel players, because if you think about the pedal steel guitar, it’s actually not that dissimilar to the way a violin or cello works—you sort of have to go and find your note, and you can do the same vibrato. But people have never really done it as an ensemble. In fact I think it was quite surprising for them. They all knew of each other, but they’ve never all played together in the same room. Of course the one part I overlooked is if you’re working with an orchestra they all look up at the conductor. Pedal steel players always look down to try and find their note, so they’re a bit harder to conduct. And in amongst those eight was a chap called Chas Smith, who is an artist / welder / pedal steel player. He built a pedal steel guitar that goes all the way down to that bottom A on the piano, so it’s sort of this unheard of instrument. He builds these sculptures he can play, and a lot of it’s made of titanium. So that became a big thing.
I tried to keep the whole thing as an ensemble, for the most part. I needed to get some propulsion into this thing, and I’ve done it before but it always felt cheesy if you suddenly have a drummer turn up in a score. It’s the wrong quality. I was thinking on Sherlock Holmes, where it was very much using solo violins, what’s the difference when you use a solo violin as opposed to a normal violin section, which is 32 players or something like that? Something happens when you have a solo violin, which is just like having a solo drummer—inevitably there’s another actor in the scene. You get the energy, but you can’t get away from “it’s not an ensemble.” As soon as you have an ensemble it seems to sit well in the picture. Plus I love playing with 5.1, so I thought, Well, why don’t I make myself a little drum circle? I got twelve of my favorite drummers into a room, and we’d written all these rhythms, and went from there. It did sound fairly extraordinary. It’s just my lineup…and they all have different styles, but they all were people who play with great commitment and great energy. I had Sheila E. and Pharrell Williams, Jason Bonham, Jim Keltner. It was a who’s who of drummers. And again, the same thing of them all knowing each other, admiring each other, and actually getting a chance to play next to each other. It was the most disciplined session I think I’ve ever been part of, because there’s a thing when you get a lot of drummers in the room where everybody’s forever tinkering around and doing all this—there wasn’t any of that. There was complete focus, and when they would start playing, just the energy they transmitted was pretty extraordinary. I had to keep asking our dubbing engineer who came down for all of those sessions, “Can we actually do that? Can we actually do a 360 of the drums, so that you as an audience are inside that circle?” And he said, “Yeah, I think we can.”
TG: What kind of drums?
HZ: Just drum kit. Mainly “don’t play the snare drum.” I wouldn’t let them play the cymbals, the high-hats, and they had to be very careful about the snare drums. But that still leaves you with a vast amount of bass drums, and the toms. Plus 24 timpani. Because you’ve got two halves and 12 drummers and you’ve got to do something with them, right? When you have drummers play timpani it sounds completely different than if you have orchestral percussionists play it. You just get this exuberant roar coming at you.
TG: Were you going for a rock ‘n roll vibe?
HZ: It’s really difficult for me not to go for a rock ‘n roll vibe, because that’s where I come from. I just tried to invent whatever the music for this movie was. But look, Pirates is a rock ‘n roll score, Sherlock Holmes is a rock ‘n roll score…Batman is definitely a rock ‘n roll score—it couldn’t be more German electronica Kraftwerk-meets-Tangerine Dream-meets all those sort of things. That’s just where I’m comfortable.
At the same time you get moments in Superman where my friend Ann Marie Calhoun, a fiddle player from Virginia who plays bluegrass, who just so happens to have access to this amazing Stradivarius. So we go from, in some of the biggest moments where you expect us to make the biggest noise, it suddenly just goes down to the single violin. It’s the extremes of playing with really, really small things and really humble things…like the pedal steel guitars never get loud. They just give you the shimmer, they just give you this incredible tone. It’s really a tone you’ve never heard before. You’ve never heard them as an ensemble. With all the electronics and with all the stuff I have access to, I really tried to use it in a way that makes the musicians shine, because I can manipulate anything, so there’s a safety net there. It doesn’t matter if there’s the odd, dodgy note. I can take care of that. So we can create impossible performances, which is great.
