Editor: Ian Lace
Len Mullenger


An interview with the film music composer

By Ian Lace

Hans Zimmer has won acclaim for his music for many major Hollywood movies. He won an Academy Award for his work on The Lion King (the score also won a Golden Globe Award, the Chicago Critics' Award for Best Original Score as well as two Grammys and the American Music Award for Best Album of the Year). Zimmer also received Academy Award nominations for Rain Man, The Preacher's Wife, As Good As It Gets, a Grammy for Crimson Tide, and most recently, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for The Thin Red Line. Other notable Zimmer scores include: Driving Miss Daisy, Thelma and Louise, My Beautiful Laundrette, Pacific Heights, Toys, Backdraft and The Rock. In addition to Gladiator, Hans Zimmer's has recently completed work on the highly anticipated Mission Impossible 2 and the animated feature, The Road to El Dorado.

I met Hans Zimmer when he was in London recently. I began by asking him about how he came to include what sounds like Middle Eastern music in Gladiator, a film about the Roman Empire.

H.Z.: Half of Gladiator takes place in Morocco so I think I have a fairly legitimate reason for using this style. But really it was more that I loved Lisa Gerrard's voice. Lisa grew up in Melbourne's Turkish community and she has a very strong style but there is a purity about it and a truthfulness. Lisa is a formidable woman; she is not just a 'Pop Diva', she has enormous intelligence, integrity, and musicality. When I first contacted her about working with me on Gladiator her she politely declined, saying it wasn't quite her cup of tea, but when she saw some footage, she finally agreed and she was eager enough to catch the next 'plane. I admire that attitude, I would much rather work with somebody with that artistic integrity than with somebody who will say 'yes' to anything.

I needed to find a tender woman's voice because Gladiator's opening scene is idyllic, a poetic image of a wheat field with a hand drifting over it and all you hear is Lisa's voice. I wanted the music at that point to evoke Maximus's home, to signify the place where he was happiest. Ultimately that theme turns into the 'Elysium' music.

But then I was also desperately trying to find a way of showing that our main character, Maximus, was not really, in the beginning, associated with the Roman Empire. He was a Spaniard. In fact, in passing, I've noticed that Spain and Spaniards have been associated with many of my new scores. There were two Spaniards in The Road to El Dorado. Mission Impossible 2 starts in Spain and, of course, Gladiator has a Spanish hero.

When I compose, I start by trying to write at least somewhat geographically but then you remember that so much music has its roots in the Middle East.

I.L.: Yes, I take your point especially since much of Gladiator is set in Morocco. Moorish and Middle Eastern musical influences pervaded Spain and much of Europe even into the early centuries of the last millennium. But then the influence of Middle Eastern or World music seems to be pervading so many films these days even those like The Informer or 8mm that are not set in such locations?

H.Z. True. World music has become the "in-thing" just now but I believe I have contrasted that sound fairly well with the use of such an enormous orchestra. I've always wanted to write for Djivan Gasparyan [who plays the Duduk, a Middle-Eastern wind instrument]. I think he is one of the most amazing musicians in the world. He creates a sound that has a lonely yet haunting quality and is thousands of years old - ageless.

I.L.: What about the zither-like instrument that is featured in 'The Emperor is dead' on the soundtrack CD?

H.Z.: It sounds like a Hammer Dulcimer which is actually a Chinese instrument, but the instrument Lisa played has a name that is quite unpronounceable. She found it in a Hong Kong supermarket. It sounds great but it is practically impossible to tune properly, it has so many strings and it takes a good hour to tune it just to play music for a three-minute take.

I have to say that I did not want to turn into a musical anthropologist, to research ancient Roman music [as Miklos Rozsa did for his Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis scores]. But at the same time I wanted to have a sound that was not contemporary to today.

I.L.: I was impressed with the energy and rhythmic drive of 'The Battle' how did you approach this sequence?

