Hans Zimmer On Returning To 'The Lion King', The Most Important Element Of This New Score, And More [Interview]

Quick: how many Oscars has composer Hans Zimmer won during his 30-plus year career? Despite crafting some of the most memorable movie music of the past three decades, the answer is only one – Best Original Score for the original animated version of Disney's The Lion King.

More than a quarter century later, Zimmer is revisiting and expanding upon his work in Jon Favreau's remake of The Lion King, and I sat down with him last week at the film's press junket to talk about how he was lured back into The Lion King once again, some of the changes he made to the music, his relationship to Elton John, and more. Check out our full Hans Zimmer interview below.

I'd like to start by talking briefly about your work on the 1994 version of The Lion King. That's an incredible, Oscar-winning score that's beloved by me and so many other people, but when I was on the set of this movie, Jon Favreau said you had to use more digital instruments on that original film than you would have liked. So all these years later, what do you think about that score for the '94 movie?

Quite simple: less budget, more me playing everything. On this one, getting all the musicians and really having them perform. The weird thing is that this film feels much looser and more improvised, and that's what the digital technology allowed us now, but then, it was the only thing I could afford in a funny way. All the drums were played by me with samples – I'm not a drummer. This time, I had the ace drum section.

Did you feel a sense that there was room for improving what you'd done the first time, even though that score is so rightfully acclaimed, or did you want to approach this one from a different angle?

Every artist feels that they can go and do a little better. I was really aware that there comes a point where you fiddle around with something and you knock the life out of it, so I just kept listening to my musician friends and letting them lead me a little bit.

What was your initial reaction when you got the call about potentially scoring this new version?

I hardly got a call. It was just Jon going, 'Why don't you come down here and let me show you something?', which was absolutely the right way of doing it. What he showed me was of course indescribable.

Did he put you in the VR headsets?

We did that, and that was incredibly impressive. But the emotional thing was he just put me into a black room with a screen and he showed me the opening without saying anything. It was incredibly moving, even though I knew everything that was going to happen.

Did he have your score playing underneath it?

Yes, absolutely. (laughs) I just saw it fresh. It's as simple as that.

When I spoke with Jon, he also talked about how having your music means that there's an emotional infrastructure already in place when people sit down to watch this new movie. Did the legacy of the '94 score add to the pressure of creating a new version for you?

No, no, it was sort of the other way around. The '94 score was written linearly. So I didn't write the father's death until I got to that bit. Now, I had this. I could foreshadow certain things. I had all the tunes. I could build a slightly different architecture in the whole thing.

What was your favorite moment of foreshadowing that you were able to incorporate?

It comes quite late, but the new scene of the tuft of hair that travels all the way back. Building that around – there are basically two Mufasa themes. There's a live Mufasa theme and a dead Mufasa theme. The dead Mufasa theme, in all honesty, was always about my own father's death. It was a requiem for my dad. The tuft of hair traveling, I could go and extend that. It became just a personal thing. Does that make sense?

Yes, and I've heard you talk about how the original score was written for your daughter, so it sounds like it was very personal across the board for you.

They always are, in one way or another. I never went to music school, so the only place I could write from was this personal...sometimes it's not an experience, sometimes it's just a memory or something we make up. But they're all personal.

I know you taught a MasterClass recently, and as somebody who didn't go to music school –

Oh man, that nearly killed me! I'm sorry to interrupt you, but everything I learned by doing it. And then suddenly the MasterClass forced me into articulating it. They would ask me a question, I would answer, and they'd go, 'Didn't understand a word of this. Go again.'

That's got to be an interesting challenge.

Plus, here we are, a German talking in English. But really, I have such a strong sense that the only time I'm really honest and truthful and articulate is when I play music. It's a weird thing, I don't understand why everybody isn't playing music all the time. It's not a talent or anything. It's just my way of communicating. It's a perfectly clear language for certain things that cannot be said elegantly in images or words.

One thing that struck me about this version of The Lion King is that because of the more realistic depiction of the animals, you lose that expressive exaggeration of emotion that hand-drawn animation provides.

You are so right! I had to be just ever so slightly more funny when I needed to be funny or put ever so slightly more performance into everything. Because you can't get the exaggeration, the freedom that the drawings gave you.

What sort of conversations did you and Jon have about that? He must have been aware of that. That must have been one of the primary challenges of this film.

Actually, weirdly, we didn't have any conversations about it.


Yeah, I just realized it, so I would go and do it. Music is an indefensible thing: you can't tell somebody why they should like a piece, so I'd just play him something and it would either get a reaction or not. I think on purpose we didn't talk about it, because I needed a clean reaction from him. We weren't going to preview this thing. We weren't going to ask anybody else. We worked in total isolation in a way.

What's the collaboration like between you and Elton John?

We talk. He's Elton, and to be really honest, he's part of my growing up and loving his songs and me being slightly terrified about disturbing anything that he's doing, and at the same time, at the end of the day, knowing that I have to. I have to make his stuff boldly my own, just for a moment, to give it authenticity, as opposed to doing a parody of an Elton John song. I remember on the first movie, especially "Circle of Life," where I changed every chord and everything, I was sitting behind him the first time he heard it, and I was just watching his back and his neck to see if he was going to shudder in disgust. I was really nervous. I'm slightly less nervous now, but still – he's one of my heroes. I'm always just a little boy in front of him, don't quite know how to talk to him. He works so hard at making it easy for me.

I'm not fluent in music terminology, but listening to both scores, really, I feel like I can hear some of your score within "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" Please correct me if I'm wrong, but which element came first? Did you create the score, or did he create the song?

He absolutely did the song first. Actually, I was thinking about this last night. Part of what happens when you go to the premiere of one of your own movies is you're not quite experiencing it like everybody else. You're sitting there going, 'Oh, hang on, this change here. This is the chord change.' [But then it was like] oh yeah – "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" is all based on Bach. It's all classical chord changes.

Have you learned anything specific from your live performances that you were able to incorporate into your work on this score?

You've actually just asked the big question. I thought the one thing I could bring to this in doing the live thing is that rather than recording it like anybody has to record a film score – unknown to the musicians, they just have a bunch of dots in front of them, and maybe you can give them some weird instructions, but they don't know what they're playing and why they're playing it. But everybody knows this movie, so I made this decision very early on that I wanted to have two days to rehearse them, and then we're going to perform it as if we're doing it as a concert, and we're going to put lots of energy and that passion that you can get out of great players who know what they're doing. They know why they're playing those notes.


The Lion King arrives in theaters on July 19, 2019.