Since the 1980s, German-born composer Hans Zimmer has created some of the most unique and visionary scores, along the way racking up nine career Oscar nominations; he’s won only once, for 1995’s Disney classic, The Lion King. Zimmer is often associated with music of a certain epic scale—his work on such films as Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy, and Pirates of the Caribbean comes to mind—but it’s often forgotten that Zimmer also has provided the score for smaller, more intimate works, among them August Rush and As Good As It Gets. Zimmer recently discussed his ninth nomination and his always-evolving collaboration with Christopher Nolan.
This year marks your ninth Oscar nomination. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling great about it. To elaborate… I just know it’s a personal journey in a peculiar way because Chris set me the task of writing about my relationship to my children. Even though the movie describes this vast canvas of space, he encouraged me constantly to maintain the intimacy in the script.
It’s been published that Christopher Nolan didn’t give you a script but instead gave you some sort of short story to inspire your score. Can you elaborate on that?
We always try to invent the way we’re working, to keep that interesting. He just said that if he were to write one page and give it to me, would I give him one day and write whatever comes to me during that one day? There was this beautiful typewritten letter. It was more of a fable about the relationship between a parent and their child and it had no context of what the movie was, which was the whole idea. I wrote (something) and I phoned him at about 9:30 in the evening. I really had written it from the heart—it really was my relationship to my son—and I played it to him. At the end, I said, “So, Chris, what do you think?” And he said, “Well, I suppose I better make the movie now.” And I said, “What is the movie?” And he started describing this huge journey into space, this huge canvas, and I think at one point I stopped him and I said, “But hang on a second. I’ve written this very small, intimate piece, and how does that fit into this vastness?’ And he said, “Well, I now know what the heart of the story is.” The whole idea of the movie was that it is about celebrating science, and it’s about celebrating adventure… I mean, he gave me this watch, and on the back it says, “This is no time for caution.” That really was our motto. We will forever try to reinvent the methodology of working this well. We really tried to reinvent the language that we had used in the past, because we had spent nine or 10 years in our Batman universe or in our Inception universe, and that music had seeped out of our movies into becoming the sort of action or blockbuster movie language. So, for us, it was really important that we completely reinvent, as much as possible, the language for us.
Many of the films you’ve worked on feel as if they’re defined by your score—Pirates of the Caribbean and Inception stand out as notable examples. Where do you begin in your conception of what a movie’s universe sounds like?
I come with an open mind and then (me and the director) have a conversation and, really, it all branches out. At first, I have to find some intellectual framework. Plus I like working incredibly collaboratively with the director and the sound crew, everybody, you know? I can’t stress enough that I really think the score on Interstellar is our creation. Okay, it might be my notes, but no notes would’ve been written without a conversation that the two of us had. It was like two kids getting really excited about stuff. I would write something and I would get it to a certain stage, get Chris down, play it to him. There wouldn’t be an ending on the piece. There were all these little yellow post-it notes that he put up on the wall. Chris and I both come from English independent filmmaking and we love that way of making a movie.
We’ve addressed that part of your style is associated with a certain grand scale or an epic nature…
You are talking about Driving Miss Daisy and As Good As It Gets and The Holiday, right?… No. People always forget that films like 12 Years A Slave are not on a grand scale.
Right. Maybe it’s more your films with Christopher Nolan that give that association.
Well, of course. Yes. But it’s sort of a minimalist style at the same time.
So how would you go about describing your personal musical style?
Well, I have a certain aesthetic. I was born with a certain voice, undoubtedly. I mean, I think culturally, even as we speak, my German accent is probably pretty strong. So there’s a very strong German accent in my music. On the one hand, there’s a certain aesthetic and what I try to do is reinvent my language all the time. And really, honestly, what I try to do is just be appropriate for the film. At the end of the day, you hear everybody saying it, but everybody does take it very seriously—we do try to serve the film. The great joy is when you’re offered to come along on a journey like Interstellar, this limitless canvas where you get to pick what you want to do. In Interstellar I have two agendas, which are very clear I think. One is to write about a father and his child—which was a vital dynamic to maintain all the way through—and the other thing was that I wanted to celebrate science. I just don’t think we do that enough. This was a movie where we have no car chases. We have no gunshots. We have no love scenes But we get to go and celebrate science. We get to celebrate knowledge. We get to celebrate invention.
Hans Zimmer photographed by J.R. Mankoff
To hear a sample of Zimmer’s score for Interstellar, please click the orange play button below: