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„I’m Not an Artist” – An Interview with Hans Zimmer

Paweł Stroiński | 21-04-2022 r.

A conversation with a composer like Hans Zimmer is a dream come true for every film music critic. I finally made it, even if my patience was tested due to mails asking me to postpone the interview even a bit further. You can forgive somebody who is so busy with his projects and preparations for the Oscar night. Especially that finally, a few nights before the Academy Awards, it was done. Internet connection let me forget that the composer resides and works in California, thousand miles from me in Poland. For almost an hour I could talk with Hans about his old and new projects, what he thinks of Christopher Nolan and other directors and what he thinks of the art of film music. You can read about all of this in this interview.

Paweł Stroiński: Hello, this is Pawel.

Hans Zimmer: Hi Pawel, how are you?

I’m doing really fine. How are you?

I’m good, I’m good.

At first, congratulations on having Sherlock Holmes nominated for the Oscar again. How does it feel to be nominated first time since 9 years. How do you see your chances?

Good! You know, I didn’t sort of notice not being nominated for the last 9 years. I don’t think about it that much. It was nice to get nominated, feels like a nice surprise, especially because I think it’s a really different score than the type of things that normally get nominated. It’s very much a comedy score, it’s on purpose a silly score.

And the ensemble is quite small, it’s a chamber score as opposed to some quite huge scores which are usually nominated.

Right. Yes, exactly. I like to work with these small line-ups. You know, I never think about Oscars or anything like this, when I write or when I pick my ensemble and when I do whatever I do. I just do it, because I think it’s right for the movie. It does come as a surprise and it should come as a surprise and it should never direct our thinking. There are some really good other scores up as well, like, I think, Alexandre Desplat is doing great work these days. Michael Giacchino’s Up is very good. Michael is fantastic these days. His writing is at such a great level.

How is Inception doing? Christopher Nolan is very secretive about it, so what can you tell us about both the movie and the score without having to kill us?

HZ: It’s going well (laughs). That’s really all I can tell you. I’m sitting here right now, I am literally in front of it, writing away. We are all very, very secretive about it. I think one of the things which I thought really helped us on The Dark Knight was how secretive… We never let any ideas go out. Nobody knew what we were doing. And even though everybody knew we were doing a Batman movie at the time, nobody expected it to be that sort of Batman movie and I think it’s really important for the filmmaker to be able to work in privacy for a while and that happens less and less and less. We’ve just absolutely put this blanket of secrecy, the code of silence, around us, but in one way or another, I’ve worked on it for over a year, just talking and throwing ideas about. It’s Chris. It’s a great project.

Nolan’s approach to film music is quite controversial in fan or even reviewer community. Some people say he is even killing all that’s good in the genre. Having worked with him on four movies, once as a score producer, what can you tell us about his approach to music in his films?

HZ: First of all, I think he’s one of the most intelligent filmmakers we have out there and secondly he’s definitely one of the most musical ones I know. He has such a sense of sound, but like anybody who has a sense of sound, he is all inclusive. The music is one part of the whole sound landscape with in. He doesn’t like sentimentality, which is fair. The great thing about Chris is that it’s not that he tells you what to write, but he’s making a certain type of movie and you try to be part of that language in a way. I think quite the opposite. OK, on Batman we were still finding our feet, but I think on Dark Knight we actually managed to evolve a really interesting score and really interesting sonic world. It’s probably the best dub I’ve ever heard and that is really Chris’s doing. The last thing which is great about him is he never tells you what to do. I mean, he gives you complete freedom. His writing and his style of filmmaking absolutely dictates how you want to go on things. I think Chris would have preferred a bit more melody in the Batman movies, in The Dark Knight certainly, than I ultimately did, but I thought there was something good about being that bleak, that sort of strict about it. The other great thing about Chris is that he’s not a traditionalist, so he doesn’t get upset when I want to use electronics, because he doesn’t see any segregation between electronics and orchestra.

PS: And let’s notice that Dark Knight was more thematic than Batman Begins.

Actually, Batman Begins had more tunes in it. There were some tunes I thought were too romantic in a way. I got rid of all the 19th Century romanticism out of it.

