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Jason Bentley: Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Dark Knight, Thelma and Louise are just the tip of the iceberg for one of the greatest film composers of our time. Hans Zimmer joins us live in studio. Good Morning.
Hans Zimmer: Good Morning Jason.
JB: How are you?
HZ: I’m very good. Thank you for having me.
JB: It’s good to see you again.
HZ: It’s very good to see you.
JB: So first of all, for our audience, as a very prolific composer who works on many different kinds of films, tell us what a great score really is to you? Just as a jumping off point.
HZ: Great scores…great scores, and I’m not just talking about mine—Just think about it, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ennio Morricone, that’s a great score. John Barry on any of the James Bond movies. It’s the thing that 20 years later, when you can’t remember the story of the movie, but you still remember the tone of it, because the music was doing it for you. What was The Mission without the music for The Mission? What was Midnight Express without the Giorgio Moroder track? The list can go on. I’m a fan.
JB: So is that to say that it is something that’s timeless as opposed to something that has changed in its nature over the years?
HZ: It changes all the time! Thank G-d it changes all the time. Look at the eclectic choices that are nominated this year. You’ve got Alexandre Desplat, he had to do really quite a traditional score because he had to fit in with Beethoven and Mozart in The Kings Speech. You’ve got AR Rahman, you’ve got John Powell with his extraordinary score for How To Raise Your Dragon. (And a bit of Inception flying around in there.) Oh and, Trent Reznor, of course! So first of all, I’m the old guy in this group! I mean, I remember being the young whipper-snapper so it feels good that I’m still around and I still get to make a noise.
JB: You know, the experience of the movies has changes so much now with 3D and IMAX and I wonder how that has changed film scoring. Are there different expectations that are put on a film score now?
HZ: Well, in a funny way, no. Because we’ve had 5.1 for so long, we have always been in 3D. Music is in 3D.
In fact, I find it really difficult to listen to my CDs because they are only in stereo and I feel robbed of half of my world. Because I’m a techno-nerd—I love technology and I’ve been pushing it forever. Especially, working with people like Chris Nolan, who really lets me push the technology and really lets me push the sound and inventing new ways of recording and inventing new sounds constantly. It changes all the time.
JB: I’d love to talk about that relationship because one time we were having a conversation and you mentioned a role reversal that needs to happen to a certain extent where a composer has to be in a director’s mindset and a director needs to join the band.
HZ: Well, Chris makes that so incredibly seamless. Remember Chris is a writer/director so really our conversations start very early on when I read the script. I’m trying to observe while the conversation goes on what actually goes on because he does it so beautifully.
The way he disassociates himself from being the writer and just talks to me as a filmmaker, as if this script wasn’t born out of the blood and sweat and toil and as if each word wasn’t a precious baby, makes it really easy for me to say that I didn’t like this bit or can we change this bit. He’s really open to ideas.
We don’t really talk about music per se, but just really get serious about the words in the script. We talk about the feel of the thing, and I think what we try to do is figure out our aesthetic landscape. He then sort of goes of and does his thing and lets me write music.
What he did on Inception was we were so involved reading the script and talking about it, we spend an inordinate amount of time together discussing this movie, and then when he finished shooting and started editing he wouldn’t let me see anything for a while. He said “No no, go and write me the music for this!”
There’s this idea of shared dreaming that permeates throughout the movie. Chris kept saying he didn’t want to inhibit my imagination through the mechanics of writing music for a movie because the mechanics are “Oh, here comes the cut! The scene changes, you better figure out how to do that.” You can’t really finish your tune in a graceful way. Really, I think what it was, we were so on the same page with what we wanted the movie to say. He just wanted me to go and write my thing and I just kept writing these long involved pieces and sent them over to the cutting room. I, on purpose, never said what I was thinking of. Just to see what would happen. So when I finally saw the movie it was really just thrilling because he really did figure it out. All the bits were in the right place and they all made sense.
JB: We have the CD, I’d love to play a cue or two. Do you have one you’d like me to play?
HZ: “The Dream is Collapsing” was one of the first ones I actually felt “Oh, I’m onto something here!”
JB: Hans Zimmer is our guest, we are listening to music now from the Inception soundtrack which is both Grammy and Oscar nominated.
HZ: I’m surprised.
Song- The Dream is Collapsing
JB: It’s the score for Inception, Oscar-nominated and Grammy-nominated. We have the composer right here in studio, Hans Zimmer. You acted kind of surprised that you were nominated for both the Oscar and the Grammy.
HZ: Well, it always comes as a pleasant shock.
JB: You know what’s a shock to me is that you have not yet won this illusive academy award.
HZ: No I won one.
JB: Oh okay, you won one.
HZ: I was very young, it was for Lion King. You’ve probably never even heard of that one.
JB: Well, it does still seem elusive. How do you approach the whole process now, do you just think “if it happens it happens.”
HZ: Yeah, exactly. If it happens, it happens. I can’t think about it. The reason I get up in the morning is I love composing music for movies. I love working with the filmmakers that I work with.
The thinking about awards just gets in the way of that. I always find it funny that you go to the awards and everybody is dressed in a tuxedo. You just think “Those aren’t the people I know! The people I know look different and they behave differently when we’re working.” In a funny way I’m not being critical of it, but quite the opposite. It does celebrate what we do and what makes it extraordinary is that it’s your peers that nominate you! I’m in awe of my peers. I’m in awe of the musicians that are the academy members. There aren’t any slouchers amongst that lot. It’s an extraordinary talent pool.
JB: Speaking of in awe of musicians and your peers, Johnny Marr was someone that you contacted for this score. I wonder when did you think about this idea and how did it come to be?
HZ: Actually, the track we just heard, I was writing it and the little top line wasn’t a guitar at the time, I was playing around with my synthesizers. I heard a sound in my head and I couldn’t put a name to it but I knew it had a name. A few days later it came to me and I said “OH! It’s Johnny Marr playing guitar!”
I know it’s not done. It’s usually a hideous thing orchestras and guitars, because its—it’s a hideous thing, lets face it. But I asked Chris “What about Johnny Marr?” and he said “Oh that’s great, I love his playing.” And I called him and asked if he wanted to come in and have a bash at this.
We had never met but we had so many friends in common. We both lived in the same neighborhood, I think. We both loved the same music. The thing is three or four notes so I didn’t need somebody who would improvise or do something new. What I needed was somebody who could literally take these very simple phrases and play them with utter commitment and let his personality shine through. That’s what I always appreciated about his playing, was that it was always extraordinarily individualistic.
There’s a true artist there. Honestly sometimes when you call your heroes it doesn’t turn out so well. They turn out to be, I don’t know, not as advertised. But with Johnny we’ve struck up a really cool friendship, he came in and played on “Rango” a little bit. I got the most amazing email from him a couple of nights ago when he was saying “I’ve just been listening to this Edgar Froese album Epsilon in Malaysian Pale. I highly recommend it to you.” It’s from the late/mid seventies and it’s really obscure and it has been one of the most influential records for me. I just love that Johnny wrote this for me knowing that I would love it.
JB: It’s a very interesting and bold idea to reach out to somebody like that and the results were fantastic.
HZ: There were many interesting and bold ideas in this score. I think one of the things I so enjoy about working with Chris is that, wherever the edge of the abyss is, we are right there and sometimes take a little step over it.
I think everything in this score one way or the other has a sort of handmade feel about it as well. There were no presets for synthesizers everything was made from scratch. There were whole things that the orchestra was doing. Some of the things that sound really electronic were actually turning it around and presenting the orchestra with these synth textures I had made and saying “Okay guys, now remember how it used to be where synthesizers would fake real instruments? Let’s try to do it the other way around! Let’s try for the orchestra to emulate the electronics!
JB: Before we go to another cue from “Inception” I wanted to ask you about another very bold idea. Word in the streets here in the back alleys of Santa Monica is that you’re working with Rodrigo y Gabriela on the next “Pirates of the Caribbean” score? Now we love them! Is that true and what’s going on there?
HZ: It is absolutely true and I’m trying to make it a real collaboration. I love the idea of collaborating. I come from a band background. The way we are working is, three of us sitting in the room and I play average keyboards and they play brilliant guitars, and we’re writing cues together. You know, there is a force and a ferocity about their sound.
You know my life is really about sequels at the moment, I have Pirates Four into Kung Fu Panda Two, into Sherlock Holmes Two and of course Chris is working on another Batman movie. So that’s really my life, so what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to go and figure out how we can bring something new to the party each time. Of course, the best way to do it is to get people with enormous talent. Plus I get to have a great time playing with them! I mean, they’re just incredible.
JB: They’re brilliant. Well, bravo!
HZ: Thank you, it’s totally self serving.
JB: It’s Hans Zimmer, live in studio. We’re going to go back to another cue, or maybe two, from the Inception Soundtrack. Hans, thank you so much for coming through again! Best of luck at the Oscars and the Grammys this weekend!
HZ: Thank you for having me.