Inside Hans Zimmer's Remote Control<br />
And then there are the books. Lots of them, arranged in no particular order on built-in, floor-to-ceiling shelves that line the room. A glance at the titles is revealing. On one shelf alone you'll find "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco, "The Wit & Wisdom of Winston Churchill," "Hitler and the Occult," Francesco Gabrieli's "Arab Historians of the Crusades," a collection of photos by Richard Avedon, multiple works on architecture, biographies of everyone from Mozart to Arthur Miller and Fritz Lang, and a small tome called "Birds of Native America." On another shelf rests a Native American peace pipe. On still another, a samurai sword.
"This room really came about because I have so many books and things got crazy," says Zimmer, almost apologetically. "There were books all over the floor. My solution would be to build more bookshelves, but then you couldn't hang any art on the walls.
"I have many interests," he deadpans wryly, as if that fact weren't abundantly obvious. "I think that is what composers do. In fact, the thing you will find the least often here are books about music."
And why is that? "Well, music is what I do."
Music isn't just what Zimmer does -- it's what he lives, day in and day out, often for long, wearying hours. "I don't sleep much," he says, though you wouldn't know it to look at him. He is relaxed, thoughtful and quick-witted. A broad, infectious smile spreads across his face while discussing subjects that interest him, which, as the bookshelves attest, is pretty much anything.
While that enthusiasm for the world around him has served Zimmer well for more than two decades now, it doesn't fully explain how a German troublemaker with no formal music training ("I had two weeks of piano lessons," he says) has built a Hollywood film music career that has produced over 100 scores, with seven Oscar nominations -- including one win for 1994's "The Lion King."
If Zimmer now stands alone at the peak of his profession, it is because he adds so much to the entire filmmaking process, repeatedly demonstrating a rare ability to cross the divide between the language of music and the language of film. It is for this reason that The Hollywood Reporter has named Zimmer recipient of its inaugural Maestro Award.
"He is the single most collaborative artist I've ever met or ever worked with," says Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, who has worked with Zimmer on such hits as 1998's "The Prince of Egypt" and 2002's "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." "The level of creative collaboration that comes with Hans -- I've never experienced it anywhere in the entertainment business the same way. It's part of what makes him unique and also what makes him successful."
Born to an inventor father and a mother he describes as a "music snob," Zimmer's innate sense of curiosity about the world around him hasn't always worked to his advantage. When pressed on why he was kicked out of school six times he offers a quick correction: "Nine times," he says with the kind of pride most people reserve for their greatest accomplishments.
"I was kicked out nine times. It wasn't like I was the Antichrist or an anarchist. But in hindsight now I understand what the problem was: You can't have one kid in a class of 30 who incessantly asks questions and questions everything. This disrupts life and drives the teacher crazy. 'Why did Kafka write it like this? Why, why, why?' "
To pinpoint the moment in Zimmer's life when he made the transition from mischievous schoolboy to aspiring film composer, you have to go all the way back to a day when, at age 12, Zimmer snuck into a Frankfurt movie house to see Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," and fell in love with Ennio Morricone.
"It just blew me away," he recalls. "I knew then. Ennio Morricone -- he knew how to put on a show!"
Living in London years later, after a short-lived (but successful) stint as a keyboardist in the '80s band the Buggles, Zimmer came under the wing of Stanley Myers, perhaps best known for the score to Michael Cimino's 1979 Oscar winner "The Deer Hunter."
For a young musician willing to do whatever was necessary to learn his craft, Myers' tutelage was invaluable.
"Stanley had me write the things he didn't want to write, like the car chases," Zimmer says appreciatively. "He was very gracious and decent and never threw me under the bus, because the director would usually hate what I had written."
Director Stephen Frears remembers working with both of them on 1985's "My Beautiful Laundrette."
"Stanley, I think, spent most of his time putting bets on horses, so Hans was the boy in the backroom doing all the music," he recalls. "Here he is, years later, and he's a giant of the music industry. I had no idea. I should have bought shares in him."
If he had, the investment would have paid off just three years later, when opportunity knocked at Zimmer's door -- literally.
"It was 11:00 at night and I was in a dingy studio in London, and there's a knock at a door," Zimmer recalls. "It's Barry Levinson. I remember him saying, 'Hi, I'm Barry Levinson. I'm a director.' And I remember thinking, 'Who is this?' But I looked behind him and saw these two limos and thought, 'Maybe this is for real.'"
It was. Levinson, fresh off the success of 1987's "Good Morning, Vietnam," was searching for a composer for his next film, "Rain Man."
"He had a bunch of little computers and drum machines and seemed slightly half-mad," Levinson remembers.
Levinson was nervous about the film's score and wanted a composer who could take a fresh approach to notoriously difficult material. "I was very fearful of strings, because the movie has an emotional element to it and I didn't want to push that," he explains. "I didn't want it to become sappy. My wife mentioned a movie Hans had done called 'A World Apart' (1988), and I heard that score and thought, 'That's interesting.'"
"Rain Man" was a huge success, and its daring, propulsive score garnered Zimmer his first Oscar nomination.
Since Levinson knocked on that alley door in London, Zimmer has become one of Hollywood's most sought-after composers, often working repeatedly with A-list directors. But being a successful film composer doesn't involve just writing great music, it also demands a number of character traits and smaller skills that appear to come naturally to Zimmer.
"He's an incredible communicator and collaborator, not only with filmmakers but with studio executives," says Kathy Nelson, president of film music for Universal Pictures. "Hans knows how to communicate with musicians like he's a musician, and he can communicate with execs or filmmakers as if he's not a musician. It's one thing to have the raw talent, it's another thing to be able to communicate and make people understand something they fundamentally don't understand."
Zimmer's enthusiastic embrace of the process is, in fact, something his collaborators consistently point to when discussing the effectiveness of his unique working methods. Not one to read a script and disappear into his studio for weeks, Zimmer instead prefers to immerse himself in a project, often involving a team of composers at Remote Control, and is willing to seek out inspiration wherever he can find it. He studied war photography prior to 2001's "Black Hawk Down," and says the architecture of I. M. Pei inspired the music for Ron Howard's "The Da Vinci Code."
Howard, who recently teamed with Zimmer for the third time on Universal's "Frost/Nixon," describes a typically fruitful conversation he had with Zimmer about "Frost's" music in which the composer's willingness to experiment paid off. "We initially thought there'd be very little score and lots of soundtrack music derived from the period. Then we discovered Nixon's music -- a semiclassical piece that he wrote and performed on 'The Jack Parr Show.' I asked Hans if he'd heard it and he hadn't, so we played it and he was very moved by it. He said that what Nixon wrote said so much about his personality -- repetitive, constricted. Hans' analysis of Nixon playing this piece was telling, and Hans started playing something that was unrelated but led to a kind of simple, forlorn tune that had the same somber tones the Nixon piece had. The music research not only helped me to understand more about these characters' actual lives, it ended up inspiring the score."
"He's very much a filmmaker," adds writer-director-producer Nancy Meyers, who's worked with Zimmer twice, most recently on 2006's "The Holiday." "It's really important to him that he's part of the movie. He loves the process. On my new movie, I sent him the script as soon as I was finished with it. He said a few things to me script-wise -- it had nothing to do with music. They were just great notes. He gets it like a filmmakers gets it. He gets the rhythm of the movie and he adds to the movie, and that's why everyone works with him over and over."
Zimmer's immersive, heavily collaborative approach is perfect for filmmaker James L. Brooks, whose work often walks a fine line between comedy and drama.
"I've worked with Hans on movies where the tone was up for grabs," he says. "The example that comes to mind is 'As Good as it Gets' (1997). It was very difficult deciding on the tone of the movie. We knew we had a lot of heavy stuff going on, but at its heart it's a romance. I'm having trouble now defining it, long after the movie was made, because it's hard to define the tone. But when Hans came in with his theme, that was it. He described the tone (through music)."
For frequent collaborator Ridley Scott -- the two have worked together six times, including on "Black Hawk Down" and 2001's "Gladiator" -- Zimmer's gifts put him in some very good company.
"Jerry Goldsmith would always talk about what he was doing as though it was dialogue, and I always like that," he says. "It made me able to communicate with him because I know bugger all about notes and things like that. With Hans, he is always very amenable, unpretentious and open to that kind of discussion. It's not like talking to a brain surgeon about brain surgery, and he thinks you're a tosser because you can't actually voice what you're talking about. Hans never does that."
It's no accident that Scott is comfortable comparing Zimmer to Goldsmith, one of the greats, and it's a comparison that Zimmer is humbled by. For despite all of his accomplishments, Zimmer is convinced there's still plenty of work to be done if he is to be mentioned in the same breath as his heroes.
"I just look at the quality of the work these people have done, and I never considered myself one of those composers. Maybe that's why I talk less about music and more about the filmmaker. I never have and still don't consider myself musically in the same league of John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith or Ennio Morricone. But I think good composers, and the ones that have maintained their careers, are the ones that have found an appropriate voice for the movie at the time."
So what will they say about Zimmer's musical legacy when all is said and done? Ever the thinker, Zimmer pauses, glances around the room, and grins.
"He reads too many books."
Learning the tropes
From the street, you'd never know that the nondescript office on a Santa Monica side street has produced some of the most recognizable film music of the last decade. There are no windows, no signage and the only sound you'll hear is the traffic up the street on Colorado Boulevard.
Welcome to Remote Control, Hans Zimmer's attempt to give back to the film music world by offering studio space, tutelage, access and invaluable experience to hard-working composers eager to break into an insanely competitive field.
"All composers have teams, but they're not as apparent in the process; Hans brings everyone into the process," says Lia Vollack, president of worldwide music at Sony Pictures. "Hans has provided such a great training ground for other composers that whenever he can't do a movie I've got other people I can hire!" she adds with a laugh.
Harry Gregson-Williams ("Shrek") recalls how Zimmer, in typical fashion, offered the young composer an office space in L.A. after the two had become fast friends while Zimmer was in London working on 1994's "The Lion King."
"I was just thrilled to get a call from him saying, 'Why don't you ditch what you're doing and get a one-way ticket (to L.A.)?" he says. "So he gave me a room -- some would say closet -- at (Remote Control). When I got there it was a handful of people, but there was no precedent -- there was no plan at all. Hans simply asked, 'Do you want to learn how to score or don't you?' And of course I did."
But Remote Control isn't without its critics. Some have accused Zimmer of creating a "music factory" that blurs the line between the traditional role of a composer and his assistants. "That is absolutely not true," says Ramin Djawadi ("Iron Man"), who has been with Remote Control for eight years. "Everybody is busy there and it is very supportive -- you can always go to someone else and say, 'Hey, I'm stuck' -- and we really encourage each other. I still have to remind myself of how lucky I am."
-- Kevin Cassidy