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Hans Zimmer Career Interview
On The Dark Knight, Man Of Steel and Going For Gold

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"When I started", reflects Han Zimmer when Empire speaks to him, "what I did was called 'background music'." It definitely isn't called that anymore. In fact, from humble beginnings as a young wannabe pianist in Frankfurt and London, the German composer has practically redefined the grammar of movie music. His trademark Inception "Braaam" is now a tension-cranking lingua franca for movie trailers, although, as he points out with a grin, "it was in Chris [Nolan's] script." Fresh from his labours on Man Of Steel, the great scorer offered a fascinating, wide-ranging contribution to Empire's celebration of movie music.

Hans Zimmer Career Interview

You talked about your working routine to Empire in 1995. Do you still get up at 10am, have a cigarette and sit in the bath to get ideas?
No, I get up a lot later now (laughs). Today was early because I have a director here. We started at 11:30am, which to me is the middle of the night! I usually start at around 1pm and am at the studio all night. I have to plead the fifth on the cigarette - my kids might read this and then I'd be in big trouble. But the process is basically the same, all joking aside. The writing gets done away from the keyboard and away from the studio in my head, in solitude. And then I come in and hopefully have something, then I wrestle with sounds and picture all day long. But the ideas usually come from a more obscure place, like a conversation with a director, a still somebody shows you, or whatever.

You've described it as having the idea for what you want to say, but not knowing how to say it until you sit at the keyboard and it comes out...
Well, it doesn't usually just come out, it's a fight with inadequacy (laughs). It's a real thing. John Powell and I were having this conversation recently, and he said the most simple and perfect thing to me. He said, "You have to get a movie under your fingers." And that's absolutely true. If you've wrestled with it for a while, suddenly it's all there under your fingers and you're not going to stylistically play the wrong thing. But it takes you a while to inhabit that world, especially because you do try to make them different within the context of your own aesthetic and your own style. And your baggage!

We're contractually obliged at this point to ask you about Going For Gold. How did that come about?
A movie score is a fight with inadequacy, but if you've wrestled it for a while, suddenly it's all there under your fingers.
(Laughs) It's very simple. If you start out as a musician, a starving artist and someone comes to you and says, "Do you want to write a game show," you say, "Yes please!" And really, honestly, the whole Going For Gold thing, the whole concept of it was it was just before the Olympics in Korea and the big prize was a trip to go and watch the event. It was only supposed to be on for one season and then it became this thing forever. It was great fun to do. I had no idea what I was doing. I'm not embarrassed about it - I look at it fondly as a ridiculous piece of music and I have a laugh about it. It's like looking at photos of yourself when you had a terrible hairstyle and you thought it was really cool. (Laughs) What was I thinking!

How was working with Ridley and Tony Scott compared to, say, Chris Nolan?
Tony actually offered me my first movie in Hollywood ever. He was working on this movie Revenge and he kept phoning me in London, because he'd heard the score I'd done for a Working Title movie called A World Apart and had loved it. So we had endless conversations about ideas, and then one day his producer, I suppose, went, "Hans who? Never heard of him. Tony, get serious, you've got to get an A-list composer!" And that was the end of my career... Luckily, Barry Levinson didn't mind that I hadn't really done anything and hired me on Rain Man. So then the first thing I did was with Ridley and Black Rain. I just wanted to meet the man who made Blade Runner! We just had a chat, and I didn't even know he was in the middle of a movie. By the end of the conversation he said, "Do you want to go and do this movie?"

Both these brothers, the great thing about them is they were incredibly collaborative and they liked that I was doing things differently. I always said to Ridley, "So how do I not get fired on one of your movies?" And he said, "Just don't write me a symphony. Do something that's appropriate for the movie." I've done so many movies with them, but even stylistically, a Thelma & Louise is very different from a Gladiator, from a Black Hawk Down or a Matchstick Men. But on Gladiator, for instance, their cutting rooms were at my studio, so it made it collegial because everybody was under the same roof and Pietro (Scalia) was cutting away and we could try things. It was very liberating. We could always have a conversation and not be precious about it. Really, the opening for Gladiator, the movie used to open with the title and you pretty much went straight into the battle. The whole idea of the hand on the wheat came out of simply that we could experiment. That shot would not hold without music. You would never put that shot in and start the movie that way if you didn't have your composer sitting right there.

