Hans Zimmer Tells Juicy Stories About the Classic Films He’s Scored

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures, Jaap Buitendijk, Warner Bros. Pictures

“Do you mind if I smoke?” asks Hans Zimmer. He is sitting in the middle of his eye-poppingly lush Santa Monica office, digging into an expensive-looking pink steak, and you can’t begrudge the man his largesse or his cancer stick because Hans Zimmer, more than anybody else, has positively earned it. The German-born composer has scored over 100 films, running the gamut from Driving Miss Daisy to The Dark Knight, and earned eight Oscar nominations (plus one win) for doing so. A prolific composer who managed 12 Years a Slave, Man of Steel, Rush, and The Lone Ranger in 2013 alone, Zimmer has an enviable number of classics on his résumé, and the 56-year-old raconteur is happy to share with you the highlights … and to tell the juicy behind-the-scenes stories that went into making them.

The Thin Red Line

A year before Terrence Malick filmed this World War II masterpiece — his return to directing after a twenty-year sabbatical — he set up a preproduction suite in Zimmer’s own office. “Terry likes musicians, and he feels comfortable in this sort of environment,” says Zimmer. “Before he went off to shoot, I actually wrote him a complete score, but I don’t think any of it was left by the time I was finished with the film. I do that with Chris [Nolan] as well, but with Chris,” he laughed, “it usually survives.”

Malick is known for completely reconceiving his movies in the editing room, and this one was no different: As the director cut The Thin Red Line down from what Zimmer says was an initial six-and-a-half-hour version, he virtually eliminated some of the movie’s stars, including initial protagonist Adrien Brody. “Oh man, I would run into people and it would be really complicated,” confesses Zimmer. “There was even a time that Terry got it into his head that I should try to [edit] one of the scenes with this other young editor because we would have a different perspective on it. I remember laboring on this thing for two weeks, combing through all the dailies and coming up with something really average, and then the actual editor, Billy Weber, took a look at it and came back an hour later having turned this piece of shit into something really magical. I realized, ‘Oh, I’m not going to kid myself here! I’m going to go back to doing music now.’”

Long before Inception’s BRAMMMS became an omnipresent marketing tool, it was Zimmer’s Thin Red Line score that seemed to show up in every other trailer. “The thing about that piece is that it resonated with filmmakers,” says Zimmer. “I mean, I bet you more filmmakers saw Thin Red Line than normal folks! I remember I was working on Gladiator and Ridley Scott said he was going to see Thin Red Line, and I told him, ‘There’s a piece of music in there which you’ll really like, and I do not want you to come back and temp this into Gladiator.’ He promised me he wouldn’t, and then the next morning when I went to work, it was all over that movie. I said, ‘Ridley, you promised me!’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s really good!’”


So how does Zimmer feel when he sees a new commercial that apes his bold Inception score? “Oh, it’s horrible!” he moans. “This is a perfect example of where it all goes wrong. That music became the blueprint for all action movies, really. And if you get too many imitations, even I get confused!” He’s even witnessed the phenomenon firsthand: “By the time we got to The Dark Knight Rises, the studio sent over a trailer with that temp track, and they actually apologized for it. They said, ‘We put the Inception music in there because we didn’t know what else to do, so could you guys maybe come up with something else?’ So we came up with a trailer that was just a few lonely notes — it couldn’t have been more opposite.”

So where did all those BRAMMS originally come from? “That sound was in the script,” says Zimmer. “I remember before we made the movie, Chris and I were in London at the Sherlock Holmes premiere, and of course it ends up with the two of us in the corner somewhere talking about the movie we’re about to make while everyone else is around us at the premiere going wild. We’re such party animals. And I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, let’s just go and book a studio and get a couple of brass players.’ The sound, really, is that I put a piano in the middle of a church and I put a book on the pedal, and these brass players would basically play into the resonance of the piano. And then I added a bit of electronic nonsense. But really, it just came from saying, ‘Let’s experiment.’”

Does Zimmer have any control over which films sample his Inception score? “To a degree,” he says. “Some things I don’t care about, but everything I did with Chris, I cared about. The other one I started to care about was Pirates.”

Pirates of the Caribbean

Ironically, Zimmer wasn’t supposed to work on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise at all, though he would eventually go on to score all four films. “Pirates is a little bit tricky, because the first movie was this sort of bastard child,” says Zimmer. “Alan Silvestri had done the score originally, but I never heard it — people refused to play it for me. I got this phone call from the director Gore Verbinski saying, ‘Hey, I think I’m in trouble. Will you come and see the film?’ And I looked at the movie, and I thought it was fantastic. I just thought it was going to be this horrible Disney thing, but he’d done these things I couldn’t have imagined.”

Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer wooed Zimmer to replace Silvestri, but it wasn’t an easy sell: For one, Zimmer was already in the middle of another composing job, and more important, Pirates of the Caribbean was supposed to come out in five short weeks. Instead, Zimmer recommended a colleague for the gig, but “The first meeting they all had, it didn’t go so well,” says Zimmer. “I walked in and I saw the panic on Gore’s eyes. I don’t think he even had to say anything to me — I said, ‘Okay, okay, I’ll go home and I’ll see if I can come up with something.’” Ask Zimmer how he feels about the result, and the composer is nothing if not candid: “I mean, I didn’t even write a theme for Jack Sparrow until the second movie — that seems like a bit of an oversight!” he laughs. “But we sort of got away with it. A lot of the motifs in Pirates literally came from Jerry and Gore sitting here with me, and it was like a silent movie: I would just play whatever came to mind.”

Fortunately, the first Pirates installment was a box office behemoth, which gave Zimmer a second (and then a third, and a fourth) chance to refine what he had come up with. “For the second movie, I wrote a very lengthy, very intellectually precise Jack Sparrow theme,” he says. “But the second Pirates movie was really the first sequel I got to work on, and I thought it would be easy. It really wasn’t! I thought I would just re-appropriate everything from the first movie, and it wasn’t like that at all. Again, you learn through failure. Musically, the best one is the third one, because I was a bit embarrassed by how the second one ended, so I really gave it a good college try on the third one.”

The Lion King

Another blockbuster-to-be that Zimmer came to reluctantly was The Lion King, which won him an Oscar. “At first, I didn’t want to do Lion King, because I don’t really like Broadway musicals,” he says. “I thought that’s what Disney wanted from me, but they kept saying, ‘No, no, no, we really like that you don’t like Broadway musicals. We want this to be different.’” Ironically, The Lion King really did become a Broadway musical three years after the movie’s bow, and that stage production is now the highest-grossing Broadway show of all time.

So what does Zimmer remember about that night at the Academy Awards? “First of all, I was convinced I wasn’t going to win it,” he says. “I thought it would go to Forrest Gump. So when they called my name, I just sat there, didn’t hear it. And then my wife was going, ‘Get up.’ And then I got onto that stage and I’m being given this golden thing, looking out across the people, and I just remember all the teeth, everybody smiling and applauding. A wave of people genuinely loving me in that moment, and this little voice in my head going, ‘Ohh, this feels great. So if I carry on writing nice music like this, I can maybe have this happen again.’ And I remember the next part exactly, because this other voice came and said, ‘There lies ruin.’”

The Oscars, he says, “are incredibly seductive. You see people who you admire and who you think have incredible artistic integrity make complete fools of themselves on that stage. Me included.”

12 Years a Slave

Zimmer is likely to be back in the awards race this year for his work on 12 Years a Slave. He’s such a fan of director Steve McQueen that he didn’t need much wooing to come onboard. “We had a mysterious conversation a couple of years back where he told me he was working on something and asked me if I was even remotely interested in working with him,” says Zimmer. “And I just adore him, so of course I was much more than remotely interested! I sort of like the idea that I didn’t even know what he was working on until one morning at nine o’clock where he sat me down in front of this movie. And it was pretty devastating. The rest of my day was definitely different.”

Much of the movie is scored with the same four-note theme, which Zimmer adapts fluidly, depending on the mood of the scene. “I just watched this fascinating thing that Stephen Fry did as an experiment, where he and a friend were wired up by these scientists while they were watching opera just to see what their emotional response would be,” says the composer. “Music can actually make you cry. I don’t mean that like a horrible, manipulative thing, but music can get at parts of your psyche that other things can’t get at … I try to do something that resonates very quickly and takes you on a journey. If you happen to be courageous enough to watch [12 Years a Slave] twice, in a way, your emotional dominoes are already starting to fall when you hear those first few notes.”

My Beautiful Laundrette

This 1985 British film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a sexy young punk in love with a Pakistani man, was one of Zimmer’s first notable credits. He worked on this playful theme with veteran composer Stanley Myers. “The stupid bubbles!” laughs Zimmer when I bring up the track. “You can imagine who wrote the good music and who did the bubbles.” But the movie still delights him. “You have that fantastic kiss between the two of them. C’mon, it has to rank up there with the great screen kisses! I just loved it, not because it was ballsy or because it was controversial or because it hadn’t been done before, but because it was about love. It was about great, brilliant passion and the audience got it.”

Like many of Zimmer’s eighties scores, My Beautiful Laundrette goes heavy on synthesizers. “As does Driving Miss Daisy,” he notes. “Everybody thinks Driving Miss Daisy is an orchestral score. It’s not. It’s 100 percent electronic.” Though that sound feels dated to modern ears, Zimmer’s still got a soft spot for it. “Two days ago, I was trying to write a theme, and it wasn’t really happening. So I plugged an old Minimoog in and suddenly it was like, ‘Wow, I forgot that his thing has a life. It breathes, it’s a beast!’ It’s great.”

