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Hans Zimmer: “You are forever in that dream world”

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Hans Zimmer
Photo by Bloomberg
Short Profile

Name: Hans Florian Zimmer
DOB: 12 September 1957
Place of Birth: Frankfurt am Main, Hesse, Germany
Occupation: Film Composer

Mr. Zimmer, what kind of music do you listen to?

It’s all over the place and it really depends on my mood. Duke Ellington said something very cool in the ’30s. He said there are only two types of music: good music and bad music. So stylistically I am truly all over the place. I will put on the White Stripes followed by ABBA followed by Kraftwerk and then every once in a while I have to get a really good dose of Bach.

Do you ever listen to your own film scores?

Never.

Not even The Lion King?

You know, what happens is that I come home and the last thing I want to hear is anything of mine. But the kids all started playing piano and cello and they now play my stuff. I sort of love it and I sort of hate it at the same time. To them dad doesn’t do anything special. Dad supplies them with more notes that they can have fun with.

“Every single movie at one point or another presented an insurmountable problem and there’s a point where I go, ‘I have no idea how to do this.’”

Is it easy for you to leave work at work when you go home to your family?

Well, I become a little bit of those characters, so when I work on very depressing movies, like when I was working on The Thin Red Line I wasn’t a lot of fun to be around, let’s put it that way. It’s such a strange life being a film composer because you are not living in reality at all. You are forever in that dream world that a movie is. My grasp of everyday reality is actually very bad.

Very bad?

Look, I am a musician and musicians play. I play music, so there is sort of a lack of ever growing up that is going on there – for better or for worse because it does get in the way sometimes as well. I still have problems balancing my checkbook…

Well you have composed the score for classics like Rain Man, Gladiator, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and your Oscar-winning score for The Lion King, so there doesn’t really seem to be a need to grow up.

But each and every single one of these movies at one point or another presented an insurmountable problem and it’s always the same thing: there’s a point where I go, “Oh my God I have no idea how to do this,” or, “I am not good enough.” Somehow at the end of the day doing something that actually resonates with people is quite rewarding and keeps me going.

Do you ever regret not studying music formally?

The problem of not having gone to music school and not having gone to university is that every time I start off on a movie it is a whole new journey of learning. It is always a struggle. But on the other hand that is what makes it fun.

How so?

The Da Vinci Code is a great example. I got to spend a whole year researching and looking at paintings and reading books and stuff on that subject. It really was a brilliant way of spending a year.

How do you take that kind of research and turn it into music?

There is an overall design of what is the best thing for the overall film, but you very quickly go into the characters. And really, if you think of all good films, that usually holds true. I once asked Penny Marshall, “How do you make a good movie?” and she said, “It’s very simple: protect your star.” In other words protect your main character. Don’t make your main character say something stupid, don’t make your main character wear something silly, and don’t put him into situations that are out of character. As long as you do that, you are usually going to tell the story in a successful way.

Viggo Mortensen says the one thing he does before a role is ask himself what happened literally from the time the character was born until the first page of the script. Do you go that in depth as the composer as well?

On Sherlock Holmes it was really great getting Robert Downey Jr. to just come hang out and talk to him because he knew his character so well. I shamelessly used him and used all the research he had done into his character.

“That’s what we do: we try to tell a story as well as possible and try to figure out new ways that haven’t been done before.”

And how did that influence your score?

I decided the character is basically a manic-depressive violinist and I thought maybe he shouldn’t be playing beautiful classical music. Maybe what goes on in his head is more extraordinary than we can imagine and a little wilder. So I kept saying to Guy Ritchie that we need to make it more exotic as opposed to the idea of nice Victorian English music because he would be playing something different from what anybody else would want to play in Victorian England at the time.

Are you ever around on set when you score a film?

Every once in a while… But I don’t leave my room much as you can probably tell – I work a lot.

Do you have to like the movie to compose a good score?

I have to like the movie, of course that helps. Who wants to work on something they don’t like? But more importantly I usually like the movie because of the people involved. It is so collaborative, so most of the time it’s about the director and that is sort of the inspiring part. Gore Verbinski for instance, if I go really far, he will figure out a way of pushing me further. Because that’s what we do: we try to tell a story as well as possible and try to figure out new ways that haven’t been done before.