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Christopher Nolan‘s epic Interstellar began with a mysterious letter the director sent composer Hans Zimmer, the latter told a gathering of students Oct. 15 at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television.
Without telling Zimmer that he was planning a futuristic science-fiction film — and without even telling him what the movie was about — Nolan sent Zimmer a letter typed (with a typewriter) on thick paper, outlining what he saw as the theme of his film and asking Zimmer to spend one day writing some musical ideas. Zimmer was hooked, even though he didn’t know what Nolan planned to do.
In one night, he wrote a four-minute piece with piano and organ. “I really just wrote about what it meant to be a father,” said Zimmer. “And [Nolan] came down and sat on my couch and I played it for him. He goes, ‘Well, I better make the movie now.’ And I’m going, what is the movie? And he starts describing this huge journey, this vast canvas of space and philosophy and science and all these things. And I’m going, ‘Hang on. I’ve written you this tiny little thing here.’ And he goes, ‘Yes, but I now know what the heart of the story is.’ So he was writing with this piece of music sort of keeping him company all the way through the writing process, all the way through the shoot.”
At the end of the filming of Interstellar, Nolan gave Zimmer a watch. “On the back it says, ‘This is no time for caution,’ ” said Zimmer.
In a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from his early days in the band that launched MTV to his work on Rain Man, The Lion King, Gladiator, 12 Years a Slave and The Dark Knight, Zimmer revealed his collaborative method and his view that computers are a musical instrument representing the technology of our time, just like the violin in Mozart’s time.
“I mean, a violin is nothing more than a piece of wood and a dead cat,” said Zimmer, who was a guest in the second season of The Hollywood Masters, the interview series moderated by The Hollywood Reporter‘s executive features editor Stephen Galloway. The series of 90-minute interviews, to be televised later, also will feature the Farrelly brothers (Nov. 5) and Hilary Swank (Nov. 12). Other guests this season have included Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Mann, James L. Brooks and Charles Roven.
Composers usually come in at the end of a film’s creation, but Zimmer said Interstellar sprang from the letter that Nolan typed up and sent to him two years ago, before he wrote the film. “I have a son. He’s 16,” said Zimmer. “He’s going to become a scientist. And [Nolan’s letter] was very much based on a conversation that Chris, his wife, Emma, and I had in London a few years earlier at Christmastime, where we were just talking about our kids, what it meant to be a father. This story, this fable, these bits of dialogue he wrote for me were full of personal information that he has about myself and my children.”
Zimmer says “the scariest thing” for him is to expose his heart in music, but the bond he formed with Nolan during nine years’ work with him dramatizing Batman gave him courage.
A full transcript of the interview follows.
GALLOWAY: I’m Stephen Galloway, and welcome to the Hollywood Masters, filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. Our guest today isn’t just a composer, he’s really defined a whole era in sound, and also the works of many great directors, Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan among them. He’s made major films from Rain Man to The Lion King, Gladiator, 12 Years a Slave, The Dark Knight, and of course very soon, what is I think maybe his magnum opus, Interstellar. I’m thrilled to welcome Hans Zimmer. [APPLAUSE]
ZIMMER: Hello. Or good morning. If you were a composer, it would be good morning.
GALLOWAY: I know, I heard you get up very late each day.
ZIMMER: Well, yeah. I get all my good ideas sort of at one o’ clock in the morning, and I tried for a while to behave like normal people. And I still would get my good idea at one o’clock in the morning and just be incredibly tired and not be able to execute it.
GALLOWAY: I’ve heard with Christopher Nolan that he likes to work at eight in the morning. You like to work at eight at night. That’s the problem.
ZIMMER: Well, there there are times when we get to meet. It’s actually really nice, because Chris comes over in the evening, and we have a comfy couch. And it’s much more casual that way. He did get me to go to a screening at eight o’ clock in the morning once, and I didn’t quite make it through the movie.
GALLOWAY: Do you dream of music?
ZIMMER: I have, rarely, and usually I can’t remember it. There’s one incident where I really did remember it, which was Dark Knight Rises. I dreamt that whole sort of insane Bane opus. And, so I wrote it out, and went to Warner Brothers and said you know, I had this idea, and I don’t know if it’s going to work. Have I earned the right yet to go to London and get a rather largish orchestra for a couple of days? And if it doesn’t work out, if I think it’s terrible, can we just sort of throw it in the bin, and you’re not going to say to me you just spent half the music budget? And they thought for a second, and they went, yeah, go on, do it. And it really turned out great. It was more about how to reinvent working with the orchestra, more than anything. Because you know usually you stand above them, and you talk to them, and you give them exact instructions, and this was — I just put myself, a table in front of them, so it was much more collegial, we were looking each other in the eyes. I had written it all out, and then I would go and say okay, so here are the notes, you’ve now learned them, now let’s see what we can do with them, and just start experimenting with them. And so the whole idea was, how can you jam with 100 people in the room? And it turned out just fine.
GALLOWAY: What’s your first memory of music?
ZIMMER: My mother took me to the opera, I was either two-and-a-half or three years old, in Zurich. I think these days, your mother wouldn’t be able to take you to an opera about a bordello — I saw the Seraglio, the Mozart opera.
GALLOWAY: Was it the bordello or the music?
ZIMMER: Well, maybe a little bit of both. But really I grew up in a house full of music, and a house that didn’t have a television. We had a piano, but no television. And really, I very quickly realized that this was, you know, there was magic there, there was magic to be had, you could lose yourself in it, it was a refuge, it was joy, it was all of those things. And you know I’ve never had a real job in my life. I didn’t learn anything, I was terrible at school. It was just this thing. Music was all I wanted to do. And I read a lot, so storytelling certainly became interesting, and then I mean you know, I did the usual, left school, joined a band. And thought it was actually really, sort of a bit tedious. I knew it wasn’t my life. This was the ’80s. And great filmmakers were making commercials then, so I started working in commercials, and I met this film composer, this amazing man, Stanley Myers. Who’d done the music for The Deer Hunter film, and super, super, super, super bright man. Had gone to Oxford when he was 16 to study philosophy, and disappointed them terribly when he decided he was going to do music instead, you know because they sort of thought of him as their Wittgenstein, and really what he wanted to do was, you know, I mean, look. To sum Stanley up, I remember us being in a taxi once, and he’s got The Times lying next to him with the crossword, he’s looking at it, and then he puts it down. We were on the way to the opera, and I’m going, “Oh, so you’re gonna do this on the plane then?” He goes, “No I just did it.” And, I went, “No.” And I tested him, yeah, he had done the whole thing in his head. So he became my mentor, really. Because, and it was very simple. He had an unbelievably complicated espresso machine that he couldn’t work. And I was into electronics, so my job was to make the espresso machine work, and in exchange he would explain the orchestra to me. And he was incredibly generous with letting me be part of things. So my first day on the job, other than making the espresso was a meeting with Nicolas Roeg on a film. So literally on a daily basis I would be involved and part of, and not say a word, at first [in] these incredibly intense film classes, because it wasn’t like a class. I mean there was a real time problem that needed to be solved. Here was a movie, how are we going to go? What’s the story we’re going to tell, how is this, you know, and the director and the composer sitting there going, I have no idea. And by the end of the meeting, you saw the possibility. The thing I learned is the possibility that, yes we can find an idea, we can find a solution. And constantly striving for something original, constantly striving on the precipice of the impossible always.
GALLOWAY: You were with him after The Deer Hunter, in ’78?
ZIMMER: Around that time, I mean one thing about Stanley was, because I didn’t have a proper musical education, it was two weeks of piano lessons, and that was it.
ZIMMER: Well, when I was six, my mother said she knew I loved music, and she knew I was making a noise on the piano. She said, do you want a piano teacher? To me, what that question meant was, somebody who could help me figure out how to get that stuff that was going on in my head into my fingers. Instead it was somebody who made me play other people’s music, and exercises, and I didn’t wanna play other people’s music. So, plus I think I was born with a healthy disdain of authority, which is not a good thing if you’re in Germany.
