When surveying the landscape of modern movie scores, it’s difficult to find a more important figure than Hans Zimmer. With well over 100 films under his belt, the German-born composer has had a hand in shaping the sound of blockbuster filmmaking, with influential work on everything from Michael Bay and Ridley Scott blockbusters to his elegiac music in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. In the last decade, Zimmer has perhaps been most closely associated with director Christopher Nolan, with whom he’s collaborated since Batman Begins.
In more recent years, however, he’s also developed a new relationship with another major British auteur: Steve McQueen. Zimmer and McQueen first collaborated on the haunting and tense score for 12 Years a Slave in 2013. Now, the two have reunited for McQueen’s decidedly different, though no less tense, undertaking, Widows, a Chicago-set heist thriller based on a 1983 British TV series and starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki as women forced to steal $2 million to repay the debt left by their recently killed criminal husbands. Zimmer’s score for the film alternates between softer, grief-filled notes and a thrumming, suspenseful energy, providing the emotional grounding for McQueen’s impeccable visuals.
Vulture caught up with Zimmer following the world premiere of Widows at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to talk about his ongoing collaboration with McQueen, his history with the original incarnation of Widows, changing his recording method to suit the film, and knowing when his work is finished.
Were you sitting in the audience at the premiere?
It was the first time I saw it with an audience. I’ve seen it a lot of times just sitting next to Steve, which is a slightly different experience. Premieres are terrifying.
Yeah, watching things with an audience — What if they don’t like it? You don’t know how anybody’s going to respond to anything. Not really.
Do you include your own work in that?
Completely. But at that moment I don’t care about my work anymore. I care about everybody. Everybody that is part of the family, everybody who worked on it. I want everybody protected from whatever possibly could go wrong.
I was thinking about your music in the movie, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like of late you’ve done a lot more of this tense, almost heistlike work. Even in non-heist films, like some of Christopher Nolan’s movies, there’s this thrumming energy to your music that I think is present lately.
Well, ticking clock, in a heist movie that’s what you’re supposed to do.
But it’s an interesting motif, you seem to be drawn to it lately.
I’ve always been drawn to it, I suppose. Look, I’m German. I come from Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and stuff like that. But it’s not just that. It’s a fun language to explore. And doing it on Steve’s movie was very different than doing it on Dunkirk, for instance. The thing I suppose that they have in common is they’re not action movies, do you know what I mean? Like a heist is really about the agility of the mind — or, How are we going to go and solve this puzzle? Or, How are these women going to work together? — which is not that dissimilar in Dunkirk where there is a ticking clock, and How is this group of men going to survive? They’re both survival stories. It’s not about let’s get rich and go to Vegas.
You said it was different doing it for Steve. What’s that collaboration like? This is your second film together.
You mean this was our comedy, compared to 12 Years a Slave.
[Laughs.] Sure. Although, was the process different between them?
Not really. I think especially with Steve McQueen, what happens is between Sean [Bobbitt], his DP, and Joe [Walker], his editor, and Steve himself, their images to me play like a piece of music. And I think of myself as an orchestrator as opposed to the lead composer, in a funny way. It just feels different. The amount of very designed silence in the movie, that’s not just me being lazy; thought went into how little music we have. I think the real task becomes where you have a scene of a grieving, strong woman by herself. How do you write that? Because what music automatically does is, it becomes a companion, but what you are trying to do is emphasize her loneliness. So how do use that to emphasize somebody’s solitude, somebody’s grief, without ever getting sentimental?
Is that an ongoing conversation with Steve while you’re making it?
No … He and I, we never talk about it, but it appears in a lot of his work, and it appears in a lot of my work, just the idea of — suddenly there you are, you’re all on your own, and how are you going to go and survive?
Then of course there’s the contrast between those quieter scenes with some of the bigger heist or action sequences. How do you think about creating that contrast?
They are complete contrasts, but the heist is just a development of the piece of when they first decide they’re going to go and do it. It’s never an action piece, does that make sense? It’s still about figuring it out, the girls’ thinking. I’m forever trying to not get in the way of you noticing that this movie is about these strong women put into this impossible — no, it doesn’t even matter if they’re “strong” women or not; they’re women in this impossible situation.
Surviving. Forget all technique, forget all that stuff. I think what Steve has is a huge heart that really is genuinely interested in the human condition, so that’s what his movies are about. I just try to build on that.
Is that also how you think about your collaborations with other directors?
Yeah, I suppose so. I have a weird history with Widows because I worked for Stanley Myers, who was the composer on Widows the television series. I was the T-boy on it. This was in the ’80s, and at that time this was an important subject, and it was great television. It just sort of showed that casual cruelty women are subjected to constantly, and I thought it was an important piece of television that would make noise and make people think. And when Steve started to talk to me about projects he was thinking of doing and Widows was one of those ideas, I suddenly realized that after all these years, if anything the world has gotten worse. It was as relevant then as it is now, and that was a bit infuriating in a way. It’s a bit sad that humanity is so bad at becoming kinder.
Did you go back to that original score at all?
