Hollywood Has Been Zimmered

A frank conversation with Hans Zimmer

By Darren Cavanagh

Apart from being a very successful and talented film composer, Hans Zimmer is an honest guy. Not many professionals in his position would openly and truthfully admit their musical pitfalls and sincere feelings toward one's chosen craft. Zimmer revealed all of this and more.

Case in point, I first encountered him at the recording sessions to Richard Donner's latest movie, RADIO FLYER. Logistically a film composer's worst nightmare : two endings, too many decision makers and too many musical notes.

Four days without much sleep, re-arranging music to fit a moving target is hardly the ideal creative frame of mind to concentrate, or for that matter, to conduct the odd interview. Unfortunately for me, the obligatory Zimmer interview was a much desired editorial item, considering the fact that no less than 3 films showing at that time had been Zimmered, so to speak. Quite a young star within the unsung world of film composition and not a person to suffer fools easily, Zimmer, tired but content to sustain yet another exposition, provided an intense 30 minutes of film composition insight.

Ironically, the huge billboard opposite Hans Zimmer's Santa Monica recording studio (where this interview took place) read, "There Will Be Much German in Hollywood Tonite". A current trend that shows little sign of faltering.

Warning: Interview reveals endings to BACKDRAFT and RADIO FLYER. Read on or wait until you've seen the movies.

Darren Cavanagh: I'd like to begin by focusing on your latest project, RADIO FLYER, directed by Richard Donner. Tell me about the premise...

Hans Zimmer: I'm feeling terribly cynical today. (Spoken in a rushed, agitated tone): Film about child abuse, about how you can overcome some terrible events in your childhood through your imagination, by basically 'flying away'. Nobody believes that the kid dies at the end but he does.

Two kids. Mum gets married to new man, obviously husband has left her. Mum is now incredibly happy. She doesn't know new guy is beating the kids, because he's an alcoholic. So that's basically the story.

DC: What has Richard Donner been like to work with?

HZ: Funny! He's a very funny man. We fight like nobody's business. He can take it, and I can take it.

DC: From my restricted perspective it seemed that the film is a little troubled. Why is this?

HZ: A little troubled? Seriously troubled! We have two endings, far too much music...It's a really difficult film. It's that simple, and it's nobody's fault.

It's a difficult movie because you're balancing so many things; the child abuse angle against moments of humor and you're dealing with kids.

For a composer what is really complicated is the way you have to make the film function for the audience. To give them a smell, a sniff of childhood again. So as a composer I have to evoke childhood. But you can't do that by being childish about the music. As soon as you do that it doesn't mean anything to them. They just think you're being childish by intellectualizing it. You have to find another way of doing that.

DC: Any plans for an album?

HZ: Yeah ! We're going to do an album. We always do an album.

DC: I was just about to ask, how involved are you with the soundtrack releases?

HZ: Incredibly involved. I arrive in the morning and say to my mixer, "What are you doing today, are you finally going to do the soundtrack album, you bastard! " If I punch him hard enough he goes and does it. I come back in the evening and I go, "That sounds great! Did I write that?"

DC: Are you concerned at all that people go into the record store and buy Hans Zimmer's latest album because they admire your soundtracks?

HZ: No, not at all. I don't really like movie music to exist away from the movie.

DC: Isn't that a contradiction?

HZ: It's a movie we're doing. I'm just another schlepper on the movie. I don't like being singled out. It's like you can't go and buy a video of the movie with just the dialogue on it.

DC: Historically, though, music is a format you have been able to purchase, take home, sit back, listen to and enjoy.

HZ: Sure. But I leave so many holes for the picture. Not so much the dialog or the sound effects - they are my enemies up there. I try to wipe them out as much as I can.

I feel the picture and the music notes are umbilically linked. They are one and the same thing. That's why I feel I'm good when scoring pictures. By this I mean I get just as much involved scoring RADIO FLYER like I would taking out the old razor blade and cutting up a bit of film. I did edit before, on BLACK RAIN. I had this great idea for an ending, so the powers-that-be cut it together, screened it, and it went down like a bowl of sick at a gourmet dinner. It's not necessarily my forte and I don't even aspire to be an editor. But conclusively I'm involved in the whole process.

DC: Judging by your numerous interviews as of late, I assume you've been asked this question a dozen times - Why does everybody seem to want to work with Hans Zimmer at the moment?

HZ: I've been asked about twenty times in the past 3 days.

DC: May I elaborate by the fact that directors such as Mike Nichols and Peter Weir usually retain a composer they have worked admirably with in the past - Georges Delerue and Maurice Jarre respectively. Why the Weir deviation on GREEN CARD?

HZ: Peter thought I was very similar to the character. He thought I was very similar to the composer characterization in GREEN CARD, that I'd be Gerard Depardieu's musical voice. He kept saying to me every time I got stuck, "Just be yourself." That was very difficult because what I feel I'm good at is being other people, you know? Taking on a different character. But for once he made me be myself.

DC: There is a lot of 'temp-tracked' "ENYA" in GREEN CARD. How did you deal with that?

