Interview

[Interview - Hans Zimmer - Part 2]

In the first part of our interview with Hans Zimmer we discussed Pirates of the Caribbean and Hans' approach to writing a suite of themes for each of his movies. Now, in the second part of our exclusive three-part interview, Hans tells how he got involved in one of the year's other successful movies, The Da Vinci Code, and why he thinks collaboration in film is so important for a composer.


You last worked with Ron Howard on Backdraft...

This year is actually the 15th Anniversary of Backdraft, and over a year ago Universal Home Video wanted to interview me for a new DVD they were producing. I was trying to remember things, so I called up Ron to talk about the interview and have him remind me what our experience was like. Just as I was hanging up the phone, I asked him what he was doing next and he said, "The Da Vinci Code". I told him, "Oh, but that's impossible! It's all exposition, it's not cinematic, you have five-page monologues that are going to be incredibly boring and the book is a phenomenon!" So that wasn't an encouraging thing to say to somebody just starting his movie, it's just my big mouth!

But I started thinking about the idea. Some form of the story of Mary Magdalene has existed in print forever, and nobody bought those books, nobody cared. They didn't become New York Times best sellers. So what was it that makes this particular book so special? It really is the relationship you as a reader have with the story and the characters in your imagination, and as soon as you make it into a film, that's going away. As a reader you're going to imagine the Robert Langdon character in a certain way, but once an actor has been cast, the film is taking that away from you. One minute you're imagining the journey of discovery, but now we're showing it to you.

By its very nature of being real and in front of you, the movie is going to take away some of the magic, but I told Ron that I thought this could be where music can help, to bring back the phenomena, and I think I managed that with the last scene. It's a very open piece, and what it does in the movie is that it lets you in, it lets an audience participate. It's not like a normal tune, which has a start or end; it's asymmetrical on purpose and breaks all the rules, so it's more like a question than an answer.

However, before I played anything, Ron was very worried about the scene because on paper, it's an actor walking through Paris and that's all you get. He said to me that I have to give the audience an epiphany, and I'm going, "Yeah, great, thanks a lot! That's easy!" So I wrote while he was actually shooting that scene, but I was really worried I would fail. So this piece was sitting there, and I would never play it for him. Every few weeks he'd ask, "How's the ending coming?" and I'd reply, "Oh yeah, I'm still thinking about it!"

One day I could see that he was really worried, so I said, "Okay, I'll tell you what. I've written something, so let's put it up against the picture, just slap it up and start the CD and the picture at the same time." And it hit every cut, and it did everything, and that was the piece and we never adjusted it – and he never adjusted a frame of picture, it just happened to work. [Play "The Da Vinci Code: Chevlaiers de Sangreal"]

With such an important cue, does it help to be able mock this up with computers for the director to hear?

Absolutely. I really used the power of my setup with the computers and the samplers to great advantage on this film. I mapped out the whole score, and we'd put it all in and force ourselves to sit there and look at the whole movie. The first time I did it, the first three reels were a catastrophe and I threw all that stuff out!

There was another scene in a later reel that was seven minutes long and had big, beautiful emotional music, which Ron really liked. But I looked at the overall structure of the thing, and it was just too much. So I threw it out and just improvised something with the orchestra for seven minutes instead. I gave them some rules and it made the music really gray, really simple, and it allowed the movie to breathe for a bit so that the next part would actually mean something and have more impact.

There wasn't a great deal of temp music to follow because I had that 27-minute suite, and pretty much everything came from that in one way or another. I'm thinking about this approach for Pirates as well because I've just written eight minutes, and Gore and I actually wrote a tune over a year ago that I might just go and record with the orchestra so we can cut it up and use it for temp, just to see what happens.

And maybe you'll end up using it!

Exactly! And the worst that could happen is we'll get two really nice pieces for the CD.

The first three tracks on the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest are suites.  Do you think they could be converted over to live performance?

Well, once I've done the next Batman movie, which will finish in early 2008, I thought I'd take a year off from writing film scores and just go and do some concerts. I only started thinking about this recently, that I have these complete pieces lying around, like The Ring, Gladiator, Thelma & Louise, Crimson Tide, and they all exist as proper concert pieces. One of the reasons they've never been performed is that the percussion parts mostly exist as a bunch of samples in the films, so Bruce never had to write it into the score. So we just need to sit down, add the percussion into the score, and things like that.

Would it be similar to the Ghent concert you did a few years ago?

I learned a lot from the Ghent show. I learned, for instance, that you shouldn't have that many people on stage because it's like dragging elephants through a one-way system! It's fun to have a huge orchestra, but there's a more practical way of doing it with a smaller orchestra and the core group of musicians I work with, such as Heitor Pereira and Martin Tillman. [Play "Wings of a Film: Driving Miss Daisy"]

You worked with your good friend James Newton Howard on Batman Begins. How different are your working styles, that you were able to pull it off?

Our working styles are totally one-hundred-percent different! We all flew to London and James gave me his ground rules that he likes to work in complete privacy, he doesn't want anybody to hear anything he's doing while he's doodling around, and he likes to work normal hours, from 9am to 7pm. So on the first day we went home at 3am and were doing the 3-handed piano thing, and by the end of it we would never shut the doors.

So he adapted to your approach?

