IndustryCentral - Clef Notes

An interview with Hans Zimmer

Interview by Edwin Black

Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer
Film composer Hans Zimmer has scored an extraordinary influence over movie music in such motion pictures as Rainman, Black Rain, Driving Miss Daisy, As Good As it Gets, Lion King, and Crimson Tide. Movie music critic Edwin Black spoke at length with the composer in his studio in March of '98 and again in September by phone. The edited transcript of those interviews follows.

Edwin Black: More soundtrack music is available today than ever before. In the '60s, when I first became fascinated with soundtrack music, you could purchase a dozen or so records per year. Now some 500 are released annually, more than one per day between new and re-released material. So there much more quantity coming out. But what about the quality?

Hans Zimmer: Within any year I see 90--no, maybe 98--percent horrible stuff and two percent quality.

B: Last year, what scores were that two percent quality?

Z: I'm not sure. But one I did actually like was The English Patient.

B: What about Starship Troopers?

Z: One great cue in there, I thought, was a slow string piece. It wasn't a big theme. I thought, wow, this is really great writing. I was much more impressed by that than all the bombastic stuff. As for me, I certainly didn't write anything great last year. B: If you didn't do anything great, what was the best you did do?

Z: Peacemaker. I liked one theme in it.

B: The "Sarajevo" theme?

Z: Yes, all that stuff around that thematic neighborhood. Because it was inspired. We all have craft, we all have technique. But the moments of inspiration, that's where it really happens for composers.

B: Are you saying the current filmmaking environment makes inspiration and innovation less possible?

Z: Right. For one, there's just too much music being used.

B: Remember the chase scene in Bullitt had no music.

Z: The fight in Rocky had no music either. I know that for a fact because a producer once said to me that he wanted the scene to sound like the Rocky fight and that my music was all wrong. I went out and got the video of Rocky and discovered the scene had no music.

B: John Barry recently scored Mercury Rising. He employed his traditional introspective commentary music for the action scenes. It wasn't all boom boom and blast.

Z: Right. And how many movies did John try that where they fired him because they didn't think it would work?

B: Two or three.

Z: At least. You hire John for exactly that thing which he does...and sometimes you must have a lot of courage.

B: If you hire John Barry for that thing that John Barry does, why do you hire Hans Zimmer?

Z: I have no idea. I'm this loose cannon--all over the place. I can do action movies and romantic comedies. And I'm a good collaborator--which means I'm cantankerous and opinionated. I compose from a point of view. Point of view is the most important thing to have, and it doesn't necessarily have to be the director's point of view. In fact, great directors welcome disagreement and bringing something new to the party. The bottom line is I'm trying to serve the film just like the director is trying to serve the film. A film takes on a life of its own, and you just hang on for dear life. Eventually, it starts talking back to you. It's an odd process.

B: So why so many action movie assignments?

Z: You know why I did all those action movies? Because when I was a kid in Europe, all I got to score was art movies. In those days, all I wanted to do was go to Hollywood, compose for action movies and sound like John Williams. But in truth I didn't know how. So Black Rain, my first action movie, was original but only by virtue of my own stupidity. My lack of knowledge made it original.

B: I've listened to the Black Rain CD 300 or 400 times. But I rented the video to check the music in some of my favorite scenes. You composed long cues, but they are used in the movie only for an instant.

Z: Would you like to know what happened? Our producer, Stanley Jaffe, at the time, hated everything I was doing. And hated it so much that I actually got shouted at after a screening at Paramount, and I fainted. So by the time we got to the dub stage, I was just living in fear. We were battling the system. And it's very odd because Monday night after the Oscars, I went to a little private party. Michael Douglas was there, and he said, "You really saved my ass in Black Rain." And I thought, "Wow, great. Thank you, Michael, you realized what I did."

B: But why isn't the Black Rain Suite in the final cut? You only hear a few seconds of a twenty-minute piece.

Z: Because it's always a war. Well, not always, but most of the time it's a war. You're in a battle and you lose faith and you lose heart--especially when your producer tells you that is the worst piece of music he's ever heard.

B: And whose decision is it to pick up the editing knife?

Z: The director. In Black Rain, that was Ridley Scott. But Ridley was getting beat up as well.

B: So he's listening to the producer, Stanley Jaffe?

