Embarking on a storied creative partnership with Christopher Nolan over a decade ago, Hans Zimmer always shared with the director one particular desire: to compose a score that would fuse completely and irrevocably with the image.
“I think on this one, we’ve come as close as anybody ever has,” Zimmer says regarding Dunkirk, Nolan’s Best Picture contender, which took eight Oscar nominations last month. “When I read Chris’ script, I knew that this was going to be a bold and experimental movie. It didn’t embrace anything at all that seemed to be popular culture at this moment.”
Depicting a particularly fraught World War II moment on the beaches of the titular French city, Dunkirk was another thoughtful meditation on time—akin to Inception and Interstellar—structured in triptych fashion and occurring across three separate timelines. A powerful visual experience featuring a large ensemble cast and only sparse dialogue, Dunkirk was a film that allowed sound and music to do much of the heavy lifting.
Reflecting on his Dunkirk experience, Zimmer describes his work as a “co-score” between himself and his director. Indeed, just as sound and image fused for their experimental blockbuster, kindred spirits Nolan and Zimmer worked as harmoniously and as closely with each other as they ever have, resulting in one of the year’s most unique musical works.
Creatively, what was compelling to you about Dunkirk?
I’m my own worst enemy because any time somebody throws out an impossible challenge, I get excited and I say yes. On this one, there were many moments where I thought I had totally overreached myself—where I had an idea, but I didn’t know how to get it done.
This is the movie where Chris was the closest involved in every aspect of the score. The only way I can talk about the score is to talk about the images and Chris’ intellect, and the daring he had in taking something like this and not just making an experimental movie but actually turning it into a successful experimental movie, that people actually wanted to go and see.
Nolan tends to communicate his intentions to you in very specific ways. Can you explain what he shared with you, as far as directives for this film?
He kept saying that he wanted to have an objective score. War movies seem to have either very little score, or they have heroic score, or emotional score. We knew we were going to have music from start to end, and the one thing we didn’t want to do was make it an emotional score. We thought it was the combination of the images and the sound that would let the audience come to their own autonomous emotion about it. But we didn’t want to lead the audience in that way.
I think music for war movies is in a special class of its own because it deals with something that is virtually unfathomable, and at the same time, seems to be going on all the time. The carnage and the barbarity of human nature. I don’t think you can just turn up and flippantly write a piece of music about it, and hope that you can express something in it. You have to think about it. It comes from a much darker place, and honestly, I’m not putting this experience down to the fun composing experiences. This one was hard and nearly impossible to pull off.
Can you expand on those aspects of the score that you found experimental?
The movie is dealing with time in interesting ways. Chris and I have had this obsession about time, and in this one, I thought, “We’ll just put all our cards on the table, right away.” No subtext. Here it is. You hear the ticking of Chris’ pocket watch and you know that this is what it’s about.
Then after that, most of it is handcraft itself, people playing at the extremes of their capability. Truly, everything was being pushed to its limits, and a lot of things broke on the way to getting the score done. Expensive instruments went completely wrong. I went and recorded a large orchestral score at one point, and there’s something weirdly liberating when you put it up against the picture and go, “No, this doesn’t work at all. Let’s throw it in the bin.” You have to have the courage. Chris and Hoyte [Van Hoytema, cinematographer] and [editor] Lee Smith were coming with these amazing images and were throwing down a certain gauntlet, which was pretty magnificent. The music had to live up to it, in its own way.
The idea was just that I really wanted the music to absolutely merge with the image. It would not be set separate; nothing would distract you from the experience. In fact, if anything, the music was pulling you into the images. I think that was the most important part of the journey. As soon as you heard conventional strings or conventional orchestral music, you just knew that I was stepping outside the reality of what Chris was showing us, so the instruments had to be reinvented.
What did you end up with, in terms of instrumentation?
