Hans Zimmer is one of the best-known and most acclaimed film composers of the past 35 years. The German-born Zimmer began working on films in 1984, landed his first Oscar nomination four years later for Rain Man, and won his first Oscar for Best Original Score in 1994 for the Disney animated classic The Lion King, which combined Zimmer’s work with traditional African music composed by the South African artist Lebo M.
The music from The Lion King has become as iconic as the film itself, and Zimmer has returned to perform the same duties on director Jon Favreau’s new photorealistic computer-animated remake, which recreates nearly all of the 1994 film’s story and emotional beats while trading its traditional animated style for the look and sweep of a nature documentary.
In between the 1994 and 2019 versions of The Lion King, Zimmer has gone from one film music triumph to another, working with directors like Ron Howard, Ridley and Tony Scott, Gore Verbinski and especially Christopher Nolan, for whom he created the memorable scores for Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Interstellar.
With a busy year ahead of him that includes scores for Wonder Woman 1984, Top Gun: Maverick and a new version of the sci-fi landmark Dune, Zimmer sat with us to discuss returning to The Lion King, what the original meant to him, how the score was performed and recorded for the remake and more.
Den of Geek: What was your first reaction to the idea of coming back around to this?
Hans Zimmer: Dubious to say the least. And Jon, he’s very cool, very laid back. He said, “Why don’t you come down and see what we’re doing, and I’ll show you a little bit of something.” He showed me the opening. And I remember sitting there and I knew what they were doing, and at the same time it affected me so much.
Listen, I know every trick in the book how you can manipulate, or how you are manipulated by images and music and all this stuff. And I started to cry at the end of it. And I thought, hmm, he’s got me. Right, okay, the only sensible thing is to say yes, and try to do as well as I possibly can. And my oldest daughter, who I really did the original movie for, I remember saying to her, you know, “I think I’m going to have another go at this”. She said, “Just don’t make a mess of it.”
You were a little reluctant to do it even the first time but you talked to your daughter about it then too.
Totally! There’s basically three stories about it. One is, I did it for my daughter. The second part of the story is because I was involved with Africa, I needed to do it because of that. And weirdly the Africa thing seems to be more current and more important than ever before. You look at this movie because of the nature and I think it somehow makes you aware that we share this planet with these animals and we better be a little more responsible and respectful of the neighbors that we have that we share this planet with.
The third part of it was to deal the death of my father. Whatever any psychiatrist or psychologist tells you about kids getting over trauma — I don’t think they get over trauma, they box it up. And suddenly there I was, I was 36 years old when I did the first Lion King and I had to go and open those boxes and actually deal with it. Curiously enough, maybe I came back because there were things that I still hadn’t finished talking to myself about.
On a purely creative, musical level, what did you think you could change or upgrade?
Oh, that was easy! That was an easy one and I’ll tell you exactly what that was. Pharrell (Williams) and Johnny Marr ganged up on me a few years back and said, “You have to get out there. You can’t hide behind a screen. You have to go and do some concerts.” And so the opportunity came up to do Coachella and I thought, yeah this is going to be great! Nobody takes an orchestra or a choir to the desert, this’ll be fun. First thing I said to the band was, “I’m not going to do Lion King. I’m not doing the kids movie.” And Nile Marr, Johnny Marr’s 23-year-old son, says to me, “Get over yourself, Zimmer! It’s the soundtrack of my generation. You better play it. It’s really important to us.” Nobody had ever said to me that it was very important to them.
So we did it and two things happened. One was performing it, as a band, there’s a big difference between doing a recording and performing in front of an audience. There’s an energy that happens, right? It was great. The other thing was seeing the audience react. I mean, genuinely seeing that we got under their skin. So I said to Jon, “I want to recreate that. I don’t want to record the way we normally record a film where we do little bits and then they’re just reading off the page because we don’t have to do this. Everybody in the orchestra will know the story. Everybody will know why they’re playing. I want two days” — which you can never have — “I want two days to rehearse the living daylights out of this. And then I want to really perform it. Not stopping. Running the movie.”
We did it the old fashioned way. We had a big screen up, we put an audience in front of them, which was all the filmmakers. The orchestra was extraordinary because I had formed this great orchestra in New York called The Re Collective Orchestra which is an African-American orchestra. Put those together with the people in Los Angeles who played on the original movie. Shoved my band in there somehow, it was crowded, trust me. Seated the filmmakers and just went, “Okay, everybody take a deep breath. Here we go! Let’s perform it. And if you play a wrong note, don’t worry we’ll do it again tomorrow. But we’re not going to stop and we’re not going to go back. And if it all goes horribly horrid, it will have that urgency and have that passion in it.” To me it sounds a bit more like that.
What do you know about yourself as a composer now, that you didn’t know in 1994?
I never thought about it like this. I’m self-taught. I had two weeks of piano lessons. I’m constantly in the process of becoming a composer, somehow. Everybody else I know, they use lots of Italian words to describe music. I just go, ‘Can we rock out?” Whatever. No, I have good ears and a good memory for music. And I know how to communicate with the musicians so that they then can slip into the language that I’m the most comfortable in. I mean, here you have a German talking to you in English when really if you want me to be truly articulate put a piano in front of me and I can tell you things that make sense to me. Words to me are the cheap version of notes if you’re trying to express emotions.
You famously said that you didn’t want to do superhero films anymore, but you’re composing the score for Wonder Woman 1984.
As soon as I said it I knew I was so stupid. After I said that, Ron Howard, who’s a very wise and a very good friend, took me and said very quietly and very sweetly, “Never say that. Don’t say never. Say I’m waiting for a great script.” It means nothing. It means nothing. It’s the story. It doesn’t matter if it’s superheroes or not superheroes. It’s either a story or it’s not. These days, I think, the few honorable jobs left in this world is what you and I do. We tell stories. We tell people about each other. We are part of and in our own language is writing down the history of mankind or maybe the future of mankind. Whatever you want to call it. But we’re storytellers.
You’re not working on Christopher Nolan’s next movie (Tenet) for the first time in years.
No, I am not working on Christopher’s next movie. Ludwig (Goransson) is. He’s a friend and it’s all good. I’m working on Dune which is sort of a big thing for me.
Are you a fan of the original novel or the David Lynch film version?
I have never seen the original movie because I love the book so much. I didn’t want to go and ruin it by watching a movie which I had heard slightly dubious things about. Right? Then a few years back I bought the book again for my son. He was 16 or 17, I don’t know. I remember walking over to give it to him but I started reading the first paragraph and I never gave it to him. I just went back into the book. And the other day he actually sent me a photo — he bought the book himself.
The Lion King is out in theaters this Friday (July 19).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye