Hans Zimmer has composed the scores for more than 100 films, winning an Academy Award in 1994 for The Lion King, but in the past decade he’s collaborated five times with director Christopher Nolan — on all three Dark Knight films (the first two with James Newton Howard), Inception and now Interstellar, the filmmaker’s sci-fi epic that takes viewers on a journey across the far reaches of time and space.
Moving away from the urgent, action-driven scores for their previous four films, Interstellar incorporates the majestic, moving sounds of a church pipe organ — played by Roger Sayer at the historic Temple Church in central London — to create a musical soundscape that captures both a tremendous feeling of loss and an overwhelming sense of the grandeur of the universe.
Zimmer’s long list of credits also includes 12 Years a Slave, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Rango, Sherlock Holmes, Man of Steel (with Junkie XL) and many others. He’s next returning to the world of superheroes — again with Junkie XL — on Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which puts him in the position of scoring his fourth Batman movie as well. Den of Geek sat down with Zimmer recently in Los Angeles to discuss Interstellar, Nolan, sci-fi scores and more.
Den of Geek: The organ is probably my favorite instrument ever, so when I heard the organ filling up the Chinese Theater a couple of weeks ago that was very exciting to me.
Hans Zimmer: Was it unexpected?
Yes. It was unexpected.
Because what I really, really, really, really tried to do and we nearly slipped up on our first teaser because we had a little bit in there. And then we decided I didn’t want anybody to hear what we were doing until they saw the movie. Commercially I have completely shot myself in the foot by not releasing the soundtrack two weeks ahead which is what everybody does. But I so believe in that idea that you would walk in and you didn’t know what to expect and, you know, at the end of the day I make this for the audience. And so I wanted you to have the sort of “what is this?” experience. A lot of people I just don’t think realize what it was.
This is the fifth time you and Christopher Nolan have worked together. What is the process like at this point?
Well look, I shouldn’t say this and he’s probably going to kill me. There are two Chris Nolans. There’s the Chris Nolan that you might encounter in an interview or you hear him speak publicly. He’s very deliberate and very thoughtful. I’ve created this environment in my studio which is very rock and roll and very collegial and, you know, musicians float in and out and people pick up instruments and start playing. And so when Chris comes down he’s part of the band. I mean people say, “Why do you write such good scores for Chris Nolan?” Well it’s really simple. The answer is Chris Nolan and the way we work together. We get breathless with throwing ideas at each other and we cross all the lines. It’s like Chris will be talking about music and I’ll be talking about story.
There was a point where Chris was running some of the (scoring) sessions alone because we had too much. I mean we just decided very early on that this whole thing was going to be about throwing caution to the wind. We had a really strong idea of how we wanted this to sound and we wanted to go and experiment. So we were working on the one hand with the organ and the string section going on in Temple Church and on the other end of town, as far away as you can get, was pianos and brass going on. So we just had to go and share the burden of who was running the sessions. Very often Chris would end up running the organ sessions at Temple Church. And it was quite infuriating when I would get back and he got far more work done that if I had been there, you know.
And that’s now part of the way you work together?
The only way I can describe it is it’s very much like having a band. And yeah, I write the notes but what is really important to Chris is I try to set up a place for him to feel completely free and candid and he can say any idea however preposterous it is. Because that’s how we get to the thing. All the good ideas you hear in the room usually start with somebody saying this might be a really bad idea but together we figure out what the thing is itself. And for Chris it’s really, really important to set up an environment for me to work in where my imagination isn’t constrained by the mechanics of filmmaking.
This time, he just gave you a scene to read before you started composing.
Exactly. Without telling me what the movie was about. And we just kept that sort of shape going, you know, whereby I would be working simultaneously while he was shooting in Iceland. I locked myself away. It was like method composing. I locked myself away in my apartment in London. I just wouldn’t go and see anybody. It was very much like I was out in space and the rest of the world was very, very far away. I’d just be working on these ideas and there were scenes he would describe to me over the phone and I’d just go and write them.
I remember one scene in particular where I was going, “You know, Chris, I don’t think I can just write this because the timing is so critical on all these. I have to hit this, I have to hit that, I think you better send me over the footage.” And he said, “No, you know, we’ve been so in sync in our storytelling over the years and our sensibilities. Just write it — if we have to adjust it later we’ll just adjust it later.” And I wrote it and I sent it over to him. And I said, “So how is it? He goes, “It hits right to the frame. It hits everything to the frame. Then he paused and he said, “Yesterday when I said to you we seem to have a similar sense of temper and timing, you know, afterwards I actually thought that was really reckless.”
It sounds like there’s a tremendous amount of trust there between the two of you after ten years.
Well it has to be, you know. This journey he sent me off on, from that first day of writing, was about my relationship to my children. When you and I speak right now we’re speaking in words and I hide behind them. When I play you a piece of music for the first time it truly is from the heart — the only place I know how to write from. I have no musical education. And so I was emotionally very fragile when I played this piece for the first time…I wrote it, I phoned him, he came Sunday night, 9:30 at night, you know. It wasn’t business hours. It wasn’t about that. It was just two friends meeting and me playing him this piece going, “Well what do you think?” And him going, “Well I’d better make the movie now.” Then I asked him what the movie was.
