Hans Zimmer on Capturing the Intensity of 'Dunkirk' in a 90-Minute Score

Courtesy of Masterclass
Hans Zimmer

"I'd be in the studio all day writing, I'd go home, fall asleep and dream about it," says the 11-time Oscar nominee of scoring Christopher Nolan's World War II epic.

From the opening clicks of Christopher Nolan's watch, Dunkirk's score tells its audience that time is of the essence. For his sixth collaboration with Nolan, German composer Hans Zimmer also felt the pressure of time, scrambling to create a score that matched the intensity of Nolan's World War II epic.

Zimmer, 60, who won an Oscar for The Lion King in 1995, spoke with THR about earning his 11th nomination, Blade Runner 2049's score snub and why he can't quite get Dunkirk out of his head.

Have you seen Darkest Hour, and do you feel that the films complement each other?

Not only do they complement each other, I think it's an extraordinary bit of zeitgeist. To Europeans, Dunkirk [the World War II siege where Allied soldiers were surrounded on the beach by the German army] was a huge event, and we all know about it, but the rest of the world doesn't seem to know that much regarding those events. Now we have two films made about it, which are the flip sides of a coin.

What was your reaction to your other score, for Blade Runner 2049, not receiving a nomination in that category?

When you work on a film, you never think about the awards. Dunkirk was all-consuming; it was a very particular project that is as much Chris Nolan's score as it is mine. There was an idea that we've been working toward ever since Batman Begins: How will we truly merge the images and the sound into one experience? We managed to do that on this film.

On the anniversary of Dunkirk, you visited the beach where they were filming. You said that sadness was everywhere.

Yes. I'm looking at it as we speak: I got a jar of the sand and kept it next to me throughout. I can't quite let it go. Does that makes sense? It's so rare that you actually cross into reality on these movies — actually being there on the day and feeling what it must have felt like. Actually being able to grab a handful of sand and say, "OK, this is what I'm going to write from — this feeling."

Was this before you'd written anything, or were you deep into the scoring process?

Oh no, this was long before I'd written anything. I had an idea, but as usual, it changed.

You recorded a symphonic score early on for Dunkirk, which you called a huge mistake. Did any cues or ideas survive from those recording sessions?

It was devastating to go to London to record an orchestral score and put it up against picture only to realize that it's not working. By then, we were running out of time. The mechanics of time were excruciating. The lack of sleep in particular. Dunkirk was one of those movies where I'd be in the studio all day writing, I'd go home, fall asleep and dream about it. It never left me. Sometimes it takes me a while to recognize my mistakes. Once I do, well, there's a huge garbage bin here in the studio, and they just get thrown in, never to appear again.

The music opens with the sound of Nolan's watch. Besides his fascination with time, was there any other reason for choosing it?

In a peculiar way, we never talked about it because we've been playing with the concept of time in all the movies that we've done together. It was quite a challenge to do something very simple and be overt about it. We don't try to hide it — we're telling you that this movie is about time. We declared it on the first frame, so now we have to decide how to make that interesting. That is where it became complicated.

As you wrote the score, you stated you argued with Nolan like only brothers could. How so?

This is where Dunkirk was very different from any film that I've worked on and I think any movie that Chris has ever worked on: The score was done as a 90-minute piece of music. So if you shift or change something early on, it will affect everything downstream. Really, it wasn't ever about style or objectivity; it was strictly that sometimes I ran out of answers. How do you build tension for 90 minutes? There were times that I would nearly give up, and Chris wouldn't let me. He'd say: "Hans, you wanted to do this. See it through."

How has your relationship with Nolan grown and changed over the years?

Simple: He's Chris. He's willing to go and take huge risks, and he protects me by letting me take huge risks. That little menacing string sound for Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, that was a truly painful and not very pleasant sound. Imagine playing that to a director and saying: "This is the motif for your big summer blockbuster." You have to work with someone you can trust, someone who has a sense of adventure and willingness to experiment. I'm always trying to surprise him while being true to his sonic world.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.