H.Z.: Believe it or not, I based the whole thing on the classical Viennese Waltz. The concept developed when I visited Ridley Scott at work on location near Farnham [in Surrey close to London]. It was in the depths of winter and it was freezing. Wherever I looked there were about 10,000 guys in the mud, fighting, throwing things at each other. Ridley and I had our first meeting in Marcus Aurelius's tent. It was most beautiful; red silk, gold laurel leaf patterns everywhere, and huge marble busts of Roman dignitaries… I was amazed. "This is a battlefield and you have luxury like this?" "Of course" retorted Ridley, "You have to understand that Marcus Aurelius spent 17 years on the German borders fighting all those battles, so he would have had everything that was civilised and cultured brought to him from Rome."

I suddenly realised, as I listened to Ridley, with the battle raging outside the tent, that everything we hold dear, and which we find fascinating about Ancient Rome - all the architecture, all the literature, the poetry, the whole civilisation -- was built on the blood and guts of the Legions and their victims.

I then sought to find the equivalent of that sort of formality, of that Roman civilisation, in music. I found it in the Viennese Waltz. I took its well-defined style, form and structure and made it completely savage. I doggedly stuck with the idea and, believe me, it became very difficult in places because the waltz is so benign but it was really interesting to see what happened when I turned it on its head. And so that idea became the blue print for all the action sequences.

I.L.: The Battle music has a heavy ostinato that contributes to an overwhelming feeling of menace and the music moves forward relentlessly all the time accelerating in pace, with dramatic changes in pitch, tempi and dynamics.

H.Z.: Yes. There is a complete intellectual trick in it that I always wanted to bring off. It starts off in one key and it keeps moving through keys but you can't tell where the changes occur. By bar 32 you are an augmented 5th higher and you cannot catch where the key change actually occurs!

All those sequences, all the action music was written before Ridley had finished shooting. Part of it was written on the battlefield. Ridley would cut the film at my Lilly Yard Studio so we were actually 'joined at the hip' every day.

I.L.: Interestingly, it is reported that you were not classically trained. But you clearly have a wide interest in the classics. I could hear influences of Holst ('Mars' from The Planets and something, too, of 'Battle in the Air' from Walton's music from the film Battle of Britain in Gladiator's battle music; and definitely Wagner ( Siegfried's Journey to the Rhine and Siegfried's funeral music from Götterdamerung) in 'The Might of Rome'

H.Z.:Yes, the Wagner was a very conscious choice. The scary thing for me was when after I saw the entry into Rome it seemed so apposite. I managed to assume the style of Wagner so easily that I was able to write that piece in an hour. I think the Holst evolved as an accident, I was more conscious of striving after Stravinsky's sort of brutality. The Walton music you mentioned is one of my favourites.

I.L.: I suppose its odd what can surface in the mind when scoring?

H.Z.: Absolutely, that is the scary part, the sum and influences of all of our lives.

I.L.: Did you listen to any Respighi, particularly his Roman tone poems?

H.Z.: No. Everybody said I should listen to Respighi, he was such a great orchestrator. But the more that people say I should listen to something the less inclined I am to do so because it then feels like school work. Yes, I know Pines of Rome but I did not listen to it which was probably just as well because it might have unduly influenced me in the wrong direction for this particular screenplay.

I.L.: When you were preparing for Gladiator did you listen to earlier 'Ancient Roman' film music? I am thinking of the Rozsa epics, Dimitri Tiomkin's score for The Fall of the Roman Empire and Alex North's Spartacus music?

H.Z.: No not really. Imagine how scary and daunting that could be, knowing you are expected to equal all that stuff in some way - or beat it!

If I can touch upon just one of those composers..? There was some little mumbling, some discontent amongst the ranks of Gladiator, not from Ridley I hasten to say. They wanted to know why I was not more Spartacus-like. Where was the big fanfare? Where was the bold tune on the timps etc.? I kept on saying to them but Spartacus is not the movie we are making just now. And, really, why should I listen to Alex North? It made me wonder if and who Alex was asked to listened to when he, probably, encountered this sort of situation. I felt that I should do the appropriate thing by this movie. Then I finally figured out what it really was about Spartacus that fired up these guys. I realised it was the experience they'd had when they saw the film as young boys. I knew then, that my job would be relatively simple as long as I could give people that same sort of experience, that same thrill for this generation. If I could accomplish this, I knew I would have done my job well.