Let’s get back a bit to your earlier times, since it’s the first interview you’re giving to a Polish website. Your breakthrough was A World Apart, which as we know, gave you the gig on Rain Man. You seem to have developed a big affinity for Africa. You have 6 African scores if we count the serious ones and 4 of them are political in nature. Having been banned from Republic of South Africa, how did you grow that affinity for the African sound?

There are two ways. One, I thought there was beautiful music out there in Africa and secondly, yes, these were really political decisions. I thought there was great injustice in South Africa at the time. We did A World Apart and I thought if I could lend my voice somehow to this struggle, it would be good. Black Hawk Down, which in Europe everybody thinks is some sort of American fascist statement, I tried to do exactly the opposite with the music, I tried to give Africa a voice in this, so it wouldn’t be just the voice of the soldiers and I was the counterpoint very much, for Ridley as well, so much so that at one point the studio said “You’re letting the wrong guys win”. These are very conscious decisions, but they’re very personal as well. I think musicians are musicians and politicians are politicians, but I have a point of view and I have a humanistic point of view and if I see injustice, I’d like to be able to say something about it in music, if possible, and this sounds horrible in a way, be as entertaining as possible so that a lot of people go and see it as opposed to only my three liberal friends.

Right and also, of course, Tears of the Sun which is about genocide in Nigeria.

I thought, if you keep people reminding that Africa’s out there… There’s a tendency for us in the West to forget there’s trouble there or there is so much trouble there that it’s better for us to forget. I just occasionally like to remind people of the incredible culture, richness that comes from there and the incredible beauty and if you can draw people in, maybe with a voice or something like that, there may be one more person thinking about Africa.

Do you feel like an artist?

At the end of the day I picked film music very much on purpose. Because there’s certainly something for me. I’m an entertainer, I’m not an artist. I’m not an artist with a big capital “A”, with a big European “A”. I think one of the things I like is the simplicity of the mission in a way. We try to make fun movies. Occasionally we can reach a little further. But we get to do good work, you know, craftsmanship more than art. And we can try… I think the world of symphonic, serious music is so narrow. I mean, the avant-garde is definitely old-fashioned and you get bands like Radiohead, you get bands like Nine Inch Nails, you get The White Stripes, you get things like that coming out of rock’n’roll, which are…, Rufus Wainwright, there is really interesting stuff that we can start incorporating in film music or our cousins of film music, because we’re just trying to be popular and we’re just trying to entertain. Sometimes in a clever way, sometimes in not such a clever way. At the end of the day if you let a little bit of humanity shine through, as opposed to some great artistic mission, I’m all for it.

What is the first thing you think of when you start scoring a film? Is it a melodic idea, rather a texture? A few times it happened that the first suites, or as in the case of Thin Red Line, the first score was written before the shooting started. What was your source of inspiration then?

Talking to Terry and him describing the waves hitting the side of the ship. I mean, I actually remember that was the first idea. So it was initially having Terry in the room and him describing things and he had written this really, really, really long script. I read it and knew that it was never going to be the movie he was gonna make. So I said to him: “Look, I will never mention your script anymore. Let’s just talk about what the feeling is you want to get”. And we started talking about the power of the sea, we started to talk about a lot of paintings, we talked a lot about Renaissance art. You know, Terry actually wanted a much more commercial score at one point. I mean, he wanted a real film score in the old-fashioned sense. And we sort of slowly got to this place of whittling away and taking things out. He kept taking dialogue out. He kept saying: “This whole thing should just be images and music”, so yes, it did start with tunes, there were proper leitmotivs for each character and things like that. And they kept changing as well as we went through it and as we started taking characters out and as we started illuminating characters better, making other characters be more important. But yes, in a way, it always starts with a tune. It starts with an image in my head and a tune. John Toll and Terry and I talked forever about color. We didn’t want to use the color red anywhere other than for blood. I remember I was really upset, because there was a shot of some poppies in the movie and I went: “Why did you have to shoot these red flowers?!” A lot of thought goes into these things, a lot of discussion, a lot of thinking.

You seem to pre-conceptualize a score a lot, for example when you discussed the character of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr. You refused to call Tom Cruise with other name than his character name in The Last Samurai. How often do you work with actors directly, when you’re writing a score?