GALLOWAY: Does it help or hurt in Hollywood?
ZIMMER: Well, I’ve never really come up against it, You know I think about this a lot. I think about the horrible stories you hear about Hollywood, and I can honestly say, I haven’t really witnessed them, because I work with my colleagues. Collegial, and maybe the thing of having been in a band actually helps. I so noticed it just now on Interstellar, that people say, “Oh why do you write such good scores for Chris Nolan?” Well the answer is in the question, isn’t it? I mean, because it’s Chris and I. And when we get together, the ideas are just flowing, because, and again you know, there might be actually an advantage to not having had a proper musical education, because I’m not going to go and say the adagio, or whatever. You know, I’m not gonna use a lot of Italian in our language. So what we’re doing is we’re staying on story all the time. And we’re just trying to figure this thing out. Music is played, music is conversation in a funny way. There’s a great thing in a band when you have four musicians in the room. And we don’t even need to look at each other, and we just start playing. And magical things come out of it. And that’s a bit how I work with my directors. I mean Steve McQueen, you know, you can imagine that we had a vast budget on 12 Years a Slave because every studio’s just dying to make slave movies.
GALLOWAY: We’ll show a clip in a while, and it’s interesting that when they’re going down the river, you don’t see the ship, you see the paddles going.
GALLOWAY: Because there’s no money.
ZIMMER: Yeah. But with Steve, it literally was, Steve would be in the room. My three musicians and I would be in the room, and we’d just make music.
GALLOWAY: Do you play?
ZIMMER: Yeah. I play, not technically correct. But I’ve got great feel. I mean I can honestly say that.
GALLOWAY: What do you play?
ZIMMER: It depends on the mode I’m in. I, actually I’ll tell you what I play. I play the computer. No, look, don’t laugh about this. I mean all music is based in one way or the other, or influenced through the ages, on technology. I mean, a violin is nothing more than a piece of wood and a dead cat. But it’s a piece of technology. So when computers came along, in the ’70s, I suddenly thought, hang on a second, this is interesting. These things can become an instrument. So I just became very interested in them, and started, playing with electronics. I think it had something to do with that my father was an inventor and I came from a fairly technical [background]. So again, it’s the idea of play. My father had a think tank, which is very similar to having a band. And I could see their process. Process is important in what we do, and if we can keep a playful…there’s an adventure in, you know, in new technology. I keep making it adapt to things it wasn’t designed to do. And so yes, I play the computer. And I play guitar. But every time I play the guitar, it basically sounds like The Sex Pistols. And it was very interesting because I just did a series of concerts in London, and one of the very classical cellists was saying to me that, you know when I picked up the guitar and I started playing Dark Knight, he goes, “Oh, now I know what that music was really written before.” You know, I mean the whole of Dark Knight is basically a punk opus.
GALLOWAY: Didn’t you have razor blades playing on the strings for some part of that?
ZIMMER: Well where do you think I got them from? [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Sid and Nancy.
ZIMMER: Sid and Nancy.
ZIMMER: I know, exactly.
GALLOWAY: Do you know who we’re talking about?
ZIMMER: Yeah. It might be before your time. You can only make a good noise on the guitar if you’re committed. Little careful noise doesn’t work. You have to be bold. While I can be sensitive when I play the piano. And then there’s the computer. When I say I didn’t have a musical education, I put hours and hours and hours into actually figuring out how to [play that].
GALLOWAY: Did you learn how to write music?
ZIMMER: The honest truth is that it was just traumatizing with the piano, with the authority of the piano teacher, getting rapped across the knuckles, and so whenever you put a piece of music in front of me, there’s a Pavlovian reaction where it starts off. The eyes go weird, right? But I have a good memory. I have an ear. And I think one of the things which always is forgotten in music class, is the first thing you have to do as a musician is you have to learn how to listen. And I mean, I’m a geek and I’m a nerd, and I can listen into any piece of music. I think, I can usually tell you what orchestra it was, I can usually tell you what hall it was in. I can tell you, obviously who the conductor was, and who the composer was. And I can usually tell you what microphones they were using. And so, working with orchestras, which I do all the time obviously, I mean, my language is slightly different, yes I can actually read music, you know, enough. It’s just don’t ask me to go and perform it in real time. But me, I try to communicate with the musicians the way I communicate with the filmmakers. I’m not going to say to them, can we be a little bit more presto here. Hang on, this should be a bit more exciting, or I try to explain the scene to them, or I try to explain the context the notes are supposed to live in.
GALLOWAY: What were the early musical influences on you? Do you think of yourself as English, German, or American?
ZIMMER: I think about this frequently, I mean, I’m homeless, in a funny way. My culture I think is completely rooted in German 19th century music I suppose.
GALLOWAY: Who in particular?
ZIMMER: Let’s just go through all the composers with B. There’s Beethoven, Bach, Bartok, Beatles, Burt Bacharach, come on, we can just carry on, do you know what I mean? It’s like…
GALLOWAY: And you had a band called The Buggles.
ZIMMER: Oh yeah, The Buggles. But unfortunately not a B, Mozart. You know, just perfection. I just had a very interesting conversation actually, with Jean Michel Jarre, and a couple of other friends just being at my studio. And Jean-Michel Jarre was explaining, really where electronic music came from, and he said, and I think it’s very true, that in Europe, we were so influenced by American music, I mean The Rolling Stones took their name from a Muddy Waters song. So the blues was everywhere. And we continental Europeans wanted to find our language in a funny way, so most of the electronic music is, there’s much more classical harmony on your [music]. And I think that is just something that stuck. You know, stuck to my DNA. When I was 13, when I was 14, when I was in England, yeah all I wanted to do was go and see The Who, go and see The Stones. I saw David Bowie do Ziggy Stardust.
GALLOWAY: Were you working with Stanley Myers at the same time as you had the band, or did one come after the other?
ZIMMER: Well, we had no money. We weren’t as interested in making a song as we were in making a little movie. We had no budget, so I was working for Stanley during the day, and from 10 o’ clock ‘til nine AM, we would be allowed to use that studio time at the studio and work on the song. Which wasn’t an entirely healthy way of living. And so we finished this thing, and you know the only way you could have a success at the time was you had to get on Top of the Pops, which was this program on Thursday night, I’m sure you remember. And we had made this video.
GALLOWAY: Which was sort of like American Bandstand, but the guy who ran it…
ZIMMER: Do we really wanna go there?
GALLOWAY: I won’t.
ZIMMER: Okay. Look him up. But yeah, but we had to make this video, and in the video, a television blows up, so the BBC wouldn’t screen our video, because they thought it was sort of perverting the youth of the day. And so there we sat with our video, but we felt there was a time for us, even though everybody was saying no to us, we knew some, there was a shift. There was a shift going on. And lo and behold, something, this thing called MTV appeared. And their problem was, they didn’t have anything to show, so we were the first video on MTV.
GALLOWAY: Which was…
ZIMMER: “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
GALLOWAY: You can see Zimmer in that.
ZIMMER: Too much eyeliner. Sorry about that, yeah. It was the days.
GALLOWAY: How did you get to make your first film, World Apart, set in South Africa?
ZIMMER: Well, again, it’s very much to do with the times. Two things were going on. There was a new television station in England called Channel Four. And they needed material, and Stanley and I had these friends, Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe, who founded a company called Working Title Films. And Stanley he knew how to make movies. Tim and Sarah hadn’t actually done any movies. Chris had, he was the DP on The Mission, and Killing Fields, etc. I mean, amazing DP. But none of us really knew how to make films, actually before that, we did My Beautiful Laundrette. I think couldn’t have been made in any other times because Margaret Thatcher was in power. And you always need something to push up against. And My Beautiful Laundrette was very political. It really was pushing up against things. And then Sarah knew the Slovo family, Joseph Slovo, white, South African…
GALLOWAY: Anti apartheid.
