[Interview - Hans Zimmer - Part 3]

In this third and final part of our interview with Hans Zimmer, we talk about The Simpsons, The Dark Knight, and more about his philosophy on film music.

[At this point in the interview, composer Rupert Gregson-Williams popped into the room for few minutes to greet Hans and then left.]

This is what I love! I love other people's talents. When I first came to this town, it seemed as if there were only a handful of film composers doing all the movies, and I'd heard all this other music from all these other talented people. I wanted to get more people involved. It's like casting, and I thought Rupert was perfect for Over the Hedge, for example. The other day, Rupert's brother Harry was over here mixing something he'd recorded, and I was listening to it, going, "Wow, this is really good!" Then I went back into my room and put up what I was working on and thought, "Wow, this is really bad!"

It's very hard if you're always isolated. I think John Williams can do it, but he's a singular talent in that he marches to his own drum. His tunes are phenomenal, his orchestrations are amazing, and his understanding of the language of film is just so advanced, so sophisticated and elegant. I don't know what his process is, but it's clearly a great process, and it works for him. And we all have our own. I like hearing what Harry is doing and being motivated his music, by its quality and distinction. I like being surrounded by all these musicians. It might not be a process that works for everyone, but it works for me.

Earlier we talked about your philosophy behind the whole "additional music" thing. You've been criticized and praised on both sides, so it seems to be a very divisive approach, for better or for worse.

Harry sent me an email back in the summer pointing out the box office takings for one weekend, and four out of the top five movies were done by composers who at one point had worked with me. You could say "oh, that's just the Hollywood summer blockbusters", but I do think John Powell writes very interesting and original stuff, and I do think Klaus writes very well, and I don't think they sound anything like me.

Originally I had this idea that it should be possible to create some kind of community around this kind of work, and I think by muddying the titles - not having "you are the composer, you are the arranger, you are the orchestrator" - it just sort of helped us to work more collaboratively. It wasn't that important to me that I had "score by Hans Zimmer" and took sole credit on these things. It's like Gladiator: I gave Lisa Gerrard the co-credit because, even though she didn't write the main theme, her presence and contributions were very influential. She was more than just a soloist, and this is why I have such a problem with specific credits. Everyone thought I was insane giving her that credit, but giving her that credit acknowledged her contribution and hopefully made her life a little better. It made no real difference to my career, other than what people said about me on the Internet!

What I try to do here is, I try to have something like a laboratory where people can be free-thinking and come up with their own ideas, with different ways of approaching things. And the people who have had the most success from here have been true to this ideal. I think John Powell right now is one of the most original voices out there, and obviously Harry too. In fact, Harry hadn't ever touched a computer before he started working with me, so I think if I can say I've achieved anything, it was to have somebody as talented as Harry given the opportunity to use the tools that he didn't have access to, especially since at that time they were really expensive.

So originally I thought, "Why should talented people not have the opportunity of scoring a movie just because they don't have the money to buy the equipment?" So we have the equipment here. All you have to do is have the talent and get past your next rent check, that's the only responsibility. And you've seen what we do, people work around the clock. People take things very seriously here, and are very supportive of each other.

There's also a very private part to composing, though, when you don't want anyone around, and that's why I have a very thick door so nobody can hear when I'm trying to come up with a tune! However, there comes that point when it's nice to draw other people in, and just get a different point of view. I think film music is very revolutionary, and it's far more progressive than working other areas of commercial music because you don't always have to work with the same patterns - verse, chorus, bridge - and you don't always have to stick with the same defined set of instruments.

Like when you used the electric guitar in "The Kraken"...

Actually, it's not an electric guitar. You know what it is? It's the orchestra put through a guitar amp and piped back into the room. As soon as they finished playing, we plugged them into a guitar amp!

Who would have thought to do that?

Let me tell you why. If Johnny Depp modeled his character off of Keith Richards, then I needed to find a counterweight for Davey Jones, who is his antagonist. When I was trying to write the tune, the first thing I had was the organ and the music box, and that didn't make a very "heavy" character. A church organ isn't very agile for this purpose, and it's really hard to write action music for a church organ! So I thought, let me do it with the orchestra and pump it through a guitar amp. Very Lemmy from Motorhead. [Play "Pirates of the Caribbean 2: The Kraken"]

The other film you're working on is The Simpsons, which a lot of people are curious about, since there are 18 years of television leading up to this.

I know. I kept sort of saying "I think I'm the wrong guy," but everybody who is working on the movie has worked with me at some point, and they all sort of ganged up on me! But my take on this is that I really love Danny Elfman's title tune, so I thought, let me be Danny's arranger, let me see what I can do with his tune. And then I can phone up Danny and ask him to come and listen to what I've done with his tune, and if he thinks it's horrible, I'll go and fix it! I think it will be an interesting experiment.

Your films for James Brooks tend not to be the "big Zimmer" scores; they're usually for smaller, more intimate ensembles...

