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Hans Zimmer Can Write an Entire Film Score From a Single Photograph

We talked to the legendary composer about his recent Coachella debut, 'The Lion King,' and avoiding Hollywood typecasting.

Bringing a full orchestra to the California desert for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival might strike many as an arduous task, but if Hans Zimmer's lengthy career has proven anything, it's that the German composer and producer isn't one to shy away from a challenge.

Since the 1980s, he's composed critically acclaimed scores for more than 120 films, including The Thin Red Line (1998), The Lion King (1994), Gladiator (2000), Inception (2010), and Hollywood blockbuster series like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Dark Knight Trilogy. Even though he's only received two weeks of classical music training in his lifetime, the Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Award winner's an uncontested master of the musical story arc, and his versatile body of work has served as a template for contemporary composers today.

Despite this impressive list of achievements, this past weekend marked the 59-year-old veteran's debut at the long-running Indio festival, which featured headlining sets from Radiohead, Lady Gaga, and Kendrick Lamar. Leading an orchestra through a selection of his most well-known hits, Zimmer was also joined by Pharrell Williams, who performed his 2015 song "Freedom" (the two previously collaborated on the soundtrack for 2016's Hidden Figures).

We spoke to the prolific composer—who admits he still gets stage fright—over the phone a few days after the first Coachella weekend to find out the secrets to his creative process, what it's like to hear 30,000 people singing along to "Circle of Life," how he's avoided Hollywood typecasting, and more.


THUMP: How did the Coachella booking come about?
Hans Zimmer: I have no idea how it came about. I just thought it was interesting. I thought, "This sounds crazy, it has to be done, you have to bring an orchestra to the desert." Why not?

What did you think of the crowd's reaction to your set last weekend?
The reaction was totally, overwhelmingly unexpected. One of the things that people forget about being the first one to do it, everybody thinks oh, that's such a clever idea, while I just sit there and go "oh my god, what if it doesn't work out, what if nobody comes?" And so to be welcomed and embraced by the audience in that way was just fantastic. It was amazing.

In terms of the setlist, how were the songs chosen?
Well, I had picked a whole bunch of things that everyone else in the band chimed in on, but at the end of the day it was really Nile Marr who just sort of waded in and went "hang on a second," when the argument was waging if we should be doing this or that or the other. He's the youngest member of the band and so smart. I suppose it's his DNA from his father [The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr] that he just knows how to do these things. Everybody just shut up and listened to him, and we did the Nile Marr setlist.

The whole point for me is it's about the musicians, so I run a fairly democratic band. The other thing is our setlist is literally from the heart. We don't have a new album coming out. We're not trying to sell people anything. We're just trying to entertain them, trying to give them an experience that they haven't had before.

Was there a particular song that people were most receptive to?
It's fairly diverse. What I'm always trying to do in the movies is take people on a journey. So there are different reactions at different times, but I promise you, I have never heard such a good chorus at the end of Lion King as hearing all those voices out of Coachella. That was a bit special.

Let's talk about The Lion King, because I know that was a very personal score for you to write.
You know, there's a lot of irony in this story. I said to [Disney], "All you want is Broadway princess musicals, and I don't like Broadway princess musicals, I'm the wrong guy." They kept going, "No, no, you're the right guy, because you'll do something different." My daughter at the time was six years old and I've never really been able to take her to a premiere of any of my movies. So I said "OK I'll do it," but there was a reason for it. As a dad, I want to show off. Then I sat in front of it and I went, "What am I going to do with fuzzy animals?"

The more I looked into the story, the more I realized that it wasn't about fuzzy cartoon animals. There was a really tragic story in there which I had to deal with, which was the death of a father and the child he leaves behind. And that's really what happened to me when I was a child. My father died when I was six. Children—whatever anybody tells you—do not deal with it unless they have to. So for the first time, I had to actually sit there, and remember all these things and write from those feelings. That was the only honest way to do it. It sort of became a requiem for my dad.

It sounds as though you go from a feeling then.
I do go from a feeling, but it can be just one word. Very often, it's sitting down with the director of cinematography. He sort of does my job in light. He writes with light.