Z: We weren't listening to anybody anymore. We just couldn't catch our breath. In Thelma and Louise, Ridley used everything I wrote. In fact, he liked the theme that became "Thunderbird" so much that he tagged an opening with credits onto the film. Originally, credits were at the end. But he just wanted to hear that piece of music again. So, it's the same director working under completely different circumstances. In Thelma and Louise, it was just the two of us having the freedom to make our own decisions without getting crap kicked out of us.

B: Let's talk about the temp track, that is, the temporary score used during pre-screenings. Temp tracks have become controversial because so often they intrude into the final commissioned score.

Z: Yes, take As Good As It Gets--you can't temp it. They tried something, but it just didn't work. So I just started writing a score. Then we actually previewed my score in front of an audience to find out if it worked. We wouldn't say: "Pay attention to the score." We would just see how the movie progressed. Would it answer emotional questions for the audience, or would there be criticism of certain scenes.

B: When does the preconceived notion of the director intrude into your creativity?

Z: This is a very real problem. In As Good as It Gets, for example, I ultimately managed to dissuade the director Jim Brooks from every expectation. He said write a big romantic Americana score, and I wrote a small European score. You know, it depends on who you work with. If you do a big action movie, I suppose you're stuck. It's very hard to reinvent that form.

B: K2 was your only rejected film score?

Z: K2 was an odd thing. Someone else scored the movie, then my good friend, Franc Roddam asked me to rescore it. They ended up making lots of picture changes, so my score only made it to the European territories, and different versions went to the Japan and American territories.

B: When the score is not accepted, is the composer paid and free to take it elsewhere?

Z: The rule is you must be fired. You can't quit. If you quit, you don't get to pass GO. If you're fired you get paid.

B: Then you walk with the score?

Z: No, you don't walk with the recording because they paid for that.

B: I'm reminded of the original music to Prince of Tides by John Barry which was rejected and eventually became the beautiful score to Across the Sea of Time.

Z: I'm reminded of Randy Newman's (rejected) score for Air Force One. I heard it and said, "I have never written an action cue as good as this. And I'm supposed to be good at action stuff." Jerry Goldsmith did the replacement score. But When I saw the movie, I kept howling with laughter throughout the film. It was so patriotic. I don't know, it wasn't my cup of tea.

B: A bit too violent.

Z: No, it wasn't even the violence. It was all that overdone patriotism. I just thought it was hilarious. And I know that as a cynic, Randy's patriotic themes reflected a twinkle in the corner his eye. But I think they caught him at it. And the one thing you can't do when you're being cynical or satirical, is get caught at it. I should know. I got caught at it big-time in Broken Arrow. But I wanted to be caught. I didn't think we could sell an audience this bill of goods as a serious movie.

B: I seemed to be hearing some Ennio Morricone in there.

Z: Absolutely. But that's because I thought we were doing a Western! (laughs)

B: And Morricone's style goes back to Dimitri Tiomkin--High Noon. Morricone was just selling the American cowboy film back to us in the form of the spaghetti western.

Z: Yes. In Broken Arrow, we used that style because it was "big man" music. The guitar sound as well. I always thought Ennio wanted to work with Duane Eddy. So I just got the real Duane Eddy. In the score, you'll hear him plucking away. And it was great fun. And I know people got very worried about the music during the previews. I remember at one showing, in the third act when Travolta comes back--he should have been dead by the second act--and the little guitar tune comes in. The audience actually laughed--in a good way. They knew I wasn't being patronizing, thinking the audience was an idiot. My intent was just make the film fun, when there's no real story to tell. Well, I guess there was a story about betrayal between two men who've been friends forever. But that's not really what the movie was about. It was about blowing up a lot of things.

B: Your shop of multiple composers, known as Media Ventures, is something new in the field. Major composers always had their own team. Media Ventures, however, is larger, more diverse, employing composers in their own right, such as Harry Gregson-Williams and Mark Mancina, composers who receive their own screen credits. Yet your musical signature is undeniably there heard in most of the work. When directors offer projects to Media Ventures, who in truth is being retained, Hans Zimmer or the other composers?