HZ: Peter said to me at the beginning, "Have a go at making that "Enya" stuff sound better. If you can't we'll just keep it there because it works great." The first time I saw the film it wasn't the Enya I was worried about, but the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I said, "I hope you don't want me to rewrite that because it works pretty good." "No, no, just write the bits that are personnal to Depardieu." They are tiny pieces of music but it doesn't have to huge, like here's my ego number on the screen every time.

DC: Correct me if I'm wrong - I heard that Georges Delerue's score for REGARDING HENRY was rejected?

HZ: It wasn't rejected. Actually it was a beautiful score. I was trying to persuade them that for the record we should have one side with George's score, and the other side with mine. It's not like Mike Nichols doesn't love Delerue's score. It just doesn't quite work with the film. If I have to apportion blame, I think it was mostly Mike's fault.

DC: So when you were called in, was Delerue's score already in there?

HZ: I never heard George's score until I'd finished mine.

DC: Did you go out of your way to listen to it then?

HZ: Yeah! I was interested. I thought it would be great to have a record with two viewpoints on the same film.

DC: It happened to Georges before, on SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, but thankfully part of his score has been released.

HZ: I got fired off a film once. But a week later the producer fired the director, so I won. You know, it's horrible when it happens. It's very painful and very personal. Makes you feel like shit and it will happen to me again and I'll feel like shit.

DC: You mentioned that you have an incredible rapport with Ridley Scott. Could you elaborate about this and talk about BLACK RAIN and THELMA AND LOUISE?

HZ: BLACK RAIN? It was an incredibly difficult picture to do. It had a lot of problems, mainly in the script department. I think the reason me and Ridley are friends is because we started sorting things out. We get on, you know? We have fun.

The first stuff I wrote for THELMA was horrible, really bad. Ridley came in and threw it all out. We started again. It's funny because the idea was right, I just didn't know how to do it. It took me a couple of tries to get it right.

DC: How did you deal with the multitude of songs in the film? Your music seemed to balance perfectly...

HZ: That's what I kept getting wrong. You write the theme and then build around that. Finally a friend of mine, Niko's sister, saw the film and said to me, "Maybe you don't need a big theme", which was so obvious to her, yet not so obvious to me. As soon as I knew that, I knew how to make it work - I'd tie the whole thing together emotionally with little fragments, in and out of the songs. The whole thing became seamless. One aural journey.

DC: Your score only dominates three quarters of the way into the movie.

HZ: I don't come in until reel four. There were never any opening titles until I wrote that theme, and suddenly Ridley goes, "I like that theme. I better put some footage here for you."

DC: So that whole beautiful black to color transition over the landscape was put in after you wrote the music?

HZ: Yeah. Because he liked the tune. Which is why I love working with Ridley. It is a true collaboration.

DC: Are you going to be doing COLUMBUS?

HZ: I think I'm going to be working on COLUMBUS (1492 Conquest Of Paradise). He booked me. He phoned my agent and made an official request. I think that means I'm working on it...

DC: How do you and Shirley Walker get on?

HZ: I love Shirley because I don't have to talk to her. We have telepathic communication. The problems I have with the score and the orchestra are never anything to do with Shirley, it is always to do with my writing. She will interpret exactly everything I've written, without me even having to talk to her about it.

DC: That's harmonious, the way you seem to play off each other without extensive verbal communication...

HZ: The thing is, I never went to music school and all that stuff. I had my two weeks of piano lessons and the teacher couldn't cope with me. So that was that. And then the thing with Shirley, she hasn't got the arrogance a normal orchestrator would have. They would take my score and say, "this is all wrong ! These notes are all wrong. This is not the way you are supposed to do it." Shirley knows I hear something in my head and that is what I write down on paper and that is how I want to hear it, so she doesn't play music teacher with me, which a lot of other people would do. So all that stuff makes me sound like Hans Zimmer. Because theoretically I think it's all wrong - I do a lot of parallell fifths that you're not supposed to do. My octaves are all over the place, you know, things doubling on octaves all the time.

DC: But it still works in a way.

HZ: It works. It's just me. It's what I hear in my head.

DC: What I find puzzling concerns one of my favorite scores of yours to FIRST BORN... It seems so distant from what you are doing at the moment?

HZ: I really like that score! When I was writing FIRST BORN I thought I'd never write anything again because it was the worst thing I was doing, and it wasn't happening, I couldn't make it work. I was under enormous pressure because I was doing RAIN MAN at the same time. I thought it was the greatest piece of garbage I'd ever done. When I heard it, it was like hearing something wasn't mine any more, because there wasn't the pressure. I really liked it. But when I was rushing it, I sincerely thought it was a disaster.

DC: Who worked with you on that score?

HZ: I think I did it by myself. No budget, you know? Can't afford the expensive orchestrator person.

DC: So you orchestrated the whole thing?

HZ: A friend of mine, Frankenstein, conducted the whole thing. I always prefer people conducting for me, because the orchestra scares the shit out of me, it's like 50 against one. It takes me back to my childhood. I hated playing sports and having balls thrown at me.

DC: Considering your affection for the score, are there any plans for an album?

HZ: There is an album.

DC: You mean the BBC album, with just one track, which seems to have been re-arranged by omitting the strings...

HZ: Really? I wish they had told me about that. We made a whole album, which they then said was too short, so we added bits to it. I have some friends at record companies and at one point it was the most requested score. But they never got it out?!?

DC: It was an incredibly popular series in England, and as you mention, so was the music.

HZ: Exactly! So talk to the BBC. It's just sitting there on the shelf and it's driving me crazy.

DC: Here lies the common problem of a film composer's music belonging to TV and film studios.

HZ: Someone at Varèse Sarabande wants to release it but he has to talk to the BBC. They don't even know what it means talking to the BBC. We're talking about bureaucracy beyond belief. the director whom I'd done a movie with hired me to write a movie score. So I approached the whole thing like a movie score. "Now I want an orchestra! Now I want a choir!" And the BBC said, "Hang on. Can't you just do it at home on your little synthesizer ?" And I hate those fucking scores. The BBC has no sense of responsability by doing all those little scores on synthesizer. They are in effect putting an enormous amount of musicians out of work. So then, in the future there will be no reason for a person to learn how to play a violin anymore, because they won't be able to earn a living.

DC: You're concerned with combining the two, like Jerry Goldsmith?

HZ: Absolutely. It is the last place on earth where a good string player, a good bass player can earn a decent wage. There is a tradition that needs to be kept alive. The BBC make all these noises about being state-owned... they are incredibly irresponsible. It's just greed and if they can get it done cheaper by getting some kid to do it on a sport's racket... don't you think that kid would like to do it with an orchestra?

DC: Just comes down to money.

HZ: It's not that expensive. Richard Harvey did a great score to G.B.H. He had a big orchestra for some of the bits, and for a lot of it just a string quartet. Because he gets such amazing players it sounds huge. These 4 guys are playing their butts off.

DC: I'd like to briefly ask you about BACKDRAFT. Was that a satisfying experience?

HZ: Now there's a dangerous question. I had 95 players. I don't know what to do with 95 players. It was an experiment.

DC: Fortunately I experienced BACKDRAFT in Leicester Square London with full THX sound. It literally blew me out of my seat, the sound effects and the music.

HZ: (smiles) It's sort of there, isn't it? It says, "Hello, wake up! No napping in this movie."

DC: I had trouble with the funeral sequence at the end of the film. The music seemed far too heroic, patriotic and overblown for such a sad event. Why did you decide to score it that way?

HZ: O.K., this is an incredibly sad scene. But fuck it! These guys, this is what they do. They're heroes. It should go beyond being sad. It should reflect their life. This is what they are faced with all the time and in spite of death. It's the difference between bravery and courage, Brave : people who aren't too stupid to know what they're doing. They do something amazingly heroic. Courage : people who know it's scary out there, but they risk their life anyway. The whole movie starts off as a thriller and then halfway into it this aspect is abandoned, making it blatantly an all-out ode to firemen.

DC: These contradictory juxtapositions exist throughout the movie. An exemple I can think of off-hand is the love making sequence atop a fire truck, scored harmoniously then cutting abruptly to the firemen fighting a deadly inferno.

HZ: Exactly. The end was very difficult. I think by making it a proper funeral march, because it starts off as one, then to have gone intimate would have thrown up too many questions. Cinematically there was a structural problem there.

DC: That's Hollywood's solution to a structural problem - the ending was uncharacteristically downbeat so the music was triumphant.

HZ: The sad part, and the part I think I got right is in the actual ambulance when Kurt Russell dies. We know it's tragic, it doesn't need reinforcement. The music should then lead us on to the next plane of thought that there is a brotherhood of firemen out there. As one of the firemen said, "As everybody runs out of the house, we run in." We all went to Chicago and hung out with real firemen and went to real fires. They're all nuts, but true heroes. They're not as ambiguous as police. When a policeman comes around to your home, is it to arrest you? Or to help you? You don't know.

DC: Did you sample any original sound effects from fires or fire trucks to use in the score? You utilized sampled female voices for the character of the fire.

HZ: No. The guys at Lucasfilm did an amazing job. I would send them my music and they would send me the effects. We worked absolutely hand in hand.

DC: That was incredibly noticeable. The dub was generous for both sources.

HZ: I would literally write around their effects and they likewise created effects around my music. That is how it should always be. We didn't have the time but we did have the luxury.

DC: Are you personally happy with the way the Zimmer style is progressing?

HZ: I think so. There are elements in RADIO FLYER which if you'd have asked me whether or not I could score that, I would have said, I can't write them. It's great, that sort of discovery, when you do something and go, "Wow! I can do this, I had no clue there was some core within me that produced that".

DC: It is fortunate that you haven't been stereotyped yet. Each film is infinitely different.

HZ : I think they are. BACKDRAFT, REGARDING HENRY, THELMA AND LOUISE and RADIO FLYER, they were all done within 6 months.

Soundtrack Vol. 11 / No. 42 / June 1992

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