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Hans Zimmer on His Original 100-Minute ‘Dunkirk’ Score and Prioritizing the Joker for ‘Dark Knight’ Music

"We suffered for our ambition," Zimmer tells MPAA while looking back on his ambitious plans with Christopher Nolan.

Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan

Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan

Dave Allocca/StarPix/Shutterstock

Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan have been collaborating since “Batman Begins” in 2005, carving out a name for themselves as one of the best director-composer partnerships in Hollywood. Zimmer earned an Oscar nomination for the duo’s last effort, “Dunkirk,” and spoke to the Motion Picture Association of America at TIFF about Nolan’s ambitious initial plan for the original score.

“Chris came to me with this idea, basically, ‘Dunkirk’ exists in a [single] piece of music,” Zimmer said. “The whole movie was originally written as one 100-minute piece of music, which seemed like a really good idea at the time, and nobody had done it before, and then we suffered for our ambition when it came to how are we actually going to make this work.”

Zimmer and Nolan ultimately settled on a more traditional film score comprised of several different tracks, but you can still hear the consistency of the work as a whole due to the unifying theme of a ticking clock. The idea for a 100-minute film score is an unconventional one, but Zimmer said that is often how he approaches his film scores with Nolan. When he was working on Nolan’s Batman sequel “The Dark Knight,” for instance, he was focused entirely on the Joker and not the eponymous superhero.

“My main focus was the Joker and I spent crazy amounts of time writing ideas,” Zimmer said. “So many different versions of getting to what this character could be about, it was impossible to listen to all of it sitting down in one go. I knew Chris had to go finish the shoot in Hong Kong and had a long plane ride ahead of him, so I bought him an iPod and literally filled it up with the Joker stuff…And he said listening to it really didn’t make him a better person. It was pretty disturbing.”

Writing music for the Joker meant living inside the character’s headspace, which for Zimmer wasn’t so unlike Heath Ledger going method to play the villain. “I was living there; you didn’t want to be around me,” Zimmer said about how the Joker music affected him.

“I have no right to be a film composer, so the only way I know how to do it is to sort of become the movie for a while, which can be a bit odd,” Zimmer continued. “You can’t do research, but the thing with the Joker was, and this is the thing I kept hanging on to; he’s the only character in the movie who always speaks the truth. The Joker never tells a lie. I always thought, first of all, he should be quiet. It’s scary because how quiet some of it is. It’s insidious.”

Zimmer’s “The Dark Knight” original score was also Oscar nominated. Next up for the film composer is Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” in theaters November 16, and 2019’s “Wonder Woman 1989.” Read Zimmer’s full TIFF interview over on the MPAA’s official website.

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