Inside Hans Zimmer’s panoramic, wall-to-wall burgundy studio are claw-footed sofas, velvet armchairs, gilded bookshelves, dimly glowing lamps made from skulls, custom bedazzled guitars, a grand piano and, on a central coffee table, an unopened pack of Marlboro Lights.
Collaborators bustle in and out of the room like Marx Brothers extras. It’s as if this storied composer were moonlighting in a Transylvanian bordello.
German-born Zimmer’s lair at Remote Control Productions in Santa Monica has been his creative home-away-from-home since 2000, around the time he composed the stirring “Gladiator” score. But he never sleeps there, and takes time away from his work to do other things. Zimmer admittedly had a hell of a time at the Grammys last weekend, where he hopped onstage to shred guitar alongside “Despicable Me” pal Pharrell. “I am a rock ‘n roller, and I’ll always be a rock ‘n roller,” he said.
But he also feels strongly about working with people like Christopher Nolan who, when “Interstellar” was but a nascent spore, came to Zimmer with a page of dialogue and notes and without any indication of genre or scale asked him to write a piece of music about a father and a son.
That son, of course, turned out to be Jessica Chastain’s Murph in the film, and that score (listen below) came to be the haunting, organ-driven orchestrations that accompany Nolan’s cosmos. Zimmer refers to Nolan and himself as “we.” It’s as if they were married.
An industry workhorse who’s almost immediately lovable when you sit down with him, Zimmer could well win the Academy Award (his first since 1995’s “The Lion King”). Our in-depth interview is below.
What are your strengths and weakness as a composer?
My weakness is that I didn’t go to music school, and that my formal education is two weeks of piano lessons. My strength is that I know how to listen. One of the main things any good composer will tell you is is that at a certain point in time, at a very early age, they learned how to listen, and listen inside the music. But I think it goes beyond that. I’m good at reading, at listening to subtext and the way Chris Nolan and I work is we listen to each other. There’s this image, in a funny way, that the composer is this nearly uncontrollable element that comes into the film because a director can probably write words, speak words, rewrite a script, probably act a little bit, he can look through the camera, he has control, and that when it comes to the composer, he has to abdicate that control because what’s he going to say to me? “A C major chord here would be the best thing”?
That’s not how Chris and I work. Everybody always talks about film being a collaborative medium but I think we really sort of figured it out for each other, how to be really close. It’s a silly way of describing it but I truly see Chris as “We are the band” and he’s the co-creator of the score. Right from the way he set up the mechanism of how the score was written; I don’t come in at the end, I came in before anybody else came in. I’m sure you know this story by now, where he said to me, If you were to write me a page of something without being specific to genre or anything like this, would I give him a day and write something? That became our process. The process was conversation. The process was experimentation. While he was writing, while he was shooting, I was writing, and the music was happening sort of in a — to use an “Interstellar” term — parallel universe, really. But at the same time, the day he finished his cut, there was a complete score. The word “temp score” doesn’t ever appear in Chris’ vocabulary other than as something he doesn’t want.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your partnership with Nolan?
Technology allows you to do this. The score wasn’t there in the movie completely synthesized. Everybody said to us, “Oh so you guys are finished?” No you don’t understand the things we hear in our heads. And this is back to the strengths and weaknesses. The strength is both Chris and I had all these ideas in our head; the weakness is, how do you tell somebody I hear something that I can’t describe? We’ve got to go and record an orchestra. We have to go and get these other actors, the last actors that really get to participate in this film, because t’s incredibly important to both Chris and I that the music gets performed by real human beings, for so many reasons, one of the slightest being, “Who else but us can still, on a daily basis, commission music on a daily basis that’s going to be performed by orchestras?” Because if we were to lose the orchestras it would be more than just a few musicians being out of work– it would be like some tragedy to the culture of humanity.
Put all that aside. There’s something that happens when real people come. You treat them truly as collaborators. The usual image is the conductor or the composer standing on a podium looking down at the orchestra. That’s not how Chris and I work: we actually sit at eye-level with the musicians, and we talk to them about subtext. What we did on “Interstellar,” the night before we started recording, we rented a room and had a big dinner with all the principals in the orchestra just to talk about our ambitions and our ideas because at the end of the day if you just write middle C onto a page, it means nothing if you don’t give it context. We didn’t tell them a story because we never tell you a story, but we tell them the subtext, where these notes fit into the tapestry of this film.
What kind of subtext?
The way Chris approached me with this letter, and the trick he pulled on me by writing about a father and a son– I have a son, Jake, whose ambition is to become a scientist. There were lots of biographical breadcrumbs that he had put into this thing. Actually Jake was one of the first people to see the film, which was great, sitting next to the person I had written about. Talking to them about the idea of something that is so vast, and so in a peculiar way epic and in the pure sense of the word should become so minute and so maintain specificity towards the personal, and maintain the purity of the simplicity of the themes. At the same time, because we were celebrating science. One of the things I loved about this movie was that we weren’t putting science and scientist as the sort of geeky sidekick: we were putting them bang-center in the conversation. The idea for Chris, we had spent nine years of our lives doing the Batman trilogy and for people to see it as, “Oh you guys did these three movies,” they forget that nine years is a serious chunk of life that has gone by, the seconds of our life kicking away in that time. I saw my son grow during that time. Chris and I keep coming back to the subject of time in one way or another.
He gave you an inscribed watch. Are you you wearing it?
