A prolific composer who managed 12 Years a Slave, Man of Steel, Rush, and The Lone Ranger in 2013 alone, Hans Zimmer has an enviable number of classics on his résumé, and the 56-year-old raconteur is happy to share with you the highlights … and to tell the juicy behind-the-scenes stories that went into making them.
The Thin Red Line
A year before Terrence Malick filmed this World War II masterpiece, he set up a preproduction suite in Zimmer’s own office. “Before he went off to shoot, I actually wrote him a complete score, but I don’t think any of it was left by the time I was finished with the film. I do that with Chris [Nolan] as well, but with Chris,” he laughed, “it usually survives.”
Malick is known for completely reconceiving his movies in the editing room, and this one was no different: As the director cut The Thin Red Line down from what Zimmer says was an initial six-and-a-half-hour version, he virtually eliminated some of the movie’s stars, including initial protagonist Adrien Brody. “There was even a time that Terry got it into his head that I should try to  one of the scenes with this other young editor because we would have a different perspective on it. I remember laboring on this thing for two weeks, combing through all the dailies and coming up with something really average, and then the actual editor, Billy Weber, took a look at it and came back an hour later having turned this piece of shit into something really magical. I realized, ‘Oh, I’m not going to kid myself here! I’m going to go back to doing music now.’”
So how does Zimmer feel when he sees a new commercial that apes his bold Inception score? “Oh, it’s horrible!” he moans. “This is a perfect example of where it all goes wrong. That music became the blueprint for all action movies, really. And if you get too many imitations, even I get confused!” He’s even witnessed the phenomenon firsthand: “By the time we got to The Dark Knight Rises, the studio sent over a trailer with that temp track, and they actually apologized for it. They said, ‘We put the Inception music in there because we didn’t know what else to do, so could you guys maybe come up with something else?’ So we came up with a trailer that was just a few lonely notes – it couldn’t have been more opposite.”
So where did all those BRAMMS originally come from? “I remember before we made the movie,” says Zimmer, “Chris and I were in London at the Sherlock Holmes premiere, and of course it ends up with the two of us in the corner somewhere talking about the movie we’re about to make while everyone else is around us at the premiere going wild. We’re such party animals. And I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, let’s just go and book a studio and get a couple of brass players.’ The sound, really, is that I put a piano in the middle of a church and I put a book on the pedal, and these brass players would basically play into the resonance of the piano. And then I added a bit of electronic nonsense. But really, it just came from saying, ‘Let’s experiment.’”
Pirates of the Caribbean
Ironically, Zimmer wasn’t supposed to work on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise at all, though he would eventually go on to score all four films. “Pirates is a little bit tricky, because the first movie was this sort of bastard child,” says Zimmer. “Alan Silvestri had done the score originally, but I never heard it – people refused to play it for me.”
Director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer wooed Zimmer to replace Silvestri, but it wasn’t an easy sell: For one, Zimmer was already in the middle of another composing job, and more important, Pirates of the Caribbean was supposed to come out in five short weeks. Instead, Zimmer recommended a colleague for the gig, but “The first meeting they all had, it didn’t go so well,” says Zimmer. “I walked in and I saw the panic on Gore’s eyes. I don’t think he even had to say anything to me – I said, ‘Okay, okay, I’ll go home and I’ll see if I can come up with something.’” Ask Zimmer how he feels about the result, and the composer is nothing if not candid: “I mean, I didn’t even write a theme for Jack Sparrow until the second movie – that seems like a bit of an oversight!” he laughs.
Fortunately, the first Pirates installment was a box office behemoth, which gave Zimmer a second (and then a third, and a fourth) chance to refine what he had come up with. “For the second movie, I wrote a very lengthy, very intellectually precise Jack Sparrow theme,” he says. “But the second Pirates movie was really the first sequel I got to work on, and I thought it would be easy. It really wasn’t! I thought I would just re-appropriate everything from the first movie, and it wasn’t like that at all. Again, you learn through failure. Musically, the best one is the third one, because I was a bit embarrassed by how the second one ended, so I really gave it a good college try on the third one.”
The Lion King
Another blockbuster-to-be that Zimmer came to reluctantly was The Lion King, which won him an Oscar. “At first, I didn’t want to do Lion King, because I don’t really like Broadway musicals,” he says. “I thought that’s what Disney wanted from me, but they kept saying, ‘No, no, no, we really like that you don’t like Broadway musicals. We want this to be different.’” Ironically, The Lion King really did become a Broadway musical three years after the movie’s bow, and that stage production is now the highest-grossing Broadway show of all time.
