Hans Florian Zimmer has gone from The Buggles to Burbank in 30 incident-packed years. An inspiration for a generation of movie composers, he's on speed dial for directors of the calibre of Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott and Steve McQueen. The diversity of those filmmakers is testament to his sheer versatility and capacity for invention and reinvention. Abandoning Inception's 'BRRAAAMMM' motif to a legion of imitators, he's since decorated Rango, Man Of Steel and, most recently, 12 Years A Slave with his mighty compositions. He's also a thoroughly nice man who kindly agreed to take Empire through the key moments of his career to date.
GOING FOR GOLD (1987)"Let me tell you why I love Going For Gold. Going For Gold truly meant that I wasn't starving, and I could pay my rent and I could pay the electricity bill. If you want to be an electronic whizz-kid synthesiser composer there's nothing worse than when the electricity gets cut off, which kept happening to me frequently in those days for non-payment of bills. And Going For Gold, God bless them, they kept me alive!
TAFFIN (1988)"I didn't know what I was doing. I had no idea! I ran into Pierce Brosnan a couple of years ago and I said, have we ever worked together? And then I suddenly went, 'Yeah, Taffin!' I was still Stanley Myers' (British composer whose work includes The Deer Hunter and My Beautiful Laundrette) assistant really. When I listen to some of those things all I do is shudder with embarrassment, but at the same time if I cut myself a little bit of slack I have to say yes, you've got to start somewhere and you learn. Hopefully I got a little better since then. At the same time all you can do is be grateful to people for giving you a chance and putting up with all the mistakes you make, all the obvious stuff that you shove into these movies before you learn to be a little bit more subtle about it.
RAIN MAN (1988)
"It was surreal to be nominated (for the Oscar) for Rain Man. The whole thing came about in a really surrealistic way: I'd done a small but really great English movie called A World Apart, and Barry Levinson's wife Diana had seen the movie and bought him the CD, and he loved the music and had temped it all over Rain Man. He was in London and I think it was 11pm, and there was a knock on my door because he had my address but he didn't have my phone number. There's this guy standing there going, 'Hi, my name is Barry Levinson, I'm a Hollywood director. Would you like to do this Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffman movie? At first I didn't believe that he was real, nor did I believe that this was ever going to happen, but eventually there was this aeroplane ticket so I went over to Los Angeles and saw the film. I didn't know my way around, I didn't know anybody there so the whole score was done in Barry's office, just a bunch of synthesisers and me. It was a very un-Hollywood approach, so to get the nomination was really strange. I just think they made a mistake! To them, 'German composer' sounds like somebody who's paid their dues, not a rock 'n' roller who's having a go at writing a film score. I think they thought I had toiled away on arthouse movies for 30 years. I just think it was all a big mistake, but it was really exciting!
TRUE ROMANCE (1993)
"I grew up in Germany, and one of the things that was de rigeur in German schools was to do this sort of Carl Orff music technique, where all the kids were banging around on xylophones and marimbas and those that didn’t want to bang around had to play treble recorder. There is no sound worse than a whole classroom of kids playing out of time, really loudly, all blowing into treble recorders. They have no dynamic, it’s on or off, like piercingly loud or whatever. But there’s such an innocence about it, it’s such an absurd sound. Tony (Scott) was making this movie which was so tough, you know, after Christian Slater goes and kills Gary Oldman and [Patricia Arquette] says, 'That was so, so, so...', and you think she’s going to say something terrible, and she says 'romantic'! There’s a childlike quality about it and all I kept thinking was what a dreadful, horrible, violent racket those marimbas were. But they weren’t really, so if you did something really really simple – it actually took me a really long time to write this thing, it’s a three-chord tune but it took me forever to make something that was that simple. I just didn’t think the movie was a movie that wanted an orchestra, and Tony loved it. He loved it whenever I would go against the grain. He lived by the motto “weird is good”.
