The Push for Imperfection

Peter Mountain/Disney

Recording the score for "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," composer Hans Zimmer explains his unusual sstrategy.

Hans Zimmer likes it dirty. Sitting behind the mixing board at the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage on the Sony lot, the Oscar-winning composer is less than thrilled with a 10-second cue for Disney's summer tentpole release Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment in the swashbuckling series.

Speaking via microphone to his longtime conductor, Nick Glennie-Smith, Zimmer says he'd like the orchestra to "dirty it up a bit."

"Now that we're playing incredibly correctly, let's play it with a little more attitude," he says with a sly grin.

Persuading highly skilled musicians to cut loose isn't easy, but Zimmer's good-natured approach clearly works. The next take is better, prompting a typically dry exchange with Glennie-Smith:

Zimmer: "I'm not going to ask if you were happy with that."

Glennie-Smith: "Were you less miserable?"

Zimmer: "Compared to you?"

Glennie-Smith: "Impossible."

You might expect Hollywood's busiest film composer to be an angst-filled head case, but Zimmer prefers to keep it light. Relaxed and comfortable in a cardigan sweater that looks downright grandfatherly, if not for the fact that closer inspection reveals it's covered with skulls, he sets the tone for the recording session, and creating a loose environment is a responsibility he takes very seriously.

"I always like dirtying it up," Zimmer says. "The dirty version means you have to give your musicians permission to go and play expressively and maybe with a little anger. It's not about precision; it's about playing with strength and playing boldly. I don't want them to be polite. They're the best of the best."

That's also an apt description of Zimmer at this stage of his career. Fresh off a typically hectic year in which he lent his talents to six projects -- including the Oscar-nominated Inception score and the Emmy-nominated score to HBO miniseries The Pacific -- the 54-year-old composer expresses no desire to slow down at a point when many would be tempted to rest on their laurels.

"I'm built a different way -- I don't notice the laurels," he says. "Each movie is like the first time. There is a responsibility to everyone on the film to not let them down. To become blasé about it would be the end of my life. There would be no invention left."


"Invention" is a word Zimmer comes back to often, and he has upped the ante the past few years with risky choices on some very high-profile projects. Whether it's the one-note minimalism of The Dark Knight or the audacious use of a slowed-down version of Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien" in Inception, Zimmer says he is constantly on the lookout for new sounds. He even admits to spending many late nights searching YouTube for musicians with whom he'd like to collaborate.

In an effort to keep the fourth Pirates score fresh, he has added a musical wrinkle: Inspired by a Spanish element in the new film's story line, he solicited a contribution from Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, whom Zimmer says he has wanted to work with since hearing them years ago at a rave in Ireland.

"I like to throw new people into the mix," he says. "I'm interested in getting people started. There are always a couple new people in the orchestra, people I've heard and liked."

That's not to say Zimmer doesn't rely on old friends, of which he has many -- from conductor Glennie-Smith, whom he's known for 35 years, to orchestra regular Martin Tillman, a Swiss composer and renowned cellist who says Zimmer's spontaneity and willingness to take chances have become legendary.

"One of my fondest memories was on Black Hawk Down -- 59 days cooped up in one room," Tillman recalls. "Hans' concept was to re-create the atmosphere of the soldiers and what they must have experienced during that war, which included staying in proximity, looking out for each other and knowing that giving up is not an option. The sound of that specific soundtrack was different, and I believe it was the result of that experiment."

Adds Glennie-Smith: "We've been friends and worked together on so many different projects for a long time. We have similar loves in music -- style, melody, grooves -- and the search for something unique for each project."

For Stranger Tides director Rob Marshall, Zimmer's willingness to do whatever it takes to benefit the film -- above and beyond the score -- is not the sort of thing one expects from a seasoned composer with so little to prove. 

"He is an amazing collaborator," Marshall says. "He always says the same thing to me, which I just love: 'How can I help you? How can I help you tell the story better or develop the characters?' He's always thinking of the whole movie, not just the score. He sees the whole of it, which is extraordinary."

Listening to a playback of yet another less-than-satisfying Pirates cue, Zimmer admits that at this late stage in the recording session, the players might be a bit fatigued. But other than a request for more coffee, he is alert and focused. He jokes about how hard it is to get these virtuoso musicians to "play like an Irish pub band."

When the suggestion is made that Zimmer try giving them a few shots from the bottle of Pyrat rum that sits on the console, he rolls his eyes and says with genuine disbelief, "We tried that once, and someone actually complained."

Despite his dizzying work ethic -- he says he already has a "crazy idea" he wants to try out on The Dark Knight Rises, and no, he won't discuss it, other than to say it will be "epic" -- Zimmer is anything but a driven, Type A personality obsessively pursuing perfection. In fact, perfection isn't the goal: Discovery and the thrill of the unexpected are what he's after.

"The thing I have to battle all the time is that I've gotten a certain level of success, and success sort of breeds caution and fear," he says. "I still approach everything with a healthy respect and a certain amount of fear. The fear of failure is not about trying something new; it's about not trying something new."              


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