Inventing a Language
TG: In another interview you talked about “inventing a language.” When you start on a project, you’re responding to the picture, in some cases the script, and you’re not just trying to come up with melodies or themes, but you’re always trying to reinvent your own palette and sound, and some of that leads to quirky instrumentation or digital manipulation…
HZ: Sherlock Holmes is a good example. Everybody thinks it’s so quirky when I do it, but there is a logic to it. It’s Victorian England, you had a pub on every corner, and there was probably somebody playing a fiddle or an out-of-tune piano. If you walked down the street and you just stopped in the middle of the street, like there’s a place called Seven Dials just around the corner where I live in London, which is seven streets meeting up and there’s a pub at every corner—if you stand in the middle of that, in Victorian times, that must have been quite a racket. And the whole idea of the traveling musicians…that’s why on the second one I actually went to Slovakia to work with the Roma, because I wanted to get some of that. I kept thinking, probably what would interest somebody like Sherlock Holmes is—yes, he knows how to play Bach and all those things you expect and have seen him play before—but wasn’t that a time where we were widening our gaze and looking to the east and the empire, and there was suddenly a huge influx of foreign cultures into that country? Wouldn’t that make it more interesting?
In Superman, it was very much the idea that there is another America that just doesn’t get celebrated anymore. And how can I as a German…which I think is partly what I do well, is I can look at the things you guys all grew up with, and they’re a little boring because they’ve always been there. You’ve always seen them. And I just can go, “Ooh look, this is really exciting. Pedal steel guitars, wow, look at that,” and present it to you in a new way, that you can actually fall in love with that thing again. There aren’t any revolutionary ideas going on. It’s a bunch of drums and a bunch of pedal steel guitars.
Is it quirky? Yeah, sometimes it’s quirky. But I’m not interested in writing concert music, so this music never has to be performed. I’m interested in writing film scores, and I’m interested in the recording process, so I can put these odd lineups together. There’s a conventional shape to the orchestra, and I go, “What would happen if you have a few more basses and a few more celli?” Or “what if you didn’t have any violins or violas, what would that sound like?” And what I’m interested in is the players. They are my actors, so rather than thinking the normal way, where you think of the strings and the woodwinds and the brass, and you think of them as these sort of faceless sections—you don’t do that with a band. You think John, Paul, Ringo, George, right? You don’t go, “Hey drums.” So even with the orchestral players I try to cast them to be the right players for the right job.
One of the problems with recorded music is you have to overemphasize the commitment, the player’s ability to make a committed note, because you don’t see them. If you go and see a concert it’s a whole different experience. And here I am, and I’m competing with Zack Snyder’s incredible visuals, the amazing sound effects, and I’m still trying to get heard in a way or contribute in a way. The only way you can do that is by having, as far as I’m concerned, players who are incredibly great and strong and individualistic. As opposed to the mush of orchestral grazing that goes on.
TG: You’ve never really been beholden to a traditional, symphonic orchestra, from the beginning.
HZ: No, because I couldn’t afford them. I don’t know how I come up with my lineups, because I just think, Oh, this is the appropriate lineup for what this movie is telling—and usually it’s, “this is the appropriate lineup for the way it’s shot, this is how the images look to me.” We all know what Superman’s cape looks like, what that red is, and still there was a shot Zack showed me, where it was just a contrast between the red cape and the surroundings where I suddenly went, “Wow, I never realized it was that red.” So that translates into my lineups a little bit. Plus we’re on two different worlds, and he has two sets of parents, so that complicates things somewhat. And the mandate, really, is to invent. That’s what I’m being asked to do [by the director]. And part of the invention is be playful. Try some things out. Some things work, some things don’t. There’s always Plan B, if the pedal steel guitars don’t work out we’ll think of something else. If the drummers don’t work out, I’m sure there’s something else we can come up with. But just keep the ideas flowing, just keep it going. Try things out. I do that a lot with Chris Nolan. On Dark Knight Rises having this stupid idea that I wanted a chant of 100,000 people. Where do you find 100,000 people? Well you find them on the internet. Things like that, where I have a sound in my head but how are we going to do it? Playing that game is fun.