You might be interested to know that the thing I kept listening to while I was working on Gladiator was Verdi's Requiem. Not that I needed the influence, I just found that it had a nice calming effect on me - I would only play the quieter sections.

I.L.: Moving on to your two enterprises, the Lilly Yard Studio and Media Ventures in Santa Monica -- are these for your exclusive use or do other composers benefit from their facilities?

H.Z.: Definitely for other composers too, especially young composers. When I was starting my career in London, I was assistant to Stanley Myers who was incredibly generous to me. He would cover my rear end; whenever I ruined a cue, he would help me to sort it out and he was tremendously generous in helping me to get work. What a difference I noticed when I came to Los Angles! Everybody was desperately trying to hold onto their jobs - that is everybody other than the top ten composers who were all very generous in giving other people credit.

I feel that if you don't let new people into the industry, then the whole idea of film music is going to stagnate. So I was keen to find new composers and to support them and just let them write. Believe me it's very tough breaking into film music even with the help I can give them.

I.L.: Yes, we get a lot of questions at Film Music on the Web from youngsters eager to break into the industry. They all want to know what the secret is.

H.Z.: You know, I have no idea to this day what that secret is. I guess you should write a piece of music appropriate to a screenplay and submit it to the producers. Remember what Napoleon said? -- "Bring me only lucky generals!" Everything depends on luck meeting or contacting the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

I.L.: You are recognised as a pioneer in the use of digital synthesisers, advanced computer technology and electronic keyboards, and their integration with the traditional orchestra in music for films and television. Now, there has been much criticism of how soulless and inflexible much synth film music is, and that it can never match the infinite nuances and subtleties of conventional instruments. In so many scores one gets so tired of the metal sheet bangs, the insistent anvil clangs, or the hissing steam clichés Would you care to comment on, or refute this criticism, please?

H.Z.: ?????????

I.L.: At the beginning of your career which composer of film music influenced you the most?

H.Z.: Ennio Morricone. I just loved what he wrote. I grew up in a household without television; my parents thought it was the enemy of culture. So I did not really get to see any movies on television but there was a little cinema in the village where I grew up, and I stole in through the back door once to see Once Upon a Time in the West. That was my first experience of how images and music can combine. It just blew me away. I knew what I wanted to do.

I.L.: You started in jingles and Rock and Pop?

H.Z.: Because sometimes you have to go along a circuitous route to get to where you want to be. You can't just turn up and say I want to write a score, they're just going to laugh at you. So I began there and to a degree I loved it until I figured out that it was actually a very narrow field. If you had a hit, you had to stick with that style, that genre. In film music you don't. I go all over the place stylistically and I am constantly reinventing myself. I don't do it on purpose. I just get interested; I just try to say what's appropriate for the subject, in my way.

I.L.: You have certainly had a very varied work list. Looking back over all the scores that you have written, which three are you most proud of; the ones that have given you most satisfaction?

H.Z.: Well, not in order of preference: The Thin Red Line, Driving Miss Daisy and Gladiator. As far as The Thin Red Line was concerned I think the satisfaction was in surviving it. I wrote some 6½ hours of music; I felt that so much of the responsibility for the film rested on my shoulders, a responsibility that I really did not want to have. The Thin Red Line experience was really the hardest school I've ever had to go to but it made me into a composer. There was no way I could take short cuts or cheat. I had to distil everything down to its bare minimum. The amount of notes I threw away..!

