'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Hans Zimmer ('Dunkirk')

The Oscar-winning composer reflects on his musical influences; combining instruments and technology to produce new sounds; nearly passing on projects for which he later produced iconic work, including 'The Lion King'; and his 13-year collaboration with Christopher Nolan.
Dave J. Hogan/Getty Images

"Writing music for film is not about doing what the director tells you to do because, to be honest, they can't really tell you what to do," Hans Zimmer, the legendary Oscar- and Grammy-winning film composer, says as we sit down in his studio at Remote Control Productions in Santa Monica — a red velvet-colored room packed with old synthesizers and guitars — to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "So," continues the 60-year-old, who won the best original score Oscar 23 years ago for The Lion King and was nominated for the prize again on Jan. 23, for Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, "the idea is, you're supposed to surprise them and do your take on what you think the movie is about."

* * *

LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

Click here to access all of our 202 episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Elisabeth Moss, Jerry Seinfeld, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, Robert De Niro, Judi Dench, Tom Hanks, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone & Jimmy Kimmel.

* * *

Zimmer was born and raised in Frankfurt. His mother was an amateur pianist and his father was an inventor and engineer; it is to them that he attributes his eventual fascination with blending instruments and technology to create music with a sound unlike any other. Music was all around him as he grew up. He had access to a piano in his home and an old church organ on his neighbor's property, which he was invited to use as he pleased. Moreover, he recalls, "I went to my first opera when I was two-and-a-half, we would go to a classical concert every week, we would have string quartets come over — and then that all stopped the day my dad died [when Zimmer was just 6], and we went from having the wherewithal to do all these things to absolute, complete financial disaster." Zimmer adds, "Music was always a refuge to me, even before my father died" — but it became something to which he devoted himself even more afterwards because, he explains, "I very quickly figured out that if I played the piano, it put a smile on my mom's face."

As Zimmer went through the remainder of his adolescence, he struggled academically and moved from school to school, not because he wasn't intelligent, but because he was a "dreamer" and, as he puts it, "I was writing music during math." He ultimately relocated to England and began playing in a pub band — his first experience of making music with others — and then transitioned into writing music for commercials, an opportunity that arose because of his familiarity with synthesizers, computers that can produce musical sounds. On the side, he also played keyboard with an English New Wave band called The Buggles, whose 1979 debut song "Video Killed the Radio Star" shot to the top of the charts and later became the first music video ever to air on MTV. But Zimmer had no desire to musically repeat himself, which mainstream bands, by their nature, are required to do. He preferred the varying challenges of scoring commercials, one of which led him to also begin collaborating with the film composer Stanley Myers on film scores, most notably 1985's My Beautiful Laundrette, and then to begin composing some on his own, starting with 1988's A World Apart.

Zimmer's work on A World Apart caught the attention of the wife of director Barry Levinson, who recommended it to her spouse, prompting him to reach out to Zimmer and ask him to come to Hollywood to score 1988's Rain Man. Zimmer happily did; his work received an Oscar nomination, the first of his 11, so far; and that, along with the huge success of the film, a critical and commercial hit that won the best picture Oscar, put him on the map as the hot new composer in town. He scored the following year's best picture Oscar winner, too, Driving Miss Daisy, and was off to the races.

Over the ensuing years, Zimmer worked across the genres, but proved especially adept at scoring action movies of the sort specialized in by brothers Ridley Scott (for whom he scored 1989's Black Rain, 1991's Thelma & Louise, 1996's White Squall, 2000's Gladiator, 2001's Black Hawk Down and Hannibal and 2003's Matchstick Men) and Tony Scott (1990's Days of Thunder, 1993's True Romance, 1995's Crimson Tide and 1996's The Fan). He never wanted to lose his edge, and therefore very nearly passed on several projects for which he later produced iconic work, including The Lion King (he abhorred the cutesiness of musicals, but ultimately did it so his daughter could join him at a premiere). He also almost passed on the Pirates of the Caribbean films since he looked down on pirate films, but ultimately "wrote it in one night" to help a friend. And he even almost didn't say yes to the first of his many collaborations with Christopher Nolan, 2005’s Batman Begins. "I actually felt I didn't know how to split my personality between the incredibly elegant and suave and sophisticated Bruce Wayne, and the slightly darker man with the mask," he says, but Nolan encouraged him to divide up the score with James Newton Howard. Nolan and Zimmer would later reteam on 2008's The Dark Knight, 2010's Inception, 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, 2014's Interstellar and last year's Dunkirk.

Between Driving Miss Daisy and Inception, Zimmer's publicist — and closest confidant — was Ronni Chasen, who, to his devastation, was found murdered in her car on Nov. 16, 2010, in what remains an unsolved mystery. "She was like my best friend," he says. "She became sort of my American mother, in a funny way." He adds, "She was godmother to all the children [Zimmer has three]." Zimmer and Chasen were last together at the Academy's 2010 Governors Awards, where, at his request, she introduced Nolan to Clint Eastwood. "I'm thinking, 'Look at her,'" he recalls. "She's at the top of her game.' And that literally was the last moment I saw her."

Seven years later, in 2017, Zimmer decided to confront his lifelong stagefright and tour the world with an orchestra. "All my musician friends ganged up on me and made me leave this wonderful, safe room and go out onstage," he says, noting that another part of his motivation in doing so was confronting the widespread misconception that he only makes one sort of music. "There's this thing about film music," he argues, "which is you're pigeonholed: 'You write film music.' Why can't it just be music? So when the opportunity came to go and do Coachella, I thought, 'Let's just see, let's just see, let's just unleash this. It has to be done. Nobody's ever dragged an orchestra and a choir into the desert. It's time we dragged an orchestra and a choir into the desert." His performance proved a huge triumph. "Honestly, we did Coachella and we rocked and we blew them away," he says with a smile, adding, "There is that other side to me. I'm not just 'Mr. Epic.'"

Zimmer reveals that the thing that got him through the tour were thoughts of Chasen. "I made it about Ronni," he says. "I would start the set with Driving Miss Daisy and I would end the set with 'Time' [a piece from Inception], so the whole thing was really about the life I had lived with her." He adds, "When we'd get to 'Time,' my mind would just slip into all these memories of her, and I'd just play it for her."

Later in 2017, coincidentally or not, Zimmer did some of his most innovative and impressive film scoring yet, between The Boss Baby, Blade Runner 2049 (in partnership with Benjamin Wallfisch, with whom he has often worked since 2013's 12 Years a Slave) and, in particular, Dunkirk, with Nolan. Zimmer sees both stylistic and thematic threads that link all six of his collaborations with Nolan. "The thing that we already started doing on Batman Begins, and did through all our movies, is we tried to blur the line between the visuals and the sound so you cannot talk about the score without talking about the images and vice-versa, because at the end of the day you will experience it as one complete world," he explains. Just as importantly, he continues, time has been at the heart of the plots and music of several of the films — Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk, in particular. "I am fascinated with time and how you can play with time, as much as Chris is," he says. "All music is about time. It's not like a painting that you can stare at; music actually has to move in time for it to exist. And, with music, a piece of music is all about how do you divide time up, and within that Rubik's cube you can go to all these different levels and all these different layers of time." He adds, "There's a reason Chris and I make movies about time: time is the enemy."

Zimmer asserts that, for Dunkirk, he drew inspiration from a host of places. Zimmer visited the beach of Dunkirk on the day of the anniversary of the battle there, collected a jar of sand and brought it back to keep in his studio. Nolan gave him a pocket watch, the ticking of which ended up as the opening of the score and guiding the rest of it. ("Rather than what we did on Inception or what we did on Interstellar, where we were sort of disguising that our underlying theme was time, we, by starting off with the sound of the pocket watch, just declare ourselves.") But, more than anything, he says that he took his cue from Nolan's script. "When we came to Dunkirk, right from the go, I realized it had been written in a musical form," he volunteers, adding, "In his writing, there was this musical idea of the Shepard tone." The Shepard tone is a sound that gives off the illusion of constantly getting louder or softer, creating a sense of endlessly building tension. "That was sort of the shape of the screenplay."

Nolan, who is generally very deferential to his composer, timidly asked Zimmer to consider incorporating just one thing into Dunkirk's score: a hint of Edward Elgar's 19th-century orchestral work Enigma Variations, which is widely seen as synonymous with British patriotism. What the famously guarded Nolan did not say at the time, but has since revealed in an interview, is that he had heard some of the piece at his own father's recent funeral, and that it made him emotional. "I didn't know that they had played it at his funeral," Zimmer says, but he then emphasizes something that Nolan may not have known: namely, that Dunkirk's score was being influenced by Nolan's father anyway. "I loved his father," Zimmer explains. "This was a man erudite, articulate and oh so passionate about music. He would come to all our sessions, and we would have the best conversations." He adds, "There comes a responsibility that if you had the honor to have met a man who was so interesting and vibrant and had such a great sense of aesthetics and had such a true love of music, and he's the father of your director, you better honor that."

Zimmer poured his heart and soul into the score of Dunkirk, and is the sole recipient of the best original score Oscar nomination with which it has been recognized, but he emphasizes that it is Nolan's score every bit as much as his, and probably more so. Asked how long it took, in total, to come together, he responds, "I thought I worked on Dunkirk for seven months, but somebody just told me it was 11 months." Shortly thereafter, in response to a question about whether he ever contemplates retirement, Zimmer corrects himself. "I don't 'work.' The operative word in music is 'play,' and I've done that since I was a little kid. You know, other kids played with Legos, I play with notes and sounds. Why would anybody want to stop playing?"