ZIMMER: Anti apartheid movement. I met his daughter Shawn, who wrote, it’s the story of her family really, A World Apart. So everything was intensely personal, and intensely charged with emotion. The true story is her mother was killed by a letter bomb. That then the South African Secret Service was trying to say that the father had sent the mother this bomb when it really had been… So the emotional true charge within this family of us making this movie was really quite incredible.
GALLOWAY: Do you have that emotional charge today in your work still?
ZIMMER: The lack of education means, the lack of having something I can pull out of a drawer, means I have to find something in any movie I work on that is intensely personal. You know, it might be just something like a left hand corner of the screen, there’s something going on, something that nobody is saying elegantly in words or pictures, you know, I have to find my place in this movie. And most of the filmmakers that I work with, sort of know this, and know how to lead me there. So yes, there is. I’m pausing, because you know, 100 movies are going through my head at the moment where I’m literally thinking oh, this is actually about this, this is actually about that.
GALLOWAY: What was going through your mind with Rain Man? [CLIP PLAYS] [APPLAUSE] Were you nervous when you were given that job?
ZIMMER: I won’t tell you that, I can tell you everything about making movies that was wonderful. Well first of all, it’s method composing. There is a long fun story of how Barry found me in the middle of London, and…
GALLOWAY: I thought his wife found you.
ZIMMER: Actually yeah, all right. All right we’ll do the whole thing. Diana Levinson, Diana Levinson, I love saying that name. Because she went to see A World Apart, she loved A World Apart. And then she went to the record shop and bought him the CD. Now, she didn’t have to go to the record shop, but she felt compelled to buy Barry the CD and I asked Barry recently, “You ever seen A World Apart? He said, “No, I still haven’t seen it.” [LAUGHTER] But he like that music and he was in London promoting Good Morning, Vietnam and he didn’t have my phone number but he had my address and my studio was down some tiny little alleyway. It was 11 o’clock at night and there’s a knock on the door. I open the door, a guy standing there, going “Hello, my name’s Barry Levinson.” Pause. “I’m a Hollywood director.” I’m going yeah you and me both. [LAUGH] But I look behind him and there’re these two ginormous limos, wedged down this impossible alley, so I’m thinking maybe he’s telling the truth. So he comes in and we start talking and I show him how I work and he says would I like to come to Los Angeles and work on this movie Rain Man. Of course, I wanted to come and do this. And I went, “Yes.” Of course I was incredibly nervous. I’d never been to America. My whole idea was if I go to Los Angeles without a job I’ll just become a bad waiter. And so secretly of course I was always hoping that the call— in capital letters— would come. And there I was and so I got into this plane and came to Los Angeles and I was that character. I mean that is the scene. I mean this is me going, “Yeah, okay I’ll come to Los Angeles. Oh my God this is so different, this is so foreign, I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea.”
GALLOWAY: You were the Rain Man.
ZIMMER: I was Rain Man. I was Rain Man. And so because I didn’t know anybody I said to Barry, well, I don’t know anybody. Is it okay if I just set up my computers and my studio in your office and he goes, “Yeah, that’d be great.” So I wrote the whole score in Barry’s office while in the other office was Stu his editor cutting the film and so, you know, it sort of became my style as well. You know, to be there, you have the director there, you have the editor there and we make things together. You know that’s one of the huge great fabulous things about computers. And one of my things was, oh I’m in Hollywood. They got all the technology. They know what they’re doing. They’re gonna be so much more advanced than we’re gonna be in our little channel four productions. It isn’t that at all. Everybody was still writing on paper and then I mean there are the great composers like John Williams who can really play and you know they play the whole thing and go this is where the French horns come in. But the director never really got to hear the score until he was on the scoring stage with the orchestra sitting there. And my method was, I could go and make any sound and so in a funny way you know I was a little bit ahead of the game. It was very effective actually on Rain Man because the ending of Rain Man in the script it was a happy ending. You know, the two brothers would stay together. And Barry always said that’s unrealistic. You know you have to do the truth. There’s no way that the Tom Cruise character can look after his brother for the rest of his life. The brother will need to go back but we need to find some emotional balance here that it doesn’t become a complete downer. And literally the way we would work is like I’d write four bars, put them up against the picture, so we would find an emotional tone.
GALLOWAY: Where did the pipes come from because that’s so unexpected.
ZIMMER: One of our first conversations was it’s a road movie and road movies have a tradition of either being jangly guitars or strings, you know whatever. So we though let’s first of all take out everything that is the normal convention. And the second thing was because I was feeling, like Los Angeles, if you don’t know Los Angeles, if you come to Los Angeles for the first time it’s so foreign. It’s so a different place from anything that you’ve ever experienced.
GALLOWAY: You came in ‘88?
ZIMMER: End of 88. And I said to Barry look, the music we should have, it should be culturally non-specific. It could be music from Mars. It should just be foreign. I thought there was something longing in that sound as well. Something forlorn or something lonely. You know something sort of, you know, these little innocent pipes and amongst you know you’ve got cars, I mean you’ve got that whole Las Vegas sequence. And you know one of the things I love from Stanley is never make your music bigger than your characters.
GALLOWAY: That’s interesting because that guitar theme in the Deer Hunter… Have you all seen The Deer Hunter? If you haven’t…
ZIMMER: You haven’t lived. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: It’s such a great film. The guitar theme is so unexpected for a film set in Vietnam.
ZIMMER: Absolutely. But it’s so classical. In a funny way, you’re trying to frame the characters. You’re trying to put a new light onto them. And I don’t know if you noticed because you’re not really supposed to be completely aware of it, that it’s not the cutting that’s in time with the music but the sound of the wheels across the [road].
GALLOWAY: You can’t miss it and it’s fascinating. How close did you work with the sound mixer?
GALLOWAY: Was is the music or was it the sound mix that came first?
ZIMMER: The music came first and then I had to send it to Dustin who had to go and hum in the right key.
GALLOWAY: So you got the hum added after?
ZIMMER: Yes. Yes. Because that’s what we were trying to do. It’s not strange weird music, I think when we did it that was not film music. You know that was not what people were expecting from a Dustin Hoffman/Tom Cruise [movie].
GALLOWAY: In what way?
ZIMMER: Well it didn’t have string and jangly guitars. [LAUGH] It had this weird electronic soundscape. I mean the only person on the whole movie is me. And there’s something strange as well that happens about the singularity of one person playing every instrument. You know you just get this sort of laser sharp focus. You know you stick with the character like glue.
GALLOWAY: Was the character you were sticking with Tom Cruise or Dustin Hoffman?
ZIMMER: Well in this case very much Dustin. But you know I mean I think people don’t realize that the real achievement acting-wise is the Tom Cruise character, it’s a much much more complicated…
GALLOWAY: I totally agree.
ZIMMER: You know it’s a true tour de force.
GALLOWAY: On Frost/Nixon, did you sit down and look at the film and work out what that drama is?
ZIMMER: No, no, no, ugh. Actually no, no exactly the opposite. Ron and I, with Peter Long the writer, we spend two or three weeks before he started shooting, just sitting in my room. Ostensibly we were going to talk about the songs we were gonna put into of the period but it didn’t end up being that conversation at all. It ended up the conversation about how to translate from the stage onto the screen. And literally letting Ron and Peter look at their script you know in a different way. From a musical perspective. In other words, my rhythms are, my arcs are much larger than you know than reading a couple of sentences, etcetera.
GALLOWAY: What do you mean your arcs?