THE LION KING (1994)
"I think that [winning the Oscar in 1995] was a mistake! Actually, I don’t know if you can call it a mistake, but I recently sat round a table with Al Silvestri and Tom Newman, and that year Alan had Forrest Gump which was an extraordinary score, and Tom had Shawshank Redemption, and I’m a huge Shawshank Redemption fan. I think Shawshank Redemption and the music Tom did broke through some imaginary walls that all of us composers have. That was a completely new sound and it really pushed film music forward. Yes, it’s the luck of the draw that I won and I’m very grateful, but at the same time I think I would have voted for Tom. In fact, I think I did vote for Tom!
CRIMSON TIDE (1995)
"Crimson Tide is a good one. First of all it was one of those movies that just came together beautifully. I think the movie is editor Chris Levinson’s first cut. It was just so sure-handed. If you think about Crimson Tide it’s really a play. It’s just a two-hander: these two great actors going at each other, and it’s not an action movie. I remember saying to Tony, 'When they fire these torpedoes, how fast do the torpedoes go? Is there anything that is of speed in this movie?' He said the fastest a torpedo goes is probably 60mph. Even the torpedoes are really slow! So the job of the music was to pretend it was an action movie because it’s really a dialogue picture. Now I have to drop names and I feel slightly embarrassed but it felt really, really good at the time and still does to this day: Steven Spielberg called me and said “I’ve just wasted my whole day. I’ve listened to your Crimson Tide score eight times and I’ve realised it’s an hour long and so I’ve just been listening to Crimson Tide for eight hours today.” That was not a bad call to get.
"All the scores I’ve done with Ridley Scott are milestones. Black Hawk Down sounds nothing like Thelma & Louise, which sounds nothing like Gladiator, which sounds nothing like Matchstick Men. I love working with people who go, 'Let’s try something completely different.' How do we keep it fresh? Things run into each other. While we were working on Gladiator, for instance, he said to me, 'Have you read Black Hawk Down?' Suddenly we’re coming up with ideas. It’s a very intense experience when everybody’s trying to make a movie and it gets quite emotional when you’ve finished something, because you’ve been in this intense relationship and now everybody’s going to go their own way. So it’s nice when you a director says, 'Hey, I have another idea,' and there’s a continuation of the relationship. For the past few years Ridley and I have been completely out of sync with each other, but I think the work we have done together stands up pretty well. My favourite Ridley score is probably Black Hawk Down. Not judged by the standards of 'the best score I've written' or whatever... no, actually, I tell you what, it’s Hannibal! Because he didn’t fire me on the spot when I told him that I wanted to make it into a romantic comedy. He sort of smiled and said, 'That sounds good!' and let me go away and be insanely surrealistic and romantic. He let me get away with writing an absurdist love story. I just loved that.
THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (2005-2012)
"The Dark Knight series was another milestone for me. I felt I really got to reinvent myself with that. I just brought it down to something really, really, really incredibly simple, but it seemed to hit a chord in the zeitgeist, and superhero movies started to sound like this. You have to realise that when James Newton Howard and I did Batman Begins, we didn’t realise that there were going to be sequels! We were just having a go and clinging on for dear life and hoping that nobody would mind if we didn’t do a big superhero fanfare-type thing, because that’s not what we wanted to do. One of the problems with doing something very, very, very, very minimalistic is the challenge of keeping it up over three movies. But I really enjoyed the whole process of pottering around, half the time making synth sounds without writing notes, and the collaborative process of coming in early on a project and feeling like you’re part of it. Music doesn’t come in as an afterthought.
Chris (Nolan) had a really clear idea, it’s really like a co-composition. First of all the Piaf idea was in the script; secondly, the idea of slowing it down and isolating those brass chords was in the script. (On the BRRAAAMMM sound) There’s a lot of talk that trailers keep using it or making a sound like it. It has become a big trailer motif. What people keep misunderstanding is that it’s a story point in the movie. We weren’t making a sound effect, it’s a story point. Okay, it’s a cool sound, and it’s actually very easy to do, but the sound became not a story point for other people in their trailers, they’re just using it as a punctuation or a transition. It just became ubiquitous.
