Faith in Abstract Ideas: Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer on the Interstellar score

Interstellar is a culmination project for Christopher Nolan. It’s both the biggest, grandest blockbuster that films like Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy have been promises of…and the most personal, zoomed-in story Nolan has tackled thus far. It’s as much about mind-bending scientific theories and the entire universe as it is about the love between a father and his daughter.

It was also the culmination of Nolan’s fruitful, rule-breaking collaboration with Hans Zimmer, who has increasingly been invited to begin developing the musical layer of Nolan’s films during their earliest stage. They are collaborators in the truest sense of the word, and are blazing a path of creative symbiosis that defies the often stifling norm of temp tracks and eleventh-hour music shellacking.

The Interstellar score is one of Zimmer’s most personal and poetic to date—recalling his contemplative, soul-searching music for Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, with hints of Phillip Glass-styled minimalism. Using a church organ as its most prominent voice, the music is a spiritual journey from the family farm to the furthest reaches of the cosmos—a requiem for a dying planet and a family divorced by time and space.

(The following interviews were conducted for a brief Variety article that came out earlier this month.)


Christopher Nolan: I knew what a big science-fiction epic we were making, but what I really wanted to do was reinvent the process, creatively, for Hans. I went to him very early, before I’d actually started writing—before I even committed to the project—and asked him to give me a day of his time. I said I would give him a letter to open that was just one page, outlining the fable at the heart of the story, the main relationships of the characters, and nothing, really, more than that. He would work on that for a day, and play me the tune he’d done at the end of that…and that would be the score. He agreed to that, being adventurous, and that’s exactly what we did. The score as it came out is the score we developed from that original tune he wrote that day.

I did specifically want a tune. I was aware his response would be to the emotional idea I put in front of him, and that turned out to be a kind of tune—although it doesn’t always. Sometimes it’s much more almost a sound design idea, or the minimalist idea of a particular note and so forth—like to represent the Joker in Dark Knight, that kind of thing. I was thinking of a tune, and it felt very specifically right for the emotion of the story. And we built on that.

Hans Zimmer: Chris gives me creative freedom. I think if I went to Chris and said, “You know, this score is gonna be two plastic bags, a rubber band, and a cardboard box—but we’re gonna make a hell of a racket with it”…he’d go along with it. For him, it’s always about trying to put me into a position where nothing gets in the way of my imagination, my creativity. He’s like the guard dog at my door that keeps the trivial away.

Christopher Nolan: I think what we’re asking [the score] to do in this film is what music has really been asked to do throughout history. We’re looking at the music to give feeling, to give faith, somehow, to the audience in abstract ideas. This feeling of things beyond what we can know, dimensions higher than we can actually perceive. I’m really looking for the music to orient the audience, to give them some feeling of what’s going on and around them, to follow the emotional journey of the characters—even as they’re dealing with heavy issues and otherworldly environments.

Hans Zimmer: We have now told the story of the famous “Day One” piece so many times, I think it’s redundant to tell. But I think the part we both were hoping for secretly, is that: as a production accelerates and gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and more and more pieces and more and more people come on board…that we maintain an anchor in the personal, and that that first day really sets the tone of how personal we’re going to take this. The reinvention has to be about: how can we get closer to the heart of things? I think that’s what we’re all trying to do. As you go through life as a composer, what you’re trying to do is figure out how to find the courage to really say the things you want to say—and maybe find the technique, as well, of how to say them in a way that resonates with an audience. I keep thinking of this movie as this tiny, tiny, little personal journey that we went on, where we kept it really close to the heart.

Cornfield Chase

christopher-nolanChristopher Nolan: [The organ] was actually my idea. I couldn’t remember if he had ever used an organ for a score before, and slightly to my surprise, he hadn’t. Although he had played around with pipe organs when he was very young. At first I think Hans was a little concerned about the religious associations. But what I said to him is, even though the film isn’t religious, it’s dealing with the metaphysical, it’s dealing with ideas beyond the world we’re in. I think religion has provided the finest set of analogies for those kinds of thoughts that we have…when you consider the art and the cathedrals, and the organ and the complexity of its sound. I wanted him to try tapping into that. As he got into the process, learning how to manipulate the organ, learning how to really play it and produce the music that way, I think he came to really love it.