The Lion King was the first animated movie you did, and these days you're head of DreamWorks Animation's music department. Is the process of composing for an animated movie different?
Actually, the thing I learned from animation and what I love about it is, you're in there, sitting around the table with the writers and the directors and the storyboard artists literally on day one and there are just these rough pencil sketches and you talk about story. They talk about it from a colour palette or from a visual perspective and you talk about it from a sonic perspective. Really the way I now try to work with all my directors is I'm there at the beginning of the thing and I've seen it translate across to live action with Ron Howard and Frost/Nixon. We had literally spent two weeks before he went to shoot it talking about what sort of music would be interesting and I'd be saying, "If you get me a shot like that, then I could do this or that..." And when the dailies started popping in, I went, "Oh! I know what this is about, I know what that shot is, yes he really got me that shot so now I'd better deliver for it."

Chris Nolan always said he had to convince you to do Batman Begins. Was it a struggle?
I kept telling him that I had no time and that I was busy on something else and he'd phone and would describe shots to me. He wouldn't send them. He was in London and I was in LA and was supposed to come over to London but was stuck on this movie. There's an iconic shot of Batman on top of this tall building looking out over the city, and Chris was describing it to me saying, "I just can't make this shot work. Can you just write something that delivers me to it?" I was saying, "No, no, I don't have time... Okay, I'll do something really rough" and did it and next day we get a phone call saying, "The shot is in now... I have this other thing, could you just..." I kept telling him I didn't have time and would whip something rough up and by the time James (Newton Howard) and I got over to London, the whole movie was temped with all those rough sketches, but at least it wasn't everybody else's music! It started to already have the tone of where we were going.

Did anyone think you'd end up working on a trilogy?
Hearing the Going For Gold theme is like looking at one of those photos of yourself with a terrible hairstyle.
Not at all. In fact, if anything, I seem to remember Chris and everyone feeling a little bit like the fans are watching what we're doing, are we going to ruin this movie? Because we were trying some very different things. I remember having a safety heroic tune written, which I didn't like very much, but it was in case anyone would turn round to us and go, "hang on, he's supposed to be a superhero and you're doing this two-note thing here!" On the second one, the super heroic thing came out of the drawer and Chris said, "I quite like this..." And I kept saying, "But the character hasn't earned it!" By the time we got to the third one, really what the character became was the antithesis to that theme so it's in a bin somewhere. The way we work is, we put everything, every idea into the movie that we're in front of. We don't ever think if there's going to be another. You don't keep anything in reserve, either.

I've never had a real job in my life that lasted any longer than however long working on the movie lasts. If Chris had said at the beginning, "We're going spend eight or nine years of our lives doing Batman movies" I would have balked at the whole thing. I balked enough as it is!

Was it different working on Inception with a couple of movies already under your belts together?
I'd go to the set and we'd spent a long time talking about it, I'd started writing ideas and themes. When he finished shooting, I said, "Can I go and see the movie now?" He said, "no! Not until you finish writing the score!" So again it was a little bit like the Batman Begins process, because there is something that happens. It became a game with me where I would know what scene I was writing for but I hadn't seen the theme and I would send a piece of music over without writing on it what scene it was for and then when I finally saw the movie, I wanted to see how much of it translated and it all did! There's a moment in Inception when she's on the ledge and the shoe falls and I'd really specifically had in my head what that would be and that's exactly what it was, the timing and everything worked perfectly. So it's that being in sync with the director is really important. But Chris and I have an unusual way of working.

Hans Zimmer Career Interview
Working with Christopher Nolan on Inception

How much input did you have into the famous "Braaam" sound that is so associated with the film and Zack Hemsey's trailer tune?
We did the first two trailers and the famous "Braaam" sound or whatever you want to call it, is in Chris' script. So we already had done that, and then I got really busy actually writing the movie and Chris played me the Zack piece and there are a couple of chords in it that I was really trying to avoid, and I thought it was funny because they're sort of Batman chords (laughs)), which I didn't want in Inception. But I thought, 'at least it seems part of the family!'

