With over 150 films to his name, Hans Zimmer is one of the most prolific and most recognizable name in film composing. From his Oscar and Grammy-winning score for The Lion King to the often used pieces from The Thin Red Line and of course, the ‘BRAAMM’ from Inception, Zimmer’s scores are a cultural touchstone, a zeitgeist that reaches beyond the moment and transcends eras.
From his early days of experimenting with electronic sounds to his work in the United Kingdom with Stanley Myers to being a part of the video that launched the MTV era (The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”), Zimmer has been on an upward trajectory whose work is often imitated but never replicated.
The turning point in the career for the German-born composer came in 1988 when he was asked to score Rain Man for director Barry Levinson. The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year and earned Zimmer his first Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Score. The next year, Zimmer composed the score for another Best Picture Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy, starring Jessica Tandy, and Morgan Freeman.
His awards recognition is as long as his career itself. He has earned 11 Academy Award nominations, winning Best Original Score for 1994’s The Lion King; 14 Golden Globe nominations, winning for The Lion King and 2000’s Gladiator. He’s won four Grammys, been nominated for two Emmys and 11 BAFTAs across film, television and video games.
For his new film, the female-led heist thriller Widows, directed by longtime collaborator Steve McQueen, Zimmer embarked on a different approach to its score – one that was of a personal connection to the material but also a different style than some may expect. He notes that it’s having worked with McQueen so many times before that pushed him to try new things rather than relying on predictable or obvious tropes of the thriller genre.
Showing no signs of slowing down, the Oscar winner has no less than five blockbusters on the way in 2019 and 2020 including the live action version of The Lion King, Top Gun: Maverick and Wonder Woman 1984.
I sat down with Zimmer at the Toronto International Film Festival in September where Widows has its world premiere to discuss his beginnings, the importance of trust in a working relationship and what inspires him now.
AW: As prolific as you are in your own career now, what or who did you draw on as early inspirations and influences?
I suppose the part of it was we crazy Europeans like Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream et cetera; part of it was we didn’t draw our musical language from the blues. We actually drew it from what we heard as kids, which is classical music or folk music. I think the other part of it was we could never afford an orchestra, but there was this thing called the synthesizer. We all took to that like ducks to water, Vangelis in particular, and Giorgio Moroder as well.
I mean that’s actually, that’s actually a weird thing; Giorgio Moroder, Harold Faltermyer and I, we all lived in the same house in Munich. But I didn’t know that, it was just a big apartment building. It just coincidentally, you know, it seemed to have a lot of musicians, and probably a couple more were living there. For us, we thought all music is created from technology, you know, a violin is a piece of technology of its time. There was all this new stuff; great toys and we didn’t understand why you couldn’t use it in film music or you couldn’t combine it with orchestras or whatever. Whatever everybody told you you couldn’t do. I don’t think we were rebelling, I just think we didn’t get that you weren’t supposed to do that.
How would you characterize the evolution of your work then since then?
I have no idea if it’s an evolution or de-evolution. I had to speak to this earlier so I had to really think about it. I keep thinking, whatever the story brings to me as I’m trying to find the appropriate language for it. I mean if you look at the stuff I did with Ridley Scott, you know, Black Rain, it’s different from Thelma & Louise which is different from Matchstick Men which is different from Gladiator, and different from Hannibal, because he as a filmmaker was telling different stories.
I suppose the sort of aesthetic groundwork is laid when you’re a child. Like right now I am speaking to you some weird German English accent, but I think those sort of things have formed in your childhood and then you pursue certain things or questions. There are questions that sometimes a movie throws up that you can’t quite musically answer or you’re not good enough yet or you need to have another go at. And then there are things you get bored with and you just move along and you discover something new.
The strange thing is, the only time I listen to film music in the film. I remember being on this panel was Danny Elfman and John Powell and I can’t remember what else was there. And we were being asked for film music we listened to and John was like, ‘What do you mean film music? There’s so much great music out there in the world. Why would we listen to film music?’ Why would I want to be influenced by film music?
That could end up making your own work derivative.
Yes. You know, I never knew when we did Batman Begins – truly, nobody knew that we would go and make another Batman movie – I would’ve approached to help the whole project with, with a far more sort of, you know…I think Howard Shore knew that Lord of the Rings was going to be more than just the first movie. And he was obviously planning ahead. None of us knew that The Joker was going to appear out of nowhere [in the sequel The Dark Knight] until Chris [Nolan] thought of it. So things evolve through necessity. Some things evolve through maturity, which I think just means I’m not over-orchestrating as much as I used to. But at the same time, like right now I’m finding myself at a sort of a crossroads where again I’m looking more towards the old world in Europe and things I loved as a kid.
You mentioned Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, which leads to where I was going to go next. Now with Steve McQueen, you’ve got these directors that you work with multiple times, do you find that as an advantage or disadvantage to have that relationship?
I think as a human, forget the filmmaking part, but as a human I find that a huge advantage because they as I are as I, in such unsocial jobs. We don’t know the meaning of the word weekend, you know, like things get really exciting at about 1:00 at night, so I suppose part of it is just crosses over into friendship and lifestyle and camaraderie, you know, so yes, it’s good. When I write a piece of music and have to play it to somebody that’s at the most terrifying thing.
Yes, of course! So you want to have somebody who you’ve had a track record of trust with.
That makes a lot of sense.
The track record of trust makes me become more daring, which usually makes for something which is more interesting for them, ultimately. I don’t think Chris and I could have done Interstellar together as our first movie.
With Widows it’s Steve McQueen and Joe Walker, the editor and Sean Bobbitt the DP. So I, especially with Joe who I’ve known since 1988. So it’s a while. You know that he [Joe Walker] actually studied music?
I did, I had a great conversation with him about that.
So I know what they do and the way they work and the way they shoot film and the way they edit film and they’re presenting me with a complete piece of music. I truly can hear what I see. With Steve, I become an orchestrator more than a composer because the music is already in the images. The way Joe cuts and the way that he uses sound. For instance, there’s the whole opening, with one sound transitioning to you to the next and so the last thing I want to do is distract from that. So part of my job is to defend the silence.
I wondered if your relationship with Joe Walker was probably more intrinsic to the success of Widows than anybody else in that collaboration.
Well, we’ve done quite a lot. I mean we did Blade Runner  together as well. We did a miniseries for the BBC in the 80s together. But, we don’t talk about the music, or even with Steve we don’t talk about the music, or the film, et cetera. We talk about many things; we talk about that interests us at a moment in time and then the real life seeps into the movie.
With Widows, to which I have a very odd relationshIp with anyway because I think you knew I was the tea boy on the original television series, I approached it with a lot of anger and a lot of love at the same time. The anger is from when Lynda La Plant made the original series, it felt so timely to put a spotlight onto the casual brutality that women in this world suffer.
When Steve and he talking to me about Widows long time ago as one of the things he might do I remember thinking ‘My God, all of these years have passed and if anything it’s gotten worse and it hasn’t gotten better. I’m sure everybody has their theories about what makes a great artist and how they make this stuff. But with me it’s very simple. I just think Steve’s got this huge heart and genuine interest in humanity and everything else just follows. That’s where the love comes from.
I think that’s perfectly accurate. Hans, thank you so much for talking with me today.
My pleasure, thank you.
Widows will be in theaters from 20th Century Fox on November 16th.