You know his sound, even if you think you don’t. Hans Zimmer has composed the music for more than one hundred feature films, from The Lion King to Inception to Hidden Figures. Until recently, you had to be Ridley Scott or Guy Ritchie to see Zimmer perform live, but now—thanks in part to a rapturously received Coachella set—the acclaimed composer may well enjoy an entire other career as a touring act. He took a break from rehearsals to talk with the Weekly about storytelling, stage fright and more.
What motivated you to play live?
Last summer we did a bit of Europe, but what motivated me? Rebelling musicians going, “Let’s go and do this again.” I’m not going to do the math, but after spending far too long in a dark room hiding behind a screen, it’s about time I look the audience in the eye. The other part is having endless stage fright and just not letting fear conquer my life. I won’t have it.
And doing this tour got you past that?
I’m not past it at all. It’s just going, “Well, that’s how I’m built.” Deal with it, you know? Deal with it. You never know what’s going to happen.
How did it feel the first time, playing those darkened-room compositions for live audiences?
Nervous, and weirdly connected. Weirdly like we were happy, the audience and I, as if we had known each other forever ... It’s like they were pen pals somehow. We hadn’t ever seen each other’s face, but somehow we had this communication going. A strange feeling of it being actually very intimate and that made it really nice. The other thing is I’m surrounded by some of the greatest musicians in this world, so it was just nice to either hide behind them or to show them off. Because really, honestly, the reason I wanted to do this was because it felt like these incredible musicians need to be seen, not just heard.
Showing off? That sounds promising. Who are you showing off on this tour?
I’ve got a band of 22 on stage and an orchestra. We’re more than 70 people. I try not to count because if I count, then I know why people keep talking to me about budget. Bad idea to count how many mouths we’re feeding.
Guthrie Govan, who I discovered on YouTube—I just thought he was one of the most amazing guitarists in the world. Tina Guo is an amazing cellist. And before I forget, my friend Lebo M, from The Lion King. Everybody knows that song from the beginning of The Lion King, but if you go to see one of the [Broadway] shows, it’s an actor. I’m bringing you the real thing.
I first heard Lebo M on your score to The Power of One.
He was working in a car wash at the time and I had to pry him away! No, I don’t think he loved the car wash, but I think he liked The Power of One. [That score] really became the blueprint for The Lion King. It was the second time somebody took me to Africa under extreme circumstances. It was a difficult time then for Africa. Not that it still isn’t.
It’s one of my favorite scores. So heartfelt.
Thank you. God, you know it. You just earned yourself an enormous amount of brownie points with me because I love that score. I love the score and loved the whole experience of turning up and having these amazing choirs sing. A lot of these people ended up on The Lion King. That was our test-drive.
Let’s talk Coachella. Was it weird, seeing your name billed alongside acts like Kendrick Lamar and New Order?
Not so much. I was in a band in the ’80s in England and New Order weren’t around. And Kendrick—who I think is absolutely at the pinnacle of his creativity at the moment—I just adore him; we’ve actually done some work together in the past. In a way, it’s just a bunch of musicians getting onto a stage and hoping to do something that might surprise everybody. That’s the idea. I don’t think anybody’s really taken orchestra out into the desert in quite this way. You’ve got to live a little dangerously and you’ve got to try some experiments and you’ve got to see how it all works out.
Does this feel looser, more improvisational than scoring?
Well, yes and no. It took me a while to figure it out. The big difference is when I’m scoring a movie I’m always thinking about long arcs and dramatic structure, and what happens in Act III while I’m in Act I. If you’re playing live, if you’re not in the moment, you’re going to play the wrong note, so you better be completely in the moment and stay completely focused and not think about the next song that’s going to hit you over the head. It’s a complete shift in my mental vocabulary of how to deal with things.
Both you and Ramin Djawadi are on tour this year. Do you think we’ll see more film composers on tour?
Well, I know James Newton Howard is going to go on tour as well. I think so. We’re doing something very different from Ramin; he had a huge show that was absolutely amazing, but, obviously, it was just about Game of Thrones. My show it’s slightly different in so far that it’s all about the musicians that I’ve been working with over the years. I want it to be about them. We don’t show any images of any of the movies that I’ve worked on. My friend Marc Brickman—the world’s greatest lighting designer, having worked with Pink Floyd and Dave Gilmour forever—I just said to him, “You know, you could be in the band and just have to reinterpret the whole of the way these movies feel to you.” We’re doing it with lights as opposed to projecting any images from the actual movies.
