Composer of the Year Hans Zimmer on Scoring the Future

on December 15, 2017, 12:00pm

Photography by Philip Cosores

“I’m so sick and tired of getting pigeonholed as the prince of darkness,” Hans Zimmer exhales with exaggerated bombast, pausing for the briefest moment before letting out a chuckle. For a man who rose to fame in the last decade on the back of charred experimentation and eerie dissonance, the German-born composer is quick with a gregarious laugh. In fact, the unstoppable fervor with which he leaps from topic to topic and dips into linguistic pirouettes with his conversational partners gets to the core of one of the most impressive years of his legendary career.

Zimmer composed scores for three films in 2017: Boss Baby, Dunkirk, and Blade Runner 2049. For the latter two projects, he worked closely with Benjamin Wallfisch, a remarkable fellow composer with whom he’d already worked on 2016’s Hidden Figures and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In addition to that collaboration, Zimmer allowed us into his world on his first North American tour. The international jaunt opened with a compelling set at Coachella, lending an entirely new facet to his already complex artistic expression.

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“I’ve been sitting in this windowless room by myself for 40 years, but that doesn’t mean I have completely divorced myself from humanity,” Zimmer says. Though he hadn’t physically been out in rooms with crowds every night for the last few decades, it’s clear from any one of his scores that Zimmer loves people and strives to deliver that experience to them via music — or, as he calls it, his “message in a bottle.”

Perhaps paradoxically, the score that shows that passion for humanity more than any other belongs to a film that questions the reality of humanity. Zimmer and Wallfisch’s compositions for Blade Runner 2049 rely so heavily on human interaction, even in the theater. The pair play up the tension onscreen masterfully, leaving gaps of silence where viewers get sucked into the uncertainty and experience of the scene. It’s so quiet that the heartbeats and gasps in the theater become a part of the soundtrack. The human reaction is essential for a film in which the very question of human existence sits at its core.

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Getting to know a person properly means understanding who they are over time — how they grow, change, and learn, and what stays the same through it all. Because Zimmer has been a part of so many essential cultural touchstones, we’ve been able to measure ourselves alongside charting his own prolific growth. From ‘80s award-nominated work on Rain Man and Driving Miss Daisy to ‘90s classics like Thelma & Louise and The Lion King, from ‘00s epics like Gladiator and The Last Samurai to becoming a crucial element of Christopher Nolan’s statement pieces this decade. From Cool Runnings to Frost/Nixon and back again, Zimmer has continuously explored his deepest inner self, allowing us as viewers to follow and learn more about our own depths.

In order to look more closely at his groundbreaking year, we brought Zimmer and Wallfisch together in conversation, the two revealing more of each other’s inner workings as time went on. By discussing their work on Blade Runner 2049 as a case study, Zimmer detailed the inspiration behind his expansion outside of his studio, living up to the legacy of Vangelis, their collaborative process, and much more.

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The Language of Music

Hans Zimmer (HZ): You’re talking to a German here in English; I’m already translating every word in my head, one way or the other. If I really want to be able to say something that I mean, the best way for me is music. It’s not very useful if you want to make a shopping list! Neither is poetry, but that doesn’t tell you that the language of poetry doesn’t have some use in our society. The same goes with music.

Scores like Blade Runner or Inception don’t actually tell you what to feel. They aren’t didactic scores. We’re opening a door for you to have an experience, an autonomous experience, whatever it is. Most days, we don’t get the opportunity to actually feel something other than the sheer panic of a deadline, which is not what I’m talking about. A piece of music can enable you to have that moment or experience where you can feel something privately, for yourself.

This will sound really pretentious, but fuck it, I’ll go for it: I think I [make music] because I feel a lot for other people. I genuinely like humanity. I try to pour that into it. I’ve been sitting in this windowless room by myself for 40 years, but that doesn’t mean I have completely divorced myself from humanity. If anything, I try to have this sort of weird conversation via music, like I’m sending a message in a bottle out from my little desert island, hoping that something resonates in another person. I’m weirdly trying to have a completely personal conversation with every single person in the audience.

