Interviewing Mister Zimmer

by Matthias Büdinger

I met Hans Zimmer at the ARCO Studio in Munich, Germany, on a Saturday afternoon in mid-September. He spent a week there recording his score to Bille August's adaptation of the best-selling THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS, by Isabelle Allende. The story depicts the history of a Chilean family over four generations. It's a story of pain, blood and love. In other words : it's a story where a film composer can show off his capability. How did Hans Zimmer approach Bille August's film musically?

"My score is very quiet and distant," said Zimmer. It never gets fast. It always stays there and supports. I don't hit a lot of cuts. It's not at all a Hollywood score. It's much more to do with mood and just trying to be as precise as possible without being emotionally overwhelming. It's actually quite cold in most places. Keeping the music subdued seemed like the right thing to do because it's a big melodrama."

Soundtrack: Is HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS your biggest approach to orchestral music?

Hans Zimmer: Not really. BACKDRAFT was a big orchestral score. HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS is smaller than that. BACKDRAFT was this huge, lumbering thing with 96 players and six percussionists yodeling away in the background. HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS is much more contained. I've always used synthesizers with orchestras. For me there's no difference, it's just another instrument. Probably one of my most acoustic sounding score is DRIVING MISS DAISY and that's all synthesizers. There wasn't a human being in sight! PACIFIC HEIGHTS which sounds very electronic in many ways is very orchestral. There are not many synthesizers at all.

Soundtrack: There are many new sounds to explore with synthesizers.

Zimmer: Exactly. There are lots of new sounds to explore in the orchestra as well. When you use electronics, the orchestra suddenly gets a different slant on things. You bend it a little. You find that the whole colors of the orchestra actually change : a violin doesn't quite sound like a violin, because there's something behind it that gives it an odd color.

Soundtrack: What i always find very interesting in film music - unfortunately it's not used that often - is a fusion of styles and textures, a crossover. You do it quite often. I don't know what to call it, maybe it's kind of dramatic rock sound.

Zimmer: I know what you mean because I come from rock'n roll and I like classical music. I sort of mix the two up and try desperately not to sound like TOMMY. I wouldn't know what to describe it as either. It's very difficult to give it a label. I just read a review by a German critic on K2. He wrote that my music "skates all over the place and sounds like (Richard) Strauss with heavy-metal guitars in it". The critic had a hard time trying to define what it is. But I suppose that is what I do. PACIFIC HEIGHTS is still one of my favorite scores because you can't really say what it is and what the instruments are.

Soundtrack: There is no need to define it. Maybe it's a critic's disease to always make up labels.

Zimmer: Well, you have to. Part of your job is to explain and illuminate. THELMA AND LOUISE is straightforward. It's like the Blues backwards, lots of electronics flying around. The guitar is giving it some sort of nobility and a loneliness.

Soundtrack: Orchestration - what does it mean to you?

Zimmer: Without taking away from my orchestrators like Shirley Walker: I do these very complete pieces on all my synthesizers, and the orchestration has not so much to do with adding colors as with making sure the ideas i have can be played by the orchestra... By the time i get to the scoring stage, i want the director to have heard everything. That's why these very complete tracks exist. On HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS we did use synthesizers because where the orchestra couldn't quite play it, the synthesizers came in really handy. They fix all those bits.

Soundtrack: How did you find this orchestra?

Zimmer: We went through about three string sections before we found one we liked. It's a very quiet score. It's hard to play quiet. Musicians should always practice playing quietly. We had fantastic players, and we had some players which weren't so good. I'm just not used to that. In London and Los Angeles you get such an unbelievable level of professionalism and concentration.

Soundtrack: So coming here to Munich was mainly a financial consideration?

Zimmer: No. They were cutting the film here. I have to be where the director is and where the film is. That's why we're here.

Soundtrack: It is the first time you've worked in Germany, apart from the fact that you were born there and spent some years in Munich?

Zimmer: Yes. I have a German passport. But i've always worked in England or Los Angeles. It's easier for me. The place i like working best is London. I don't know why. I always have a lot of fun with the musicians in London. In Los Angeles - maybe because they are so professional - it's a little hard to get an anarchy going. It wasn't easy working here. It's a lot better than other people have told me it would be. But I think other people were on much tighter budgets. We were on a budget too - but regardless of that I wanted it right. It depends on who you work with. If you work with somebody like (producer) Bernd Eichinger and (director) Bille August and you turn around to them and say, "It's pretty good. But i think we can make it a lot better. We need another hour," they will say "Okay", go ahead". There is no argument. They are not really interested in the money. They are insterested in making a good movie.

Soundtrack: Who conducted HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS?

Zimmer: Fiachra Trench. I'm just not gonna do this conducting! He is a very nice conductor. We were being told time and again, "You have to be harder to the musicians. Go and shout at them." Why would I want to do this to myself, let alone to them ? I want them to be discipline. I don't care if they like being shouted at. I'm not going to shout at them, like Fiachra. He doesn't lose his temper pretending to be a great Maestro. It's a collaborative process. "Either you want to play on this, or you don't come." I felt a lack of concentration in the orchestra and a lack of commitment in a way. What's wrong with sitting still for two minutes and not making a noise ? There is a lack of understanding about studio discipline.

Soundtrack: Your score for RADIO FLYER sounded surprisingly American to me.

Zimmer: Oh, absolutely. It's all like little children singing. The tunes jump keys all the time. I hope every score I do can be quite different. RADIO FLYER was great fun to write. There was a lot of music, but I wrote it effortlesly.

Soundtrack: Listening to it, one can feel the careless fun you must have had writing it...

Zimmer: Exactly. And I actually like that score because it has nothing to do with my brooding, my being serious and Germanic and Teutonic in my approach. Do you know what I mean?

Soundtrack: I know indeed. That's a wonderful cue to my next question. Being German - which is not always that advantageous - and having no serious academic, classical music background, how do your colleagues in Los Angeles look at you?

Zimmer: Actually, all of them are all right, like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. They have always treated me really well. Whenever I have a question I can ask John Williams. I had lots of questions about brass players on one score. John answered them without being patronizing for me. Michael Kamen and I have been friends long before he and I were doing films. I don't think i have the same problems Danny Elfman has. Danny really gets himself into some sort of trouble about being completely self-taught, etcetera, I don't know how he does it. Look, Henry Mancini was at our wedding. Suzanne has known him for years, long before i knew him. In fact i went to my first agent in Los Angeles because he had Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein. I thought that was great. As soon as I joined, they left! So I never got to meet Henry Mancini until Suzanne introduced me to him, years ago. It was just like two kids meeting, "Oh you do this," and "Oh, you do that!" We instantly started talking about music, not about education or background.

Soundtrack: That is not important, or at least it should not be important.

Zimmer: I think in Germany it's very important. I had a hard time here. I was talking to our mix engineer the other day. He has full "Musikhochschule-Ausbildung" (academic music school education). When he tries to play music now he feels much more cornered. It takes a few years to lose that and get to have fun with it again, and just think about writing tunes and music.

Soundtrack: So your approach must have a fresh and uninhibited quality with a certain amount of anarchy?

Zimmer: Well, I change keys and do other things that are completely wrong...

Soundtrack: Like parallel Fifths...

Zimmer: Oh, lots of parallel and augmented Fifths. They are absolutely 'Verboten' (forbidden)! All rock'n rollers do that because it's just that guitar thing as well. When you put parallel Fifths onto eight trombones it sounds great: at least it does to me. But you do find that in classical music. In Berlioz's Te Deum there is a lot of that stuff floating around. He disguises it really well. He's breaking the rules on purpose. What about the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's Messiah? In his first movement from the 5th Symphony, Beethoven just keeps going over that phrase. It was just like writing a rock song. He found himself a great little hook. He was having fun kicking it around. I don't know what great meaning there is attached to those four notes.

