[Interview - Hans Zimmer - Part 1]

Hans Zimmer is one of the most prolific composers working in Hollywood today. In the three years since SoundtrackNet last spoke with him, Zimmer has scored over ten films, including Something's Gotta Give, King Arthur, Madagascar, and Batman Begins. This year he has already scored the controversial hit The Da Vinci Code, and the record-breaking smash sequel The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to speak with Hans recently at his studio in Santa Monica.

Let's start with the big summer film...

Which one is that?

Well, let's talk about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest first. You've worked with director Gore Verbinski many times. Was this experience different than with the previous times you've worked with him?

To understand Dead Man's Chest, I suppose we need to go back over Pirates 1 ground a little bit. We last talked during The Last Samurai, which gives you the reason why I didn't have the credit on the first one. I absolutely promised both Tom Cruise and Ed Zwick that I wasn't going to moonlight on anything else, and when I made the promise, I really, really believed it! But then Gore got into a little bit of trouble and I said to him, 'I can't score this movie, there's no way I can, but my friend Klaus [Badelt] probably can.' Klaus is a wonderful composer, but I couldn't help myself from writing many of the tunes, and then I sort of orchestrated the way those tunes would sound as well, setting the tone. Klaus wrote some more tunes and with our tunes wrote the score, and Blake Neely, Geoff Zanelli, and everyone else went at it.

Where the first film was very collaborative and a great panic, because it was a last-minute rescore, in theory we had a bit more time on this one. However, it actually felt tighter than the first in its own peculiar way. Having written the tunes for the first film in a real hurry, all I wanted to do was sit down and sort of play with them for myself a little bit. So last August, before starting on The Da Vinci Code properly, I sat down and went over the Jack Sparrow tune, and figured out how I really wanted it to sound, where I really wanted it to go, and where I wanted the character to go. And I just spent a whole month doing that. It's a darker movie... [Play "Pirates of the Caribbean 2: The Jack Sparrow Theme"]

It's also a middle film...

Exactly! Here's an interesting thing. Everybody tells you 'never look at your reviews', so everybody I know looks at their reviews, and there were a bunch of bad reviews for this score. But what I thought was interesting was that you're the first person who realizes it's very hard to review this thing because you don't know where it's going to lead. You don't know why certain scenes are in. You don't know why certain pieces of music are just set up and left flapping like dirty laundry in the wind!

I'm digressing, but it was really interesting to read reviews about both the score on Pirates, and the score on, for instance, The Da Vinci Code. I think if you go on and start reading what people write, on the whole they really like it. But then you get the one guy who sort of seems to know it all, and of course knows nothing. I spend a lot of time thinking about my scores really hard. On The Da Vinci Code I got a lot of books out of the library, I studied the Fibonacci sequence, I did everything! And they think I make mistakes just causally and randomly, as opposed to that these are hard earned choices.

There was one another review about Pirates, about my woodwind writing, or rather my lack of woodwind writing. Well, guess what guys, that's a deliberate choice! I make deliberate choices, there are no accidents in these scores! The lack of woodwind writing is historical in Jerry Bruckheimer movies other than Pearl Harbor as it just never fits into his scores. Crimson Tide is not your 'let's have the flute and bassoon going on' kind of film.

The whole point about the Pirates score was that it was trying to reinvent the whole genre, and it was so much fun just dashing out these tunes on the first one and going 'okay, fine, I've done my homework, I've reinvented the genre,' for better or for worse. But on the second film I had to go back and really come to grips with what those tunes were, and I kept thinking, 'gosh, I wish I'd had one more day on the first one because I wouldn't have written myself into this corner!'

Well, you were able to go back and rework some of them, like with the new Jack Sparrow theme.

Well, all the tunes in the movie start with the same three notes, which is fun when you have a meeting with Gore and he's like 'well, why don't we use that other tune?' And I'd be like 'which other tune?' and he'd have to sing past the first three notes for us to figure out which one we were talking about!

These last four weeks I've been sitting here writing a big theme for the third Pirates...

Did you use the same three notes?

I'm deconstructing them completely. But it's like, Beckett has those three notes, Davy Jones has those three notes, and Jack Sparrow has those three notes. Everybody has those three notes! So I've figured out a way of completely deconstructing them. It's fun to see what you can do with just three notes. [Play "Pirates of the Caribbean 2: The Same Three Notes"]

With the second film, Klaus' name doesn't show up anywhere on the score, and people have wondered why this is the case if he had the main composer credit on the first film. Would you have been allowed to have a 'Themes by Hans Zimmer' credit on the first one?

Probably, yes, but we never thought about it at the time. Klaus' name isn't on the second film because he didn't work on it, but I wanted Klaus to have the main credit on the first one. I think he's immensely talented and he had put a lot of work into that score.

If I play you the demo for the themes of the first Pirates, it's an incredible demo where everything that is Pirates, including the orchestration, is there. So the themes come with orchestration, production and style attached to them, and that's the sonic world of this movie, the palette. [Play "The Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl Demo"]

It takes me a long time, but in a funny way it's more important that I spend the time doing that instead of writing the transition between one scene and the other that uses the same tune. But if someone writes that transition using my theme, or even just cuts and pastes it in the computer, I think he's done more than just hang around because I like the way things are very collaborative. And Klaus and the other composers did a lot more than write transitions in Pirates 1, so I've probably ruined the credit of what 'additional music' is supposed to mean, but I've done it very much on purpose.

So you mentioned that you're already working on a theme for Pirates 3. If you're involved early on, as you were with Dead Man's Chest, how come it seems like there's always a last minute crunch?

If you're writing a piece of music, until you say it's finished, the possibility exists that it could become something really astonishingly great. As soon as you say it's finished, you have to settle for that moment in time, and I think that goes for the filmmakers as well. Gore works tirelessly, precisely, and thoughtfully about stuff, and passionately. It's just a human weakness, trying to strive for something you hear in your head.

It's this weird thing, writing music. You hear the tune in your head, usually fully orchestrated, and now you have to go and somehow communicate that for other people to be able to play. So the way I do it is, I shove it into my sequencer with my samples and synthesizers and stuff like this, so I can play it to the director, but it's already gone down a stage from how wonderful it sounded in my head. In my head there are no technical limitations and I only have Yehudi Menuhin playing the violins!

And then the next stage is that I have to be able to communicate my ideas, with notes, to my actors, my musicians. I have to explain to them what the scene is about, the attitude they're supposed to take. So at each stage, I'm washing down the original vision a little bit, it gets diluted. And it's only sometimes you get those great moments when the orchestra absolutely rises to the occasion, but it's not their fault, I'm not saying the orchestra is bad. It's more a case of whether I've said the right things? Is the conductor making the right motions? And sometimes you get takes and performances that are astonishing, and sometimes not.

So the thing is, you procrastinate. Eventually they're going to go and rip it from your hands and say, 'I know you don't think it's perfect, but we have a release date and the movie has to come out!'

So it's mainly that, and the picture changes?

Picture changes aren't a problem. On Batman Begins, for instance, which James [Newton Howard] and I did together, I knew we were going to have a car chase, but I knew it wasn't going to be the stereotypical car chase, absolutely no way. But Chris [Nolan] hadn't really attacked that scene yet, and hadn't really figured it out. So I wrote the car chase music as a kind of Lego set, since I knew he was going to move the picture around like crazy. And it's a car chase, so we're not really concerted with the integrity of a beautiful melody here! In fact, if there's anything more boring to write than a car chase, I can't think of it right now. So it just became this Lego set, and as Chris was moving chunks of car chase around, it was very easy to adjust.

We'll get to Batman Begins in a little bit, but let's talk about The Da Vinci Code. Your score has been receiving a great deal of acclaim. Tell me about the CD, it's a bit different than the score in the film, since it uses your original suite?

Right, exactly. At one point the suite was in the end titles, as a complete piece. And on the movie, Ron let me have my head on everything, he never said 'don't do this' or 'I don't like this.' But the only time he said anything was when he phoned me up and said 'Look, I just watched the whole movie with the end titles, and it gets a little slow.'  And I said, 'Oh, you mean I'm being a little pretentious here!' I don't remember if he said yes or not, but I instantly got what he meant. However, he ended by saying, 'but if you don't want to change it, if you really love it and want to keep it like that…' And that's the type of person he is, he has respect. But I said no and got Dan [Pinder] to do a different end title. On the CD, though, tracks 9 to 13 represent one piece of music, and that's the original piece I wrote for Ron. [Play "The Da Vinci Code: L'esprit des Gabriel"]

There are two ways of working on a film score. You can go and sort of map out your theme, if you want to go as far as that, and then just dive into the movie, straight into the first scene, and usually what happens is that you're writing away and thinking 'it's alright, it's not great what I'm writing, but it supports the movie and it supports the scene. When I get to the next cut and I have to change tunes or whatever, it will be better, I'll write something better'. And then you get to the next bit, and again you're just grazing, as James Newton Howard says. It serves the film, nobody would turn it down, you're going to get through it, but it has no substance. It has absolutely no emotional, artistic or intellectual integrity.

So I thought with The Da Vinci Code, more so than on any of the other movies I've worked on, I'll sit down and really work out the structure of where I want this thing to go, what I want the tunes to do, how I want them to go sonically, what I want the characters to do. So I wrote a mini-symphony, although it turned out not so mini, really, at around 27 minutes, and when we came do to the CD I said 'You know, I don't want to edit it, let's just leave it intact.' I thought of it as once piece of music and wanted to leave it like that as my whole world is having to cut the tunes shorter because we're changing the picture and making the picture shorter.

One day in the future I'll get a chance to go and perform it with an orchestra live, and it's one of my few pieces that you can easily perform with an orchestra. Other than, well, it does a couple of things here and there on purpose because it's The Da Vinci Code, it's a game, it's a riddle, and you should have some fun. The soprano pretty much starts on a note that is so high that if you know anything about music, you should go, 'Hang on a second, you shouldn't be able to sing that!'  And then the basses go down to a B-flat, which is one note below what they can do.

Was that digitally manipulated?

No! I found the singer who could really do it, and I asked the basses to tune down a tone! I didn't want to go and manipulate anything digitally, I wanted it to be absolutely performable, but just like how the story itself stretches credibility, I also wanted to stretch credibility.

So you're breaking the rules!

Well, I'm always breaking the rules, I can't help myself! I wanted to write a quiet score, I didn't want it to get really, really pompous, and the problem with the CD is that it feels a bit like I don't have any proper themes, but I do. The CD is too short! This is a real long-form piece, so if the CD was twice as long you would have gotten the repetition and the developments, which you just don't get on the CD as it is.

How different was the suite from the score?

Of the first eight tracks, seven are in the film, and the last track is Richard Harvey's choir piece, which is source music in the film.

How do you know Richard?

We've been friends for a very long time. He and Nick Glennie-Smith used to be partners in a studio in London called The Snake Ranch, and they would give me free studio time when I was a starving musician. Richard had worked with Stanley Myers, and Harry and Rupert Gregson-Williams were both Richard's assistants, so there are many connections. Richard and I saw each other in London a year before The Da Vinci Code even started, and I told him, at the very least to come and play woodwinds, pan pipes, something on it… Actually, his credit for ancient instruments... you know what it is? A ukulele.

How old is the ukulele?

I think he bought it last week!

No! I mean as an instrument...

It doesn't matter! It's just that we couldn't write 'ukulele' on the CD. I don't think anyone's ever written a big piece for choir and ukulele, which is really what that one choir piece is. It's a little ostinato on the ukulele, and the choir does its thing!

And then there was that source piece, and I said to Richard, 'Come on, it's Westminster Abbey, it's your turf! Go and write something!' Actually, the first piece he wrote sounded like I'd written it, and I'm going, 'No! I can do that! Write a real Richard piece, write something that you would want to write!' and that's what that piece is, and I just think it's absolutely gorgeous. And what a luxury to have! It's only in the movie for 20 seconds or so, but at least it's on the CD. [Play "The Da Vinci Code: Kyrie for the Magdalene"]

The climax of The Da Vinci Code has a musical pattern, similar to what you did with The Thin Red Line, repeating, overlapping, building up... How much experimentation do you do to come up with something like that?

Here's the thing. If I come up with an idea like the Thin Red Line thing, for instance, it's not finished when I finish that piece: it's just a jumping-off point to try to get better at that. So I've been going back to that idea because I think, as a composer, you have a duty to develop. It's evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary always. So the idea of these patterns and these things building on top of each other is really just minimalist music taken to a romantic level. The whole Da Vinci Code score is sort of based, I suppose, on minimalist ideas, and that piece for the ending was actually written last September. [Play "The Da Vinci Code: Chevlaiers de Sangreal"]

The movie was a tricky movie to do. I got involved... Do you really want to know? I will tell you the whole thing…

Coming in Part II of the interview: Hans talks about The Da Vinci Code, Batman Begins, collaborations, demos, the writing process, The Holiday and more!

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