Excerpts from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard on Morning Becomes Eclectic
Jason Bentley: We’re here to talk about a little film called the Dark Knight…does this film give you a unique opportunity, musically, that might be different from your prior film work?
Hans Zimmer: Well, I think being able to set up and go -- I can be provocative. I can be completely uncompromising. I can basically go back to my roots and, let me be specific about this, when you’re a kid starting out and making music, you make music for the great pleasure of it and you don’t censor yourself. You don’t try to write pretty. You write what’s in you and I think in a funny way this really allowed us to do this and to be very experimental and not hold back and scare the children with it.
JB: Well it’s certainly darkness on a grand scale throughout this film. Also, some very interesting characters to explore through music, you have Batman as vigilante hero and kind of tragically flawed, you have the Joker who is this force of chaos and anarchy. I love the line that the character Alfred, played by Michael Caine, says “Some men just want to see the world burn.’ I love that as a description for the Joker.
Did this give you an interesting opportunity to express music through these characters?
James Newton Howard: I don’t think there is any doubt about that, which is also the reason this unique collaboration could work. Because the characters are so distinct, so clearly defined and so powerful, it was conceivable there could be musical identities attached to each one of them that were, that had a very clear identity, therefore allowing Hans and I both to dig in and not only just collaborate on pieces of music, which we often do, but to each separately be working on pieces of music associated with one character or another.
One of the interesting things that has happened is that after Batman Begins, which was so successful for Hans and I, I think, because we were either going to succeed or not speak to each other any more and we ended up becoming better friends that we were -- now the combination of the two of us has become the voice of the score in a way. So it’s no longer any kind of a liability. I think if Hans were to do the whole score or I were to do the whole score, it wouldn’t be the same.
JB: Can you talk about the collaboration a little more because its not necessarily customary, or at least I don’t notice a lot, where two very accomplished composers team up on one picture.
HZ: On the first one, there wasn’t a single piece that wasn’t touched by both of us and sometimes I mean very physically where I’m playing…. in fact, I found some photos the other day where I’m obviously trying to play a tune on the piano and there’s this third hand reaching in from behind me obviously going ‘no, that note, not this one.’ So there was a lot of that, a lot of banter. And the weird thing was, by it being the two of us, therefore it had to be a conversation and it involved Chris Nolan very much as part of this conversation as opposed to this the composer and director in the same room where can this go but sadly wrong. Because there comes the moment in every piece of music’s life for film where you have to play it for the director and the guy has to look you in the eye and he can say one of two things – ‘oh it’s the most fabulous thing I’ve ever heard darlings or he goes, well, it’s quite good BUT. And the ‘but ‘is where it stops being a conversation and becomes something else. And with the three of us, while you’re listening to the other person you’re already trying to come up with new ideas or ways of improving things so it never became this sort of stagnant silence of doom and embarrassment.
JNH: It partly had to do with the fact that we composed the score in London at Air studios. Hans and I took up residence at Air studios across the hall from each other where Chris was doing his post-production on Batman Begins. So we were all so geographically next to each other and with each other for 6 or 8 weeks. It did become very much – there never was a defensive moment really, it was like, if we have a problem Hans will know how to fix it or someone will know how to fix it.
JB: Well, I want to play a cue and the one I picked to begin with is Agent of Chaos and this does feature the incredibly strained and distorted cello. Set this up a little bit.
HZ: Chris and I started talking about the character of the Joker, it seems like years now. I kept churning around…how do you describe anarchy, how do you describe a villian and not do it in a way that’s been done before? One of the things I got very much from the character was a fearlessness, and an evenness in a way. The Joker is the only person you can trust in the movie. The Joker is the only one who will never lie to you because he is consistent about his philosophy. And it thought wouldn’t be interesting to do something that is quite quiet. Something that inevitably in the movie, when the joker comes, all the sound effects have to get a little quieter because his note is so insidious and so quiet that you have to lean in a little bit. But you know within one note that it’s him. I really wanted to do the whole thing just with one note. I had this idea that rather than what a note is in the context of the notes surrounding it, what could I do emotionally through a performance within one note? How much can I stretch the meaning of a single note and get it down to such minimalism. I failed slightly. I had to use two notes in the end. But really, what it is, my friend the incredible cellist Martin Tillman who’s studied his whole life to make a gorgeous sound out of the cello, making this very very disturbing note and … this sounds ridiculous but it really was a journey to get there because saying to him just make a horrible noise doesn’t work and part of the problem is that you can hear the acting, and I had to get the acting out of it because it had to be casual it had to be as fearless as Heath’s performance.
Jason Bentley: James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer are my guests in the studio. Very nice piece! And it’s funny watching you while the music played, watching you just going back and fourth ‘oh! that’s you’, ‘no that was you, you did that.’ And high fiving.
JNH: We really did forget who wrote what, I think, in a lot of places.
HZ: I’m convinced certain things are written by James and they were written by me and vice versa. But I think that’s a nice sign that the collaboration worked.
JB: I had the pleasure of visiting you, Hans, in your studio recently and I guess we cam about 9:30 in the morning and you’re chain smoking and you’re drinking coffee and I remember something that you said which was funny and it really related to how you take on projects, you said you chose film projects based on really the people and the relationship and the meals and fine wines. And it was funny cause I thought, well, that’s a great way to stay grounded in a very high pressure…I don’t think people realize how complicated a film can be and what a drain and. I don’t know, I just thought was that’s a great attitude when it comes to at the end of the day -- the relationships, and your not afraid of the challenges our the difficulties or the conflict even but its about relationships.
HZ: Well, what’s the easiest way of putting this? Once you get the job of being the film composer the moment you say yes to the movie and you sit down to write it becomes the antithesis of creativity in a funny way because of the pressure of having the burden of being the last person in line that could make or break this movie. Just the idea of very often having to fit within the framework of something else is not what we imagine to be the best creative playing field, which is freedom and imagination and chaos to a certain degree. But that’s where the relationships come in. So if you make it about the human thing, if you make it about ‘hey I actually think this director has an interesting life’ or his soul adds something to the way I get to spend my days.
Because at the end of the day that is what it comes down to, these are our lives and the seconds of our lives are ticking away and with out getting all morbid here, the best of quality of life you can have, for me anyways, is to have an interesting conversation, to have a connection with somebody.
And people say it time and time again and it really truly is the case -- its incredibly intense what we do. And at the same time, let’s face it we are not solving the problems of the world, Gaza, cancer or heart disease. But still just the way we go about it. And this weird thing that whenever you start on a journey, on a movie, you have this horrifyingly blank piece of paper in front of you and you’re now supposed to create and deliver on a deadline and the only way you can do it is to surround yourself with the best people who, not just intellectuality, but emotionally are supportive.
JB: Between the two of you, the Oscar nominations and the film projects -- Hans, you’ve done Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, the Di Vinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lion King, Thelma and Louise, Batman Begins, Dark Knight. James -- Michael Clayton, I am Legend, Sixth Sense, Collateral, King Kong, Blood Diamond, Batman Begins, the Dark Knight. With so many different experiences, it’s an amazing body of work, its humbling. Christopher Nolan, lets talk about him and your collaboration with him. I had a quote I pulled from this beautiful expanded edition of the score. We actually have copies to give away at the end of the show.
HZ: You’re crazy giving those way! So beautiful!
JB: Only 7,500 have been made and we have a few to give away to our subscribers a little bit later. Christopher Nolan the director of the film writes -- ‘Hans, James and their team came in just as the rest of us were flagging and reenergized the creative process with that furious pursuit of the core of the film. Never satisfied, never complacent, always driven by the knowledge of what the film could be, only if they could just...
Whether if it was James relentless of pursuit of the perfect pitch, or Hans’s lifelong quest for the ultimate drum hit, the work that they poured into this project has made the film so much more than what it ever could have been had we repeated the sound of the previous movie. And Hans had the good grace to not say “I told you so!"
JNM: He’s a pretty good writer that Chris. I have to say, I would beg to differ. I can’t imagine Chris Nolan ever flagging. I’ve never seen anyone so tenacious and so passionately dedicated to the post production process ever that I worked with, in fact if you left our sessions before 2 or 3 in the morning he would characterize you as a part timer. He was still standing, I think, at the very end when Hans and I were ready to..
HZ: I was definitely not standing at that point. The great thing about someone like Chris is he is up for the challenge. Just think about it the other way around -- really cool that James and Hans working together -- but at the same time together we could be monsters. We have a fairly impressive body of work behind us, so it takes a strong individual, it takes somebody with a great point of view and intelligence to be accepted into our little club and honestly, I cant think of anybody I’d rather have in our club. The pleasure of Chris’ writing his intellect, his filmmaking, his ideas….