TG: When people hire you, do they want not just your résumé and what you’ve brought to films, but know that you’re going to invent something new for their film?
HZ: I don’t know, I really don’t. I know why Chris likes me around—because we only talk story. Same goes for Ron Howard. I always come from story. But I see it differently, I see it as larger arcs because that’s just what you do musically. I actually force the director, before he goes out to shoot his movie, to have a conversation with me about what is the arc of the story, what is the arc of the character, how are we going to pay off something we lay pipe for in that first scene? That’s really the conversation. It just so happens I then come up with little wacky soundscapes. And I think the weird, wacky soundscapes are actually part of it, because if you start talking a story through, you realize what we do is we create these little autonomous worlds. They might be imaginary worlds, but they have to adhere to a logic. And I don’t like the idea that the score is this objective thing that sits on top of the movie. I think it needs to come from inside the movie, and seep into the pores of all the buildings, not just the characters. The colors the DP chooses and the colors I choose need to get muddled up, but not—Brian Eno said that when you have play-dough it’s so great you get all these different colors, but as soon as you start putting it all together you always end up with brown—so you ought to be careful you don’t end up with brown. But at the same time you do want to have a legitimate sonic landscape.
I think if you put on Dark Knight you know this is Gotham City. I hope if you put on Superman you really could go, “Hang on a second, this is Zack’s world. This is the world he created.” And from the first note to the last note, that holds true. I think that’s partly why I sometimes use unconventional instruments, because it stops it from just being a generalization. It becomes very specific to those movies and to that world. I come from electronic music, from programming synthesizers. Before I was a composer I was the synth programmer in London. I started that way, and it’s a bit like being a chef. You don’t quite know what the meal is, but you just see what’s out there in the shop and what’s fresh, and then spend an enormous amount of time peeling potatoes and hacking carrots, and you know the guests are arriving at 8 o’clock, and at 7:35 you throw everything into the pot and hope it’s going to be fresh and tasty or something like that. But I try to make it specific, and I try to be very consistent about the world, once it’s been thought of—the sonic world.
Conjuring a Sound
TG: You talked about the Bane chant, how you heard it beforehand even though you weren’t sure how you were going to execute it. Is that true when you’re talking about an ensemble of pedal steel guitars, which no one’s really ever heard before? Do you actually hear that sound?
HZ: Oh man, it all started a bit unfortunately, because the day I booked the session—how should I know—was Tony Scott’s funeral. I had to go to the funeral, and I couldn’t be there for the first day of the sessions, so somebody else was running it. In the evening when I could make a phone call I phoned them and I said, “How is it going?” And it was like, “It’s probably not quite how you imagined it. I don’t think this is really quite working out. They can’t do this, they can’t do that…” It was a pretty depressing phone call on a pretty depressing day. The next day I came in, and realized there weren’t any problems, it’s just the stuff that was in my head only I could explain to them. They were just playing the way pedal steel players normally play—you pluck the note, you fade it in with the sustain pedal, and then of course the note dies and that’s the end of the note. I was going, “No, no, no, I want you to sound like a string section. The note lasts forever. You get to re-bow.” “But we can’t do that.” I’m going, “Yes you can. There’s eight of you—just think of yourselves as a choir. A choir manages to sustain a note way beyond how long you can breathe, because they stagger their breathing. Just stagger your entrances.” “Oh, okay, fine we can do this.” So you get these wonderful, undulating chords, because everybody’s coming in at their own moment. There’s a life in it, that you just can’t get out of electronics.
The problem is, I hear it in my head, and I sort of figure out how you can do it, and once I figure it out I think, Well everybody knows how to do this. I forget sometimes to actually go and—until I sat in front of the orchestra, in front of the band—actually say the things that are really obvious to me, and then become really obvious to them. And it suddenly goes really well. Plus they really didn’t understand what I could do with it, how I could electronically manipulate it. So on the second day I actually had a sample there, and I’d get them to do something, throw it in, and start playing their notes back to them. And suddenly they’re like, “Oh wow, I see how this goes.” So there was this mutual learning curve and exploration, where we would try something and quickly shove it into the computer, hack it around, and fine-tune the process.
Same with the drummers. The first day I did it as ten drummers, and then I suddenly realized that doesn’t work out, because I needed three a side, for the four score, so I needed twelve. I was two off. It’s very interesting, because now I had this square, and I could decide who the strongest drummer was by just turning the room. And the person who is now in the middle of the screen wasn’t actually the person sitting in that position when we were recording it. And I don’t think it will ever be a secret that Jason Bonham makes a louder noise than anybody else in the world…
So you just have to listen, and you react and do things. As you listen and react, what could be a problem is actually just a moment of going, “Oh wow, this mistake is really cool. Let’s build on that.” There has to be anarchy in music, there has to be playfulness. It has to be an adventure, and it all has to be just at the edge of the impossible, because otherwise where’s the fun in it? It’s not worth getting up in the morning.
TG: But before you even get to that point, you’re able to conjure some sound in your mind?
HZ: Yeah, I sort of know what it sounds like. I don’t quite know what the notes are, but I have the idea of a sonic landscape. It’s hard to explain out of no other reason than it’s not something I learned, it’s not something I studied at school, I was just born with it. I once asked a friend this really sheepish question: “What music do you hear when you wake up?” And she was saying, “What do you mean, what music? Other people’s songs?” I go, “No, no, no, what do you write in your head?” Because to me it was just inconceivable…I’ve always woken up with some sound or some music or some fragment of something in my head. So what is to me absolutely as normal as seeing or tasting, that’s where it becomes a little complicated to explain to people, something that is so normal to me. I just go, “Okay, hang on a second—eight pedal steel guitars,” or “28 celli and 28 basses playing much too high, what will happen? Oh, I can hear that sound.”
And as I write I see the players in front of me. I write for specific players. Whenever I write a cello line it’s always written for this cellist in London called Anthony Pleeth, just because all my adult life somehow I’ve worked with him, so I see him play the line as a I write it. And Tony actually likes playing my lines—they’re custom-made. I know how he would get from one note to the next. So when I write these things—which is so wrong, the lineup of 28 celli and 28 basses playing too high—I know something happens because I’m out of their comfort zone, and just the right amount of adrenaline that comes from the fear of it all going horribly, horribly wrong is actually really good. That frise, I suppose, as the French would call it, that seeps into things.
I do think there has to be an element of danger in this music, and I think it needs to come across. There has to be drama and no melodrama. And the French horn players all hate me, but it’s okay, we’re doing a recording. It becomes a problem if you ever try and perform this stuff live. I know there’s an orchestra touring Europe right now doing Pirates live to the movie. The first thing I said to them was, “You better get a double horn section, not because you need that many horns to play at the same time, but you’ve got to give the guys a break in between different cues”—because we recorded this over a five-day period, and you’re trying to play this all one after another in two hours, and nobody’s lips are going to survive that. I am of the generation that comes from recording, as opposed to the generation that comes from live performances. I automatically think of things differently.
I am an average yet dangerous recording engineer. I know just enough to go and make big trouble, but then what I try to do is, just like with the musicians, surround myself with people who are extraordinarily talented at that stuff. And Superman or Dark Knight, having Alan Myerson and Steve Lipson makes a huge difference. Especially Steve, because he’s a record producer, and he did some of my favorite sounding records—Rolling Stones, Slave to the Rhythm…all the Frankie Goes to Hollywood stuff, the last Jeff Beck album—and I walk in and go, “Steve, where’s my bass line? I can’t hear the bass.” He goes, “Well, if you’d write me a decent bass line you can hear it.” It’s good having somebody like that, who challenges me all the time. You know, “Give me a decent bass line, you can hear it.” That’s a good comment.
Jamming with the Orchestra
TG: Do you ever get any resistance from musicians, when you’re putting them in an ensemble they’ve never been in before, asking them to do something they’ve never done before?
HZ: Quite the opposite. Like the Bane thing in Dark Knight Rises. Because I come from bands—when you have four, five, six people in a room and we just start jamming, pretty cool stuff happens. You try to do that with a 100-piece orchestra and it’s just awful. So for the Bane thing I tried to come up with a plan where we could jam with the orchestra. It was basically: here is a set of rules, and within that set of rules you can go and do certain things. It was really exciting. At first, when I was playing around with the idea in my head that I wanted to do the whole thing differently, as opposed to the conductor standing in front of the orchestra, to sort of put a table in the middle of the orchestra with a comfy chair and just sit there and feel like we’re just having a conversation, and go, “What would happen if…” and just try this bit.
One of the things that happens with these huge, endless pieces of music, the page turns and now you’re going from the action bit and then you have to switch your attitude because here comes the sensitive bit, etc. So I thought, if we just get rid of all that—because it’s so easy with computers to say, “Okay, you’re going from bar 41 to 48. Only look at 41 to 48, and we’re just going to go and loop that. And as loop it, there are all sorts of things we can now try, and we’re just going to go around this bit.” You can tell, at first, it’s a little shaky. Then they’re starting to learn it, then they’re starting to get confident, then the groove really hangs together, everybody’s playing really well, now their little experiments start, now it’s really cool…now we’re overstepping the mark and it’s all turning into ghastliness again, and we stop. Because somewhere in there I will have eight amazing bars.
One of the things we don’t really have time for anymore, because it’s so expensive, is to rehearse an orchestra for two days or whatever. But this, in a funny way, is like rehearsing while you record. And we’re only focused on that bit, and once they figured out we could do that and they didn’t have to worry about ten bars down the road, where everything was going to change and it had to be a completely different thing, each bit could be completely…it was like an emotional commitment to that vibe. It’s a very rock ‘n roll way of thinking. Months later I would run into people who said, “All those players, they’re still talking about those sessions.” Because to them it was exciting and different and liberating. It made sense to them to go and play dangerous notes, because they knew the technology and I were going to protect them and not make them sound and look foolish. I think that’s a really important part. You just protect your musicians all the time. There’s just enough ego and just enough self-confidence. You’ve got to have people who are really self-confident to be in that room. With all those drummers—they’re all leaders, so it’s twelve A-personalities. It’s a little bit like lion taming. But the great thing is, because the idea is so exciting of what the end result could be, everybody puts their ego aside and really tries to give it their best without showing off or anything. Because the thing itself is showing off.
TG: That style of jamming around a set number of bars, was that something new you tried just on Dark Knight Rises?
HZ: It was the first time I tried it. It just suddenly made sense to me, because when I sit in front of my computer and I write—the weird thing about the score or any piece of music is, you’ve got to get it under your fingers. It’s as simple as that. So if you catch me the first three weeks or so of writing a score, I’m staggering through the theme, and I make mistakes, etc. And like six weeks in it’s right there, and whatever the next gesture is and whatever the next tune is, it’s right there. It will stay in that style. You have to get it under your fingers. So I do a lot of this stuff where I just loop eight bars and play them and, “Oh, hang on, that’s not so bad, that’s quite a good take,” and then I move on.
I thought, Why can’t I afford this luxury, which is so simple, to all the musicians in the orchestra? Let’s just concentrate on one emotion, as opposed to being the schizophrenic being that the movie dictates where, as I said, you’re in the middle of an action cue and then there’s a cutaway to two people having a cup of coffee. You know what I mean? And everything changes. I think the audience can sense instinctively that moment where the musicians are getting ready to change to become that other person, having a cup of coffee or whatever. I think it takes away from the cutting. I think it undermines the editing, because the cut is a hard cut but the music has—just a tiny little bit, in the style and commitment of the notes—already started to wander off into what is to come, as opposed to just being a hard cut. I like those radical shifts.