It depends. It’s actually not that much, not as much as you think, because at the end of the day what I like doing this is sitting there with the director more than anybody and we interpret it, but it’s good. OK, Jack Nicholson. Everything I’ve ever done with him we talked about it and he would never tell me what he was doing, but just having the conversation. I was having a glimpse into the things he wouldn’t put on the screen, the things he’d left me to put in the screen. With Jack, he’s got amazing knowledge and love of music. You just start talking music with him, but somehow, in code, he tells you what the character is he’s playing. It can be really useful. It really has to be the right type of actor.

And you’ll be working with Jack Nicholson again soon or did you start already?

I already started with these thoughts. I only work on one movie at a time, but there are conversations that are going on all the time about the things coming up, so I try to be involved at least in those conversations and know where the movie is going, because movies take weird turns all the time.

You quite often work with your friends. When you’re working for, for example. James L. Brooks or Penny Marshall do you get more inspiration than working for directors or producers which are not your best friends?

Well, I don’t know. For instance, I consider Chris Nolan a friend, very much a friend and Gore Verbinski. Making a movie is a very intensive experience. It’s a small group of people and it really does become like a family and sometimes you like each other, other times you just hate each other, but the intensity of the experience is part of making a movie. And we protect each other and I think that’s what friends are about. For instance, Guy Ritchie was very protective of what I was doing on Sherlock Holmes, because it was a little, what should we say, polarizing, which I did very much on purpose and the conversation that happens every time on every movie in a funny way, not so much between the director and the composer, but between composer and maybe the studio head, a producer or somebody like this, is that they don’t really get what you’re doing, because you’re supposed to be just two and a half seconds ahead of the Zeitgeist. You’re just supposed to be a little bit ahead of whatever it turns, so it takes them a little while to get used to it and you have to just be careful that they don’t reject it, because it doesn’t sound like the last thing you did or the last thing they heard. And that’s where it’s really important to have a director who shares your point of view, because either way the notes are go on due battle. And sometimes, you know, that’s pretty bloody battle.

You managed to call a big action cue Budget Meeting.

Yes (laughs). Yes, those are different sorts of battles, but absolutely. We had many of those. In Gladiator we literally had a meeting with the visual effects guys and the music guys. They would say, well, if we do another shot like this it would cost us this much money and Ridley would go “But I don’t need that shot, so Hans you can have another 20 violins”. We literally went through the movie, shot by shot.

Do you know any Polish composers? If yes, who is your favorite?

Kilar… Just any Polish composer? Let’s start with Chopin, huh? He’s not so bad.

(laugh): Which scores are your favorites from Polish composers, film composers for example?

I like all the Red, White and Blue. I do think Dracula is amazing, I do think, I don’t even what it’s called in English – “Father Kolbe”…

Life for Life, I think.

Life for Life. I think it’s amazing. Those are the things I love.

You were supposed to take last year off film scoring, concentrating on concerts and even admitted that to have prepared certain suites for them.

Yeah… I think this is the world we find ourselves in at the moment. The economy is terrible everywhere. I don’t know how it is in Poland, but I have a feeling when I say it’s terrible, I’m probably not going to be that far off. And I think of my life in very simplistic terms. Right now, people are offering me great movies, they’re paying really decent money and I would be a fool to say no to them right now. At the same time, what I didn’t want to do, I didn’t want to just do film music concert like other people do film music concerts when you have the orchestra there and you have a guy standing, with his back to you, conducting and you maybe show some films. I actually have been working on a different concert to make all this work. And we’re carrying on working on this thing. My partner in this is a man called Marc Brickman, who’s a lighting designer for Pink Floyd, so it’s a very different thing.

So you still plan on a tour? Would you give a concert in Poland for example?

Absolutely! You know, of course! Part of what we were trying to do is do it so that it becomes a proper tour, when we can really… We really planned it out. It’s just a case of what year we put it in, because it will take more than a year, because we want to do it really thoroughly. Poland is incredibly important for any filmmaker. The first movie, actually the second movie, I ever worked on was Jerzy Skolimowski and it was about Poland, so it’s like at the end of the day I’m still European. Europe is important to me. My problem is I need to be where the films are being made, because it doesn’t matter… Look, we’re talking over the telephone now. I don’t care how good the Internet is, there is something about sitting across somebody and looking him in the eye when you are playing him something and asking him a question, which is very different.