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Looking Your Audience In The Eye

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HZ: I got kicked out of my room by my musician friend who said, “Enough hiding, once in your life you’ve got to look your audience in the eye and do things in real time.” So, I decided I was going to go out and tour. The first thing I did was I decided I wasn’t going to show a single image from the movies. I was just going to see if this stuff could live on its own two feet. Somehow, in your subconscious, the images are still there.

Ben Wallfisch (BW): Music is imbued in the entire experience! The minute you hear it again after the film can transport you back to that emotional state. I always listen to it away from picture and just hope that it still hits me emotionally somehow, that it has an effect and it’s not entirely dependent on picture. We are musicians after all. We’re telling stories with music, and you have to be truthful to that experience when you’re creating.

HZ: Exactly. Once it’s out, it’s not ours to talk about anymore. It now belongs to everybody, and they can say whatever they want to say and discover whatever they want to discover.

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Going on an Adventure with Denis

HZ: If Denis [Villeneuve, director of Blade Runner 2049] and Joe Walker [Blade Runner 2049 film editor] burst through the door and said, “Here’s another adventure we’d like to take you on in the middle of the night,” we’d instantly go, “OK, alright then, bring it on.”

One of the things I tapped into was that Denis makes deeply personal films. This might be a huge canvas, but one of the things that I truly adore about the man is how much he is prepared in a conversation to reveal his feelings and to just show that courage to be that candid in conversation. That lets us be courageous about exposing emotion as well. I always like the directors who, through their humanity, become co-composers. They become part of the band.

There are directors that are outside, that don’t want to come and enter, that don’t want to roll up their sleeves. They’re the ones that think they actually have to talk in musical terms, as opposed to emotional terms. With Denis, we kept thinking, “What an exceptional human being he is.” At the end of the day, it was as much about the movie as about the graciousness of this man that was our director. That was projected directly in the material.

It all started when Joe Walker phoned and asked if they could come over. I said, “No, you can’t come over. I’m going on tour.” But then they burst through the door, not taking no for an answer. They hadn’t actually run the movie for themselves as a whole yet. There’s a weird bonding experience that happens where everybody’s feeling completely and utterly insecure. So I said, “Well, come on in and show us the movie. Come and watch it yourselves.” In a funny way, it was a good start. Since they were watching their own movie for the first time, there was nothing that they were precious about.

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The Blade Runner Eureka Moment

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HZ: At the end of seeing the film the first time, everybody was in my room, and I just kind of put my hands on the keyboard. Rather than actually saying anything, I just started to play something. I’m not saying it was any good, but I think there was a relief for everybody that rather than a lot of words being spoken, somebody was making noise, somebody was playing some notes. We would have been stuck in the conversation, not moving forward. It was a synth sound and in the vocabulary of the Vangelis sound.

BW: What was so powerful about those notes that Hans played was that there was an immediate synergy with Denis. It was a eureka moment because it actually was rather hopeful, the melody. It wasn’t that kind of smoke and darkness, which you might perhaps first think of. It was actually a melody which was uplifting but still a question. There was some strangeness to it, too. That melody is now right in the middle of the movie. We did come back to it a lot, just reminding ourselves of the story.

HZ: Thank you, Ben, for saying that I wrote a hopeful tune, because I’m so sick and tired of getting pigeonholed as the prince of darkness, that I only write all this dark stuff. Let me just point out that my first instinct was something hopeful and in a major key. I have written comedies in my past. I’m not just writing dark shit. [Laughs]

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On Working Hard, Even on Break

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HZ: I came back from tour and immediately set to work. I was supposed to have a 10-day break between the European leg of the tour and the American leg of the tour — but I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I have on those 10 days with Ben. Literally, on the last night, maybe at three o’clock in the morning, I was still trying to play Ben’s tune. Denis finally just said, “I think it’s time to go to sleep now.” My fingers just wouldn’t move anymore.