TG: But don’t you have something specific in mind that doing that type of thing would theoretically unhinge—if you heard the performance of this cue in a certain way, and now you’re giving leeway to the musicians to jam on it?
HZ: No, because it was very specific. It was based on a certain groove. You had to go and play the rhythm, and you could move within. I would tell them what the radius was, how far they could shift the notes. Because otherwise the first thing you get is, everybody’s trying to play their highest note and their lowest note. You know, everybody’s just trying to show off. So you keep it within a radius. Plus you keep it within a radius of dynamics. And usually what would happen is, they’d get really good at it, and then they’d play it really loud. And I’d say, “Okay, let’s do exactly the same thing, and just play it really quietly.” If you hit a drum really hard, it just goes “ping.” If you hit it quietly, you get this sort of bloom. The same happens with all those instruments. So within this rather abstract harmonic notion, still try to make a beautiful sound with your instrument, and don’t get carried away and play too loud. Because there’s a tension when they play quietly. I very rarely let them get to the extremes of their volume, because it just starts sounding like a lawnmower.
TG: So, anarchy within moderation?
HZ: It’s not within moderation, it’s just anarchy with beauty. Do it where your instrument sounds best. It can’t become a circus act…it can’t be a trick. It can’t become a parody. There are all these things it can’t become, and you just watch out for that. It’s got to be honest.
The Lone Ranger
TG: Do you have an unconventional soundscape in Lone Ranger? I heard something about train tracks…
HZ: That was yesterday’s conversation. I was suddenly going, “Hang on, none of this works, because we’re doing it the wrong way around. We’re thinking about it in a classical way, which is ‘here’s the tune, and then here’s the little harmony underneath,’ etc. And there are trains in this movie—the train is going to be our bass line, it’s going to be our drums. So let’s just work from the bottom up. What’s our foundation? What’s the one thing you see on the screen and can’t escape? It’s the train, and that’s the speed of the train, so let’s get the sound designers and start deciding on a groove, deciding on a tempo, and let’s work from there.” Plus I think it’s a cool sound. Just down the road from me, Chris Carter of the X-Files has a house. He bought this house and there was a train in the backyard, and he could never get rid of it, and I don’t think he likes it much. But it was fun saying, “Chris, do you mind if I come over with a tape recorder and a sledge hammer, and we do some unspeakable things to your train? And turn that into a drum kit or something?”
There’s a lot of things to be gotten out of making the sound designers into part of your band. We’re all filling the same canvas, we’re all working on the same picture. One of the first things on Man of Steel, there was a sound some of the sound designers had done which was so incredible, and we just phoned them up and said, “Can we have that? Can we use that in the music?” It actually became a problem because that sound, for story reasons, needs to end at a certain point. It was like, “Ooh, what are we going to replace it with?” But I don’t care what my instruments are. I like when they bleed into what you actually see on the screen, that they’re a part of it. The train is actually an obvious thing. Trains have great rhythms and great grooves, and all I wanted to do was order the chaos a bit so that, maybe a little bit like Mussolini, “the trains would arrive on time.” Not quite, but there are things I can play with. A lot of it takes place in the desert, and, you know, what can I do with the wind of the desert?
Honestly, now I’m remembering my original idea about the pedal steel players. I just had this image in my head of telephone wires stretching forever across the plains, and what would that sound like? The wind making those telephone wires buzz—how could I write a piece of music out of that? I can’t, because I can’t control the telephone wires, so what’s the closest thing to it? A bunch of pedal steel players, and Chas Smith the welder/sculptor/pedal steel player building me some things.
TG: How common is that for you to see an image in the picture or in your mind based on the film, and think, “What does that sound like musically, this inanimate object?”
HZ: Always, always, always. The chant in Dark Knight Rises came from one paragraph in the script, just sitting with Chris, and me imagining what that shot would look like. It was long before he shot the scene, and it was this pullout in India, and I saw hundreds of thousands of people. Unfortunately Chris never got the shot because the week he was shooting in India was the week they got Osama bin Laden, and suddenly there was a clampdown on any helicopters in the air. So we never got the shot, but I still got to do the chant.