Z: It depends. Media Ventures is larger, but only for one really stupid reason. It started this way: when you are European wanting to break into the Hollywood film business you don't stand a chance. But Barry Levinson gave me a shot in Rain Man, and that was very gracious and courageous. Then I knew all these other composer friends who never got a shot at anything. Just because I'd done a few successful films, director and producers felt safe, like I could pull rabbits out of hats. So I just dragged some of my friends in and tried to get their careers off the ground as well. And why? Out of the most stupid reason: I really like hearing their music--people like John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Mark Mancina. But it's true, we always have to watch out, that everything doesn't sound like me.

B: I just heard Replacement Killers, which Gregson-Williams scored. I'm hearing good original music. But I am also hearing sections that are kissing cousins to Peacemaker, which you wrote.

Z: Yes, the problem is that the whole sound starts to get identifiable.

B: Inevitably, the questions is, is it a collaboration or is one guy going into a cave to score?

Z: He's scoring in a cave. For Replacement Killers, I didn't even hear what he was doing. I mean, we all talk a lot together about our projects. For instance, John is working on Endurance, a film Terry Malick is producing. At the same time, I'm working on Thin Red Line, a film Terry Malick is directing. Endurance is nothing I could possible write. It's as far from my style as you can possibly get.

B: So how much of you is in The Rock which has a mishmash of music credits?

Z: The main theme is mine, as are a few other bits. It's really hard to tell. I do have a huge influence in there. But I never really wanted to write any of it. It was always supposed to be Nick Glennie-Smith's score.

B: I heard this was a rescue job on a score started by another composer. How much time were you allotted for the rescue?

Z: None, it seems. I think I must have worked four weeks around the clock.

B: Was this the shortest time you ever had to work on a piece?

Z: No. It was the rescore for White Fang. I don't think I even have a credit on it, but I probably wrote 80 minutes of music in 16 days. It was sort of a dare that producer Jeffrey Katzenberg threw at me. And I was foolish enough to say yes. I delivered, and never told Jeffrey I was sick as a dog for two weeks afterwards. But when you're a kid you take on any old dare. You know, Lion King was short, it took about three and a half weeks.

B: Has Lion King--and your Academy Award for it--made a difference in your career? Because there were always movie music buffs who knew the name Hans Zimmer. But Lion King put you before the general public.

Z: First, I realized that I should not write things in three and a half weeks. Lion King could have been better if I had spent twice the time. Second, it's dangerous to work with black and white preproduction drawings and not have color because I think I got the orchestration wrong in a few places. Third, Lion King also made me reassess my situation in this town. You can go two ways. I admit that standing on the stage getting an Oscar is the most seductive moment one can have in one's life. It is truly overwhelming. And then you go, wow, if I just carry on writing nice music like this, I can have this moment again. It's a very Faustian sort of thing. That's why I did the exact opposite, scoring for truly offensive projects like The Fan. Just to shake myself out of the desire for that Oscar experience. Otherwise I would just stagnate. Nothing new would happen. For me, it's still about trying to write decent music. Ironically, despite all the scores I've written, there are very few I'm proud of.

B: Those are?

Z: A World Apart, Driving Miss Daisy, and a couple of cues in Crimson Tide. Black Rain had somehow set up a new way action movies should be scored. Soon everybody was doing the Black Rain thing. In Crimson Tide, I managed to break out of that trend, push it a bit further. So it was an evolutionary step.

B: The descendent of the Crimson Tide style would be Peacemaker?

Z: Yes. In Peacemaker, I managed to finish off all the ideas that I didn't quite get right in Crimson Tide. How many sunflowers scenes did Van Gogh paint before he was happy? You know what I mean? Sometimes it's nice to go over old ground just because you learn something. In film scoring, there's revolution and there's evolution.

B: Crimson Tide and Peacemaker aside, how do you feel about what I think is your best work?

Z: Drop Zone?

B: Correct.

Z: Drop Zone was written just for fun. I was being reckless--nothing to prove, nothing to lose. The director was just happy I was working with him. Remember, I come from rock n roll. At the same time, I grew up with classical music. So I'm always torn between the two. In Drop Zone, I could do both. And it never hurt! You know, with some scores, you come away with a lot of scars. In Drop Zone there weren't any. It was just a blast.

B: Scars?

Z: You just wear out your system. The late nights, the arguments. Crimson Tide was so hilarious because director Tony Scott, the producer Jerry Bruckheimer and I all argued for a whole week about one cue-- with me doing no writing. We just sat there, we'd come in every day and we'd go at each other.

