Hans Zimmer and David Fleming on Scoring 'Hillbilly Elegy' Under Lockdown (and After Zimmer Caught COVID-19)

Hillbilly Elegy
Courtesy of Netflix

"We wanted to avoid cliché," says Zimmer about the music to Ron Howard's look at American poverty and Appalachian culture, starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams. "This wasn't going to be 'Deliverance.'"

When Hans Zimmer signed up to compose the score to Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy, he probably thought he knew what to expect.

It was the pair's ninth project together, following successful collaborations on the likes of Backdraft, Frost/Nixon, and The Da Vinci Code. David Fleming, who previously collaborated with Zimmer on the music to Blue Planet II, The Lion King, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 and Top Gun: Maverick, had come onboard Hillbilly Elegy as co-composer.

But just as Howard was wrapping production on the film — an adaptation of J.D. Vance's best-selling autobiography starring Gabriel Basso as Vance, Amy Adams as his drug-addicted mother Bev, and Glenn Close as his grandmother Mamaw — the pandemic hit. Then, Zimmer himself caught COVID-19. "I got sick as a dog and the heavy lifting really fell more and more to Dave," he recalls. "But this wasn't a problem because Dave will never let you down."

And he didn't. While some critics have savaged Howard's film — a look at Vance's escape from the endemic poverty of his Appalachian family to Yale law school — as overwrought and melodramatic, the music is more subtle. Instead of reaching for hillbilly clichés — no banjos here — Fleming and Zimmer went for a more stripped back score. Vance's heroic journey is accompanied by the strings of British violinist Ben Powell and, giving it the needed grit, the inimitable slide guitar of Grammy-winner Derek Trucks.

As part of Netflix's week-long Playlist series, Fleming and Zimmer sat down, via Zoom, to talk to The Hollywood Reporter's European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough about the challenges of telling Vance's story, how Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back became a musical touchstone for the film and the (few) positives of scoring a movie during a pandemic.

David, you and Hans have worked on several film scores together but for the first time here as co-composers. How did that come about?

David Fleming: Well, I think Hans would have his own answers for that. But for me, it was somewhere between being invited and just kind of pushing my way into it. I just really wanted to work on this film and work with Ron. I mean, ever since I had been around [Hans Zimmer's production company] Remote Control since I've been working with Hans, everyone was always saying: 'you have to work on a Ron Howard film. He's so fantastic.' And, obviously, he makes fantastic films. Working with these two guys was just an amazing experience. Even back at the early conceptual phase when we're really trying to figure out what this is going to be. So much of it happened in those early meetings with Ron, just throwing big ideas back and forth.

Hans Zimmer: The way it works with Ron is always when he's working on something else. He pops by and he starts talking about maybe this project, maybe this other project. Then it's: 'oh did you read this book?' And slowly we're in this conversation. [With Hillbilly Elegy] the big question was what's our side of the story, what do we want to show? I think I have the habit, and Dave has this too, of questioning everything all the time. So there were automatically musical cliches in a story like this, and those are all the things we didn't want to do. Because this [Appalachian] culture is greatly misunderstood. I mean, I might as well come out and say it: I think [director] John Boorman did this culture no favors with Deliverance. Right. So this was not going to be Deliverance. Not with Ron, who has consistently been interested in the idea of showing humanity at its truest. To explore what does it mean to be a human living in extreme and extraordinary circumstances.

So I think that's why we started by playing the most inappropriate music. I remember we had an album of Peter Gabriel's, which was all just orchestra and Peter's voice. And I thought: 'oh, that would be nice. That would be interesting.'

Fleming: That Peter Gabriel album, Scratch My Back, kind of became a touchstone. There were a lot of conversations early on in those meetings with Ron about, as Hans mentioned, Deliverance and wanting to not make a caricature out of this culture. I know Ron was concerned: 'do we use banjo? How deep do we want to go into this'? And Hans brought up that Peter Gabriel album. I think because there's something really universal about it. I think specifically, it was his orchestral cover of [David Bowie's] Heroes.

Zimmer: A great track! And what could be more Appalachian? (Laughs)

Fleming: But in a way, it cut through the specifics about the culture of the book. Because although so much of the conflict and the struggles J.D. Vance's family goes through are rooted in something regional, it could be any family. It could be the struggle of anyone anywhere. So the score became less about being literal with that regional musical culture, because it is so rich and so deep, and more about coming into this family's story and making it into something, I think "emotionally epic" was the term that was used. That became our North Star.

And how did that express itself instrumentation-wise?

Zimmer: That's where we had the one good side of the pandemic. With the lockdown, I knew that my favorite blues guitarist in the world, Derek Trucks, was probably not going to be touring. I'd never met the man in my life. But it's been my ambition to hear a note of Derek Trucks' on something of mine. And it just turned out that he was available.

Fleming: You called me on a Saturday night and it was like the darkest weekend because everything had just locked down and we were like: 'oh, how the hell are we going to do this?' And then to have an idea like that. Like: let's bring Derek Trucks on.

Zimmer: The experience of the lockdown might have influenced the tone of the score. Because we suddenly saw a world crisis unfolding in front of our eyes while we were trying to make a movie about a part of the world that is constantly in crisis. ...What became most important was to translate the real emotion of this story and to stay on the right side of the emotion as opposed to the wrong side, which is sentimentality.

Is there a particular piece of music that stands out for you in terms of its impact on the emotion of the film?

Fleming: This movie is performance-driven, especially with Glenn [Close] and Amy [Adams], we wanted to stay out of their way. There's a scene, close to the end of the film, where Glenn Close, as Mamaw, is talking to J.D. in the car. There was a lot of discussion about what should we play over this? And I think both Hans and I were like: 'no. Let's not touch it. It's so beautiful the way they are.' But the scene with music I'd pick out is when Mamaw realizes that she has to take responsibility for J.D. and she gets out of the hospital, just takes all of the IVs out of her arm and she's sort of marching down the hall. For both of us, this scene was just a visualization of the grit of these people, of their driving force. Because when she's marching, it almost has a rhythm to it, a drive.

I think unlocking that was a big deal for unlocking a lot of the score because, you know, whatever the circumstances that they're in, there is this drive forward. The music that ended up being used on that hospital scene was used to highlight a lot of these moments where they're making some change in their life or some transformational step.

Zimmer: I agree with Jeff. This is a film where, it's not like I get confused, but it's a movie where I hear the silence as music and sometimes I hear the music of silence. The more the performances become true, the more I try to hear that silence. Not to make the music invisible, but make the music absolutely seep into the pulse of our characters and become part of them. I mean, we had our Derek Trucks, we had this great guitar, but this is not a film where you can show off.

I think there's something wonderful about the way Ron approaches things, because he approaches his stories with a truly open heart and huge respect for humanity and huge care and huge concerns with the forgotten, with the marginalized. And to be invited to go along and shine a tiny little spotlight on these people who need it the most ...well, I loved that.