Hans Zimmer: Look, at the end of the day I come from a scientific family. My father was a scientist, and there’s always that thing about faith versus fact. The other part I loved celebrating [in Interstellar] was scientists—scientists being the heroes of this film, as opposed to the geeky nerd supporting character. You know, that we celebrate science, that we celebrate scientists, that we celebrate intelligence, that we celebrate knowledge full-on. Part of what I loved about [the organ] is that all musical instruments are feats of science. They’re all technology. I just loved the idea that these church organs—the amount of ingenuity and work and craftsmanship that has gone into these, and that people took something so seriously and worked so hard on something to just create a beautiful sound—I just thought it was really appropriate.

I kept going through my liner notes and ditching the word “church” and putting “pipe” back in. But you know, there is an awesomeness, there’s a spirituality. Look, if you just forget the religious part and just think about it like this: there’s great showmanship that goes on…I mean, some of the most beautiful music for religious services—the Mozart Requiem, the Verdi Requiem, all of Bach’s oratorios—they were all written to move you and delight you, whatever your belief is. Some of the greatest creative work done by humanity has been done in the context of those settings. If you ever get a chance to do a private tour of the Vatican, which I did actually get once, and you look at the revolutionary art—at its time it must have been—and you suddenly realize that the church was actually the great patrons of radical art, which it maybe isn’t so much now anymore. And it was the great patron of keeping orchestras going. One of my main things is, I want to make the orchestras survive. And I think, in some crazy odd way, that now falls on the shoulders of Hollywood. Hollywood’s the last place on earth that commissions orchestral music on a daily basis. That’s pretty amazing. I don’t know, it’s just not me—but I do think there is a spiritual quality to this film. If you let it, it will get under your skin.

Christopher Nolan: I tend to try to keep it very simple during the writing process, and not think too much about how the finished film is going to be. Then as a director, I just work on the way it’s shot. I knew there were areas that would lean very heavily on music. There were big leaps we had to take in the story, and the music has to clue the audience into the emotion. It has to carry the audience emotionally, as they’re making a big leap, narratively.

Hans Zimmer: People are always talking about film as collaborative. Well, we took them at their word, and we really do do that. It really is the two of us…it’s not just coming up with the ideas, but finding a tone, and finding what we’re trying to say, and influencing each other and how we’re going to say it, and what we’re going to have in, and what we’re going to leave out.

I try to be [on board as early as the development stage] as much as possible. I’ve done it a lot with Jim Brooks in the past, I do it with Ron Howard all the time. I think it’s a good way to work. You’re committed from the first moment, and you don’t just come in as a sort of handyman down the road. You invest your everything, from the first moment on that journey. I had really early conversations with Richard King, partly just because we like talking about sounds, and we’re both trying to figure out how to create this world that nobody’s ever been to. And that can be, in the case of Interstellar, truly a world nobody’s ever been to. But we did the same on Inception.

Christopher Nolan: Hans has the best sample library in the world. And what we’ve done on every film is, we’ve worked a long time with just what comes out of his studio, his synthesizers—which are incredibly advanced. Then we go and we do mammoth recording sessions where we just find that extra something, the incremental improvement—sometimes of massive importance—of having human beings playing real instruments. Hans is a real believer in that organic process. I am too. Every time we think the score is almost finished, we then go and do the recording session, and we just find something more.


Zimmer always creates preliminary synth/sample mockups of his scores (as do most composers), but in the case of Interstellar, both he and Nolan felt like his personal performance of the score might actually be right for the finished film—with no need to re-record it with a live orchestra (If you read my Driving Miss Daisy essay, you’ll remember it was the opposite case with that score). They eventually decided against that, and recorded a large ensemble of strings, winds, pianos, and (of course) organ in London. In the end, the final score was a hybrid.

