Q&A: Composer Hans Zimmer

Oscar winner on the challenges of 'The Pacific,' 'Inception'

Illustration by Chris Morris

Before he went off to compose music for Christopher Nolan's mind-bender "Inception," opening Friday, Hans Zimmer was told to let his imagination run wild. The result is a bold, experimental mix of electronic elements and traditional orchestra, which even includes a little Ennio Morricone-style guitar courtesy of the Smiths' Johnny Marr. Born in Germany, Zimmer began in London as the protege of veteran composer Stanley Myers and joined the A-list by winning an Oscar for "The Lion King." He also picked up an Emmy nomination last week for "The Pacific."

The Hollywood Reporter: What is your work process like? Do you have a daily regimen?

Hans Zimmer: No, I just wake up, come in (to his plush Santa Monica studio) and start doing some stuff. I was unfortunately born with the gene that makes you question everything forever, so even when other people say it's good enough, I still come in and tinker a bit more. It's the tinkering that's the problem.

THR: Do you still worry about the work?

Zimmer: Constantly. I just had one of those "I'm worried" conversations with (director) Gore Verbinski and he said "Why are you worrying at this stage of your career?" I said to him, "That's what people keep telling me but I'm the one who doesn't believe it!"

THR: You wrote over 10 hours of music for "The Pacific." How daunting was that?

Hans Zimmer: Incredibly daunting. But really most of the burden fell in equal measure on (co-composers) Blake (Neely) and Geoff (Zanelli), and they deserve all the credit for not only writing beautiful music but also in keeping their wits about them.

THR: How did you envision the "Inception" score after you first read the script?

Zimmer: There were scenes that were shot in Paris and I kept saying to Chris that Paris gives the movie a romantic undertow. I saw the movie as a very passionate, very serious love story and I approached it from that point of view. So then Chris went off to shoot and that's where it got interesting because he said "You go write the music and I'll go and cut the movie." It's similar to the idea in the movie of shared dreaming. We were working on a parallel track.

THR: Do you normally start writing while the movie is shooting?

Zimmer: I do, but this one was extraordinary in that Chris asked me to finish the score while he was filming. He wanted to unleash my imagination in the best possible way. I think our points of view and aesthetic sensibilities are very similar. We were absolutely on the same page.

THR: It's a dense, layered score--and there is a lot of it.

Zimmer: I love doing an electronic score. It's a very dense score. I remember when it came time to record the orchestra and thinking, "Oh God, what have I done," because I was working on it every day. We had an enormous amount of material so it became a kind of unwieldy task for awhile.

THR: And there are a lot of different moods in the movie.

Zimmer: There are sometimes multiple moods going on at the same time! There's one sequence that Chris and I are proud of because you have one piece of music in 4/4 and another piece in 3/4 and they're in different tempos from each other but they're related tempos, and then you have Edith Piaf singing on top of it! And yet it all makes sense.

THR: In terms of the instrumentation, is there a little Morricone guitar in there as well?

Zimmer: There was a point where I had written this one theme and I thought "Johnny Marr would just kill this." So I said to Chris, "How would you feel about putting some guitar into this?' Which is really the antithesis of what Chris would like. But I channeled Johnny when I was writing it, so I told Chris about it and he said, "Let's give it a try." So Johnny came over and he was a complete delight.

THR: What kind of research did you do?

Zimmer: I re-read "Godel, Escher, Bach" -- Douglass Hofstadter's book. I had to read every sentence five time before I could make any sense of it (Laughs). Holfstadter combines the idea of playfulness in mathematics and playfulness in music. It's that sense of mischief.

THR: So you turned to math and science to inspire you musically?

Zimmer: I was very interested in the concept of time; how it can be manipulated. The amazing thing about Chris is that he made a time-travel movie that makes perfect sense. "Inception" is actually a very simple movie. One of the things that worries me, though, is that people think this is a very brainy movie and it's not, it's an experience because we can all share in this idea of dreaming--we all do it. On that level I think it makes perfect sense.

THR: Does music come to you when you're dreaming?

Zimmer: Oh man, does it ever! And you know, the tragedy is, it's really good and I can never remember a note of it! I wake up and I know I've just dreamt a fabulous piece of music. It drives me absolutely crazy because wouldn't that be a lot easier?

THR: Nolan is a very meticulous director whereas you've always been open to making changes even at the end of the process. Was this a problem at all?

Zimmer: That didn't really happen on this one because there came a moment where I was sort of done. I'd written everything I wanted to write. Chris was dubbing away and I didn't go up to the dub, which I usually do. He kept asking me to come up but I kept thinking that I wanted him to do whatever he wants. I didn't want to influence him by even being in the room. I hadn't heard from him for about a week so I phoned him up and asked why and he said 'don't you know that no news is good news?' But because he is so meticulous I felt very safe handing everything over to him.

THR: The action music in Inception is especially good because it kind of goes against the grain.

Zimmer: It's totally against the grain. It's much too slow and it's a waltz most of the time. But every time Johnny's guitar comes back you kind of get your bearings again. The whole movie is basically one long piece of music.

THR: But there is one key action sequence in the middle where the music stops.

Zimmer: Yes and isn't it great? It puts you in a totally different world. Chris always designed it like that. I think it was even in the script: 'music stops.' And then you have the sound of the rain, which is incredible.

THR: The sound mix is especially good because the score doesn't get lost despite all the action. You can really hear the score.

Zimmer: Yes, (sound designer) Richard King is amazing. The first thing I did when I sat down to write I asked Richard to send over some of the sounds so I could hear what he was doing with the sound design. So we all knew where we were heading at all times. I love that collaborative process.

THR: Was there a temp score?

Zimmer: No, none. Which can kind of put the pressure on because I wasn't allowed to see the movie while he was cutting it. But every now and then they would call and say 'we need a little something here.' But that was OK because much of the music pieces aren't that scene specific. They fall into little categories. I think even the music has a riddle quality to it. It was fun because much of the action music really came out of character music. It's not about machines and running and all that.

THR: It has a sense of fatalism to it too right?

Zimmer: Absolutely. Every piece of music in the film has that sense of fate. I always liked the idea of fate and how bad things happen to good people and Chris is very good about putting that into his movies.