No, not at all. First of all, it wasn’t my score.
But even just for influence.
Partly, it’s in my subconscious, and I had to go and complete some other weird personal circle as well. But no, I am forever trying to move forward. Sometimes it’s a millimeter and sometimes it’s a leap, but forward it has to be, and it has to be appropriate for the subject matter.
What were the things you were trying to push forward on Widows?
They’re just subtle little things. I love recording in this big old church in London. It just has a beautiful, epic sound, but I felt it was inappropriate to be lush in any way for this score. So I just picked all my favorite players — I pick each player in the string section, I know them, I know who my actors are, and I know that they’ll get the reason why they’re playing those notes — and I put them into a far drier, far less glamorous, far less flamboyant sort of setting. The opposite of the church. It’s just things like that. All I can say to you is, I just try to be as honest as I possibly can in the music, and not manipulate you. I just open a door that gives you the possibility to feel, but I’m not going to tell you what to feel. That’s your autonomous decision.
Is that something strings give you in particular? Because you do use a lot of strings.
Unless you’re Bernard Herrmann and you’re doing fantastic horror-movie scores, strings automatically are gentle and romantic, and I wanted these to be alienating. I still wanted them to be beautiful, but not sentimental, and not cloying, and certainly not grand.
You mentioned the space that you recorded in and not wanting that epic feel. Is that something that comes through even in the playing of the music?
Absolutely. Oh, completely. I was driving the players crazy for a little while. I was giving them too many directions, and the whole thing sort of fell apart, and then I finally went, “Just play the notes on the page and don’t worry about it. Don’t put any fake emotion into things. Just play the notes and you’ll be fine. The notes will say it.” That was after me going, “No! It needs to be more this and it needs to be more that.” But part of that conversation and experimentation is good. You arrive at a point.
Is Steve involved in the minutiae of that as well?
I’ll tell you exactly how it works. We try to be as close as possible geographically. I was working two buildings away from his cutting room, and on 12 Years a Slave he was in the room. The budget was so low that it was only four musicians and Steve. So even though he didn’t play an instrument, by being in the room while everything is being recorded, you can’t help but be an influence. You’re part of the band.
Is he active in the direction in that space, or is he deferring to you?
I know exactly what you’re saying, but no, we just get on with it. At the same time, there is a conversation that’s going on, and he can be part of the conversation. What’s great about Steve is, he doesn’t know how to censor himself when something touches him. You instantly know when you hit the right note. Once, on 12 Years a Slave, the scene we were scoring was over and therefore the music needed to stop, and he goes, “Don’t stop! Don’t stop! It’s so beautiful, just keep going!”
Were you sharing ideas with Steve back and forth during the early ideas stages?
It was like a nice, long process where I would do a little bit, then he’d go do a little bit, then I’d do a little bit. You know, the worst thing you can ever do to somebody is to say to them, “It’s finished,” and take it away from them. So we never played that game. We were forever going, “Let’s try something else.”
How do you know when you find the right theme?
I don’t. Very often I don’t find the right thing. How does anybody know?
[Laughs.] I’m asking you as a writer because I definitely don’t know when I’ve got something right.
Exactly. But let’s go to an artist that both Steve and I really admire: Gerhard Richter, the painter. I remember seeing his show at the Tate Modern in London, and it starts off with these very realistic paintings, and then slowly as you walk through the rooms, you get to these serious abstracts. And two things happen. First of all, whenever one of these rooms is filled with abstracts, somewhere there’s going to be a little perfect drawing of something very real, and it’s like Richter is going, “Just remember, guys, at the end of the day I’m a master draftsman. I’m not playing around here with color and a big paintbrush.” And then the other thing, which is the stuff that Steve and I talked about, because I haven’t been able to ask Richter, is when do you know you’re finished? When do you know it’s good? And so much of my relationship with directors is that they tell me when you’re finished.
There was a moment toward the end of recording The Dark Knight where I had so many ideas, I was packing in even more ideas, and we were now starting sessions with orchestras at 1 o’clock [in the morning]. But I really was sick as a dog by this point, I was exhausted. So I’m sitting on the couch in the control room going, “I think I’m having a heart attack, but we need to go and record this thing.” I saw Chris look over at me, and I’m pretending to smile, but he sees, he knows I’ve had it. He just walks over to the mixing console and hits the microphone button and says, “I think we’ve recorded enough.” And I’m going, “No, no, no! We still have to record this really unimportant, trivial whatever.” And he goes, “No, Hans. We’re done.” It’s important that the people you work with, that we all watch out for each other. I mean that in the kindest possible way. We’re all crazy.
A safe environment.
Yeah. You can ask me about anything, and I will answer it. Don’t ever try to play truth or dare with me because I will always tell you the truth, and I will tell you everything. But if I play you a piece of music, I can’t look at you when I play it. I’m so fragile because it’s the only time when I think somebody can truly see inside me and really truly know who I am. So you want somebody like Steve or Chris, or people who respect what you’re going through when you’re playing them your piece of music for the first time.