I think me going away and coming back, in a weird way, was actually quite helpful. Then I was the one who had a slightly clearer perspective for a little bit.

BW: A great example of that was in the final, big finale of Blade Runner. We’d been struggling for weeks with an action cue. Having spent some time away, Hans came back and immediately said, “No, no, no, that’s completely not the right way to go about that. We need a cathartic, emotional, melodic moment.” It took about three or four hours to execute that as an idea, and it was really amazing to see the shift in the room when we made that very simple fix. Somehow the rest of the score suddenly made sense because of that catharsis at the end. That’s one of the reasons I love working with Hans: That moment of realization can just come like a spark. It’s like, “Aah, of course, that’s how it always should have been.”

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The Magic of Four Notes

HZ: Those four beautiful notes are absolutely Ben’s. That’s another enormous complication and puzzle solved in four notes.

BW: Using four notes wasn’t a thought that we had at the beginning. So much of the story is built on the idea of DNA, and the four assets of DNA. With Denis, that melody was a process of elimination. We needed the heart of the score. We needed the soul, the “Horse Theme”. That’s a very complicated prospect. By eliminating everything that distracted from that kind of truth, the symmetry of that four-note tune glued itself to the picture in an interesting way. That was a great moment of discovery.

HZ: Ben, it was inspired, and you’re a really good composer. And again, if you don’t have a strong team like Joe and Denis, they might get panicked and have to clutter because someone is afraid of letting silence speak, letting the movie breath. They were not afraid of that.

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On Trusting the Picture

HZ: I approach the score by looking at the cinematography. That’s the first thing that tells me what the colors are. Then I figure out what the sound design is. For Dunkirk, Richard King and I had such a shorthand and collaborative process. We would keep sending songs back and forth to each other constantly. Sometimes they would even end up in the wrong place; there would be music stems on the sound effects and vice versa, and then we have to go and unmuddle all that.

I think there was a time when I first started working in movies where, basically, you as the composer were told that the enemy was the sound designer. “They’re going to be the one that’s making all that noise that’s going to destroy your beautifully crafted string quartet.” And then slowly it started to change. The sound designers became more musical and the composers became more interested in white noise and the like. At a certain point, we all realized that all you have to do is look at the picture and trust the picture. The job isn’t even about serving the picture anymore. The job really is about how we can elevate it.

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On Getting the Band Together

HZ: I’ve known Joe Walker since 1998, when we worked on a dodgy BBC thing [First Born, miniseries]. We were both mere children. But Joe actually went to music school. He is a composer himself. That’s incredibly helpful, as I know Joe’s rhythm. I know it exactly. In a funny way, this is a horrible over-simplification, but the editor becomes your drummer. I know how Joe feels rhythms. I don’t even have to see the whole scene to lay things out, usually.

BW: In Blade Runner, there were sometimes cues that weren’t quite working, but then because Hans knows this rhythm, he innately knew we could just move it to the left four seconds or something, and then it just somehow fit. That was fascinating.

A great example of that is in the walk through Las Vegas, that iconic moment in the movie. That was special. For that one cue, we had maybe four or five versions that were very emotive, very mimotic and rich pieces of synthesized music. In the end, it plays into the courage of a band, where you try things and listen to each other.

On the dub stage, they just stripped everything out except the bass drum. And we were left with these three huge drum hits and just the sound of the footsteps. That allowed the viewer to really immerse themselves visually. Because of the unpredictability of those drum hits, you’re kind of on edge the same way that K is. That’s a great example of how having the confidence to embrace silence really came to the fore.

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Ditching the Orchestral Security Blanket

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HZ: The sound of the movie came about because of the way the movie looked. The cinematography was like a filter to the synthesizer. It was as much a part of how to approach the sound as anything else. There was no way that with those images that I would have known how to make it work with an orchestra.