Okay, now I’ve got a few fanboy questions.
I love your early scores like Green Card and Millennium, which you did with a very small ensemble of musicians and lots of electronics. Do you get many opportunities to work at that scale today?
Yes, and I love doing it. There’s something very different that happens when you basically play every note yourself. Every intent, every emotion comes from one person. As soon as you bring the orchestra in… It’s not like you’re diluting emotion, but it becomes a different sort of piece. I love doing this stuff electronically because it really means that you not only play the notes, but it’s a bit like you handcraft the sound for every note yourself. I like working with small ensembles, but that’s the funny thing about this tour, being amongst a band again and very often just being there to support another musician. I absolutely just adore that as a way of making music. There’s an energy you can just get out of a band that is much harder to get out of a big orchestra.
Bet you got some of that ensemble feel when you did Sherlock Holmes.
Yes! There came a moment where we had booked an orchestra and studio time and we’re literally wondering, “What are we going to do with them?” So yes, there are orchestra bits in Sherlock Holmes, but they’re so far and few between. It was much more fun destroying the piano and playing banjos and fiddles, and making the big action scene with a solo violin. Guy Ritchie, a man who is equally as reckless as me, instantly got it. Everybody else was going, “Where are the drums? Where is the orchestra? This is our big, big action scene. What’s with the solo violin? You’re ruining the movie.” Turns out we didn’t.
Is it becoming more difficult, in an era of directors using temporary tracks to edit blockbuster franchise films, to compose a boundary-pushing score like Holmes?
Well, I didn’t know Guy Ritchie when he called me out of the blue and said, “Hi, I’m making this Sherlock Holmes movie and every time I go to the cutting room they’ve temped The Dark Knight into it, and I just don’t like it.” I thought that was a brilliant way to start a conversation. He instantly said, “Don’t do that,” in red. I don’t think there were too many Dark Knight overtones in Sherlock Holmes by the time we were finished. In fact, I never had a temp. We just started making music and just started slinging it in. Most of the movies I’ve done recently have all been temp-less, as it were, which has a good part to it and a bad part to it. The bad part is everybody’s on my case to give them music right now because they can’t screen the movie without something in it. I’m feverishly writing the temp as it goes.
I was just thinking about what you were saying about blockbuster movies. I mean, three years ago Pharrell Williams came to me and he said, “Look, I’ve got this story. It’s a period piece about African-American woman and they do math. What do you think?” Then he said, “And there’s space flight involved.” It was great to work on something like Hidden Figures. If you break it down like that, it’s the antithesis to a blockbuster. As soon as he said it, I was in.
Who have been some of your favorite directors to work with?
Chris Nolan. Ron Howard, love Ron. Love Ridley Scott. I loved Tony Scott. I mean, Tony, God ... I mean, there’s a lot of Tony Scott in this setlist. I miss him dearly. Peter Weir, wonderful director. Jeffrey Katzenberg—who’s not a director, but has been my partner in crime for so many movies, and sometimes they really were crimes—he enticed me into all those movies from Lion King all the way through those Dreamworks movies. Just now having done The Boss Baby without him, his voice was louder in my head than if he had been there.
And Jim Brooks. You can’t beat Jim Brooks for writing. I remember working on As Good As It Gets when it was an hour-and-a-half longer than the final version and it was full of the most amazing one-liners. I can’t even tell a joke and Jim wrote all these jokes that ended up on the cutting room floor. I was thinking, “If I could only come up with one of those jokes that he threw away, I would feel amazing.”
To circle around to the beginning of the conversation, there’s a scene in As Good As It Gets where the Jack Nicholson character doesn’t know how to go and see the girl, and Greg Kinnear says to him, “Look, you’ve got everything going for you because you’re already prepared to humiliate yourself.” And I thought, “That’s actually a fairly good way of looking at what I’m doing right now while getting on stage. I am fully prepared to humiliate myself.”
Do you have a wish list of directors you haven’t worked with yet?
You and I actually have a similar thing going on in our lives, which is a great luxury, because what we do is we get on the phone and either somebody is telling you a story or somebody is telling me a story, and every movie starts the same way. The phone call comes in from a director and they go, “Hey, I want to tell you a story.” That’s sort of a great way of living, and yes there are directors I haven’t ever met yet who are probably going to tell me the next great story that’s going to get me excited, but I can’t tell you who they are.