I’ll Do Anything

And here we come to one of the most famous disasters from Zimmer’s career, a James L. Brooks–directed musical comedy — with songs written by artists like Prince and Sinead O’Connor — that had to be completely retooled and reshot after audiences at a test screening rebelled at all the singing. “That first preview was probably one of the low points of all of our lives. People wanted to kill us!” says Zimmer, wincing. “I’ve blanked out a lot of it — it’s like a really bad car accident that you can’t remember that much about.”

The problem, says Zimmer, is that nothing about the movie — a family dramedy set in Hollywood starring Nick Nolte — immediately suggested that it should be a musical, so when the characters finally began to break into song several minutes into the film, the audience was struck dumb by the cognitive dissonance. “When you put something like I’ll Do Anything in front of an audience and they’re not warned that it’s a musical, you’ve gone truly too far,” says Zimmer. “The audience just bristled. They hated us! I learned a huge lesson: As much as you want to surprise your audience, you do have to warn them a little bit. The opening to Lion King is a direct result of what I did on I’ll Do Anything: When you hear Lebo’s chant at the beginning of Lion King, you know right away that this isn’t going to be a fairy-princess sort of musical, and it says to the audience, ‘Hey, this movie is going to be different.’”

The shame, says Zimmer, is that the musical version of the movie is likely lost forever. “I can’t find the songs, and those Prince songs were amazing,” he says. “But there’s a really simple reason it will never be seen: The deal structure on those songs was so complicated and so expensive, and it would cost so much money in rights to put it out.” Still, Zimmer doesn’t regret his I’ll Do Anything experience: “We need to be that close to the edge if we’re going to invent things. Sometimes it’ll go wrong, and other times, it’ll work out.”

The Dark Knight Rises

“I get a lot of shit from people who say, ‘All his scores sound like Inception,’ or ‘All his scores sound like Batman,’” laughs Zimmer. “Well, I’m sorry, guys! I didn’t know when we did Batman Begins that it was going to turn into nine years of having to stay in that syntax and that style. Within each movie, we added something new, but the sequel thing really threw me.”

When it came to The Dark Knight Rises, the culmination of those nine years of work, Zimmer had a brand-new brainstorm: To announce the villainous Bane, he wanted a massive chant that would be brought to life by 100,000 different voices. Logistically, though, that sort of track wouldn’t be easy to set up, and if Zimmer employed even a comparatively meager 100 people on his chant, chances were high that one of them might leak something from the super-secret production. “At the same time, it was important to Chris that the Bane character not be first revealed by somebody taking a dodgy picture with their iPhone on the set,” says Zimmer. So they came up with a neat trick: Nolan and Zimmer launched a website featuring the chant and embedded it full of secret messages that, when run through a spectograph and typed on Twitter, would reveal the first official image of Bane pixel by pixel.

“Now that the chant was out there in the world, I said, ‘I want my 100,000 people,’ recalls Zimmer. “So I thought, why don’t I just break the fourth wall and reach out to the fans? By this point, I was so familiar with the fans and I felt they were really part of making this movie anyway, so we did this thing on the Internet where they could put on their headphones and just do the chant at home at their computer and send it in. And I would literally line up 100,000 tracks of all our fans doing the chant … I never knew we were going to spend nine years of our lives doing Batman, so it was important to me that the last one was inclusive, that the doors were open. The people who had loved it and supported us could actually be part of it.”

Man of Steel

Zimmer has been working on his craft for decades, but it wasn’t until he took on comic-book projects like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel that he noticed he had attracted an unusually ardent fan base. “You go on to and you see what people write about the soundtrack, and you’re actually having this rather intimate conversation without ever knowing this person, just by seeing how they respond to your music,” he says. Still, though Zimmer has a godlike rep with most comic-book fans, he bristles when some of those heavily invested listeners use their passion to pan him. “I am human, and so some of the flak really hurts,” he says. “It gets under my skin. You have two choices: Don’t read any of it, or read it. And if you read it, you’ve got to read the bad with the good.”

The tricky thing with comic book movies like Man of Steel, says Zimmer, is that though an audience may think they want an ultrafaithful adaptation, the filmmaker’s responsibility is to take chances — and sometimes, those chances don’t go over well with angry fanboys. “I get a lot of that,” Zimmer admits. “Look at poor Ben Affleck! And honestly, there was some really nasty stuff going on when Chris cast Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, because everybody was saying that only Jack Nicholson could do it. But here’s the truth about what my job is: Our job as filmmakers is never to ask an audience, ‘What is it you would like to see?’ because then they go, ‘I don’t know … Indiana Jones 5 or Star Wars 27?’ Because it’s not their job to come up with an original way of thinking about it, or a new subject. It’s our job, to surprise them.”

Hans Zimmer on the Classic Films He’s Scored