So you wrote this piece of music without knowing what the full movie was about, just knowing what emotions Nolan wanted to channel.
But by having this piece of music as an anchor, he actually said to me, “I now know what the heart of the movie is.” That was the conversation we would always return to. So it’s like, that set the tone and subtext for everything.
What I love about the use of the organ is that it’s both mournful and spiritual. Mournful in the sense that it’s sort of mourning the possible end of humanity. But also it’s got that spiritual feel because you’re entering this church of the universe in a sense.
And it’s amazing technology. It’s amazing science and I was thinking how great, you know, centuries ago there were huge human endeavors to build things to sound magnificent, to build amazing musical instruments. They invested an amazing amount of time and effort to make something sound beautiful. And then the other thing which I thought was that a big pipe organ does look like a rocket.
That’s a great metaphor.
The image fit the subject. But also, the only way it can make a sound is if there’s air going through it, if it breathes. And I just loved hearing that. You know even when Roger Sayer wasn’t playing you just hear it. It’s like the giant asleep under the Earth. You just hear the air pushing up against the pipes. So it’s a magnificent beast that just waits to be unleashed. And at the same time you can get these incredibly intimate and, as you say, mournful sounds out of it.
I have this crazy theory about science fiction. I think all science fiction movies are inherently nostalgic. I think Blade Runner is one of the most nostalgic movies you can think of. Gattaca is incredibly nostalgic somehow. So with this nostalgia, they become weirdly personal. And that got me back to where we were starting which was by going as far away from humanity and Earth as we possibly could in this movie. Every moment needed to remind us of who we are or question of who we are or make us an ache for who we left behind.
I think as the movie goes on…I’m trying to celebrate all that’s good about humanity. I’m trying to celebrate scientists. I mean I love that Chris was making a movie where scientists were front and center. They were the stars. They weren’t the geeky sidekick. That’s my world. My dad was a scientist. I want on my tombstone, “He was a geek, he was a nerd and he loved it.”
That band vibe you spoke about, is that in your DNA from being in bands early on? (Zimmer started his career with groups like Krakatoa and, most famously, the Buggles of “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame.)
Absolutely. Plus there’s this other thing. You know, I’m a foreigner everywhere. I mean we speak in English right now and really my mother tongue is German. But I’m not German anymore, you know. I mean I left when I was 13 so I’m sort of on this endless journey where I’ve gone to places like Africa and Slovakia where we didn’t have words in common but we could just sit down, start playing and four hours would go by and we’d think it was 10 minutes. We had these amazing conversations without using words. Sometimes language isn’t as important to us as just the experience you get to have, you know.
What are some of your favorite science fiction scores?
Well, Blade Runner. I love Sunshine. I think John Murphy is such an underrated composer. I just love that score. I think it’s really hard to beat Alien just for its sheer elegance and what Jerry Goldsmith did. Brazil, you know. But weirdly I mean one of the things was I couldn’t watch any of these movies for the last two years because I needed to make our movie. Yes we talked a lot about 2001 and 2001 was really daunting to me for a while.
The thing about 2001 is when the audience first saw it they probably knew “The Blue Danube.” They knew that piece of music. A great percentage of them might have known “Also Sprach Zarathustra” even though they couldn’t pronounce it. But the rest of the music, none of them had heard before. And so I just thought what Kubrick did very successfully was that he just went, “I just need good music for this.” I remember saying to Chris at one point that what made this job hard was not that 2001 and all these things have happened before us. It’s just the simple mandate. You’ve got to write good music.
You’re going back into the world of superheroes with Batman v Superman, and I just read that you’re getting Junkie XL involved. So what can you say about the approach to this one?
It’s not even like I’m being secretive. It’s just when Zack (Snyder) said to me, “I’m going to have Batman in this one…” — people forget that what we do isn’t careers. It’s our life. Chris and I spent nine years of our lives invested in that character of Batman and treating it with great respect. And suddenly I’m going, “So I need to go chuck all this out and sort of reinvent it.” But I don’t want to go betray our last nine years. And that’s how it felt to me — like I was going to betray Christian Bale in a funny way by going, “Whatever you did, that was just my practice run.” But it wasn’t. It was nine years of my life.
So I thought, just like on the first one, Batman Begins, where I had James Newton Howard come in and it became this collegial thing, let me bring someone else in. And I’ve been working a lot with Junkie over the last couple or so years. And the thing that I know that you guys don’t know I’ve heard some of his Mad Max: Fury Road work and it’s phenomenal. So I said to him, you’ll have a completely new fresh slant on this. Let me deal with all the other characters. And Zack loved the idea because Zack loves Junkie.
So he’s working more on Batman.
I’m going to confine him to the Batman side and since there might be some conflict between the two characters I’m going to be quite adversarial while we’re doing it. You’d better watch out.
Interstellar is out now in theaters everywhere.