This is probably not the best interview you’ve ever had, but still, there is something great about somebody telling you a story, isn’t there? Just like me, you have to go and put a bit of work in, but it’s not really work. I mean, work is getting up at six o’clock in the morning and going down the mineshaft.
What are some of your favorites among your compositions? Which scores still please your ear?
I wish Guy would get it together so we could make another Sherlock movie, because it’s not about “does it please my ear,” it’s about the experience of making it. You know, I can find too many flaws with everything. The thing I really hang onto is the experience of doing it, so if you say Gladiator to me, I can tell you that was really fun and that was really interesting and that Ridley just letting me run riot was fantastic.
That reminds me. Cynthia! Sorry to interrupt your interview.
No, please do.
Can you send Lisa some flowers? It’s her birthday today. Lisa Gerrard.
Oh, yeah, of course. You better get on that.
Lisa. Shit, I forgot. I should have done it this morning.
That reminds me: thank you for collaborating with The Smiths’ Johnny Marr.
Oh, come on. On this tour, because Johnny can’t do all the dates, I’m taking Nile Marr, his son. Because if you have to substitute for a player like that, you better get the same DNA. It was sort of amazing the first time Nile started playing Inception: There’s a certain timing Johnny has that we all have to adjust to, and Nile started playing and just looking at my bass player, Yolanda Charles, and we both had to get into that Marr pocket of rhythm instantly. It’s in the genes.
Wow. Okay, I’ve got a couple more questions here and then I’ll let you go. I’ve kept you on the phone way longer than I told your people I was going to.
That’s okay. This is right before they start hollering at you. Quick, get another one in.
Do you have any scores that you wish you could do over?
Actually, I’ve done that. Jim Brooks once let me do it. We finished a movie; I think it was As Good As It Gets. I think we were as far as the print master, and I had a completely different idea and I said, “Jim, you’ve got to let me do this. Even though we’re out of time and out of money,” and he went to he studio and said, “Hans has an idea. He wants to do it over.” So sometimes, yes, directors will let you do that. There’s a track in Inception that wasn’t in there originally and both Christopher and I suddenly had this idea of how to do it and at the last moment we sort of came up with “Mombasa,” which drives the movie along just when it needs it.
And yes, there are lots of tracks I wish I could do over, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s why you keep working forward as opposed to going back and fixing things. You just try to be better the next time around.
Finally, your work has been widely imitated, particularly in trailers. That booming Inception sound kept showing up in trailers…
How do you feel about that?
First of all, let me give you credit where credit is due, and it’s so misunderstood. It was a story point in Chris’s script and it actually was part of the story—the idea that the sound slows down, and it would signify that you’re now in a different dreamland and time moves in a different pace. Since then everybody’s misappropriated it for their trailers, et cetera, but it sort of serves the same purpose.
Ron Howard once said to me, “Trailers are like dreams.” I said, “Well what do you mean?” He goes, “Well, they don’t have to follow any logic. They can just cut from one non-sequitur to the next.” I think that sound became a good device to cut from one non-sequitur to the next.
Does it bother you, this misappropriation?
I used to mind. My second movie in Hollywood was Black Rain with Ridley Scott, and I really tried to develop a new language for the sort of action stuff. Ridley and I thought we really had figured it out and this was a new style, et cetera, and I thought that was going to be my style. By the end of the year there were at least four other movies that sounded like that, and I suddenly realized you just can’t sit still.
After we did the Batman trilogy and Inception and just before we did Interstellar, Chris and I sat down and made a list of all the things we had done which we weren’t going to do in Interstellar. No big drums, no string ostinatos, all that sort of stuff. By the end of making the list I sort of looked sheepishly at Chris and said, “What have we got left?” He’s the one who said, “What about a church organ?” So no, I don’t mind it. Listen. Knock yourself out. Having people snap at my heels makes forces me into inventing music. Sometimes I do well with it, sometimes I don’t, but I always give it a try.
Well, I could easily keep asking you questions, but I’m going to let you go.
I think I have to be good and go back to rehearsal because otherwise the show, which hopefully you’re going to come and see …
… isn’t going to be very good! And it’ll be your fault.
Hans Zimmer April 21, 7:30 p.m., $46-$220. Park Theater, 844-600-7275.