It’s basically a string quartet playing—some of my favorite players, handpicked, who are daring, adventurous, and masters at their craft—making them do things that they have never done before. Playing at the extremes of their ranges. Sometimes, just playing at the extreme of quietness. Quiet was really important. There was tension in not making a loud noise. There’s tension in the endlessness of a note that just bends and slithers around, and you never know when it’s going to strike.
Between the pocket watch ticking, the Shepard tone, and an ambient texture to the music, it feels like you came close to the role of a sound editor in some respects.
The Shepard tone is something that’s been used before, and something we’ve used before. But there is a secret underlying this whole score that we’re not going to give away. Let somebody figure it out. But you could think of the movie as a parallel universe to a Shepard tone, that the music actually does something.
Nobody had done what we ultimately did, and I kept thinking, halfway through the movie, “I know why nobody has done it before—because it’s sort of impossible.” But Chris wouldn’t let me give up. He’s a great director. He leads from the front and he helps me find the solutions.
It’s never supposed to be an avant-garde score or anything like this. But at the same time, I think there is a jumping-off point in history where music suddenly allowed itself to become a little ugly, and describe the human condition in a non-romantic way. There’s nothing romantic about the score.
Ultimately, the moment of reprieve, you get from us writing another variation on [Edward] Elgar’s Enigma Variation. In a funny way, Elgar gives you permission by saying, “Well, here are these variations.” He virtually threw down the gauntlet, saying, “Well, go on. Write another one.” The thing that we can’t put into words about the Dunkirk spirit was always in that piece of music. People have used “Nimrod” in other movies, but I don’t think anybody ever went and actually wrote a new variation. For us, it was important that we would have our own voice, that we would have our own imprint on it, so it’s more than just a new arrangement of it. It’s of this movie and only of this movie.
How did you conceptualize the score structurally, how you would work with music that was endlessly propulsive and constantly moving upward in its range?
Before Chris went out to shoot the movie, we actually did a 100-minute framework of music, just to give ourselves a quick proof of concept. Once the movie was done, one of the problems was, a constantly rising sound, you can’t cut into it. You can’t edit it. It became enormously complicated, figuring out how to hide the edits. Plus, you as an audience figure out very quickly what is going on. So it needs to shift and change and be like a chameleon.
The sonic ingredients are constantly shifting and changing. Sometimes you come back to something that is familiar, but even within that, there’s still a different layer, or a different movement. So just on a strictly technical side, it was hugely complex. If they made a cut in, let’s say, reel four, we couldn’t just go and fix that bit of music there. We would have to go all the way from the beginning of the movie, all the way to the end, and basically redo all those Shepard tone ideas.
After so much tension, what was your approach to the film’s conclusion?
I loved way Chris had written it, with that big Churchill speech being read by a young lad from a newspaper. You hear a little bit of our variations on “Nimrod,” and the feeling that was important to me was that, on the one hand, we’ve come home. It feels like an ending, but at the same time, it feels like the beginning of something, because that really is what Dunkirk ultimately represents. Our world would be a completely different place had they not been able to get those soldiers off the beach, because the war would have been lost. We would live in a Nazi world.
Having won your Oscar for The Lion King way back in 1995, you’ve now signed on to score Disney’s live-action remake. Where are you in the process with that? Have you figured out how you’ll reframe the work you did on the original?
I’ve been working on it—it’s very close to my heart. I’m trying to get the family back together, as well, people who worked on it in the past. I want them to be participants in it again. Look, we’ve all matured a little bit. It was originally written for my six-year-old daughter. She’s not six anymore. I’m not going to mention her age, because she’s of the age where she wouldn’t want me to mention her age.
But it’s out of all sorts of personal reasons—not the Oscar. It’s for my daughter.
It was a special time in my life, and it’s something that still resonates with people. I still work with Lebo M., that great voice at the beginning of the movie. We just toured together. So it’s very personal, and I think that’s the right way to approach it. It’s not just a movie: it’s a part of my life, and I’m just being respectful towards that.