So what does Zimmer remember about that night at the Academy Awards? “First of all, I was convinced I wasn’t going to win it,” he says. “I thought it would go to Forrest Gump. So when they called my name, I just sat there, didn’t hear it. And then my wife was going, ‘Get up.’ And then I got onto that stage and I’m being given this golden thing, looking out across the people, and I just remember all the teeth, everybody smiling and applauding. And this little voice in my head going, ‘Ohh, this feels great. So if I carry on writing nice music like this, I can maybe have this happen again.’ And I remember the next part exactly, because this other voice came and said, ‘There lies ruin.’”
The Oscars, he says, “are incredibly seductive. You see people who you admire and who you think have incredible artistic integrity make complete fools of themselves on that stage. Me included.”
12 Years a Slave
Zimmer is likely to be back in the awards race this year for his work on 12 Years a Slave. He’s such a fan of director Steve McQueen that he didn’t need much wooing to come onboard. “We had a mysterious conversation a couple of years back where he told me he was working on something and asked me if I was even remotely interested in working with him,” says Zimmer. “And I just adore him, so of course I was much more than remotely interested!”
Much of the movie is scored with the same four-note theme, which Zimmer adapts fluidly, depending on the mood of the scene. “Music can actually make you cry. I don’t mean that like a horrible, manipulative thing, but music can get at parts of your psyche that other things can’t get at … I try to do something that resonates very quickly and takes you on a journey. If you happen to be courageous enough to watch [12 Years a Slave] twice, in a way, your emotional dominoes are already starting to fall when you hear those first few notes.”
The Dark Knight Rises
“I get a lot of shit from people who say, ‘All his scores sound like Inception,’ or ‘All his scores sound like Batman,’” laughs Zimmer. “Well, I’m sorry, guys! I didn’t know when we did Batman Begins that it was going to turn into nine years of having to stay in that syntax and that style. Within each movie, we added something new, but the sequel thing really threw me.”
When it came to The Dark Knight Rises, the culmination of those nine years of work, Zimmer had a brand-new brainstorm: To announce the villainous Bane, he wanted a massive chant that would be brought to life by 100,000 different voices. Logistically, though, that sort of track wouldn’t be easy to set up, and if Zimmer employed even a comparatively meager 100 people on his chant, chances were high that one of them might leak something from the super-secret production. “At the same time, it was important to Chris that the Bane character not be first revealed by somebody taking a dodgy picture with their iPhone on the set,” says Zimmer. So they came up with a neat trick: Nolan and Zimmer launched a website featuring the chant and embedded it full of secret messages that, when run through a spectograph and typed on Twitter, would reveal the first official image of Bane pixel by pixel.
“Now that the chant was out there in the world, I said, ‘I want my 100,000 people,’ recalls Zimmer. “So I thought, why don’t I just break the fourth wall and reach out to the fans? So we did this thing on the Internet where they could put on their headphones and just do the chant at home at their computer and send it in. And I would literally line up 100,000 tracks of all our fans doing the chant … I never knew we were going to spend nine years of our lives doing Batman, so it was important to me that the last one was inclusive, that the doors were open. The people who had loved it and supported us could actually be part of it.”
Man of Steel
Zimmer has been working on his craft for decades, but it wasn’t until he took on comic-book projects like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel that he noticed he had attracted an unusually ardent fan base. “You go on to Amazon.com and you see what people write about the soundtrack, and you’re actually having this rather intimate conversation without ever knowing this person, just by seeing how they respond to your music,” he says.
The tricky thing with comic book movies like Man of Steel, says Zimmer, is that though an audience may think they want an ultrafaithful adaptation, the filmmaker’s responsibility is to take chances – and sometimes, those chances don’t go over well with angry fanboys. “I get a lot of that,” Zimmer admits. “Look at poor Ben Affleck! And honestly, there was some really nasty stuff going on when Chris cast Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, because everybody was saying that only Jack Nicholson could do it. But here’s the truth about what my job is: Our job as filmmakers is never to ask an audience, ‘What is it you would like to see?’ because then they go, ‘I don’t know … Indiana Jones 5 or Star Wars 27?’ Because it’s not their job to come up with an original way of thinking about it, or a new subject. It’s our job, to surprise them.”