Well, I guess you have to look at the subject matter for those films - 16 French Horns and a whole army of taikos would probably not have been the way to go in Spanglish, for example! But I don't seem to be able to win, really, because if I write a small intimate score, half of the reviews you're going to read are going to say, "Well, it's no good because it's not the big Zimmer sound." And if I do the big Zimmer sound, the same people will say it's no good because it is "the big Zimmer sound" - and it's always the same thing, apparently. If people were fair, and they don't have to be fair across 100 movies, but just be fair for instance and look at the Ridley Scott movies: Black Rain, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, Matchstick Men - they're all different, so people should stop giving me grief about doing the same thing! [Play "Suite of Ridley Scott Scores"]

After I did Black Rain, I thought I'd really done something cool, and reinvented the way those sort of action things sound. By the time the year was over, every other action movie had stolen that style, they were all doing the drummy thing, and the sequencer thing, and so on. So if I did it again, I would have been accused of sounding like everyone else. So I had to reinvent something else, and when I did Crimson Tide I thought, "Well, that was cool, I had the choir in the action scenes, and nobody's going to do that!" And then everyone started using that style as well. At first I would get despondent about it, but now I actually think it motivates me, and sometimes if I do want to go back over old turf, I'm going to do it. Ultimately it's about yourself and it's about the film. [Play "Crimson Tide: Roll Tide"]

There are things I am stylistically drawn to. I'm listening to a lot of Bach in the car right now, and most of his tunes end the same way, that's his cadence, that's how he likes to end his tune. That's his style, his personality, and his accent! I think easy to identify a John Williams score, or a James Horner score, or a Jerry Goldsmith score - and usually you can do it within a few bars! That's a good thing: they have a point of view, a voice. Where I think it becomes problematic is if you hear somebody who writes a bit like John Williams, or writes a bit like Jerry Goldsmith, and they don't have an identity or a strong voice of their own.

One of my favorite composers is Ennio Morricone, and I remember in the '80s, people were saying he keeps going over the same ground. And the truth is that he would write similar scores for similar movies, but I have a hunch why. Partly it's because you are developing a new idea and haven't quite solved it, so you need to go back and work on it a bit more, and a similar film gives you that opportunity! Remember, we can't get too precious about this stuff, there is never enough time and you have to let go or you'll miss your release date! So you have to go, "Okay, fine, I haven't solved this yet, I'm not quite happy with it, I'll solve it on the next one." I feel I still haven't written that big romantic tune, for example, so I keep nibbling away at it, trying to become a better composer.

Right - and in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, there's a musical moment at the end where the Da Vinci Code overlapping pattern shows up again...

Exactly, that's where my head is, at the moment. Once I worked it to death, I'll move on. [Play "Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Hello Beastie"]

You mentioned before that you were probably going to be working on The Dark Knight, but it's not certain...

Nothing is ever certain. They haven't even finished the script yet.

Assuming you do it, though, would you be able pull James Newton Howard back in?

Absolutely! I should say we are doing Batman. I wouldn't leave home without him!

In the score to the first film, the main "Batman" theme only shows up towards the end, kind of like a springboard for the second film...

Absolutely, that's the whole idea. It's Batman Begins! There's a whole theme that's written and on purpose not in the movie. We were basically betting that this movie might work out alright and there would be another one, so we wanted the character to develop. He hasn't earned that theme yet! [Play "Batman Begins: Molossus"]

Are you doing the same thing with Jack Sparrow? Will he earn another theme for Pirates 3?

Definitely. There's stuff in the second score that lays pipe for things in the third, and there are bits that are going to go by the wayside as well.

One thing I liked about the second film was the way small things that weren't so important in the first film suddenly became very important...

It's a complicated thing, because Pirates of the Caribbean was never designed to become a trilogy. In The Lord of the Rings, the kid was always going to put the ring into the volcano in the end, but we didn't have that when we did the first film. The only thing we had - and it was something we were always sitting here during the first film joking about - was, "Oh that's interesting - Bootstrap Bill is Will Turner's dad, and by releasing the pirates from the curse, he's basically killed his father." If you really think about it, that's what he did. So it was just us sort of riffing on ideas, and little did I know that I was going to be confronted with exactly that problem in the second one!

Reportedly you were doing something with August Rush, which is about a child composer? Did you co-write the theme with Mark Mancina?

No, I didn't co-write a theme with Mark. If anything, Mark had all the good ideas, and my involvement was that we talked a lot about it: he'd play me the tunes, and I'd give feedback.

I think it came from a drunken conversation I had with the producer of Backdraft, Richard Lewis, where only if you were drunk you would admit to what it was like being a little boy and hearing tunes in your head. So that story, or parts of that story, at least, inspired Richard to go and make the movie.

Being a musician is different from being other people. I have tunes that pop in my head, and most of the time they're terrible, but it never occurred to me that it wasn't the same for everyone else. I thought they had real jobs, took life seriously, and thought it was frivolous to do something with those tunes. I grew up without a television, and the only thing we really had at home for me to play with was a grand piano. But I used to love just sitting in front of the piano and making horrible noises! And I still do!

The Simpsons will be out July 27, 2007, and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 will be out next summer.

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