Composer Hans Zimmer On The Questions That Drive Him [Interview]

If you want to learn about composing movie music, why not go to one of the masters? The opportunity to take a class from Hans Zimmer is now only a few clicks away. The man behind the scores for The Thin Red LineInceptionThelma & Louse, and other favorites is now available to teach movie fans a thing or two about his job, as he's now another one of MasterClass' great teachers.

Zimmer, whose work has excited and moved us throughout his varied career, is often seen in his workspace in the MasterClass, explaining the nuts and bolts of the process, sometimes showing us what isn't always easy to communicate in words. We recently spoke with the composer about having to explain instinct, taking a closer look at his work, and memories of working with Terrence Malick, Christopher Nolan, and Ridley Scott.

Working on this MasterClass, I imagine you had to do a lot of self-analyzation.

Totally. Totally because I thought this is going to be relatively easy. It was really hard because everything I learned, I learned by doing it or hanging out with musicians and just doing it. And, suddenly, I had to go and articulate something that was instinctive [or] just learned, you know, to have a periphery of my vision, or whatever. I had to go put it into a book and be clear about it.

And, you know, the MasterClass guys were really tough. "We didn't understand this. Do it Again. We don't understand what you're talking about." So every night I was drained just trying to be, trying to figure out how to say the things that I just do naturally.

And then when you think about it, right now you're talking to a German, in English, who has actually made a rather successful career not using those words but, you know, being articulate in a language that doesn't use words. So, yes I learned a lot because I had to go and make sense of the anarchy and chaos that I employed to go and get to a piece of music.

The way you describe your job, it just has all these paradoxes, like knowing to follow the rules and when to break them. It seems like each movie is a minefield. 

Everything is a minefield. Yeah, it really is. I actually taught [composer] John Powell years ago. I mean John Powell said it back when I was struggling in trying to find the tone or whatever and the piece of music was crap [Laughs]. But I knew the idea was good, and I just couldn't make it into music. In typical John Powell fashion he said, "Hans, you just need to wait a while until you get it under your fingers." And that just really made sense. You can't just walk in and come up with a masterpiece. You come up with feces, simple and unordinary and ... Of course, that's not what you want to do. You want to go and try this new idea and be really good at it but it takes a while. Every film you have to learn the language. Especially from scratch.

Over your career, trends have changed, audiences maybe perceive stories differently. How has that maybe changed what you feel you have to communicate to an audience?

It's interesting how you're talking about time, 'cause one of the things which I keep thinking, and it sort of irks me because I don't think people are aware of it, if you take the three Batman movies I did with Chris Nolan, it's three movies to people, but to us, it was 12 years of our life. The other problem was, when we did Batman Begins, that's all we were gonna do. Nobody was thinking ... And so now, suddenly, I was stuck with something I had. It was very minimalist sort of stuff I did for the first movie. I had to go and figure out "how am I gonna keep this going for three movies?" You know? And by giving myself such a tight and tiny vocabulary, it became an interesting, and sometimes terrifying, puzzle.

I remember sitting on Thelma & Louise. Sorry, different movie, but I remember writing something, and it was okay. It wasn't great. Then Ridley [Scott] came in, and he was going, "I don't know about this." He literally said, and this was on a Friday, he said, "Let me come back on Monday." You know? They knew what that meant, and Monday I played him the main theme. He actually added a scene at the beginning of the movie because he loved that tune so much. But I remember him saying, on Monday, "You know, fear sometimes can be a great motivator and really inspirational."

So, yeah, you do feel the pressure of wanting to make sure that...In a funny way, you're protecting everybody else who's been working on this movie who's poured their life into it. It's not about money. It's about people's lives. Segments of their lives are going by as we are working on this movie. So you wanna go and do as original and as good a job as you possibly can. And yes, most of the time I drive myself crazy.

[Laughs] But it's always worth it.

It's worth it because it's music and I am ... I was talking to an interviewer just only a half an hour ago. The guy used the word "workaholic." I sort of stopped him and I said, "No, no, no. Hang on a second. The operative word in music is 'play.'" People are always going, "Why are you keeping such crazy hours? You never sleep, or you're up all night playing music." Well, kids...if you try to get a kid to bed when they want to go and play with their favorite truck or Legos or whatever, I just never really progressed beyond that. And most of the musicians I know are the same way. We get to play. Just don't let the grownups know.

The Thin Red LineThat's great. While talking about The Thin Red Line in your Master Class, you said how you find the question more interesting than the answers while you're writing and playing.


Did you feel that way before working with Terrence Malick?

No, it was really Terry. Really, this is the link that I was going through on the MasterClass thing. I was always more interested in the question; I just didn't know it. Just like in MasterClass, I had to go and articulate these things. Somebody like Terry, who is brilliant with words, will suddenly just quietly say, "Well, the question is always more interesting than the answer." He's right because as soon as you have the answer... I mean, science does this all the time. As soon as they have an answer, everybody jumps on this and makes it into a new question, and that drives things forward. Otherwise, it's like those bands that are one hit wonders. All they could think about was the one song, and then they're doomed to Groundhog Day, for the rest of their life, playing that damned thing.

I know you and Malick talked for a year about the film. Does that happen often?

It happens all the time. I mean that's how I work. Ron Howard just wrote me on Sunday, and we had a long conversation about something that doesn't exist yet. He just wanted to start the conversation. He was just exploring if, you know, "What's a good idea?" Not even whether it's a good idea to make it but, you know, he was just out mining for ideas I suppose. I do the same thing. I mean, I love my directors, but I use my directors. I talk to them to find answers to all those questions that I have. Then I just try to figure out how to translate those into notes or idio-soundscapes. Whatever is appropriate.

Is it ever a struggle finding the right questions to respond to?

No, because what happens the first time I read a script or the first time I talk to a director, he tells me the story. I have an annoying habit of going, "But what if?" And this is where the big difference between writer-director and just director comes in really handy. With a Chris Nolan, who is a writer, I'll put him on the spot about it perhaps [Laughs]. "Let's go." "Well, hang on a second. So now-" He has to give me the logic. He has to give me a truthful answer. Even if he has to make it up, it's okay. So yes, I mean, the directors I love working with are the ones you can bombard with questions, and you can have a real conversation with.

Is it still ever nerve-wracking to share your work with directors, even those you know well?

Writing music is just a weird thing where it just...because it has to come from the heart, so you're presenting something that comes from the heart, which is indefensible and either people like it or they hate it. You can't talk them into liking it, so it's... We're fragile when we write, and we're super fragile when we play it to somebody the first time. It's this constant thing. I know one composer, who shall remain completely nameless, but he's very well known, who would pop into my room and go, "Hey, have you got a Valium by any chance?" I'm going, "Oh, your director is coming over." I would always know when he had a meeting.