Yes! On the back, it’s our motto. It’s a line from the movie but it’s absolutely our motto of how we work: “This is no time for caution.” I don’t think the world really understands our business, the business of making films, and all I want to do is tell the world how incredible it is that somebody like Chris Nolan can have the audacity and the courage to go and make this huge, imaginative movie and make it a success. Whatever we try to do, I want you to expect the unexpected and we are trying to reinvent ourselves every chance we get, and just celebrate that Chris is that sort of a filmmaker, that we have somebody like Chris. When I run into him and he says, “Let me give you this letter and take you on this crazy adventure,” the answer, of course, is yes. Always.
Where did the organ come from?
Part of it was, in those nine years, on Batman and “Inception,” we did create a really strong sonic identity…
…like that huge brass “braaam” in “Inception,” what you are now, for many, synonymous with unfortunately.
I know! I know, I know! Rather than generalize let’s just go and stick with it. The idea of the low brass thing, which was written in the script, it was a story point. And then it became a trailer device. Of course we said, “Let’s throw all of this out, let’s throw out every single one of the tools and devices we had used in the past and just see what we can come up with.” So we made a list: no action drums, no kinetic strings, no big brass craziness. And then we’re suddenly left with, we’ve taken all the crayons out of the coloring box. Chris actually said, “What about a pipe organ?” I had these two very conflicting thoughts happen: One was, “Hang on a second, that’s gothic horror movie territory” and going “Well, no, that’s what makes it interesting.” How can I go and use this device, which has so much stigma attached to it, and write new music for it. I don’t think there’s that much new music being written for it. And secondly, as he said it, I just saw those huge 32-foot pipes and went, “This looks exactly like the after-burners on a spaceship.” That’s a good metaphor.
What did you love about the organ?
The other metaphor I loved — and all these thoughts were rushing into my head as he said — was so much of the movie is about air, in a funny way. The winds across the cornfield, or that in space oxygen is at a premium, and we humans can’t exist without air. A church organ can’t make a sound without air. At the same time, there’s the ridiculous force of air being pushed through those pipes and it makes that tremendous racket. It truly shakes.
I loved that it was a piece of technology that was invented to serve music. There’s a real organic quality, and part of it is: science once upon a time was in the service of art, in a big way, in those cathedrals being built, sometimes it took a few generations to finish those. We have quite a few cathedrals around that are still not quite finished, and people didn’t mind investing that sort of time and doing something really well. I felt it was part of the subtext of what the movie was speaking about.
You’re picking two where the relationships, even though they’re two completely different people, are very similar. This room is really an important part of that. In “Rush,” Ron was sitting on this couch with Peter Morgan — it’s great to have the writer here as well. Going back Chris, one of the things I love about him is he’s a writer/director. He has to know the answer. When I ask him, “Why is this happening here?” even if he has to do a furious bit of intellectual tap-dancing and make it up on the spot, it’s good to be able to ask the question. With Ron on “Rush,” having Peter Morgan here as well, we were just talking about the movie. We’re not really talking about music, and we can spend days, weeks sitting in this room just talking about the movie before you start shooting. Right now, we’re speaking in English which is not my first language. The only way I can say what I really mean is to start playing. So much of the textures or melodies or ideas are developed while having the director here, but while I talk to you in English here, in words, I can hide behind words. But I can’t hide behind my tunes. It’s the only time I feel truly fragile and exposed. There has to be an enormous element of trust for me to go and do good work. Chris will put up walls and safety nets all around me, where I can be fragile.
Is there ever a point where someone hires you and then just gets out of the way?
I like it being collaborative. It goes the other way around as well. There comes a certain point in every single movie that Chris and I have done together where we somehow reverse the conversation, where he’s talking more about the music and I’m talking more about the story. We’ve taken on each other’s roles in a funny way. We’re questioning each other constantly. Sometimes people get out of the way and I like that less. One of the things about the directors I work with, like Ron, he will be the first man on the set and the last one to leave. Same with Chris. I like people who roll up their sleeves and work. There’s this silly thing people are forever saying to you: “Hey do you want to come and do this project? It’ll be fun.” If you want the honest truth, just take the word “fun” out and put the word “work” in its place and you’ll get closer to the truth. I like working with the Steve McQueens, Ron Howards, Chris Nolans, Ridley Scotts who really get in the trenches with you and know what it’s like and who feel secure enough in themselves that I can tell Ron sometimes, “I have no idea what to do” and we try to find the answer together.
Part of the composer’s job is to do that thing that you can’t do elegantly in words or pictures, so I have to find my place. Not having had a formal education means I have to find my personal place within the story. Even if I invent it — no, I have never been to space, but I can write about that. I can write about science, my father was a scientist. I can write about what that journey is.
Do you listen to other music while you’re composing at any stage, or do you have to be completely tabula rasa?
No, you can’t. John Powell and Danny Elfman and I all did this roundtable the other day and the guy asked, “Do you guys listening to film music?” Before any of us can say anything, John just went, “You must be fucking kidding.” No, we can’t. All of us. We can’t listen to anything while we’re writing because you’re hanging onto your idea for dear life. It must be like you when you’re writing. Either whatever it is you’re listening to, just because it’s finished sounds so much better and intimidates you, or it just starts blunting that little idea that you have in your head that you’re hanging on for dear life. The only time I can listen to music when I’m writing.
But you’re writing all the time.
I’m writing quite a lot. It’s a really great question actually because I have never been able to say this but I actually really miss listening to music because I can’t, and music is my first love and my greatest friend, and I’d love to just go and go crazy. That’s why, a couple of days ago during the Grammys, it wasn’t just about Pharrell letting me unleash my inner rockstar and let me turn into a teenager and make a fool of myself. It was just hearing people play, and play loud. AC/DC’s first chord was loud and boisterous and it brought everything back. I am a rock ‘n roller, and I’ll always be a rock ‘n roller. That’s where I come from. It’s the sound of anarchy that I love.