Hans-Zimmer-Chris-Nolan-Dark-Knight-RisesHans Zimmer: All the melodies, at the end of the day, ended up being played by me—we went back to my original performances. It just felt right. It’s got nothing to do with technique, but I just had the right feel for it. Some of those piano notes…maybe they’re a little out of time, but they’re out of time in the right way. I mean, the movie keeps mentioning the idea of “singularity.” It’s a very different thing if you have a hundred people trying to interpret a piece of music than if you have one person interpret a piece of music. You do have that singularity. At the end of the day, we basically went for the best of both worlds. Where it was really apparent that you needed my voice, we went back to it.

[A lot of the score’s piano lines are actually] four pianos in a round and a church bell (again we’re back to churches)—it’s a 1300 church bell—and a choir doing the reverb part. I just had them do the tail of the notes. So there’s a lot of alienations that are going on, and so on. The further out Chris went into space, the more I was trying to figure out how to humanize that, but not be obvious about it. Sometimes it was just making sounds—just finding new orchestral colors we hadn’t really discovered or hadn’t really tried before. One of the problems, of course, was the organist. It is so dominant and so impressive that it becomes really tricky what you put up against it, because it swallows everything. It is like a black hole. At the same time, one of the things which, for me, works really well in the score is it’s truly a score of extremes. It’s very quiet and really intimate, and at the same time then it just goes and tears…

You have really two choices when you make a movie. You could think, “Am I going to work to the sort of lowest common denominator of sound? Or am I going to have the most extremes of dynamics—am I going to have the most extreme of sound?” I think you always just have to work towards the highest fidelity, and the highest bandwidth, and the highest dynamics. And I think, yes, we are maybe one of the quietest movies ever and maybe one of the loudest movies ever.

Complaints about the film’s mix and the score’s volume have drowned out thoughtful conversation about its musical content. Both Zimmer and Nolan have defended the soundtrack’s (at times) deafening presence, stating without apology that the unorthodox mix was an artistic choice.

Hans Zimmer: I think there are maybe a few things that are happening here. One is: we presented them with a completely new sound. I think this movie sounds like no other movie. It might take a little while for people to get used to that. It’s like we’re presenting you with a new color you’re not quite comfortable with. There are no errors, there are no accidents in this score, in the soundtrack. We worked very diligently and very carefully and with a very precise point of view. We’re throwing an enormous amount of science at you—you know, you’re not used to having conversations about tesseracts and things like that. These are not words you hear every day. And sometimes it’s okay that you get to discover them a little later. We were trying to make a visceral experience, just like in Inception. I don’t think it was that easy for people to understand it the first time through. But I think they felt it. And if you let yourself feel it, as opposed to stick to the literal letter of the word, you’re going to be much more engaged. After [Murph] figures something out and runs and hugs her brother…we know what she said to him. I mean, we are trying to create a couple of poetic, cinematic moments. The last thing I wanted was for you to be in a science lesson. We really did try to make a cinematic experience. And it needs to go top to tail, visually and sonically, you know—trying to create this world.

Christopher Nolan: Here’s the way I view sound mixing: I’m not making a radio play. I don’t believe in mixing the sound purely for the dialogue, and I think that when you have music playing as important an emotional partner that it needs to in a film like this, for me I’m looking at giving a balanced mix, whereby people hear what they need to hear, but they’re also feeling and being swept up in the emotion of what’s going on. There’s a broader force at work, where everything is not driven forward just by the dialogue. It’s driven forward by the music, by the sound as a whole. Visceral is a good word for it, because we’re dealing with feeling and emotion. And a story that’s driven purely on narrative, is driven purely through dialogue, will always for me be a little academic, a little less immersive.

Day One

ZimmerHans Zimmer: That “Day One” piece was a love letter to my son, and it was very, very craftily handled by Chris, because a lot of the material he gave me on that first day before he told me the true subject matter really came from conversations we had about our kids, and our ambitions for our kids. Chris, Emma [Thomas], and I have this tradition that, just before Christmas, we end up in London and the three of us go out for dinner—and somehow we don’t actually talk about movies. We talk about all the other things that interest us. We talk about the world, we talk about what moves us. So, yes, it does become very personal. If you look at the CD, the bottom line is “For our children.” As a composer, the only thing I can write about is some personal journey. Because after all, I don’t ever have to say the lines written by somebody else. I get to write my own. That’s what I tried to get into this score, and that’s what Chris wanted me to get into this movie.