I always saw Inception more as a time-travel movie as opposed to a movie about dreams. It’s only after the movie came out that people focused so much on the dreams, but I always took that for granted. I remember asking Chris, 'Will people get this idea? Are people going to get this subdivision of time?' It's what we do in music all the time, you know: this is your tempo, your bass drum, it’s doing one tempo and then we subdivide it and subdivide it again, music can do that very easily. This is how music functions, music functions like dreams, music functions like time travel, music functions like those layers. It was interesting because what was complicated for him as a filmmaker or as a writer is to get that sense across in words, whereas it's second nature in the language of music. So I never saw Inception as a big triumph for the music. I just remember it as being a lot of fun. Johnny Marr came in and it was all really easy. But I need to be a bit careful because people who were working on it keep reminding me of things that I just can’t remember, that I really put myself through it! It’s like when you go to the dentist, you can’t really remember it afterwards.
"[With animation] you get to create a world that just doesn’t exist. It’s just drawings and there’s no sound, nothing is real, so you literally get to go and decide how you want that sonic world to be. It’s incredibly enjoyable and it’s very liberating, because you can be completely surrealistic. The difference between an animated film and a live-action film is that an animated film really only gets made at the last moment, because you’ve been working on story and storyboards. Because the animation happens last, you really get to hone some of those ideas at a very early stage and let the music influence the rhythm of the drawings, which is fabulous. Rango is great because I always wanted to do a spaghetti Western. Ennio Morricone is sort of my hero, so I got to go into that world and it’s a truly surrealistic movie. I think people just haven’t noticed it but Rango is probably as close as you can get to taking some serious drugs. - - - - - -
MAN OF STEEL (2013)
"How did I approach the John Williams issue? By not getting on with it! I spent months being terrified and having complete writer’s block! One Friday Zack Snyder said: 'So is there anything I can hear?', and I’m going, 'Aaaarrgh, no, nothing, I mean like I’ve got a couple of notes on the piano and little Post-it stickers on the fridge! How about I’ll be there at 12pm on Tuesday?' So I played him these little Post-it stickers, which ended up being a large part of the score, with me playing piano, not very well. I told him how daunted I was about the iconic nature of the John Williams thing and how it was getting in my way of trying to break away. I think the John Williams thing is absolutely brilliant, but Zack quite rightly pointed out that you cannot start Man Of Steel with a fanfare because it’s a completely different structure. Then he said this thing to me which was very liberating: 'Hans, you’ve done a lot of movies, it’s just another movie! Stop freaking out!' And as soon as he said that I started coming up with all these ideas, like the idea of the drum circle. When you hear a solo violin it sounds very different from a violin section, so I thought, 'Wow, what would happen if we got all these really great drummers in and I did the same thing with pedal steel guitars?' I was thinking about what happens if you use these very American instruments and actually create a little orchestra This is why you need your director, because your director’s going to say the right thing to you. Sometimes it’s an idea and sometimes it’s just a way of getting out of your own way.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
"I knew the movie was really important and I was very daunted by it, but I didn’t really realise how impactful it was until I saw it in a huge theatre in Toronto. Knowing the film so well, for the last five minutes I did this naughty thing where I wasn’t really looking at the screen any more, but just listening to the audience and hearing this sound I’ve never heard before - a very quiet sobbing - then it cuts to black and there’s complete silence. We devastated the audience in a profound way. We don’t really make a lot of films where you come away having gone through an experience that will stay with you. What stays with me from working with Steve McQueen is the friendship and the joy. There really was a lot of joy working with him. It was one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had working on a film. The greatest thing about Steve McQueen is Steve McQueen, because he comes in and makes you feel that however daunting and important and serious this thing is, he’s going to make sure you don’t go and make a mess of it. He’s going to be there by your side and you’re going to have a good chat, and out of that chat some notes will appear.
12 Years A Slave OST is available now on CD and digital download, courtesy of Sony Music