I know that Ben comes from a great orchestral tradition. His security blanket is having an orchestra. I was thinking, early on, that we really shouldn’t have an orchestra, but I couldn’t just yank it away from Ben. I wanted to slowly infiltrate the idea that maybe we could cancel those orchestra sessions. I had to do it very carefully to make sure that Ben was feeling confident about the material he was doing without the orchestra. I was trying to be really gentle about taking away his favorite toy.

BW: This is a movie that basically outright rejected the orchestra. There were a few cues where we used strings here and there, but even that just got less and less, to the point where there was just about one minute, and then that went away. It was actually very organic. With an orchestra, you have all these artists contributing their performance and emotional take.

When you’re doing a synth score, you’re looking at one or two people and their performance. There’s a sort of singularity about that; I think that’s really powerful, and it really suits this film because there’s a singularity about K’s journey. It’s a single man — or replicant, however you want to see him — unfolding a mystery that shakes him to the core of who he thinks he is. I’m very grateful to Hans for keeping me on my toes.

HZ: I’m the one who’s grateful. You would have come around to it sooner or later all by yourself. Writing at the best of times is daunting. Writing music for something that everybody is very precious about and thinks is iconic, you do win the booby prize by saying yes to that one. Everybody suddenly becomes a critic and everybody knows everything better. But for me, I think the cinematography absolutely dictated the sound of the movie more than anything else. This is not an average, normal world that we’re entering.

BW: It was actually a fascinating thing to really bring out the same emotional impact that you would get with an orchestra only using synthesizers. You have so many associations with the sound of an orchestra over a movie. It turns it into a very familiar experience. But what was so iconic about the original Blade Runner was that nothing else sounded like it. And it wasn’t just the melodies; it was the production, the way it was so expansive and immersive, and almost quite improvised.

Embracing that attitude but using sounds that we have now, 30 years later, the raw emotional impact of that was a really wonderful discipline. A really great thing about not using an orchestra was that there wasn’t a four- or five-week part of the process where you have to stop writing, orchestrate, record, and mix. That was not there. We could just continue writing all the way to the end of the period. What was great about that was that they were mixing the final sound design and some of the biggest decisions in the final score were made in those final weeks.

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Composing Reality vs. Composing the Future

HZ: While working on Interstellar, I looked at a lot of science fiction movies, and I kept thinking, “Well, they’re all about nostalgia.” I said that to Denis immediately. That’s really the core of any great science fiction movie, maybe with the exception of 2001… But no, even that! You can’t get anything more nostalgic than “The Blue Danube”.

No matter the project, for me it always starts with trying to create a legitimate logic to the sonic world that we stick to. Even if you look at Batman Begins or something like that, we worked very hard at finding a sonic identity and a logic to whatever that world is, and then stuck to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a real world or an imagined world, it has to have some implied logic and some implied rules. Saying that we might not need the orchestra just felt like an implied rule to me.

You have to be careful when you say it. You may not want to say some of those things, both because you’re not sure of your own words and because you don’t want to take away the experimentation that somebody else wants. I think part of what happens in good movie-making is that everybody sort of knows what the shape, the form, and the sound of the world is that they’re trying to move the story around in. We need to stick to that like glue, and then it’s just how you interpret it and the limitations you put on it.

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Living Up to Legacy

BW: Vangelis’ score in the original is half of the identity of Blade Runner. But with this new movie, it’s not a remake, nor is it a pure sequel; it’s a really new take on those central ideas. That in itself meant that while paying respects and really fully embracing that DNA and sound, the actual musical narrative approach had to be almost totally reinvented.

That’s also due to Denis’s filmmaking style and way of directing. It’s so incredibly visceral and powerful, visually. The story is there in front of you so directly that if you then accompany that with very narrative music, it can sometimes cancel it out. A lot of it needed a very light touch and getting out of the way.

HZ: We had Ridley Scott’s legacy as well. Actually, the other day when I was flying back from London, who’s on the plane but Ridley, of course. I went over to him and said, “I hope you don’t think I’ve ruined it.” [Laughs] And he just said, “It’s all fine, it’s all good.” I thought, “Oh, this could turn into a very long flight.” [Laughs]

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