ZIMMER: Well because my musical arc can just be much longer. You know I am a counterpoint. I am a rhythm to this. And just the ideas of what the music could bring. You know could bring out in the close-up for instance, endless conversations about how the music could go and add, not a layer of drama but figure out a way of expanding out but then at the same time bringing is closer to you. And it was great because then dailies were starting to show up and you know there was that shot you know we had been talking about where I had this idea for how I could support it musically, etcetera. So that process needs to start before they start shooting, you know. Because we all need to go and make the same movie and if I can be of help just by for a couple of days or in this case two or three weeks, just letting them forget about schedule, letting them forget about the mechanics. Letting them forget about all of this. And just talk about the rhythm of things or the poetry that music can bring to things. I mean, Gladiator, you know the opening to Gladiator, that hand on the wheat, if that had been in the script that would be the first thing to be yanked because what are you going to do? Hand on wheat, I mean Gladiator used to be: title Gladiator and you’re in the battle. And I know Ridley well enough, I know that he’s a painter, he’s a poet. And I wanted to give him something that would say right at the beginning of the film, hang on, this is not the gladiator movie you expect but it’s going to be interesting. Come with us on this journey. And finding Lisa Gerrard and just having that, you know, just be still for a moment.
GALLOWAY: Did you suggest to him let’s start with a different shot?
ZIMMER: I said, we talked about it, we didn’t know what the shot was, we just knew we needed something. You know all I was saying was we can’t just go gladiator battle. Partly that came from the first time I talked to him about Gladiator was he phoned me really early in the morning knowing I’m vulnerable at that time.
GALLOWAY: So 10 am?
ZIMMER: Nine am. He was mean. [LAUGHTER] And he said, “Hey how ‘bout doing a gladiator movie?” And I just laughed. Men in skirts, that’s all I could [think], Monty Python. He goes, “No, no, it’s not going to be that Gladiator movie.” And we started talking and I got off the phone and my wife said, “Hey what did you and Rid talk about?” I said, “Oh we’re going to make a gladiator movie.” And she just went, “Oh you boys.” [LAUGHTER] And that moment I had the ambition, you know this was my ambition, that a woman would love this movie. That I would somehow figure out, would help Ridley to be poetic, because I know that’s what he wants to do. And so the shot to answer your question precisely, we talked about all this and then again the cutting room was in my studio. It’s a huge advantage you know when we all just are together collegially. And you know we come in one day and Pietro Scalia, the editor, says come have a look at this, and he just had found that shot in B-roll. It’s not really Russell’s hand. I mean that shot holds for a minute. There are no titles over it.
GALLOWAY: I want to talk about The Lion King for which you won an Oscar. Let’s take a look at a clip. [CLIP PLAYING]
GALLOWAY: Wow. [APPLAUSE]
ZIMMER: Thank you. I didn’t want to do The Lion King at all because the animation movies that Disney had done up to that point very much were fairy tale princess Broadway musicals and that’s just not my thing. As it turned out, the Broadway musical part seemed to have turned out all right. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Six billion dollars later. [LAUGHTER]
ZIMMER: Well, but I didn’t want to do it. But I had at the time a six year old daughter and so my my shallow reasoning was, I could never take my daughter to a premiere of any of my movies. You know Black Rain really wasn’t something for six year olds, so I was just wanted to show off. I just wanted to take my princess to the ball. And so I said okay I’ll do this. And then something happened which I didn’t expect to happen because I sat there in front of drawings of fuzzy animals and didn’t really know what to do with them. And I suddenly realized the story is about a child losing her father. And my father died when I was six years old and suddenly, and I never dealt with it, I never, you know, I didn’t know how to deal with and suddenly I was confronted with having to deal with it and so I really wrote a requiem for my father. And it’s interesting, I mean I haven’t heard that piece in a long time and you know what we were talking about earlier, about you know what is my [accent] in music? I mean it’s African choirs with Mozart in harmony.
GALLOWAY: But you almost recognize a touch from Beethoven’s Ninth in there.
ZIMMER: It wasn’t conscious. None of it was conscious. It was very on purpose unconscious other than that I had to write about myself. I had to you know I really, it became undeniably a very personal piece. And you know one of the things which I think is really interesting is that Hollywood allows you to do that. Hollywood allows you to go and express yourself. And look for these things and look and you know sometimes you know this wasn’t quite the music that had gone in the fairy tale princess movies before. And it was great how that whole team just sort of embraced…
GALLOWAY: Was there initial resistance to it?
ZIMMER: No quite the opposite actually. The opening to Lion King, which is that chant my friend Lebo…
GALLOWAY: Which also begins the Broadway…
ZIMMER: Everything, yes. It’s the sound of every cab in New York. You know you get into a cab and you know that. I mean the thing that I very consciously try to do and I very consciously try to do it in most movies is… We just talked about the opening to Gladiator. Is that you do something right at the beginning that says to the audience, “It’s not what you expect but it’s gonna be interesting. So please bear with. Come on this journey.” And the first thing I wanted to do was go, “Hey we ain’t in Kansas anymore.” And so having this really raw African voice and I remember the original brief first. It was going to be 20 seconds of music which had to go into a little bit of Circle of Life by Elton and the it was going a dialogue scene. And this first piece was, I don’t know, three, four minutes long. And then the directors and producers came down to hear it for the first time. I had completely forgotten about the brief, the 20 seconds and then dialogue and all that stuff. I just wrote, you know it was just like there was another, and here we can do this and duh-duh-duh, you know. I get excited when I sit in my studio. [LAUGHTER] And as we’re playing it I’m going wow, I forgot 20 seconds and then dialogue and all that stuff. And I finished playing it and they turned to each other in this sort of huddle and the huddle where they’re whispering to each other, of course meant to me, you’re fired. [LAUGHTER] And I sort of sheepishly went up to them and said so okay, look I can fix it or whatever you know. They go, “No, no, no, no, you don’t understand. This is really good. We need to go and change the story. We need to go and change the picture.” [LAUGHTER]
ZIMMER: And so yeah, there is no dialogue at the beginning, there is that shot you know with the you know it’s all done with music. It’s the original demo, I mean Lebo who sings this great chant, I mean I’d lost him. I’d said to him, come on, let’s do this movie together. He goes, “Sure” and disappeared. I couldn’t find him and he turned up 10 minutes before the directors turned up and I literally gave him a microphone. And if you listen to it that first note, just you can hear the compressors just like kicking in, and then you can hear me pull the fade up back a bit but that it’s a great performance. Though technically it’s flawed, who cares. And the lead vocal on Circle of Life is this wonderful session singer, Carmen Twillie. You know we never replaced it with a famous star or anything like this. It was just, you know, it was that was what it was and I’m not even sure if there’s orch-… I don’t think there’s even orchestra on it. I think it’s just me playing everything.
GALLOWAY: Did you try other things that you kicked out before you found hits?
ZIMMER: No. [LAUGHTER] No I just, well within the piece, I mean, within…
ZIMMER: No conceptually I knew, conceptually I knew I wanted the call, I wanted the song to be a response, and I wanted to end with this big drum that would cut you to black.
GALLOWAY: And I think you went to South Africa for this?
ZIMMER: Well because I had history in South Africa. I got you know, when I kept saying to them I don’t know how to do a Broadway musical, they kept saying, “We don’t want you to do Broadway Musical. We love A World Apart.” And this other movie I did, Power of One. Lion King was recorded two weeks before that general election where the ANC finally won. And so South Africa was, it was a civil war. And there was a meeting just before the recording sessions at Disney and you know, I get… [SIGH] I lose the reality when I write. I lose all sense of everything. It’s just all about the music, it’s all about the film. This is what my life is about. This meeting was about what would happen when I went to South Africa and I was either gonna get arrested or I was gonna get killed because by this point I had a police record down there because of [politics].
GALLOWAY: Because of A World Apart?
ZIMMER: Because of A World Apart and because of Power of One. Power of One where I had, very political film and I smuggled the tapes out and you know, so this meeting was where I was supposed to suggest other composers who would finish the score once I got killed. [LAUGHTER] And then finally, you know, Chris Montan, head of music at the time, said, “Look this is really simple. You’re not going.” And I was just appalled. I mean, what do you mean I’m not going? And of course he was right.