B: So on the short list of best works, we can add Drop Zone?

Z: We can add Drop Zone, absolutely.

B: What else can we add?

Z: We can also add a little film I did for the BBC which I adore, which nobody has ever seen, called Two Deaths. I think it's some of the best stuff I ever composed.

B: I have some others that few know about-- Millennium and Fools of Fortune.

Z: Fools of Fortune was the first time anyone let me loose with an orchestra. I wrote it in two weeks. It's one of the few early scores I still really like. Maybe because I got all the romanticism out of my system.

B: So why hasn't the good music from Days of Thunder even been released?

Z: Because there wasn't any good music in it. Thelma and Louise, everybody keeps asking me why don't I release more of that?

B: I used to ask that same question. But I recently re-watched the film just to spot additional worthy cues? Yet I couldn't hear any music except for the Thunderbird theme at the end.

Z: There really isn't. People are under the impression there is. But I go around that one Thunderbird theme a couple of times, plus some little rock n rollish type things. I hate overstaying my welcome on these CDs--so there's just not enough. In fact, Crimson Tide is far too long a CD. If I allowed a score-only Thelma and Louise CD, it probably would have been only 10 minutes long.

B: Nor did Bird on a Wire ever release.

Z: It was too expensive to release.

B: Because of the orchestra union's reuse fees?

Z: Yes, I recorded Bird on a Wire in the U.S. If it's a 103-piece orchestra, you're talking serious dollars. Unless it was recorded overseas, say Hungary or London. On the other hand, when it is just me playing on the synthesizer, as in Green Card or Regarding Henry, we don't have all those expensive reuse fees. So those get released. Drop Zone, with that big orchestral sound was actually just me on synthesizer and Pete Haycock on guitar.

B: So why is one US-recorded score too expensive to release, and the next one not?

Z: Because someone says: "This could be it. This can sell some copies."

B: What if your name is Jerry Goldsmith and you don't want to compose on the synthesizer. Why are most of his orchestral scores released?

Z: Because he's Jerry Goldsmith. And he keeps going to Scotland to record with the Royal Scottish Philharmonic.

B: Yet his scores keep coming out. The Edge was one of his best in recent times.

Z: I also thought it was a great score, even better than LA Confidential.

B: Yes, LA Confidential was actually the third grandnephew of...

Z: ...Chinatown.

B: So fans will simply never hear Days of Thunder or Bird on a Wire?

Z: I don't think so. But then again, I've done some truly bad scores and Days of Thunder is one of them.

B: So you wouldn't like it to be re-released years from now as many old film scores are?

Z: No. Very often I'm the one saying, "No I don't think so, guys. Let's not do this one." There's just a big difference between how music works in the movie and releasing that score on a CD.

B: When you're composing, are you thinking about the CD or the movie, or both?

Z: I'm thinking about the movie--all the time. Today I'm sitting here mixing Prince of Egypt and everybody else is telling me it sounds great. But I just have doubts about it. Constantly. But that's the way I'm built. At the same time, the studio is asking me, what tracks are going on the CD, and I'm saying, "I don't know. Maybe two minutes's worth."

B: How long did you work on Prince of Egypt?

Z: I started on the songs three and half years ago, long before any drawings were made. Animators must coordinate to lip movements, so they really needed the songs first. For years, I worked on the project just one or two days per month--and even became involved in story shaping. During this same time, I completed a number of other scores including Peacemaker and As Good as it Gets.

B: How involved were you in the visual product?

Z: Animation is a very collaborative process. Everybody just puts their two cents in. Then you look at a storyboard and see someone heard your idea. But Prince of Egypt was especially daunting--a Bible story. I was constantly worried about offending people. So last January I just allowed myself the shortest possible time frame to compose the score portion. I just went with my instincts. By February. I was mixing.

B: What was the big difference between Prince of Egypt and Lion King?

Z: Unlike Lion King, for Prince of Egypt I had plenty of color drawings. Everything but the burning bush. In Lion King, I wasn't that involved with animation and didn't really understand the process. For Prince of Egypt, I saw the color charts. In fact, in the Burning Bush sequence I wrote the score first and then they colored it.

B: What type of scars did Prince of Egypt leave?

