In Conversation: Hans Zimmer Wasn’t Made for Pop Music

One of the planet’s most experimental film composers gets out from behind the boards for Dunkirk, a live tour, and more.

When Hans Zimmer advises fellow movie music makers to learn how to tell a story, he knows from whence he speaks. The German-born composer won an Oscar for his score for The Lion King, and he’s created epic, experimental soundscapes for films that are nevertheless approachable enough to warrant him a slot at this year’s Coachella. Inception, Gladiator, Rain Man, True Romance, Thelma & Louise, A League of Their Own, Interstellar, 12 Years a Slave, the Dark Knight trilogy: all films that rely on his work for their mood.

What all this has meant is that Zimmer—a one-time electronic performer in the New Wave—hasn’t toured as a working musician since his days with Krakatoa, Helden, or Buggles. Having him hit the United States for this summer’s forty plus–piece orchestra and choir excursion Hans Zimmer Revealed is an immense thrill, one only rivaled by the arrival of Dunkirk, his stirring and stately new collaboration with Christopher Nolan. Zimmer spoke with us as Dunkirk hit the beaches.

Is it odd being back on stage since you’ve been away so long?

If we exclude the nerve-racking stage fright I haven’t had to contend with for the last forty years, then no. I have a glorious bunch of people that I use a lot in the studio, and this may very well be the only time ever that I could pull them together from all over the world on a stage, so it’s worth it. In the last forty years, the technology has changed. My question was, how can you have an orchestra without a conductor? I wanted to get rid of that wall between the audience and the musicians, create an autonomous relationship without being interrupted by anybody. So I wanted to think outside the box, and technology helped. Plus, I finally amassed a body of music that wouldn’t bore people. The reason I wanted to go on stage, then, was to give people an experience… I want to make orchestral music relevant again, and I’m having a ball doing it. Because this is not my day job. This tour isn’t forever.

How would you say that Dunkirk is a different animal than, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or Inception?

Dunkirk is so singular a vision of Chris’s—an extraordinary point of view, as well as being an experiment. It was really hard work for me to reinvent myself, and not just in some existentialist free-floating way; I really had to figure out how to match his vision. Though he’s using the most people he’s ever worked with before, this film is the one that is most singularly him. All of the movies we’ve done in the past were just warming up for this.

Pharrell Williams has called you a mentor where the art of film composition is concerned. Coming up, who was your film music mentor? Who brought you from working with The Damned and Shriekback to writing for the screen?

That’s easy: The amazing Stanley Myers, the brilliant Englishman who had written the scores for The Deer Hunter and loads of other movies. I figured out, really early on, that I was not built for a career in pop songs. It bored the living daylights out me, as it had to follow the tradition of verse-chorus-verse-chorus potentially. Until I started talking with Stanley. I was really good with technology; he was really good with the orchestra.

“I figured out, really early on, that I was not built for a career in pop songs.”

The inherent nature of film music was storytelling, and I loved that idea, as I adored the potential of long-form musical pieces. It didn’t have to be in any one style either. If you look at the films I did, with say, Ridley Scott, the Gladiator music and Thelma & Louise couldn’t be any more different. I can probably throw in Hannibal and Black Hawk Down and a few other Ridley movies. Directors like him encouraged me to experiment within those styles, just as Stanley did. Stanley taught me about of all of this—the orchestration, the themes. That’s what a good mentor does—teach and encourage.

The Lion King seems weird within this canon.

I didn’t want to do that score. I kept saying that all they wanted was a Broadway musical with a fairy tale princess. That’s what I thought Disney did. So I did it for all the wrong reasons, the best being that my daughter was six years old at the time and I’d never been able to take her to a premiere because a six-year-old at a Ridley Scott movie isn’t quite right, if you see what I mean—you will scar your child forever. So it seemed good as a dad. Then once I started, I was surprised at how profound it was. The story is about a child losing a father. This was not about furry animals. As for fighting against the whole Broadway musical thing, that never occurred. So what was my learning curve here? Don’t say “no.” Don’t be an idiot. Embrace the different.

You talked positively about your work with Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and The Lion King. You make it seem easy. Has there been one score to really get your goat, to really challenge you?

Oh, yes, there are two, both of which have their similarities: The Thin Red Line and Dunkirk. It’s about how you reinvent the language, as there have been so many war movies before Thin Red Line. I had to reinvent what I did especially [for Dunkirk] since Nolan really likes The Thin Red Line. I couldn’t just do something similar and I couldn’t betray the good that I had done before. To Chris’s credit, he is always there and up for whatever insane ideas I might have. The partnership is good because we challenge each other with our ideas. Good directors protect their composers.

Dunkirk is the most radical thing I have ever done without a shadow of a doubt. Why? Because his brief to me about what he wanted was to make music objective. It’s easy to write emotional music; it’s very difficult to create objective music and keep it interesting. Look at Saving Private Ryan. There is very little music in it. As for Dunkirk, the music never stops; it’s wall to wall. I had to invent and invent to not become irrelevant or redundant. That’s quite a task. FL

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