Does it annoy or please you that it gets used on every big trailer now?
It doesn't please me or annoy me. Look, we weren't going to do it again! On one of the trailers for Dark Knight Rises that had been cut by a trailer house used that sound and so now we had to come up with something to replace that. What we did was, we went exactly the opposite way. There's a trailer that starts off with these really abstract piano notes, really lonely. That all used to be action-y music and big 'braaams' etc. and because Chris and I realised that the great thing we have in Batman, when you hear those little off sonatas or that string thing, you know in a second that it's a Batman movie. So we could postpone in a funny way, giving away what you were looking at. It was just a fun game to play not to use it.

And The Dark Knight Rises kept the collaborative spirit up?
The stuff for Bane in Dark Knight Rises was written... I just tried to beat Chris in a way so it was written before he went out to shoot any of the theme. So it was recorded before he started doing the movie. And we talked about this process we have where it's not that I'm trying stay ahead of him, but we try to develop certain things simultaneously. I asked him if it was helpful to him and he said, "Sometimes on the set, you have all these people but you're still the director and the writer and sometimes it's nice if you can go, 'Over there, there's a little bit of Zimmer that I can go to.'" I'm just this little brick that you can plug in if you veer suddenly. We came up with the idea for the chant and then I hear from the sound crew and the assistant directors that they're trying to teach the chant to the extras, so something that was something I was just playing around with suddenly becomes part of the film. We wouldn't have been able to do it afterwards. These ideas happen earlier at the script stage.

Of your career, was there a tough job that came out exactly the way you hoped?
None of them come out the way I want or hope. Actually, that's not true. There are two movies. The Thin Red Line was a lot of work and it turned out exactly how I hoped. It's pretty good. And then The Dark Knight Rises, it was a really great way of finishing nine years of our lives. It was a great journey and it felt satisfying on a personal level.

David Holmes told us on our Empire Podcast that soundtracks should work as albums beyond the film. Do you agree?
With Man Of Steel, I had to get through that moment of 'Oh my god, it's John Williams!'.
When I started, what I did was called 'Background Music' and I took some sort of offence to that (laughs). I've always thought that music needs to be able to stand on its own two feet. You listen to a Morricone score, you listen to a John William score, and they have integrity as music. And really honestly, I do think about that. Would anyone want to put that score on in their car? Midnight Express was a great album; Chariots Of Fire was a great album. I'm on purpose leaving out the ones that have a lot of songs on them, because those are easy. But you could put on any of the Spaghetti Westerns and be happy.

You talked about the pressure of reinventing Batman's themes. Was it even more challenging to tackle Superman, with the John Williams legacy?
I seized up completely for three months. I went into complete, 'Oh my god, it's John Williams and it's brilliant and I have no idea what to do' mode! This is where you need strong directors who sit you down and say things like, "But Hans, it's just another movie. Get real!" And encourage you and cheer you on and hold your hand and suddenly you start having an idea, just a little idea out of the corner of your eye and you start following it down that path and the next thing you know, a couple of other ideas join in and you've got a theme, a tone, a style and you're doing something completely different.

I love working with Zack (Snyder) - like the Scott brothers - he's a great visual artist. So while the conversation is going on, he's drawing the theme in front of your eyes on a napkin or piece of paper. And they're fearless. You go, "I've got this crazy idea about eight pedal guitars and 12 drummers" and they go, "Great! When can I hear it?" And in a funny way, it went from being absolutely, completely intimidated by the baggage of the John Williams tune to being completely liberating by thinking, 'What did he do? Lots of snare drums and trumpets, and it's a fanfare, a very objective thing', so if I start off by taking away some of those things from the palette and create my own, I'm already going to do something different. Our style is very different, of course. The movie is different, the story is being told differently.

It's still a little intimidating because it's a reinvention. But Sherlock Holmes was a reinvention, Batman was a reinvention, and now Man Of Steel is. Plus I'm on Lone Ranger, so doing Rush with Ron Howard was great recently because no-one had done that one before! I wasn't following anyone's footsteps. There's no comparison shopping going on.

The Greatest Movie Soundtracks - Empire's Music Celebration

Interview by James White

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