I was talking to Chris about this the other day, this strange way we have of working, where I write a lot of the music before he goes to shoot his movies. And just like I love having him around when I’m writing—you’re not alone with your problems. Sometimes when he’s on the set, and he’s the writer, he’s the director, he’s the producer, he has a lot of other people around, but it’s just nice to occasionally have a little bit of Zimmer music there—it’s just one brick he didn’t have to make himself, and it might just spark something off, it might spark a camera move. So by working that way the music is really part of the original construct. Everything seems to fall into place a little easier.
In a way, you start thinking about it before it’s too late. We don’t make movies the way we used to, where everything is mechanical, your camera and your Steenbeck cutting film. You don’t have a locked picture. Why would I ever say to a director, “You must give me a locked reel and you have to stop having ideas now,” because the guy might turn around and tell me I have to finish my piece of music and I have to stop having ideas. I don’t ever want any of us to be in that position. So the technology allows a certain flexibility. The only danger is that people stop making decisions, making up their mind.
I just get this stubborn way of working, where what I write is like a diary. I just start, and whatever I did that day stays that way and it doesn’t get revised. I might return to it, in the back of my mind I know the theme…I did that on Man of Steel a lot, actually, when I was working on this one theme. It was alright, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. But for the next few days I would go off and potter on something else, and return to it. Sometimes you just have to give these things a bit of time in your subconscious to form. Because partly what I try to do is—I write really simple music. I mean, stupidly simple music. There isn’t a theme I’ve written that you can’t play with one finger on the piano. It’s just how I think. I think there’s something nice about keeping it playful…look, we’re all capable of amazing everybody else with complications. But I think there’s something really nice if things are just minimalistic and transparent in a way.
TG: So then the style and textures and palette become important, in terms of translating these simple ideas.
HZ: Yes, absolutely. The colors are as important to me as the notes. But then, go and listen to Mahler—and I’m not comparing myself—but you listen to Stravinsky or Ravel or any of those French guys…the colors were everything to them, and the shifting colors, and the new invention. And Wagner—the French horns just weren’t good enough for him, so he had to go and have the “Wagner horns” built, which are always a little dicey if you want to use them, because nobody seems to quite play them in tune. But that tradition—John Cage and the prepared piano—I think the natural way composers are, first of all we are tinkerers, and we love playing. In your job they don’t say to you, “Go and play.” And they certainly don’t say, “Get a bunch of nearly asocial characters together who could never hold down a job, get them into a room and play all day and night.” In my life that’s what it is.
I never quite had to grow up. In fact, I think that would be the worst thing to do. It would all be over then. But the playfulness is really important. And a sense of the absurd and a sense of humor. I never take any of these things all that seriously. I really wonder, when you read about the “great composers” and the music is analyzed and it always reads like it’s a bit of a chore and it’s a bit dull once it’s analyzed—when my suspicion is, Beethoven was sitting there and going “Duh-duh-duh-DUH,” and going “Wow, that’s fun. Wow, these three little notes that any kid can play with one finger…there’s a whole world that can open up from this.” And the playfulness of the development, the inventiveness. There’s charm and fun and all this stuff built into it. And when you get a bunch of musicians into a room, we don’t look at each other in a really serious way. We have a bit of a laugh.
The other thing is that if somebody plays a wrong note, it’s not a wrong note. It’s just, “Wow”—that note can trigger something, if you’re just open to it. “Wow, I never thought of doing that. Let’s go down that rabbit hole for a while.” Alice in Wonderland is a good model for composing, I think. And why am I shifting styles all the time? If you look at the stuff I did with Ridley Scott—Gladiator sounds nothing like Thelma and Louise sounds nothing like Black Hawk Down. Because I get to work with a director who goes, “Let’s go over here, let’s go over there…” You know, explore. Let’s not get bored.
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