I also believe that the conversation itself is really the most important thing.


How important is classical music for you as your source of inspiration? You’ve gone through a few controversies regarding that.

Like the Holst thing? This is the craziest thing, because one thing I never thought of was Holst and The Planets. I really didn’t. The Holst Estate at one point was trying to take me to court and of course nothing happened of it, because really I could prove it wasn’t Holst. But if I think about it, it’s just that language of battle, that sort of thing that Ridley was doing as well and if you want to, it’s just as important to come to anything like that or in that style. And yeah. Look, I love my Bach, I love my Mozart, I love my Beethoven. It’s things I listen to all the time. I never went to music school, I never learnt how to. I’m an idiot savant. I never learnt how to play properly, but I listen to a lot of classical music, I know what an orchestra sounds like and a thing or two how to orchestrate. At the end of the day, the way I work, by working with the computer for instance, it’s no different than writing on paper, other than I can be more precise about my orchestrations. Music, when you write on paper, it’s actually a very limited vocabulary. You give them the pitch of the note and you tell them the length of the note and you tell them a little bit about the dynamic. And the rest, you have to be a good conductor. I’m not a good conductor, because that’s not really what I do. I make recordings for films and a recording is a very different thing than a performance. When you see an orchestra perform, it’s just being there and seeing it, sort of what we’re talking about being on the Internet or on the telephone versus a conversation. When you’re there and the orchestra performs, it is the conversation between the audience and the musicians. When you make a recording, half, 50 percent of that goes.

You’re not planning to conduct again? I think it was Fools of Fortune, right, the only time when you conducted?

Whenever I conduct, I find I’m not the analyst that I should be. I don’t know how to do both. I know how to be a record producer. That’s really how I see myself. When I make recordings with the orchestra I, on purpose, try not to look at them through the glass. I just try to listen, because the suggestions I have to make are very much about how to get that performance better without seeing the passion in their faces, because the audience who hears the recording will not see the passion in their faces. For instance, on Sherlock Holmes I very much relied on my friend and collaborator Lorne Balfe to be the producer as well. It’s great to have another set of ears, it’s great to have another set of fingers. I tried to tune and play too long and just be the artist and go “What do you think, can we play this better or should we play it with a different style?” or sometime we would do four hands at piano for hours, just the two of us, trying different feelings of the tune around. It could be in triplets, it could be in sixteenths, it could be this, it could be slower, could be faster, whatever. I come from record production, which is very, very different. It’s really about adding a sonic point of view to everything. A record producer works very much like a film director. He might not be writing the words, he might not be doing the acting, he might not be doing any of those things, but he certainly has an analytic and philosophical point of view about the whole thing as opposed to the conductor, who literally just deals with the music and as it’s being played in a funny sort of way and has this incredible emotional involvement and that moment in time. I need to keep a little distance, especially that they’re my pieces. I already have too much emotional involvement and not an analytical thought behind them.

You worked in almost all film genres possible. Which one movie genre is your favorite and which is your least favorite?

You go through different phases in your life. Right now, I suppose, action movies are my least favorite and, you know, I’m working on a Chris Nolan movie and interesting drama is right now my favorite (laughs). And then when I’ll start working with Jim Brooks, I’ll turn that around and go “no, no, no, I just want to do romantic comedies”. I get bored. Whenever I do a big orchestral score, all I’m doing is I’m wanting to do a small band or electronic thing and as soon as I’m working with a small band I just want to work with a big orchestra. I think we’re all of it like that. Variety is really interesting, so unfortunately the answer is whatever the movie I’m working on is my favorite movie, because for better or for worse, the job is quite hard. I’m not saying it’s super hard. It’s a privilege, it’s a pleasure. The hours are terrible, I never get to go home at weekends, I work round the clock, so I’d better be in love with it. You can hear in my scores the movies I wasn’t in love with.

