Safe to say, prolific German composer Hans Zimmer is a workaholic. But the composer doesn’t work nearly as hard as his multiplying 150-plus credits on a wide range of genres would suggest. Many folks take Zimmer for granted as a big-studio mainstream composer, but the musician is worth a closer listen.
And while it’s easy to recognize his signature oversize superhero scores — as in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” — there’s a reason he keeps getting hired by the likes of studio tentpole directors Zack Snyder (“Man of Steel”), Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Lone Ranger”), Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”), Christopher Nolan (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Interstellar”), Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes“) as well as Ron Howard (“The Da Vinci Code,” “Rush”) and Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”). Zimmer pushes himself to get the job done. He’s a serious collaborator for these directors. (Watch a Vanity Fair video interview with Spidey director Marc Webb, who talks working with Zimmer and assembling his dream team for the soundtrack, after the jump.)
The secret to the eight-time Oscar nominee’s ongoing currency: he’s developed a pool of talented musicians to help him, whether it’s pop star Elton John (1995 Oscar-winner “The Lion King”) or the super group of past collaborators Zimmer assembled for Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (now in theaters) including Pharrell Williams (“Despicable Me”) and guitarists Johnny “The Smiths” Marr (“Inception”), Michael “Incubus” Einziger (“The Lone Ranger”), and Dave “Eurythmics” Stewart (“Madagascar 3”).
The movie that seems out of keeping with Zimmer’s usually lush scores is Best Picture Oscar-winner “12 Years a Slave,” for which he collaborated with R&B singer John Legend on the a capella ”Roll Jordan Roll” as well as Alicia Keys, Gary Clark, Jr., Laura Mvula, Alabama Shakes and Chris Cornell for new takes on old spiritual songs. (Find my past Zimmer interviews and a video tour of his sprawling Santa Monica facility where he demonstrates how he works on scores here.)
Anne Thompson: You don’t seem to be pulling back on the number of jobs you take on.
Hans Zimmer: I am joyfully overworked. The only reason I get overworked, whether I do it quickly or get passionately involved in it– then its 3 o’clock in the morning– I don’t regret that time for a moment.
How did you and Steve McQueen become involved?
We met because I was a huge fan of “Hunger.” I felt like in the world of film suddenly a new fresh voice, a real artist was at work. And we’d been talking over the years on the phone. We became friends. One day, in the middle of “Man of Steel,” just like now, when I was overworked, Steve called, he was in town. He said, “I have something for you, do you want to come and have a look?” I went to the screening room [to see “12 Years a Slave”] at 9:30 in the morning. My day never quite recovered after seeing that. He asked me to do it: “Of course I’m going to do it, no ifs or buts.” My reservation was: “Am I good enough for it?”
How can you be insecure at this point?
Seriously, we all have our insecurities and demons. I am very fragile when I play or write or present an idea for the first time. Talking is easy, but when you first play the theme, when you look inside someone, it’s a scary place for me to go. I need to trust the people I am surrounded by, invite them into the process. It was a legitimate question to ask on “12 Years a Slave.” This was an important film and subject matter. It was important what Steve as a foreigner was saying about America. It took Steven Spielberg to look at the Jewish tragedy from an outside point-of-view, an American looking at Germany. Sometimes we can look at things in a different way. I have been writing about America in one way or another forever. There are amazing stories to be told about America that fall by the wayside. One of the great strengths of Steve’s film is how it’s made with love and empathy.
How did you find the right musical approach for this story?
We started with a lot of prerecord, with violin in places where it needed to be. We had to do some spiritual work songs. All of that was done. The violin is superb. I did not touch it, I leave it alone. My job came in just being able to do the things that I do: the emotion, to do an underscore. People look down on the word underscore. I wanted to support and get out of way of the actors. The job is very different. The source music has to be of its time, historic. The score could be timeless, in a funny way I the only person who could do something anachronistic. It was an important way to go. I could be a bridge to our presence. The conversation had never quite been had in this country. Steve and the actors working on the film managed to show how to have this conversation somehow.
Steve said to me, time and again, that he comes at this movie with love. This isn’t a cliched notion or pretentious. He came at it with an open heart and mind. If he can do it than we should be able to do it. First of all this was the smallest and humblest score. After doing big movies all summer, suddenly I’m there with just four of us: Anne-Marie Calhoun is a great violinist; the background is my cello player, Tristan Schultze, an East German who knows a little about repression; my friend composer Benjamin Wallfisch who I pick consciously because his father was a cellist and his famous grandmother was a feisty woman who was one of the last survivors of Auschwitz, in the women’s orchestra, she knows what it’s like to be taken away from home to be put in slavery. Steve and Ben and Anne-Marie and Tristan sit in a room and make and play music. I play piano, I wrote all of it on piano first. It came from endless conversations with Steve.
They play in your red lair at the Santa Monica studio?
In my room, people can speak their minds and speak to each other. It’s our refuge in Los Angeles. We move couches out of the way, for the six of us and the editor. We gather around in circles. I’ve written two bits on a piece of paper, Solomon’s theme. [On the screen] Solomon is writing a letter. Tristan started playing cello humming along, it happened in the moment. A lot of things were reacting to who was in the room, and the picture, and the cast. We did it over a long period of time. It didn’t mean we were playing all the time. One of the troubles with having six articulate people in the room, a lot of it turned into friends talking about things like slavery and world problems and art. It wasn’t like the way other people make movies. Not like sessions–more conversational, casual and organic.
McQueen helped to guide you?
Absolutely. Steve has a painterly approach to things. Sometimes in the moment he didn’t know how to get out of a scene, it had to be like a paint brush glide across canvas as it leaves the canvas, how music leaves a scene. He got that I knew what to do with things like this. We never want to talk about music. We want to play it.
Music is this odd beast. It’s indefensible. You play something that either moves somebody or not. You can’t talk somebody into liking something. The reason I’m emphasizing that Steve was in the room when the music was created was because his presence was like he was a part of the band. He was a musician even though he didn’t play an instrument. A look, a smile, he conducted the whole procedure. Because Solomon Northup was a true story, his book existed, a man had lived this life, in a funny way our conversations were circling around to the book and the man himself. His ghost was in the room all the time. Joe Walter from the Royal College of Music is our editor and an incredible musician. All of these things created a certain ambience and environment.
Do you work this way with anyone else?
It’s sort of how I work with Chris Nolan, we have a good way of working together. If you stare the beast of the unwritten score in the eye it will make you blink. Ron was there during “Rush,” there all the time when making music. You try to work with your friends.
For “Interstellar” I wrote the main theme last January. For once I got a foothold on this. I traded off going away for the Christmas holidays to spend a week on “Interstellar” obsessed with it and the ideas. I spent three months in the summer working on it. I’m supposed to have a summer holiday, but I was doing research trying things for “Interstellar.” It won’t leave me alone. It’s his words, his stories, the subject won’t let me sleep at night. That’s why we are secretive, with a purpose. It’s a great joy to let people see something new and unexpected. Isn’t that the job we’re supposed to do, to surprise people? We need to have privacy, to bring the noise down, to be able to focus, to be able to make a small group to create ideas. Privacy is a vital element to hear yourself think and have notes jump into your head.
Talk about the challenges of writing “Rush.” It was a low-budget Ron Howard movie.
I always knew that with “Rush” there were two ways of going about it. “Oh my god, horrible car noises,” or go and celebrate it: use the cars and the loud impact part of a huge orchestra. For a while I wasn’t going to write any music for the race. But I figured out how to frame them. The music is smaller during the race so the cars sound louder, there’s something to compare them to. The most exciting thing about “Rush” was that it took me back to my roots working on an English indie movie with Peter Morgan and [Working Title co-chief] Eric Fellner, who I’d grown up with and did my first movies with him and Tim Bevan, like 16 mm “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Sammy and Rosie Got Laid.”
Ron Howard told me, “I want to take you on an adventure, forget Hollywood, I’ll take you into a wild European indie movie.” He embraced the whole process. So did I. I’m not a studio, I’m just a musician. I’m proud of this movie and had a great time making it, it was so worth every second we put into it. Everybody did great work, like cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Ron didn’t need to make this movie, nobody made it to get rich. We love making movies, and “Rush” was the pure experience in that regard. We got to make the movie we wanted to make, for better or for worse. I think that a lot of ideas and energy came from working in a different way. “Rush” is a score with four or five musicians, there’s something very similar to “12 Years,” with Ron in the room.
Some people get confused about your authorship of these collaborative scores.
Filmmaking is collaborative, why does it need to stop when it comes to music? Because the director doesn’t have the vocabulary? The musicians I work with speak English as well as I do, we’re talking about story, character, pace, editing. We’re talking about the film as a whole.
I am still an architect. Authorship seems to be more difficult for other people. My head runs over with ideas, I can’t sleep at night, I get home and get another idea, go back to studio and do it. I am surrounded by brilliant musicians, it’s a give and take, constantly. The original concept is mine. I ask Ron how “Rush” should sound. He’ll blame me. We work strictly in collaboration with conversations we’ve had. I was speaking to somebody yesterday about an idea. Beethoven had an orchestrator. He did it all himself –[sings the “dum dum dum dum” opening of the Ninth Symphony]– then the orchestra would do the rest. He would have been well pissed off if someone said the orchestra came up with [that opening]. At the end of the day the things that is remembered is the big idea, the tune, the hooks in the architecture.