Soundtrack: Without comparing you to Beethoven - that's what i find in your music many times. You have a catchy theme, for instance DRIVING MISS DAISY, and once you have heard it you can't forget it, and you instantly like it. I remember the Oscar ceremony, they played your theme over and over...

Zimmer: Nine times they played it. I was counting. I always try to write a tune. The RAINMAN theme was really funny because it's fragmented and in odd meters, which is like the character played by Dustin Hoffmann. He keeps repeating something until something else is coming in. Then he starts repeating that. So you never get a full picture of it. If you strung all the musical pieces of RAINMAN together you would get one tune because every scene has another little fragment of that.

Soundtrack: There's one little theme in DRIVING MISS DAISY that reminded me of GONE WITH THE WIND. Is that on purpose?

Zimmer: Oh really? I can tell you that I'm completely guiltless of plagiarism. Do you know why? I think I'm the only human being in the whole world who has never seen that film. I think there is a Southern sound which I was trying to get. there are certain Americana tunes. I don't know where they come from. Maybe from folks songs. I was trying to go for something like that. There are lots of scores that seem to have a similar approach. I think THE NATURAL started off a lot of scores: THE ROCKETEER, THE RIGHT STUFF... They all seem to have the same foundation somewhere. It's basically variations on "Glory, Glory Hallelujah". I'm sure that must have played some part in my score. We are talking about the same town, aren't we ? Maybe Atlanta has a strong influence on people who try to write about it.

Soundtrack: In TOYS you worked with people like Pat Metheny, Julia Migenes and Grace Jones...

Zimmer: Julia was my idea. She was well up for it. (co-composer) Trevor Horn was dipping around in his pool of people that he knew. The film was called TOYS, so we were playing with different voices, different people, different instrumentalists. It's a really crazy soundtrack. The whole thing has this sort of Irish quality to it which doesn't make any sense at all. To me it makes perfect sense, but i can never explain it. It's just a game. It's definitely not serious music.

Soundtrack: You had the chance to work on two films with African backgrounds, A WORLD APART and THE POWER OF ONE. What is your personnal relationship to Africa? Do you like it?

Zimmer: My personal relationship to Africa is pretty much zero. I just like that music and I like those choirs. When we did this little bit of choir in A WORLD APART I always wanted to do more. So POWER OF ONE was an opportunity to go back and use a really nice big choir. The problem for you as a composer is: by the time everything you write is finished, it's like one percent of what you meant to do. You hear it in your head and it's never that good when it's finished. THE POWER OF ONE was me trying to finish that WORLD APART period. And it worked. I think the soundtrack is pretty good.

Soundtrack: When i listened to it I thought there must be a certain empathy on your part for Africa...

Zimmer: If you were to listen to it as a musicologist - It's all Cuban rhythms, it's all Gospel or classical inversions. It's got nothing to do with real African music, but then it's not my job to be musicologist. My job is to broaden the whole thing. For me the best instrument you can think of is the human voice. From the first three notes Lebo M. sings you can see Africa, even if you don't have the film in front of you. They had been shooting POWER OF ONE in Zimbabwe. So they had access to some choirs there. But the majority of the score was all done in South Africa, finally. They drive these choirs in with big buses. It was amazing. Nobody drives. Nobody can afford a car. We were in this huge warehouse with two microphones. Nobody reads music, it doesn't matter. You just play it to them. They worked really hard. This was a big chance for them, they wanted it to be beautiful. I like these sort of adventures, you go somewhere else and it gives you a different slant on things.

Soundtrack: What are your next projects?

Zimmer: There's a film called THE CLIENT with Susan Sarandon. Joel Schumacher is directing it. At the moment I'm working on a film called I'LL DO ANYTHING, which Prince has written a lot of songs for.

Soundtrack Vol. 12 / No. 48 / December 1993

This HTML document was created by Yumbo, transcribed by Patrick Reinier.