Which score of yours is your least favorite and if you would have a possibility to rewrite some score of yours, or score a movie you didn’t score, like a time machine…

I don’t know. There are many scores where I don’t think I did great work. Sometimes you get surprises. Let’s use this, because it’s a great controversial example. When I finished Pearl Harbor I was really unhappy with it. Then it came out and I got this amazing letter from Elmer Bernstein, and I was a huge Elmer Bernstein fan. I thought he was an absolute genius, amazing musician. And Elmer wrote me this long letter. I didn’t really know him. To get this letter out of the blue because the music had touched him so much. He thought the writing was great. He thought my musicianship was amazing. To get this amazing letter for something I didn’t feel so good about… It didn’t make me feel any better, but it did make me feel a lot better about it. It’s always surprising what touches people. You never know.

Because it’s a very personal thing. After your experience on Modern Warfare 2 would you venture into game scoring again?

I just thought it was an interesting thing, the game thing, partly because of the technology, partly because I didn’t understand how games work. Would I go do another one? If it was something interesting and something good… And I don’t know how to define something interesting and good even at this moment in time. Right now that’s not what my head is up. My head is entirely in writing film music. Here’s the thing. I’m not bored with writing film music. I actually really enjoy it. You know, I never wanted to write a film, I never wanted to go and be in a band again or anything like this. I like the versatility of film music. I’m always very concerned that especially now with the economy that the idea of musicians playing live music or orchestral music is just gonna go away and what I always loved about Hollywood is that on a daily basis they commission orchestral music. There’s no place left on Earth that does this.

Orchestral music is recorded every month.

What do you mean every month! Three times a day! There are two big stages. You’re always striving to try to get in, because somebody else has got a huge orchestra in there. I don’t how many minutes are recorded year by these players every year. And you have to include London in this as well. There are things going on every day including Sundays. In this day and age that’s phenomenal. It really puts a shame on all the sort of cultural endeavors everybody else has, when they commission a composer to write a symphony or something or the other, which gets three performances or something like that. I’m not talking about the quality of the work, I’m just talking about the simple fact of musicians earning their living and having the pleasure of playing their instrument.

Exactly. Many of your bigger action and thriller projects actually feature more or less humanized villains, for example General Hummell in The Rock, Dusan Gavric in The Peacemaker, Gil Renard in The Fan and of course Lecter. Do you try to give the villain a voice when scoring an action movie?

The villain is always the more interesting character. Hannibal Lecter (laughs) is the worst villain I ever scored and I gave him my most beautiful tunes, very much on purpose. I always like the idea of something good coming out of something bad. Villains are always more interesting to write for. To put doubt in the audience’s mind. If you just do black and white, it’s black and white, but to put a little grey in there… Put a little emotion in it or make them become seduced by the villain. I think it’s a fun game to play.

Yeah and sometimes the villains are fun, like John Travolta in Broken Arrow.

Right. Absolutely. I mean, the straight guy was boring as hell! The balance of acting in Dark Knight was the villain was so much more interesting.

Both of them, possibly.

Yeah, exactly. In Dark Knight the villain is the only one who speaks the truth. The villain is the only one that’s fearless. The villain is the only one that actually has a grasp of the world in a positive way. That’s something interesting to play with. Absolute, anarchy, fearlessness, consistency, no change. That sort of ideas which are inhuman ideas.

And I would even go as far as to saying that actually in Dark Knight it’s the villain who is the winner.

Yes. And in a strange amoral way, the more moral of the two. I mean, how far will you go to protect society?

And Batman had to use the methods of Joker to save those who he wanted to save. That is a pretty pessimistic, but pretty true message. He wouldn’t have saved those people in the towers without attacking the SWAT team which was of course about protecting the order.

Right. I loved, when I read Dark Knight, I loved that Chris’s big action scene was a non-action scene, where the guy throws the bomb out of the window. That was the big action part. The gesture of doing something right, something very simple. I thought that was always the amazing heart of the movie. On the boat.

You also sparkle much controversy with working with and crediting people for contributing additional musical arrangements of your scores. Because you spoke a lot about recently, I would like to ask about it a bit differently. Which composers are you most proud of branching out?