ZIMMER: So my friend Nick Glennie-Smith went in my stead and all I know is this [story] that came back was… There in the middle of this war zone was a studio. The choirs, the average age of the choir was sort of 14, 15. All young kids. And a lot of them, and they would come, they would come at 10 o’clock in the morning and then it would be eleven o’clock at night and they’d still be singing. Then it’d be midnight, because we were sanity. We were salvation. We were the on-… You know we were pitting beauty against violence and once they stopped singing they had to leave that place and go back into you know this dreadful environment. You know they had to go and face all these things and so Lion King, those sessions for those choirs, for those people, it was really important. And something actually very sweet happened after the film was done. It was very Cinema Paradiso, Disney sent the film to the townships, you know with a little truck, with a screen, and a projector and would show the movie to the people that had sung on the movie.
ZIMMER: It was great you know.
GALLOWAY: You’ve done what four films with Ridley?
ZIMMER: I don’t… Hang on let’s see… Because what’s really interesting about them is how different they are. Matchstick Men, Hannibal, Gladiator, Blackhawk Down, Black Rain, Thelma and Louise. And if you think about them, stylistically, they’re completely different from each other. And that’s sort of I think what we like about each other. Because we’re just looking again… You know we just stick to the story. You know. What’s the tone? What’s the tone? What are we trying to say, you know? I mean, obviously Gladiator would not quite fit into Thelma and Louise. Matchstick Men would… You know Blackhawk Down which was such a, you know, and the methods. Every time we would reinvent the method of work.
GALLOWAY: What’s that mean?
ZIMMER: Hannibal is incredibly composed. I mean everything is like you know just proper sit down write very properly. Blackhawk Down, I just, I wanted to do it like the way the movie was. So I got myself a band together and we just went into my studio, we didn’t even have a screen, we would just project the images up against the wall. We’d have Ridley sitting in a chair and we’d just go and you know I had these top musicians in a way, and we’d just be flailing away at the picture, I mean, you know with great energy. And whenever I felt the energy or the concentration flagging a bit, I’d get some of the Rangers, some of the soldier’s who’d actually fought in the real battle to come down. And just you know question and answer time. You know and get them, the real people, to tell us.
GALLOWAY: The real soldiers who’d been in Somalia?
ZIMMER: Yes and that battle in Mogadishu.
GALLOWAY: You do a lot of research.
ZIMMER: Well this was easy because I just phoned Rid and I’d just go, you know hang on, who are your advisors. And these young men, these soldiers, these incredible guys came down and told us what it was really like. And you know by the end of a story, you know, the whole sort of, you know there wasn’t any, you know, the casualness anymore in the playing. It was all you know, it all, you know, it had that.
GALLOWAY: With Gladiator I chose my favorite scene in the film. You know what it is.
ZIMMER: No, I don’t.
GALLOWAY: Well you’ll see.
GALLOWAY: Love the film. The way you captured the drum in this sequence.
ZIMMER: Let’s see if we both have a favorite. [OVERLAP]
GALLOWAY: Let’s watch it. [CLIP PLAYING] [APPLAUSE]
ZIMMER: Pretty good. Look, I’m just looking at this and I’m going John Mathieson, the D.P., was his first big movie, and I think he’s 29. I mean, one of the great things about Ridley is the way he just goes, “I’ll give you a shot. I’ll give you a chance.” You know, I mean this movie was such a, it was like this great train set we all got to play with. I mean there’s so many parts in it. You know it’s a really undisciplined score. There are actually 19… Rather than going you know and here are my three themes and I’m going to really go and develop them, there are 19, if I’m conservative, there are 19 big themes in this thing. But it was like, oh I know, they’re going from Germany to Spain, then we go to North Africa, then we go to Italy, or let’s go and around the world in 80 bars or something like this. [LAUGHTER] And I mean, this obviously, this whole sequence is you know, I went right back to my German roots. It’s you know we’re in full on Wagner mode you know here.
GALLOWAY: And Holst I suppose?
ZIMMER: You know the Holst thing is a weird thing. I never thought of it at the time. And it really isn’t Holst because it’s… That whole battle thing came from a strange conversation Ridley and I were having when I first just went to see him on the set. He was shooting you know where this is, Farnham, just South of London. It’s I think it’s November or December. It’s cold, it’s the middle of a wood. And as we’re driving along, we’re now leaving the road, we’re now in these woods. And we get to this encampment. And it’s the Roman encampment. It’s the battle that’s taking place behind us. And our meetings were in the set, I mean, the Marcus Aurelius’ tent. And I kept looking around and I keep seeing this beautiful marble bust, etcetera, and I’m going come on, Rid, you know, this is supposed to be a battlefield and you’ve got, you know, all this art in the tent, etcetera. He goes, no, no, no, Marcus Aurelius was at the German borders for six years. And of course the slaves would go and bring and we start having this conversation about that art. I mean, the great pieces of art that we treasure or the Coliseum or the Elgin marbles, you name it. Most of it is built on the blood of slaves or, you know, on other nations. And things which we now think are glorious and beautiful parts of our civilization are actually have very bloody histories. And I thought what I wanted to do for the battle was I wanted to find the most benign, casual, flippant form of music. And I thought Viennese waltzes. You know, it’s, you know, I mean, there’s nothing, you know, they’re cuddly and cute. And I thought let me go and use a Viennese waltz and just savage it up somehow. Just let me show the underside. Let me show the dark belly of it. So that was really where that sort of came from.
GALLOWAY: And how did you do that?
ZIMMER: [LAUGH] I have a dark side. [LAUGH] No, no, actually the whole, that whole thing, that whole sequence, it’s one of the few times where I was not writing on the computer. I just went for long walks. I wrote the whole thing in my head. I mean, it’s a…
GALLOWAY: You wrote the battle.
ZIMMER: The battle is a… It’s a sort of a crazy intellectual construct. You know and…
GALLOWAY: But how do you take the dark side of a waltz?
ZIMMER: Just shift the notes, yeah. It’s context. You know, a note is a note. A C is a C, you know, and plonk C, it doesn’t mean anything. But there is, you know, it’s how you frame it and how you, you know, dissonance. Dissonance is a fabulous thing, you know. Embrace dissonance. And it just, you know, the relentlessness of the dance, I mean, the battle can be seen as a dance. You know, these armies coming together and the way it would be constructed as well is where it starts, the shot starts very high up and as the battle progresses, you get more and more into the mud. You know, everything just sucks you down. So it’s like by the end of it, you’re, you know, it’s this breathlessness that a waltz has as well. It’s the, you know, there’s nothing left other than sweat and, you know.
GALLOWAY: When you look at that scene, how did you create the arc of the music?
ZIMMER: Well it, obviously, you know, the, you know, I knew what I was aiming for, which is the second turn, you know, my name is Gladiator, you know, etcetera.
GALLOWAY: So you knew the dramatic points you wanted to go for?
ZIMMER: Absolutely. And, you know, the interesting thing is Ridley doesn’t actually, most directors don’t actually tell me what to do. You know, you present it, music is indefensible. You know, I can’t talk you into liking something. And this is my first draft. I mean, it never changed. It was just always there. But, you know, I said Wagner, but, you know, I can say one other thing. I mean, I learned from truly the master. I mean, it’s very much a Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone type of the standoff, you know. It could be a Western.
GALLOWAY: When you said truly the master, I wondered if you were gonna say Morricone or Bernard Herrmann?
ZIMMER: I’m going to say Morricone. For me, he’s just, you know, we all have to have heroes. He has consistently been my hero since I saw my first movie. The first movie I ever saw was Once Upon a Time in the West. And it was literally I wanna do that.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever met him?
ZIMMER: Yes. Yeah, I actually had, no, I spent a remarkable afternoon with him in Bonn at the Beethoven house. The two of us looking at Beethoven’s manuscripts.
GALLOWAY: What was that conversation?
ZIMMER: First of all, Ennio would just go and look at them and sing them to me. You know, it’s just great. I mean, oh… You know, and so I know Ennio himself felt, you know, like he was now the pupil to these, you know, these gods. And then I felt like I was the, you know, the pupil’s assistant. I felt about this big, but this happy. I mean, it, no, we just, we spent this truly, you know, I mean, one of the, one of those memories I’ll have for the rest of my life.
GALLOWAY: Do you have a favorite score of his?
ZIMMER: Absolutely, Once Upon a Time in America. Which is so melancholic. It’s so nostalgic. It’s so, you know, there’s an… It’s so sure. It’s so sure of itself. It never needs to go be ostentatious. It never needs to get fast. There’s, you know, this is after all a gangster movie and there’s not a single fast piece of music in it. [LAUGH] You know, there’s no chase in it ever. There’s no action music. All it is and it’s one great tune after the other. Beautifully executed.
GALLOWAY: Do you have a favorite score of your own?
ZIMMER: No, not really. You know, in my hubris I still hope that I’m gonna write something where I can go that’s pretty good. [LAUGH] So…
GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at one that has sort of become a defining score of yours, and I want to talk about your collaboration with Chris Nolan.
ZIMMER: There are a lot of it. Okay. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at The Dark Knight clip.
[CLIP PLAYING] [LAUGH] [APPLAUSE]
ZIMMER: Thank you.
GALLOWAY: The sound mix is incredibly clear, are you involved with that?
ZIMMER: No, working with Chris [LAUGH] It’s funny you should show the scene because I love his lines at the end. I kept saying, Chris, you know, you’re burying it under the music. Turn the music down. He goes, no, like it, you know. [LAUGH] So we… Now I’m pausing. I mean, you have to realize the, this Batman trilogy is nine years of my life. You know there’s a, there’s either nothing to talk about or far too much [LAUGH] to talk about. And of course, you know, the so let’s stay specific, okay. This, the, this end scene, I mean, it is thrilling, right? You know, and one of the things I think which is people don’t really make that distinction enough as there are two types of directors. There’s the writer/director and there’s the director who works from other people’s material. And Chris being a writer/director, his scripts are so immaculate. I mean, they’re just, they read beautifully. You know, because very often you get a script which is, you know, the dialogue is really well written and then the rest is a bit like an Ikea instruction manual of how to put the shelves together. But with Chris, it all reads like a novel. And… You know, that’s usually where we start. With Chris, I will actually go and read the script and then we spend a lot of time talking before…
GALLOWAY: When you did the first Batman…?
ZIMMER: Well I did it with James Newton Howard as well.
GALLOWAY: Was it difficult not to introduce the heroic theme until very late, so was there opposition from the studio?
ZIMMER: [LAUGH] Oh I don’t, okay.
GALLOWAY: That means yes. [LAUGH]
ZIMMER: No, here’s what happened. It was I realized it’s an original story, so you’re basically not seeing a Batman movie until reel four. So again, this is this idea about you have to set something up right at the beginning. Grab the black before the logos even come. That’s your real estate to go and declare yourself. So I came up with this idea of the strides, sort of the stride flapping of wings sound. [MAKES NOISES] Which my friend, Mel Westin, who’s a great electronic musician made for us. And so the first thing you hear is that. And it sort of says, you know, yeah, you’re on the right track here. It is a Batman movie. And we would sort of occasionally remind people just with this one sound. I mean, this thing lasts a second. But if I could find something that was iconic and a shorthand, that by the time you get to reel four, I think it was reel four, where he finally does become Batman, I can start unleashing a little bit of something. And then there’s the sort of string motive, the [MAKES NOISES] But I kept throughout all of, you know, the whole arc of these three movies, I kept really tried to write about one thing only, which is only arrested development. It’s about a boy who sees his parents be killed in front of his own eyes. And blames himself for it. And at that moment, a part of him stops growing. He stops becoming an adult. And really the, I don’t actually know if people ever really got it. The third movie is so about Albert, you know, the Michael Caine character saying to Bruce Wayne throughout the movie, grow up. Stop the vigilantism. Stop with the silly car. Stop with the silly guns. What Gotham needs is your intellect, your intelligence, your scientific know how. That’s what the world needs. You need to grow up. You need to get out of this. And so that was really for me the arc of the character. And it really left me at the end of the day, I mean, that theme is… It’s heroic, but it’s not, you know, it never, I mean, the Gladiator one get, becomes far more exclamatory if you want.
GALLOWAY: Is this the theme that you wrote originally because I heard that you had written a heroic theme?
ZIMMER: Oh hello, yeah, so your answer, the other part of your question… Look this was Chris’ first go at some really big studio picture. So we had written the overtly heroic theme. You know, just to have in our back pocket. And [LAUGH] the idea was always that we were gonna go and record it with the orchestra and hopefully we were gonna go and time it just so that when all the executives were turning up in London to see what we were up to, we were in the middle of recording this glorious, heroic theme. [LAUGH] And somehow we completely got the timing wrong and I remember all the executives walking in right when I was doing the most horrific experiments with the orchestra. And I think it was so, it was such a shock that everybody sort of just went [LAUGH] And, you know, and nobody ever asked us for that big heroic theme. And Chris actually really liked that theme. And I kept thinking it was I don’t know, I just kept saying, no, I don’t think we should use it. And it took me a long time to persuade him. And I finally actually put it up and I said, okay, look at Christian’s eyes. Let me play the theme and look at his eyes. It’s not in his eyes. It’s not in this character. It’s not what he… And it’s, you know…
GALLOWAY: It’s extraordinary how you always bring it back to the character.
GALLOWAY: From Simba to this to the Rain Man.
ZIMMER: Well, you know, filmmaking’s actually really easy. It’s…
GALLOWAY: They all agree with you. [LAUGH]
ZIMMER: No. Here’s how it works. I’m being flippant, but just listen. [LAUGH] Just for a moment. Bear with me. Protect your star. In other words, protect your main character. Don’t make him wear something stupid. Don’t make him say something silly.
GALLOWAY: This is Penny Marshall‘s advice.
ZIMMER: This is a Penny Marshall, 3:00 AM in the morning advice and I still live by it. I think it’s brilliant. Because then you have to stay on story. You have to make sure the story is good. You have to just, you know, it’s you know what you’re focused on. Don’t get distracted by all the other stuff.
GALLOWAY: Do you doubt yourself?
ZIMMER: [LAUGH] No, hang on. I, there are days where I doubt myself doubting myself. Those are the good days. [LAUGH] The rest of the time it’s just sheer mayhem, panic, neurosis, paranoia, everything. [LAUGH] No, I mean, oh God, I mean, how often am I on the phone to Chris? You know, here I am, you know, Mr. Technology with this beautiful studio and I’m playing something to Chris over the phone going, I don’t know, is it any good? Do you think I should just junk it [LAUGH] or do you mean? Or… The main thing that a director can do for the composer is or no, the main thing the composer needs to do is it needs to remember that the director is there to cheer you on. The director wants you to succeed because if you succeed, you’ll be helping the film. And they are truly your conscience. And they’re truly your guide. And it’s okay to and this is another thing I learned from Penny. It’s okay to say, I have no idea what to do. I mean, I’m lost.
GALLOWAY: I would like to know what you said to him when he approached you with a letter to work on his new film, which we’re gonna show a clip of now.
ZIMMER: Oh yeah.
GALLOWAY: When the lights come up, you can get ready for your questions, let’s watch the clip from Interstellar or actually the trailer because Paramount wouldn’t give us a clip. [LAUGH] [CLIP PLAYING] [APPLAUSE]
ZIMMER: You know that’s not my music. That because we okay. We didn’t even want to put any, you know, we don’t like giving things away. Basically all I can say is you ain’t seen nothing yet. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Well I have seen it.
ZIMMER: Okay, well then you have.
GALLOWAY: Especially in the last part of the film, the emotion and the largeness that you convey in the music is really extraordinary.
ZIMMER: This is a friend of mine, Thomas Bergersen, a really great composer. But the reason we didn’t want to use any of the music in the film, in the trailers was because we just wanted you to see it for the first time the way you saw it. I mean, as a completed thing. The other thing which I think might irk people, it’s, I mean, it certainly took a little bit of persuading with the studio was I didn’t want to release the, you know, the normal thing is you release the soundtrack two weeks beforehand. And I just didn’t want people to hear, to get the first impression away from the picture on their little ear buds or their computers. I mean, so the first time you can, you heard the score for the first time the way it was supposed to be heard, which is in the movie as part of the film.
GALLOWAY: So let’s go back to the beginning of this film.
ZIMMER: All right, this is the opposite, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Because it begins with the letter.
ZIMMER: So about two years ago, Chris, I don’t know, I ran into him, he goes, if I were to write you one page, would you give me one day and just write whatever comes to you? And I’m going sure, it sounds interesting. So this, so he gives me this letter and it’s, let me be very specific about it. It’s quite thick paper and it’s typewritten, not computer. It’s, you know, proper typewriter, old fashioned way and the thick…
GALLOWAY: He writes on a typewriter?
ZIMMER: Yeah. This, certainly this piece was written on a typewriter.
GALLOWAY: By him, not dictated.
ZIMMER: By him. Not, oh no, not dictated. And the thick paper meant I knew there was no carbon copy. This is the only one. Right?
GALLOWAY: Oh wow.
ZIMMER: And really it was a fable and it was a, but it was a fable which gave nothing away.
GALLOWAY: The letter says Dear Zimmer.
ZIMMER: Dear Zimmer, here is the fable. And I’m not even gonna go and tell you the whole fable. But really the crux of the matter is I have a son, he’s 16 years old and he was 14 at the time. Chris knows him very well. I know he’s going to become a scientist. And the fable was very much based on a conversation that Chris, his wife Emma and I had in London a few years earlier at Christmastime where we were just talking about our kids. What it meant to be a father. You know, London shuts down when it snows. No cabs, nothing. It’s like Chris and I sitting there going how are we gonna get home, Emma? And she’s going well, come on, guys, out into the street. Out into the snow. We had a snowball fight at 1:00 AM in the morning [LAUGH] at Picadilly Circus. So this story, this fable, these bits of dialogue he wrote for me were full of personal information that he has about myself and my children. And I wrote the thing about 9:00 PM in the evening and finished it. So this is this tiny piece, just a little bit of piano and a little bit of organ. And it really, you know, I really just wrote about what it meant to be a father. And phoned Chris and said, I’ve written it. Do you want me to send it over? And he says, can I come down and have a quick listen? And a little excited here. And he came down and sat on my couch and I played it for him. It’s what, about four minutes long. I get to the end of it, I’m going what, well what do you think? He goes well I better make the movie now. [LAUGH] And I’m going, what is the movie? [LAUGH] And he starts describing this huge journey, this vast canvas of space and philosophy and science and all these things. And I’m going, hang on. I’ve written you this tiny little thing here. And he goes yes, but I now know what the heart of the story is. And so he took that and the thing I didn’t know at the time was he hadn’t really started writing the film. [LAUGH] But by him saying, hang on, I’m giving you this, he actually, it forced him, you know, to get into the process. So he was writing with this piece of music sort of keeping him company all the way through the writing process, all the way through the shoot. And so yes, it, you know, it again, you know, what was I writing for? I was writing for a very, very personal point of view. Which at the end of the day, I mean, isn’t that what it’s all about? You know, it’s when we sit here and we talk, you don’t really get to know me. If I play you a piece of music, that’s when you can truly look inside me, you know. And that’s the scariest, the scariest time for me. That’s why I have to have these relationships with directors whereby, you know, talking about nine years working on Batman, it does create these families. You know, and it creates a bond, you know. And Chris is very, very good at making me, you know, truly write from my heart and let him see it, because, you know, I mean, the worst thing that can happen with is somebody says oh no, it doesn’t move me. Because that means you don’t move. You know, you’re, you know, you’re who you are, it’s not…
GALLOWAY: At the very end of the film, he gave you a watch.
ZIMMER: Oh that one.
GALLOWAY: Oh that’s the watch?
GALLOWAY: And on the back it says what?
ZIMMER: On the back it says, this is no time for caution. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Let’s take the first question.
Q: I’m a film production major. And my question for you, Mr. Zimmer, is you have these characters like the Joker and Bane in Dark Knight movies and I guess really how do you kind of create the sound for those characters? ‘Cause they’re so specific, the Joker’s very eerie and the tone for Bane’s very loud and outgoing. And how do you work with the actors, the director? Do you look at the screenplay before? Like how do you get an idea for how like the theme for these characters is gonna sound?
ZIMMER: Well the Joker was really about anarchy. The Joker is the only honest character in the movie as well. He will always tell you the truth. And I thought that was actually really interesting. And I thought there was a Punk quality about him. So there’s a Punk quality and at the same time, there is without a shadow of a doubt a Francis Bacon quality about him, because [LAUGH] I had this really bad Xerox copy of a Francis Bacon Pope glued to my computer screen. And Chris one day going oh that’s interesting. Can I have a look at that? Can I have that? And the, but the main thing about the Joker for me was I wanted to do something very quiet so that you’d have to inevitably lean into the screen a bit. You know, I wanted to do that come hither, you know, really listen to my words. And I just, you know, the rest is, I mean, the whole of that score is or that character is really just two notes. And I just wanted to see how far I could take two notes. And it’s a C and D and on the piano, they are right next to each other. But sonically, you know, they couldn’t be any further apart. And they couldn’t be more of a clash. And I just wanted to see, you know, if I had the courage or if Chris had the courage that we could pull this through. I mean, okay, we talk, you know, we talked earlier about playing something to studio executives. So this is, you know, their big summer Batman movie. And imagine I would have turned up at a meeting with executives and when this is what I’m doing. This really quiet noise, razorblades on a cello, etcetera. I mean, this is the theme for your hero. I don’t think that, you know, that’s why you need a director. You need to be within, you need to be part of the whole thing. And you need to have a director where you go, you know, Chris, I’m going to do this really rather extraordinary awful noise. And actually, I mean, the thing is I did all these experiments, endless experiments of, you know, the noise was normal awful and Chris was going to Hong Kong to shoot a scene, so I bought him an iPod and I put this thing on there. And he very nicely listened through everything and he said it didn’t make him a better human being. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: I think after Heath Ledger died you’d actually thought of throwing that out all together.
ZIMMER: Yeah, I had this, you know, no, because I had that normal human reaction, which is oh my God, you know, we lost a member of our family. And, you know, and now I was going, no, I want to go and show him, you know, show the, because the performance is beautiful. It really is. I mean, it’s beautiful. It’s so… It’s, you know, the just the courage he showed. And you automatically, you know, somebody dies, you think you now need to go and do something a bit more proper and a bit more of regular.
GALLOWAY: And who told you not to, Chris?
ZIMMER: I told myself not to. I suddenly went, hang on, because of this is the performance he gave. If I back away from that, I will betray exactly the work that he did, you know. So I did it.
GALLOWAY: Next question please.
Q: On some of your recent films you’ve done, you’ve been collaborating with outside people like Johnny Marr and Pharrell and so that’s not really from, like a from a very different type of music. What’s that like in your creative process? Like how is it different or the same or what’s that kind of like?
ZIMMER: Well, I mean, you’re being like specifically Spider-Man. I just kept thinking… That’s, you know, he listens to pop music, you know. It’s like he doesn’t need a big Gothic something or the other like Batman. And I talked to Pharrell about it, who’s just a, you know, he’s a friend. And I think he’s incredibly talented. And I said, hey, how about doing a movie, you know how about doing Spider-Man together? And he loved the idea. And then I was in London. I was gonna have this really quick lunch with Johnny. He said, so what are you up to? And I’m going to go do Spider-Man. And he goes, oh that’s my favorite character. [LAUGH] And this lunch which started at noon and was going to be really short, at 4 PM, we’re still sitting there singing riffs across the table [LAUGH] at each other. And the waiter’s are sort of going can these guys leave please? [LAUGH] And so we literally decided we just gonna go get into a room with the director, nothing written, and just spent three days to see what we would come up with. And treat it like a band thing. And just have a lot of, I mean, seriously it was a tremendous amount of fun, because what happens is when you have those people in the room, like the ego kicks in in just the right way. You know, if there’s a hole for an idea, everybody wants to go and fill it. And everybody’s pretty good at filling it. So you better come up with the best idea. So everybody’s working at a certain level. I mean, the, we wrote the theme for the Electro character and it was literally just bang, bang, bang, bang, it was just pouring out of us. Until, you know, Pharrell finally went so stop, stop, stop, my head is exploding. I need to walk around the block. And he did a walk around the block [LAUGH] and came back. And literally pages of lyrics. You know, and actually, you know, it became a sort of it’s not how you score a movie. I mean, you don’t score a movie with certainly having a song score illuminating the inside of a character. But it really worked. I mean, it, you know, it made a huge difference to that scene.
GALLOWAY: Let’s have the next question please.
Q: What environment is most conducive for you in your creative work?
ZIMMER: Good question. Because for instance, Interstellar, because it takes place so much of it takes place with people in complete isolation. I actually last year, last summer I sort of, I have an apartment in London. And I just locked myself away and didn’t see anybody for a month. I just lived that hermit life, you know. And then Hannibal, you know, shooting in Florence, God, that was really tough being there [LAUGH] and it was, you know…
GALLOWAY: For Interstellar, you locked yourself away and do you follow regular hours?
ZIMMER: No, I [LAUGH] Okay, let’s just get one thing straight, I don’t work. You know, music, the operative word is play. You know, and I, you know, my, I have an idea. And another idea. And another idea. And, you know, I’m, if you ask, you know, if you ask me to come for dinner at 7:00 PM, I’m going to go great, I’ll be there. And at 10 to 7:00 PM, I’m gonna say to you, I’m gonna be 10 minutes late. And then the next time I look at my watch, it’s 1:00 AM in the morning and I didn’t even notice. And you’re gonna be really pissed off with me. [LAUGH] But it just…
GALLOWAY: You have created an interesting environment though where you have your studio which is like a whole block in Santa Monica.
GALLOWAY: And other composers there.
ZIMMER: Well that’s because it’s so… First of all, it’s inspiring to be around other artists. Secondly, it’s really nice to walk down the hallway when you really feel you have no idea of how to solve something. And you’re at your absolutely lowest point and then somebody else is walking towards you with that same look of desperation [LAUGH] on their face. And I’m going I know he’s really good and he knows how to… And just that exchange. I mean, you know, I mean, it’s like I remember and the other flipside is, you know, I can’t remember what movie it was on, but I had written something and I was sort of quite proud of it. And Harry Gregson-Williams was walking by, I said, oh Harry, can I play you something? And, you know, I played it to him and he goes, oh Zimmer, it’s not worthy of you. I, you know, and so it’s good having, you know, checks and balances.
GALLOWAY: Next question please.
Q: You state in interviews that you’ve like studied the Fibonacci sequence for before The Da Vinci Code or read about Escher before Inception and this fable for Interstellar, and I’m wondering how text and concepts kind of influence your film scores when composer traditionally are writing for picture.
GALLOWAY: That’s a great question, because I know that the book, Escher, Godel, Bach was a big influence on you.
ZIMMER: Yeah. Big influence. And, well, you know, I don’t see this as a job. Or as a career even. I see this, this is my life. And what these films allow me to do is to go and start learning something. I mean, Inception was so about suddenly discovering the English mathematician Roger Penrose. And just going on that whole journey. And it’s… One of the reasons I needed to leave the band and get into film was because if you’re in a band, the best conversation you’re ever gonna have is probably about what new guitar the guitarist is gonna buy or whatever. When you’re working with filmmakers, you know, and like with Ridley Scott, you suddenly being introduced to paintings. You are suddenly being introduced to literature you that you hadn’t read. I mean, so… It’s not research I do. I just throw myself into this world and I try to absorb as much of this world as possible. I try to become the movie. It’s the…
GALLOWAY: What did Chris Nolan introduce you to for Interstellar?
ZIMMER: Roger Penrose. You know, the, I knew the connection between Escher and Penrose. Weirdly, you know, I suppose it’s the sort of general background, you know. I mean, I was very, you know, I was very familiar with Jung and the whole dream idea, etcetera. So this was a very, and it was just great for me to be able to go back to this. You know, and…
GALLOWAY: Did he give you a book or a…?
ZIMMER: No, we just, you know, weirdly we seem to have similar tastes. We give each other, actually it’s true, we do give each other books. We, you know.
ZIMMER: My God, I just gave him something. No, I just gave him a whole thing on… Austria turn of the century Vienna, Freud, Kleine, Schiller, you know. Nothing really related, but, you know, there’s a subtext in there. There’s a subtext of the unconscious. And…
GALLOWAY: You gave…
ZIMMER: Interstellar for instance, oh the other thing, you know, both Chris and I talked about a lot was when we were growing up, do you remember those Time Life books? You know that and they did a whole thing about space. And I just remember as a kid sitting on the floor, you know, looking at these amazing photos from NASA, et cetera. So, you know, we were doing that again. You know, as opposed to being on the Internet, there’s something really nice about reading a book or talking to authors. I mean… You know, Interstellar, I got to go talk to a lot of scientists. So it’s great who you get to meet.
GALLOWAY: One last question please.
Q: I wanted to ask you what your experience was like taking Klaus Badelt‘s original score for the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and adapting that for all the sequels and what it was like trying to take an original piece from someone else and make it your own or what you were gonna keep the same.
GALLOWAY: Well I think for Pirates had you wrote…?
ZIMMER: It was actually my piece.
GALLOWAY: You wrote it in six hours or something.
ZIMMER: Corrected. Yeah, it was actually all the themes were mine. [LAUGH] But… Sometimes life gets a little complicated. [LAUGH] And that’s not, and let me not take away from Klaus in any way. I had written these tunes and sort of set the tone of it. But there was at first no way I could go and actually do the movie because I was supposed to be doing another movie. And it really Gore had, Gore was a friend. He’d come…
GALLOWAY: Gore Verbinski.
ZIMMER: Yeah, Gore Verbinski, he’d come at, I mean, you know, he came at five minutes to midnight basically going, I need a bit of help here. So… All I remember is I went home 7:00, started writing and there’s this piece and you can sort of find it. It sort of seems to float around the Internet the way everything does. And you can, the beginning is, you know, I’m trying to figure out a theme and it’s sort of a bit all over the place. And then suddenly ooh, there’s a theme. And then there’s another motif and another motif and they just keep coming, one after the other. And then comes a point where you can see, you can hear my fingers are tired. But I still have ideas. And the playing is getting sloppier and sloppier. And like the percussion stops in the middle of a phrase. And by the end of it, it’s like I still got ideas, but I can’t play them anymore. [LAUGH] And that was about 5:30 AM in the morning and that became the basis. You see, I didn’t know we were gonna do a trilogy. [LAUGH] Or it’s not, it’s more than a trilogy. It’s four whatever. [LAUGH]
GALLOWAY: Yeah. Are you going to work on number five too?
ZIMMER: No, absolutely, categorically thank you, my pirate life is done. [LAUGH] But no, because these, this one night’s, you know, burst of energy had to carry us across the Seven Seas for four movies, you know. Not that I regret it, but it was somewhat reckless, but I think it was in the spirit of the whole pirate venture.
GALLOWAY: Well thank you, it’s a wonderful interview. On behalf of Loyola Marymount University, thank you, Hans Zimmer, for taking part in the Hollywood Masters. [APPLAUSE] Thank you.
ZIMMER: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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