Q&A: Hans Zimmer<br />
The Hollywood Reporter: You composed the scores for six films this year. Tired?
Hans Zimmer: I shouldn't say this, but it never really feels like work. This is truly what I love doing. In this day and age, to be allowed to do what you love is extraordinary. I'm a lucky bastard.
THR: Was it difficult to transition from "Kung Fu Panda" to "The Dark Knight"?
Zimmer: It was actually not hard to get into "Kung Fu Panda." Going from "Dark Knight" to "Madagascar 2" was tough. "Knight" was dark. So when I started "Madagascar" I was still not that ... "friendly," one could say. On "Kung Fu Panda" -- what I love about this film is that it is actually quite a noble story with a lot of heart, and it's a very good movie. The other thing: I love collaborating. It's great to work with friends like John Powell and kick ideas around and come up with things together. I was never that emotionally insecure to the point that I didn't like working with other people. I come from a band mentality, and film is the same sort of thing.
THR: You specifically chose to write the menacing Joker theme for "Knight." Was it difficult to spend so much time with such a dark character?
Zimmer: Absolutely -- dare I say happily so. That's one of the great things. I suppose actors or any filmmakers do this too: You get to take these journeys and experience these moods. The scary part is you don't become a different person. You are that person. You just let it come to the surface.
I felt one of the things that was extraordinary on "Dark Knight" was that we worked very privately, the filmmakers and us, more the way you work on an independent movie. We worked without any of those voices that whisper horrible doubting things in your ear. I set out right from the get-go to not write a "summer blockbuster"-type score. It's not a "pleasing" score. I wanted to write something provocative and dissonant, to see how far I could push the film, and in a way director Chris Nolan with it. ...
THR: And how did he respond?
Zimmer: He didn't hire me because he wanted things to be safe. We had a great evening in London where we were just talking story -- what these characters could be -- and the idea started to form in my head right there. I thought the most attractive thing about the Joker as a character is that at his core he is fearless. It makes him the most constant character in the story. He is totally consistent in his anarchy, and I thought that was an interesting thing to start with: a musical conversation about anarchy. And if we start with this, we needed to embrace the movie like this. We needed to work fearlessly.
THR: So that idea came from a conversation, not from the script itself?
Zimmer: It doesn't necessarily start with the script. If you ask Chris, sometimes it is the other way around; sometimes it starts with music. But for me the conversation with the director is always the way in, the start of the story.
THR: What was the process like with Ron Howard on "Frost/Nixon"?
Zimmer: The thing about Ron is, he's a great filmmaker -- but for me more than that, he's just an extraordinary human being. He cares deeply about the world. I don't know how to put it succinctly. Decency. That's a great word. If I had to find a way to describe Ron, that would be one of the words. And I love that. He's very collaborative and he's into my process. On "Frost/Nixon" we spent days talking before starting the shoot on the movie, the whole crew: musicians, (producer) Brian Grazer, (music supervisor) Kathy Nelson, the film editors and myself. These were supposed to be meetings about songs, but we ended up just talking story, or the staging and style of the scenes in the context of the songs. We ended up not using any of the songs, but they gave us a way of looking at the movie from a different point of view. Composers look at movies more in terms of rhythm, silences and tone -- large musical arches.
For me, "Frost/Nixon" was a tricky subject. You are dealing with men who, in effect, are not particularly likable characters. And the last thing you want to do is manipulate the audience into feeling sorry for Richard Nixon.
THR: It must have been difficult to write compelling music for a movie that is essentially about two men talking.
Zimmer: We were trying to figure out how to take this stage play and make it a movie without losing its integrity. Cinema by its very nature is not usually so dialogue-driven. But this was always a writer-actor piece. We wondered how we could open the story up and create space for music or silences. Plus, I have a different way of working these days: I start to write before they start the shoot.
The whole film scoring process has changed with technology. The way it used to be was that you waited for the locked picture. Once they delivered the cut to you, you wrote and you recorded it all, and it wasn't really until the scoring stage that the director had a chance to hear the true sound of his score. I always thought it would be much more interesting to start writing and give them music while they were shooting because it might help to keep a little more in sync with where things were going. And with the Avid, our process has changed. A director can spend far longer editing and refining the cut. Who am I to tell a director to stop having ideas and to give me a locked picture? On the other hand, my technology allows me to make fairly profound changes up to the very last moment as well. You never know when the good ideas come, but if I had to bet on it: always at the last moment. With "Frost/Nixon" we could still do drastic shifts in tone right until the very end.
THR: How have you evolved over the years as a composer?
Zimmer: I think the only thing that I got better at is disguising the look of panic in my eyes. I know that (standing) between me and figuring out the solution are lots of late nights and a lot of sweat. Roll up the sleeves and do the work, and an idea will present itself. Eventually.
The problem is, I know that the moments between not having an idea and having an idea -- now this is what has evolved from experience -- are going to be really shitty days. They are painful. The ideas aren't going to happen overnight. They usually take a long time of helplessly struggling with mounting panic. So that has never changed. And as I get more insecure, I think this all would be different had I gone to music or film school.
I truly regret not having formal training.
THR: No formal training at all?
Zimmer: I had two weeks of piano lessons. Let me tell you about my formal training: I apprenticed with a great film composer, Stanley Myers. I can't think of a better education than to hang out and work with really talented and knowledgeable people. I've done lectures about film composing at colleges and really all that happens is, you are in front of the class telling them how you solved a problem.
In an apprenticeship, when you are in a room with the people who are making the movie, the problem is still unsolved, and you are part of the process to get to the solution. And Stanley really threw me into that. So in a funny way that might not have been a strictly formal education, but it was a really good education. I did it for four or five years. It wasn't technically an apprenticeship because I got credit on the first film we did together. We did things like "Moonlighting" or "My Beautiful Laundrette."
The first movie I ever worked on was "Eureka" with Nick Roeg. I only got to do one or two little scenes, but the thing was, I got to work in the room with a great filmmaker, and I got to be part of their conversations. I had a big mouth; I would open my mouth with crazy ideas and get shot down. But at least I got to be a part of the conversation.
THR: What filmmakers from another era would you have liked to work with?
Zimmer: (Andrei) Tarkovsky would be my No. 1. Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. Sergio Leone. But on the other hand, I would never want to work with Leone because it would have taken away the pleasure of discovering what Ennio Morricone did. I think it's good to have heroes, and he's still one of my musical heroes. I think his work ethic is second to none; his craft is second to none; and the emotion that comes from his music is second to none. He can make things work with a good tune and very few forces in the orchestra. He is not a minimalist, and nor am I, (though) I like to go there sometimes. "Dark Knight" is minimalist: What can I do within one note as opposed to one note within the context of many? But "Kung Fu Panda" is not. "Gladiator" definitely is not. It is excessive romanticism meets rock 'n' roll.
Here is the thing that I figured out very quickly: If you don't form lots of different styles, you will get typecast in this town really quickly. You have to fight to let people know that you can do comedies and action stuff because it interests you. Look at what a versatile composer John Williams is. Look at (1977's) "Star Wars" and (1988's) "The Accidental Tourist." I mean, the only thing they have in common is that they are masterful scores and are appropriate. "Close Encounters (of the Third Kind)" (1977), I think, is one of the great symphonic tone poems of the 20th century.
THR: What characteristic or personality trait is essential for a film composer?
Zimmer: Candor. When you look at the person making the film, you have to really have a conversation with that person. You have to remember, it takes a long time before a project is finished. So after that initial conversation before the shoot, the next time you see the director, he's probably a beaten man after months and months of being in the trenches, battling insane questions. You have to remember that you are the guy that has to remind him why he chose to make this movie in the first place. Not only do you have to remember that, but you have to remember that what is on the screen right now isn't quite the same dream that you discussed. So you have to figure out a way of being candid without being offensive. I've added diplomacy (laughs). I have a big mouth, but I think they know that I do come from a place of loving the movie. I'm just trying to help make the best movie that we possibly can.
I read an article recently about what it takes to be a film or television composer. The composer described it as sitting there, rewriting a theme for the third or 32nd time for a children's television show that will be taken off the air after two episodes because it is so bad, and it's 4 in the morning and you get a phone call from an old friend saying, "We just signed a huge record deal and we've got to go and do a world tour, and it's going to be fantastic, and we'll stay in all the best hotels, and we've lost our keyboard player." And when you're asked if you want to go, you say without hesitation, "No, I am a film composer." It's not a hobby, you know? It's grueling work, and the work ethic is important. You must really want to do this. Not because the record business is bad or the band kicks you out. When I became a film composer it wasn't a hot thing to do. Now it is. But you had better truly love it.