After The Thin Red Line, I thought I didn't know how to find the joy of writing. The only reason I do this work is because I love it and I had, well, sort of lost that love - of how to just go to the studio and write and play music. The operative word there is 'play' it's very important. Somehow Ridley Scott and his Gladiator made it possible for me to just play again and so on a strictly personal level, Gladiator was a great way of rediscovering my joy in music.

I am so lucky that my life has embraced so many things, musically. From Thelma and Louise that had, virtually, just one man and a guitar right through to the big orchestral scores like Crimson Tide.

I.L.: What about Driving Miss Daisy? What was so special about composing that score?

H.Z.: It was the location and the characters, it really wrote itself. Miss Daisy and my mother are so similar. Whenever I wasn't busy I would ring her and pick a small argument with her… It was Miss Daisy's feet, her walk everything… It was great fun, it was sweet and gentle, all those things…The whole thing was completed in less than two weeks.

It's sometimes like that. You know, I find there are two ways of working. Either you knock your head against the wall and work really hard - and that is very satisfying in one way or another - or you're suddenly struck by some inspiration and you blaze through the composition.

I.L.: How far are you restricted or pressured by producers and all the other people who have stake in the success of the film, financially and otherwise. Do you have autonomy?

H.Z.: I have this bottom line which I think holds true (and one of these days I will have to test it) and that is if they fire me I can always go back to work for the BBC -- if they would have me back! That is my safety net. I feel I have complete autonomy. Take Mission Impossible 2, for instance, that I have just completed. Without wanting to ruin the franchise, I nevertheless thought it might be interesting for a huge summer blockbuster not to have a large orchestra blaring away, but to have something quite eclectic and not traditional. So I went for a small ten-man ensemble of one cello and a band of guitars plus a couple of friends of mine on percussion, playing gritty, grumpy stuff that was not so polished. But there comes the crunch point when you wonder if you are right, are you ruining a $100 million movie? I was a nervous wreck at the preview because the preview audience was asked what they thought about my music. Fortunately they loved it but I can tell you that in that brief time between them being asked and their replying, I died a thousand deaths.

So, yes, I do have complete autonomy.

I.L.: That is interesting. Other composers say that they have too many people looking over their shoulders and offering advice.

H.Z.: Well, I'm afraid it's often their own fault. You have to go in with an idea. Even if it's the wrong idea, you should approach the project with a point of view. They don't hire you because you can write a pretty tune, they want you if you have a point of view as a film-maker. I think it is very important that that comes across. And you must have the luxury of knowing that you can fail, knowing that you can go back to them and say, "You remember that great idea I had? Well, its rubbish. Let me change my mind. Here's Plan B!" You have to remain flexible. And you must be your own critic all the time. You must have integrity, you cannot let your 'brothers in arms' down. Everybody works very hard on a film; nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Just on a sleep deprivation level you owe it to the others.

I.L.: Who would you say of all the directors you have worked with was the most musical?

H.Z.: John Schlesinger - because, of course, he has directed at Glyndebourne and Salzburg. He once made a small list of quotes he had heard in my music and slipped it to me. Some of them I did not even recognise! Absolutely the most musical of all directors.

Terence Malick is very musical too. That was part of the reason why it was so tough working with Terry on The Thin Red Line. He would quote some obscure passage from some obscure work and I would have to rush out and buy the CD to figure out what he was talking about.

I.L.: Can you tell us something about the other new film you have scored, The Road to El Dorado.

H.Z.: Really it's a reuniting of Tim Rice and Elton John, and having another bash at animation. Again I felt like writing against type; so many animated movies have orchestral scores but I felt something different would work better in this case. I had the idea of using two guitars and a string trio. Actually I found this wonderful string trio in Vienna. Two of them went to the Yehudi Menuhin School here in London and the third was the most amazing cellist. They call themselves Triology; and Morricone just loves them. They are completely original so the music was created around them. The film is a comedy so what can you loose, you can, and you need to be quirky and experimental. Again one holds one's breath about whether it's successful -- animation films are a four-year process so it is very tough for a composer to laugh at his jokes four years later

May 2000

  Return to Front page