Z: While recording in London, I was the most miserable I have ever been. I was so grumpy because I thought I ruined the whole movie. I dropped into a complete insecurity. I was convinced none of the music would fit the action. Then, I became more and more panicked and didn't tell anybody. But everyone around me noticed. I was impossible to be with. Finally, one of my staffers kicked me out of the studio for a week and half to organize everything. There were 88 tracks of music. Imagine you are an air traffic controller. There are 88 airplanes circling over LAX, all running out of fuel, and you must decide which one lands first. That's what it was like. Now they are saying its a great score. So it's easy for me to answer, "no problem."

B: How was Israeli singer Ofra Haza selected for the lead songs?

Z: I have always loved Ofra and asked for her. If I ask hard enough, I get it. and she was the first person we cast. She is tremendous and recorded 13 of the foreign translations as well.

B: So is Prince of Egypt going to rate on your short list of favorite soundtracks?

Z: Yes. Just because the burning bush was so impossible to score, but I think I pulled it off.

B: Do you score on notation paper, or on computer?

Z: Computer.

B: And do you score out the complete orchestration yourself?

Z: Yes, absolutely. Nobody comes in. But I do send the finished work to an orchestrator, my friend Bruce Fowler, who goes through the score to make sure it is actually playable by human beings.

B: Earlier, we were talking about innovation and inspiration. Just where is it? Consider: Magnificent Seven, Psycho, Midnight Cowboy, the James Bond series, Omen--these are lasting themes that we all know. Is soundtrack music more prolific, but less inspired? Among all the thousands of scores being released--how much of it has become memorable?

Z: You want a name? John Williams' Shindler's List.

B: Which thrives on one genre theme.

Z: But you know I think it's as good as John has ever written. I looked at that score very closely when I was starting to do Prince of Egypt, because the one thing I didn't want to do is go anywhere near that music, for obvious reasons. So first, I just listened to it for the fun of it. Second, I just got drawn in, not only into the craftsmanship, but just the genius of it.

B: So you can name one or two great scores. Yet among the thousands in recent years, you don't see 10, 20 or 30 great scores?

Z: You might not have them because the movies might not have happened. Why is the score from Titanic so incredibly successful?

B: Yeah, why?

Z: Because it works with the movie. I think it works on the lowest common denominator. No more, no less. But it works.

B: Yet the score to Titanic has done a great deal for the world of soundtracks.

Z: I know. But now we're going to hear these generic Titanic songs. Like Feelings has become a very annoying song. We have to differentiate between popularity and quality. The Los Angeles Times ran a great headline a few years ago after a Michael Bolton concert here saying, "Five Million People Can Be Wrong."

B: What about the proliferation of pop songs within the soundtracks. I'm writing a story for the Chicago Tribune called Scores vs. Songs. And my first sentence is going to be, "Why does Godzilla need a song?"

Z: Yeah, why does it? I have no idea.

B: Well, maybe the producers are now looking at the billion bucks associated with Titanic.

Z: Marketability.

B: Producers say "I need a hit record."

Z: There are two things going on. On the one hand, you have the action, or light, fun kind of movies which always need songs flying around, for their genre of picture. On the other hand, there are movies like The English Patient, which I believe didn't have a song.

B: So do you see soundtrack music becoming more creative, more inspired, or is it all going to homogenize into sound effects--what I call museffex?

Z: Here's my own personal theory. Warner Bros. has had a very bad year. And they've always specialized in the big effects movie. The Postman didn't do well for them at all. Batman and Robin didn't--I thought it was an atrocious film. I think the big effects thing is becoming passe. We're bored with it. Jim Brooks and I went low-tech with As Good As It Gets. Our biggest special effect is somebody driving a car.Nobody's shooting at anybody.

B: Are you saying we're going to cycle back to the inspired music?

Z: But you see inspired music arises from an inspired movie which arises from an inspired script.

B: Thank you, Mr. Zimmer.

Edwin Black writes on movie music for Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Film Score Monthly, Spectrum Magazine, Hollywood Online in the US, Music for the Movies, Movie Wave, and Broxweb in England, TraxZone in France, and he moderates movie.music on Fox's Bix. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, Format C:.


© 1998 Feature Group Inc.
Republished from Film Score Monthly
The Online Magazine of Motion Picture and Television Music Appreciation
All Rights Reserved

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