Interview

[Interview - Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard]

It is a very rare film project that sees a collaborative effort between two of Hollywood's top composers. In fact it has happened only once in recent history, and that was for Batman Begins in 2005. Otherwise, you'd have to go back to Newman and Herrmann's The Egyptian in 1950. Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean) and James Newton Howard (The Village, Michael Clayton) return for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to continue exploring his Batman universe with their music. SoundtrackNet had the opportunity to sit down with the composers and discuss the score's journey into darker terrain and their ideas behind the concepts for the score.


What makes The Dark Knight musically different than Batman Begins?

HZ: You heard the Joker Suite? I don't think anybody has done anything to match this in a Hollywood blockbuster. Look, the whole point was to be as provocative as possible. Everybody calls their movies "dark" these days. I think one of the differences with this, it's not dark through more violence - it's dark because it has interesting ideas - it has dark grown up ideas.

JNH: It feels real, it feels relevant to our times.

In what way?

JNH: The disintegration of society...

HZ: Discourse between different philosophies, anarchy versus old fashioned values. The character of the Joker is completely fearless and I felt that part had to be completely fearless. And then you have the character of Harvey Dent who is truly a white knight, and truly a good person and truly elegant. Being able, between the two of us, to create that type of incredible contrast, where the light is brighter and the black is blacker.

Did you split that up at all?

HZ: Not really.

JNH: Very little actually.

HZ: Because the world you live in, which is the world of fans and the semi-informed, after a while you start believing that stuff. Nobody will ever know who wrote what tune and what piece.

JNH: Including us!

HZ: Including us. We were doing it on this one, listening to something from the first one, going is that your tune or is that my tune?

JNH: Really true, we just don't know anymore.

HZ: The other thing we set out to do is the Joker thing, which is a singular issue. We had to split apart. The important thing of the Joker as a character is that it is a singular philosophy. Only he could be that fearless. It had to come from one guy.

JNH: And I'm too nice to work on the Joker.

HZ: Not entirely. You're not that nice! <laughs>

So if you did the Joker, did you do Harvey Dent?

HZ: Yes. But one of the devices I used on [the Joker] was to make it very electronic because that turns it into a singular vision. People always think it's really easy, a cop out to use electronics. It's quite the opposite because you have to create and craft every note. It's not just thinking about the note, you actually have to make the note from scratch! And the other peculiar thing about that is that it is much more acoustic than a lot of the other things. A lot of the stuff is Michael Levine playing violin.

JNH: Fantastic, by the way.

HZ: A lot of it is the attitude, what I did with it, how I chopped it up, the editing. It's pretty out there. I talked with these guys for three, four months, because it was all about the performance.

So the final result, you would say is more electronic?

HZ: No, it's more complete. The usual way you go about scoring a movie, is you get your orchestra or guitar and you do the music. You're just a small portion of that world. What we do is the whole canvas. We are on the very bottom of the left corner of the screen and the very top of right corner of the screen. We create a sonic world, a whole environment, for this movie to live in. There's probably more orchestra in this score than in a lot of scores we've done recently, but you may not know it.

JNH: You'll know it sometimes.

HZ: It becomes very pure. Then things sound very electronic, like Harvey Dent's other side of things. I was listening to James work and it's about using - one of the ideas was to go and only use brass instruments. It's really interesting how modern that texture sounds. And how electronic that texture sounds.

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The first film, you mentioned setting the palette for the world. How did that evolve for the second film?

HZ: They evolved just the way the world has evolved... if you want to think of them as the "cheerful version" last time and "hopeful version"....

JNH: This one's not as happy.

HZ: Not as carefree.

You wrote a theme for the first one that had never been used, that you said in an interview you saved for sequel. Did you get to use it this time?

HZ: It's in, twice.

JNH: Do your theme speech. Because I think it's really good.

HZ: It's something that occurred to me. I have a feeling that out there in the world, there are people waiting for James and me to "come to our senses" and stop this dark nonsense with the iconic two-note thing and write a happy jolly theme like the old Batman. You know, like the Danny Elfman one. It ain't gonna happen. Because this is not the world we're in. This is not the character we're doing. It's not the movies we're doing. They just need to get over that. For our Batman, it would just be wrong.

JNH: It would give you too much information about this character, which is not true. It would be misinformation. When you assign a heroic theme to something, some kind of a tune, you're giving away a lot of information that may or may not be true about this guy. We still don't really know who Batman is yet. Very complex, he's constantly evolving that character. He doesn't know who he is. We feel that it's much stronger to say less, musically, about him and let his character sort of speak for himself.

In London, on the first film, you worked in very close proximity. Here you're still pretty close, but there's a little more separation.

HZ: Five blocks.

Did that make a difference this time?

HZ: I don't think it was so much about that. As I said, the Joker had to be done by one guy. And then the Harvey Dent thing became very much a one guy operation as well. On the other stuff we collaborated. Plus, it's not like we didn't communicate, it's not like we didn't sit in the room together, like we haven't talked about this thing incessantly for a year. I started on the Joker last July -  which has its own set of problems, just now when I was trying to find all the mixes again. A lot of digits have gone on and off that hard drive in that time!

Have you set up anything for a potential third film, musically hinting at something that would come later?

HZ: No. No, because we don't know what the third film is! One of the things I think is really interesting about this movie is that it feels a bit like the place the world is at currently.

JNH: It really does.

HZ: And we don't know which way it's going to turn!

JNH: Who knows where it's going to be in three year, or two years or one year for that matter.

And with Harvey Dent, fans of Batman know that eventually he goes down a darker path. In your themes for Dent, are you hinting at what could happen?

JNH: It does happen. Maybe. I can't remember actually.

What were your gut reactions after seeing the film for the first time?

JNH: Scared. Amazing movie. Just like, "Wow!"

HZ: This film hasn't changed much since its very first cut. It was always solid. The writing is really solid. That's why I like working with Chris [Nolan]. When you talk to him, you know what the movie is going to be like.

You said "scared". In terms of what you may have to compose?

JNH: Yeah, sure. I mean, I'm alwasy scared when I see something that needs two and a half hours of music - and that is really phenomenal. And where you can tell that this director had raised the bar. Now it's our turn. Now we're up. He's been working on it for two years or whatever, and we're going to go through everything we go through, which is very difficult and painful sometimes. But I think we done good.

HZ: I think so. You've never heard me say this. And this is the first time you will hear me say this. James and I think this is one of the best movies we have ever worked on. And part of it might be the experience. When you spend a long time on something, you have to love it, otherwise it's impossible to get through. But this one, I'm still excited about on a daily basis. I'm having some separation anxiety.

JNH: What [Hans] did on the Joker is so great. I was very jealous when I heard it and I thought that is as good a conceptualization of an idea I've ever heard in my life.

HZ: I just thought it was enough of playing it safe. I think if this is not provocative, if we aren't fiercely provocative in this here summer blockbuster, we might as well not start.

JNH: Right. That's what got us doing it together in the first place. We were getting to places where how many car chases can you do?

HZ: Yeah. We both know how to write heroic things, do all that conventional stuff. This movie, from everybody's point of view, there was a great intensity.

Very last question. Did your composing roles as "Batman" and "Robin" stick or did you switch it up this time?

JNH: [laughs] No. Nothing sticks. Hans is my captain.

HZ: I'm what?

JNH: My captain...

HZ: Oh no, I'm Catwoman. Wanna see my claws babe?

JNH: Hey, what happened to Robin anyway?


Special thanks to Allie Lee at Chasen & Co., and Dan Goldwasser for making the interview happen.