That's right, you work in tandem with the cinematographer.
If you just look at the straight physics of it, light and sound, we're part of the same spectrum. I remember on The Lion King, because it was all hand-drawn, there was one scene I never had in colour and it bugs me. To this day, I know I picked the wrong colours of the orchestration, and it clashes with what's on the screen. Nobody else has ever noticed it—just me. It drives me crazy.

So yes, people are always talking about film being collaborative, and it is collaborative but on a very subjective level as well. I remember doing a movie with Gore [Verbinski]. I read his script, I phoned him up, and I said, "Gore, I have no idea what this is about. Send me some footage, send me anything." And so he sent me a still photograph of a hospital waiting room with a cracked clock. I wrote the whole score from that photo. And he knew! He thought about it long and hard, what he would get to me, what image would encapsulate his whole movie.

Why don't you like musicals?
You know, look, I'm the guy you want to hire on a movie if you want to go and have somebody who's very contrary, who goes if and why, why are we doing it this way? I'm the guy who can't help but throw a hand grenade to a room just when everything's calmed down. Ask insane questions. There are lots of musicals which I think are kitschy, and other musicals which I utterly and completely adore. I just think the world didn't need another fairytale princess musical.

Pharrell and Hans Zimmer at Coachella 2017, photo by Joe Eley

When you begin working on a movie score, where do you start?
It always starts with the same thing. Somebody phones me up—usually the director phones me up—and they go, "I want to tell you a story." Directors by nature are compelling, brilliant storytellers. You know by the third paragraph, you're hooked. It's a luxurious existence if you see what I mean, because everybody loves being told a good story. Usually as a story unfolds—and with Chris [Nolan] it's usually face-to-face—but as the story unfolds, I start getting ideas. It's not like I hear tunes, but I hear a sound. I hear something is scratching in me, trying to get out. The ideas start forming.

So you don't necessarily need to be working from a picture at all, you just need a small detail.
Yes. Inception, I was writing from just conversations with Chris, I was writing while we were shooting. I started sending him pieces of music without telling him where they were supposed to go, just to see if he would figure it out. It's a game we get to play. I get to see if I can be articulate in the music and see if the director can hear it. It's not a mechanical process. We live in an age of technology where I would never say to a director, "You must lock your picture now because I have to start writing." It's a fluid thing. Literally on the bus ride today, I did manage to write one more piece of music for Chris' movie Dunkirk. We're not in those times anymore where people stop you from having ideas. We can have ideas and work at them until the last moment. And yes, it does drive a bunch of people in the back room completely crazy, but that's just the way we are.

As someone who works in Hollywood, do you ever experience typecasting?
I worked very hard. I was very sneaky right at the beginning, that they couldn't typecast me. ln other words to follow Black Rain with Rain Man, fine, the rain motif stayed. To follow that with Driving Miss Daisy, or Backdraft, people couldn't quite figure out who I was, and so they couldn't typecast me. If you think about the movies that I did with Jim Brooks, they're very different from the movies I've done with Chris Nolan.

Even in Chris' movies, when we did the original Batman Begins, none of us ever thought we would do a sequel. We just went on one movie and we poured everything into that. A few years went by, and we did Dark Knight, and then we did Dark Knight Rises. In effect, those three movies are 12 years of my life. They are only three movies, but in one way or the other, that was 12 years of my life. Sometimes I was kicking myself, because I had set—innocently enough—a tone for the first one which I then had to somehow make still work in the third one. But that's the game. I'm so not complaining about it.

So what's next for you?
This is a lesson I have now learned. Writing music and film scores, it's all about looking at these long arcs. How something in the prologue will play out in the third act, etc. Playing live is all about being in the moment. As soon as I start thinking about "forward" or the next song, I play the wrong note. Right now, I'm just in the moment. The only answer I can give you right now is, I've just arrived in San Francisco, we're doing a show tomorrow in San Francisco. I have no idea what we're doing the day after, and I don't want to know.

Check out Hans Zimmer's upcoming tour dates here.

Corinne Przybyslawski is on Twitter.