Easy. John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams. Those two. John’s work at the moment, I mean both John and Harry… There’s just about a score coming out that Harry did for Prince of Persia which is jaw-droppingly brilliant and beautiful, so yes I’m really proud of them, because in a funny way that’s what I tried to do. I tried to get the idea, just like I like the idea that orchestras are working and musicians are working, I was trying to get composers a chance to do this. And they didn’t start out as composers. They started out as assistants and they didn’t know how to compose a movie. And it takes a lot, it’s not open out. I think there’s something encouraging when you get a credit. And I don’t need the credit. I’m not as encouraged by it as other people. In a funny way, just let me write my music and leave me alone. Just don’t stop offering me jobs, because I love writing music. I don’t really care about the credit. I think, at the end of the day, it’s called show business, not show friends, but I’m trying forever to cross that line and make sure that my friends, like Harry and John and Mark Mancina, and Nick Glennie-Smith and a few others get at least noticed.

Is your way of working with your assistants and contributors similar to the way you’ve been working with Stanley Myers in the beginning of your film career? Do you try to exactly do the same for them?

No, not exactly. Stanley taught me about music, but I learnt about film really from the filmmakers I was with. I think I can’t teach Harry or John music. They know more than I do, but I can teach them about film. And it’s not like teaching, like being didactic, but having everybody in the room while we’re working on a film is a very different experience than learning film, I think, at film school. At film school, you… The problem you are tackling is not of that moment. Even if you are a young assistant and you’re sitting there in a meeting with Chris Nolan and you don’t say anything. But you see the problem that we’re trying to solve. Somehow you see that possibility, that these things can be solved. And just by being in the room, in a funny way, even if you don’t do anything, you’re still part of the solution. And I think, at the end of the day, I approach all the stuff I do strictly about the film. I don’t have to make the music come first. And I think the huge advantage I do have from not having gone to music school and all these things, I have to literally go and use the language of film to write my music right. I need the film to get the notes. And they’re always tied together. I don’t write unless there’s a film to write for.

One last question. There are multiple scores of your earlier career which weren’t released in ways satisfactory to your fans. Would you consider releasing expanded scores?

OK. I think people don’t realize how it works. I think they really don’t realize how it works. It depends on the movie. If the movie was recorded in Los Angeles, it’s a union orchestra. There are two types of scores I do, I either work in Los Angeles with the union orchestra or in London with the union orchestra. But if I work in Los Angeles, the amount of money we have to pay the musicians again is so huge that it’s usually not worth the film company’s while to go and release expanded things, like, for instance, if you make the score a certain length of time, you’re in one rate and when you go over that time, you’re in a different rate. It’s very expensive to do these things if they’re union recorded things. That’s why usually my scores from London, my CDs are much longer, because we don’t have those restrictions. I know fans are going: “So where’s The Lion King? Where’s all that stuff?”. Well, OK. Lion King, they can really afford it. One of these days I’ll be good. It’s just I’ve been thinking about it and then forgetting about it, because really, honestly, Lion King has nothing to do with my life now anymore. But one of these days I’m just gonna say to Disney, “Hey, let’s go and do an expanded edition of it” and they’ll say yes. But a lot of this is strictly, it’s nothing to do with me, strictly a financial consideration. You don’t have these problems recording in Europe.

So thank you very much for this interview.
You’re very welcome, Pawel.

And also, from my personal side, thank you very much for reading my small article I wrote about The Thin Red Line.

No, it wasn’t that small and it was very insightful and I thought it was actually really good.

PS: Thank you very much.

Be well and keep warm. It’s probably really cold where you are.

Yes, it is very cold. Is it still raining in LA?

No, it’s beautiful. The tragedy of a little rain is nothing. It’s beautiful, but I don’t see it. I’m in a dark room.

Right. So good luck and have fun with Inception

Thank you.

And your other projects. Thank you very much.

Oh, you’re very welcome. Bye bye.

Special thanks to: Hans Zimmer, Andrew Zack, Richard Carter, Bregt de Lange, Kevin Smith, Ravi Krishna, Miyazawa Eri, Łukasz Wudarski, Łukasz Koperski, Marek Łach, Tomek Goska, Michał Turkowski and Piotr Stroiński

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