Oscars: Why Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Felt 'Hidden Figures' Score and Songs Needed "That Extra Nuance"

Pharrell and Hans Zimmer - Split-Getty-H 2016
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic; Andrew Toth/FilmMagic

The composers wanted to get away from "assumptions about the way space and space exploration should sound" for the film about three African-American women who played pivotal roles at NASA during the early 1960s.

For Hidden Figures — a film about three African-American women who played pivotal roles in NASA's nascent space program during the early 1960s — Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, along with co-composers Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch, knew no ordinary score would do. "Everybody has their assumptions about the way music and space and space exploration sound," says Zimmer. "Either you have the idea of mathematics, which is the Philip Glass thing, or you have preconceived ideas like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13. But nothing in the music ever hints at an African-American, let alone female, undercurrent."

So the trio set about seeking "that extra tone, that extra nuance," says Zimmer, one that would lead to a more inclusive sound "that said really amazing women were a part of NASA. We wanted to add the missing parts to the history." The score took a somewhat expected patriotic trumpet sound — "the Aaron Copland type," says Zimmer — and turned it on its head, "as if Miles Davis played it." Add in Herbie Hancock's elegant piano-playing, and the three created a score that swings with '60s verve, vibrancy and hope.

Williams, who also serves as one of the film's producers and wrote songs for it, had the idea to cast the orchestra with as many female and African-American musicians as possible. "We flew players in from all over the country, and we had this truly extraordinary string section," says Zimmer. "The sound was more beautiful and more committed somehow, and then, suddenly, we realized of course it would be because everybody knew what they were playing because they were playing about themselves. And that is sort of the way music is supposed to work." 

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