To the Zimmer anarchy way of doing things, yes! I think you should ask him about it because I don't want to paraphrase, but I will tell you one thing he said to me, which was that 'we went to London as good friends and came back as great friends.' I think he thoroughly enjoyed it, and it made me realize what is good about my process, being very inclusive and collaborative and having other people in the room. [Play "Batman Begins: Lasiurus"]

Usually what happens is, the composer sits there, the director comes in and the composer has to play his piece of music to the director, and the director has two choices: he can say 'this is great,' or 'this is terrible'. He might not use these exact words, but whatever it is, it's a variation thereof.  And to say 'this is terrible' is pretty rough, especially if it's just the two of you in the room. It's not a conversation at that point, it's more like being in court! But as soon as you have other people in the room who are involved in the project, it can become a conversation and the first comment doesn't even have to come from the director.

Well, they say that film is a collaborative medium...

That's the cliché, and it's the right thing to say, but at the same time it goes beyond that. We're all trying to make as good a movie as we possibly can, and while there are many bad movies out there, including some that I've worked on, nobody sets out to make a bad movie, it's just that sometimes things get derailed. So the conversation about the movie is important, and even if the director doesn't like something you've written, he's not saying, "You're an untalented composer," he's talking about how to serve the movie best. And at that point it's not "his" movie, it's "the movie" or "our" movie, and at that moment we're trying to solve something together.

I think one of the problems a lot of young composers have is that they don't understand the thing the director wants most, the thing he prays for, is for the composer to succeed. And he really wants to cheer the composer on, because if the composer fails, his movie will fail! It's the weirdest thing to play somebody a piece of music for the first time. It's so intimate, like standing on a beach in freezing cold weather with no clothes on and having all these girls watch you! It's humiliating, although it's usually better than you think it is.

We're all our own worst critics...

Yes, and the guys nobody can work with are the people who come in and say to the director that they've written something really great. "Yeah, I think I really cracked it! I think this is the best thing I've ever written!" If the director doesn't like it, where do you go from there? If he is critical, either he ends up feeling like a tasteless idiot, or it implies that you are, because by telling him how great your piece is leaves no room for a conversation to be had.

The job isn't to do what the director has asked you to do, the job is to do what the director can't even imagine. So you're going to do something that's dangerous and out there, but the failure is going to be a hundred percent yours if the music isn't communicating with the picture. Or, for that matter, with the director. However, the funny thing is that sometimes it's a tiny little change that will take you from "I hate this, you're ruining the movie" to "Wow, gosh, I never thought of it that way, it's a masterpiece!" I had that with Ron on Backdraft.  He was worried because there was a cue that wasn't at all what he wanted, and I wasn't understanding what he wanted, I was misinterpreting his words, and it was 246-bars long. Once I figured out what he meant, I changed 13 bars, and suddenly it became the greatest thing since sliced bread. [Play "Backdraft: Show Me Your Firetruck"]

Part of the problem is that it's so hard to talk about music in words – that's why we have music. It's an autonomous language, and you either say it well or you say it badly, which is why everyone makes demo disclaimers. I had Stevie Wonder turn up here once to play me something, and the thing I loved the most about was when he said, "Hey man, it's just a demo!  The vocal isn't right, and I haven't finished this..." and he was making all the same excuses I make! I thought, 'Wow, this is one of the greatest songwriters in the world and he still goes through the same fragile stuff I do!'

Speaking of demos, you mentioned that you had already written something for Pirates 3, so do you have more pre-records for this film?

Well, Davey Jones plays the organ, and Mark Wherry is the hands of Davey Jones in the film, so I needed to write something for that. Quite often, Gore and I work from him just describing a scene to me, and that has worked really well. He will describe something he's going to shoot, and I write a piece of music for that scene, which hopefully triggers something else he might not have thought about.

I was thinking that the way I've been working recently, where I write things ahead of them shooting, is actually the better way of going. Film making technology has changed so much in recent years, especially with computer graphics, that they can now push it right up to the last moment. The old way of writing a score where you wait for a locked picture, a defined cut, and spend those last six to 12 weeks, or whatever, writing and doing the movie, then going on to a scoring stage, I just don't think that method applies anymore. So it makes sense to try and get some of the work done ahead of those 12 weeks, just so you and they have something to work from when you do need to sit down and think about the score with the picture. You'll probably have more influence over the picture's style and it solves some of those pesky temp score problems.

With The Weather Man, Gore wanted some music just to inspire him while he was shooting. So I asked him to send me some photos and The Weather Man was written from looking at one photo, which was a hospital wall with a bad clock hanging on it. That's all there was, a wall and clock. But that was enough. [Play "The Weather Man: Pling Plong"]

So from this point forward, you want to work that way?

Well, I'm working on The Holiday right now, and again I actually wrote all the tunes before Nancy Meyers went off shooting. The orchestration wasn't quite right with what I had done early on, but I'm fixing that now with the picture.

The Holiday is a film about a film composer....

Well, not really, but Jack Black does play a film composer in the film. Nancy got the idea while she was watching Ramin [Djwadi] when we were working on Something's Gotta Give.

I assume that Jack Black's character is composing something in the film, so is he's composing something that you will end up writing?

Yeah, I don't know if it will still be in the movie by the time it's finished, you know how these things go. But I was trying to explain to Nancy why one tune that's in the movie sounded a particular way, and I was talking about one of the characters and saying how he was cheeky, and how it's a cheeky tune! And the first time I see the movie, here's Jack's character saying "It's a cheeky tune!" so I'm thinking, "Oh right, he got it!"

So you have your score, and then the score within the film?

He doesn't write that much, but what's fun is that he does get to talk about other people's film scores...

Does he talk about yours?

He talks about one of them...

Stay tuned for the third and final part of this interview where Hans talks about The Simpsons, The Dark Knight, and more...


Special thanks to Andrew Zack, Tom Broderick, Mark Wherry, Allie Lee, and Ronni Chasen.