JNM: (interrupts) Well, also his energy level. When Hans was working on the Dark Knight, probably 6 months before I did, he made a sequence which is a piece of music that was about 10,000 measures or something.
HZ: 8,000, people exaggerate these things.
JNM: 8,000! Hours and hours of little bits in this nightmarish sequence that you had to weed your way through in order to find anything you wanted to hear again. Hans put it on a cd and I think…
HZ: No, we had to put it on an iPod. Chris was flying to Hong Kong to finish the movie and I said to him ‘here are some Joker ideas’ and he said ‘okay, I’ll study it on the way there.” And he listened to the whole thing and it lasted the whole flight there and the whole flight back. But the great thing about Chris is, and it’s very unusual -- there is like a photographic memory that you sometimes hearr people have -- Chris has a photographic memory. He really can remember a sound very specifically. He will say ‘at bar 845 there is this rather cool thing…’
JNM: Or he will say ‘Where is that thing that used to be at Bar 845?’
HZ: And he is part of our band. And this is really how it should be. Because really, I think there is this idea that musicians, when we get together, we all start speaking Italian. It’s not really what we do. We speak about what we would like the character of the music to be just like we talk about the character on the screen -- we talk about the light, we talk about the color, we talk about subtext. So these are the conversations, just by accident we were born with a musical gene in us, but that is our language. While I’m desperately trying to speak English here, if you ask me to do it on a tune it would be much easier for me.
JB: So in a sense you have to become directors as much as directors need to become composers, so in a sense you change rolls?
HZ: I don’t think we change rolls, I think what happens very interestingly, when the director comes down to our studios, by the nature of what it is it makes him look at his movie from a different point of view. That’s all we are doing. We are presenting his work to him through a different set of ears and not through a set of eyes and not necessarily through words.
I have this weird way of working anyway where I try not to read the script but I sit with the director and say to him ‘tell me the story, what’s this about?’ And I did this with Chris a year before the movie came out and I said ‘tell me about it’ and a lot of those Joker questions … we ended up with more questions than anything. By the end of I said to Chris, ‘come on let me read the script’ because he is the writer in this case, as well as his brother, and he said ‘I’m not going to give you the script I know what’s going to happen, you’re not going to read it’. I said ‘No no no I’m getting on the plane tomorrow.’
I fully intend to read the first 10 pages but he sent it over and I got so into it and the writing was so good. And I felt like one of those sycophantic fans because I was so gosh, this is great writing. I love the writing and I love the words in this thing. And he said ‘you say that to all the boys.” But you know, I could not put that thing down. Look everyone has seen this movie now except for three people so you’re not giving anything away. For me the great action climatic scene was actually somebody throwing a gesture of kindness and an anti-action scene by taking that bomb, that trigger, and throwing it out the window and I thought, Wow. What great thinking is going on here.
JB: Let’s go back to the score. I do have cued up a couple of things but maybe we will go to the suite but I do also want to have time for a couple selections from you. We asked you to bring in some music that has inspired you so lets make sure we have a little time for that. So we will go back to music from the Dark Knight, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard are my guests on KCRW.
JB: Its music from The Dark Knight. This piece entitled simply “A Dark Knight” its not quite “The Suite,” you mentioned it was more of a diary for you.
HZ: You know, I think its interesting to put things on that show the process. I go in every day, every day of the year and I write a little bit. And some days are better than others. But, like a diary, I don’t cross things out so these are trying to hone in on certain themes and certain motifs and we were both working in this very minimalist way. You know, the actual Dark Knight theme, Batman’s call, is two notes and the Joker has the other two notes. You put them together and it makes a mess.
JNH: We actually received a lot of grief about that, from a lot of people. ‘Why didn’t you write a big theme for Batman?’ Because it wouldn’t have worked.
JB: It feels like less is more in this case.
HZ: And think about it. When you think of Batman one of the things you think about is the iconic symbol. It doesn’t need any words it doesn’t need any fluffy stuff. And we both thought how we can we do that? How can we be that precise?
JNH: And I think the answer is always the same. You write the movie. This movie did not want a big heroic triumphant theme. It just didn’t want it. It wouldn’t have worked, it wouldn’t have worked with Bruce Wayne as a man, it wouldn’t have worked with Bruce Wayne dressing up in a rubber suit and being Batman, it is not what it was about.
HZ: In a way it’s an anti-superhero. We were forever trying to take out the super.
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard