There’s a litmus test for telling whether someone is cool and has good taste in our book, and much of it circulates around whether they’re in the camp of people who love and respect the music of Hans Zimmer or those silly mortals who don’t understand the genius of one of the greatest living composers. Put it this way, the editor-in-chief and president of this very site is a big enough Hans Zimmer fan to have started a fan site about the composer (before expanding to cover movies silly enough to hire other composers) and at least two of this writer’s best friends are equally diehard about his music, so imagine our excitement when the opportunity came up to talk to the man himself.
His music recently helped take The Simpsons Movie from a mere television cartoon to the type of cinematic epic for which Zimmer has earned his reputation. (The “Spider Pig” theme from the movie was popular enough to chart on the UK based on the amount of downloads.) Next up for Mr. Zimmer will be the highly-anticipated Batman sequel The Dark Knight and a couple of personal projects including an extended box set of his score for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.
James L. Brooks told us recently how funny Zimmer was, but we didn’t believe him until we found out for ourselves, nor did we imagine that the Germanic god of film scoring might actually be so modest.
ComingSoon.net: Hans, how are you doing? Or should I say, “Mr. Zimmer”? Hans Zimmer: “Hans” is good.
CS: We’re big fans of you at ComingSoon.net. My editor used to run a Hans Zimmer fan site. Zimmer: Really? But then he got a real job and he got some good taste and stopped fooling himself.
CS: No, we’re still fans, but we’re covering a lot more movies because you only score five or six movies a year. Zimmer: I know, I know, I know. I’m slacking.
CS: I’m really in love with the soundtrack for “The Simpsons Movie.” It’s an amazing piece of work even without the Simpsons references. Can you talk about what kind of direction you were given for it and how did you go about starting this project? Zimmer: By saying “No, I don’t want to do it.” By saying, “I have no idea what to do here.” But Jim [Brooks], I don’t know, he goes deaf. He doesn’t hear the word “no” sometimes, and then I started thinking, “Hang on. What sort of world is that?” then I thought, “Well, you know the opening theme? That’s a pretty strong world so where could one go from there?” I was thinking Prokofiev and I was thinking Nino Rota and I was thinking surf guitars unfortunately at one point or another. Then I was thinking, “Oh, hang on a second. I don’t think the characters ever had themes” and I actually said to Matt, “Did the characters ever have themes?” and he goes, “Um… no.” He wasn’t entirely sure himself. Twenty years in their life, lots of stuff has happened so I said, “Let me try to write a Homer theme. Let me at least try that and if I get anywhere with that, I might be able to do this movie.”
CS: It’s amazing that they didn’t have individual themes this whole time. You’d think that would be something done very early on for the TV show. Zimmer: Yes, yes. So I wrote a Homer theme and the Homer theme got really long and out of it came a bit for Bart and a bit for Marge and a bit of a love theme. Actually, once I actually sat down and started writing, it all came together pretty quickly. Of course, “Spider-Pig” is taken straight from the old “Spider-Man” television series. It was just Homer doing “Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig” and I thought that was really funny.
CS: Getting a full choir to sing that must have been fun. Zimmer: Well, I had the choir there and I thought with a friend of mine, Michael Levine, who’s a great arranger/orchestrator. [Short tangent as the interviewer mentions that he used to work with Levine on, of all things, that Kit Kat “Gimme a Break” commercial over 15 years ago.] So we said, “We can turn this into the Spider-Pig Contata.” We just sort of made it up very very quickly. I never played it to them, because there wasn’t really any room in the movie for it, and then one day, things were a little tense all around and I thought we needed a laugh and said, “Hey, have a listen to this.” And I put up “Spider-Pig Contata” and Jim said, “Why is the funniest thing in our movie not in our movie?” So we figured out that maybe Spider-Pig had a longer life than just me amusing myself.
CS: When I talked to Jim a few weeks ago, he mentioned that you had a very good sense of humor Zimmer: For a German, he usually adds that.
CS: Yes, he did say that, but besides “Madagascar,” you would assume from your work that you’re a very serious person. Zimmer: It’s because I get typecast as a German, except Jim secretly thinks that I was born actually in Kansas and I just got myself this name and this accent because foreigners do really well in Hollywood, so he thinks I’m a complete fraud.
CS: Wow, that would be a shocker. How did you approach Danny Elfman’s “Simpsons” themes in this and was this the first time you’ve played with someone else’s toys, so to speak? Zimmer: Yeah, and I just wanted to see how far could we take them. But remember, it’s a funny thing, because in a movie, you can’t just go and play “the theme.” Actually, it’s the second time I’ve played with somebody else’s toys. “Mission: Impossible II.” And I learned from that, funnily enough to not make the same mistakes twice, which is, “Don’t overuse the theme!” Just put it in at pivotal moments. Opening titles, that’s a good moment. Somebody does something really well, that’s a good moment. You gotta get into the third act, that’s a good moment. The theme happens far and few between, but the thing I wanted to give Danny was that when the theme happens, it really resonates.
CS: I like the way it’s used in the soundtrack in different variations, and it really did remind me of something like Prokofieff or other composers whose themes are used in different ways. Zimmer: Well, Nino Rota and Prokofiev were words that might have been bandied about. (laughs) It was fun doing those variations and it was fun trying to consolidate that world in a way.
CS: I thought I heard a homage or two to other composers. Did you deliberately try to throw one or two bars of others pieces into the score to establish those references? Zimmer: No, I didn’t. What did you hear?
CS: Well, I thought I heard references to Aaron Copeland in one piece. Zimmer: Oh, no, the “Americana” thing. Yes, “Americana” and I have it on good authority that it really is a Scottish jig, but yes, of course they’re the quintessential dysfunctional American family.
CS: Was it hard doing a score for an animated movie like this which is never quite finished until weeks before opening? Did you have to write a lot of music without actually seeing the finished animation? Zimmer: No, no. These guys work incredibly efficiently fast and I work very inefficiently slow, so by the time I actually started doing things, they were way into it. It’s a huge advantage when you work in animation if you’re a procrastinator, because people would have gotten their stuff done, but still there were, like the “Spider-Pig” thing came right at the tail end of things. I mean, there’s a whole process that goes into making a movie and part of it is you have to go and translate it into 32 different languages. I remember after we finished it getting a phone call from Jim going, “And so, what are we doing for all the international and foreign versions for Spider-Pig?” and he was surprised that it hasn’t been translated yet until he realized that it was something that we only made up on the spot, and how could the translators know about it? It wasn’t in the script. Believe it or not, I have many foreign speaking friends, so we all gathered around back at the studio with the choir and taught them how to sing in Spanish and Portugese and German and French, you name it.
CS: Can you even fit the word for “Spider-Pig” in German into that melody? Zimmer: German was easy. Spanish was hard. You know what I did? I just Germanized it by going “Shpider-schweine.”
CS: There were two tracks on the soundtrack that were very different from the rest of the orchestral music, “Recklessly Impulsive” and “Release the Hounds.” They almost sound like they come from a different record. How did they come about? Zimmer: Listen, I had this idea for Bart being defiant and I thought, “Let me try and write a rock ‘n’ roll type thing for an orchestra.” And it absolutely didn’t work. It sounded horrible (laughs) so I went, “Okay, but I like the tune, so let’s strip it away and put some guitars in.” It was one of my lesser brilliant moments, truthfully.
CS: Really? I kind of dug that it was so different. Zimmer: Yeah, but the original ambition was “Wow! This will sound great on the basses and celli!” And then it doesn’t sound like… I dunno. (laughs) It actually sneaks the orchestra back in at the end. But that was the other thing. I did want to keep it varied. I actually worked with very few themes. One of the things I was trying to do was create a larger arc for this whole movie, so rather than using lots of themes and really fragmenting it. I mean, in all seriousness, that was part of the job. I knew how to make a movie. I’d worked on movies before, so that’s one of the reasons they wanted me around.
CS: How was it working with that many producers? Knowing how things work in the TV world where there’s a lot more fingers in the pie than just working with the film’s director, was it harder getting things done with more opinions involved? Zimmer: No, it’s just sometimes you just had to shout louder than you usually shout. No actually, really honestly, because I know Jim so well and we worked really well together and I had worked with David Silverman before, and Matt is such a music fan. As long as we could talk about Frank Zappa, that was fine. We just found some common things really to start somewhere. Nino Rota and Frank Zappa, those were good subjects.
CS: Are you able to work on more than one film at a time or do you tend to focus on one film until it’s completed? Zimmer: I focus on one thing at a time. I was on “Pirates” for a really long time, and honestly, the “Simpsons” guys were getting a little worried, but you know, I’m a sprinter. I’m not good at marathons. If it weren’t for the last second, nothing would get done.
CS: Interesting because it would seem that the films you work on are so intensive that if you had to balance two or three movies at once, it would be very difficult. Zimmer: No, I can’t do it. I mean, I have to sort of immerse myself in the world. Really, otherwise it’s just a bunch of notes that don’t mean anything.
CS: Have you already started working on the score for “The Dark Knight”? Is that something you’re involved with this early in the production? Zimmer: Playing playing around until I get some ideas. Actually, I probably got too many ideas. There’s a sort of process that goes on whereby I’ve got all these ideas and you have to get rid of most of them. You just have to write them out of your system. At least, they’re all fabulous until they’re actually in front of you, and you realize that maybe it wasn’t one of your better days, but you don’t know until you’ve done the work.
CS: It would be really interesting to hear what Hans Zimmer doesn’t consider one of his better works. Zimmer: Oh, man, if the tapes ever got out (laughs)
CS: It would be interesting to hear a CD or DVD where we could hear the evolution of one of your scores. Zimmer: Well, that’s what I sort of do. Actually, it’s one of the things I’m going to do for the “Pirates” DVD release. I’m going to do a CD and I’m actually going to get the orchestra in for just one day and we’re just going to go and play the evolution of each of these themes, because I do it like a diary. Whatever gets done the first day, and then I just carry on every day writing a little bit more, so I keep the bad bits in as well. Sometimes you hear the beginnings of a theme but I don’t quite know how to make it work yet, and it’s not until ten days later then suddenly, “Oh, that’s the theme!” I’m going to record my naughty diaries for “Pirates” because it was three years of my life or something.
CS: Do you ever go out with an orchestra and perform any of your scores live like I know that John Williams has done from time to time? Zimmer: I got a plan. Let’s see if it works out. I want to go and take 2009 off from being a film composer and just see what happens if I get together with some of the people I like playing with, see if it stands up without the movie. I want to see if I can write without a director and a screenwriter.
CS: Well, I’ll be there if it happens. As far as “The Dark Knight” are you just trying different things? Is it going to be a completely different approach, different look or feel than the first movie? Zimmer: No, it’s going to evolve. There is a big Batman theme, which I was playing with for the last one, but I always felt the character hadn’t earned it yet, so I just want to go play around and I want to go and complete the theme, so that’s part of the idea. I felt James [Newton Howard] and I had a good start, and now it would be really nice to develop that world a little further.
CS: A lot of your former collaborators have been having a great year, between “Transformers,” “Disturbia” and John Powell’s theme for “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Zimmer: Oh, absolutely. John Powell, he’s a genius. He’s so smart. Exactly. It’s been a good couple of years for me and the rest of the team.
CS: When the guys you’ve worked with go out and do their own thing, do they tend to try to do something very different from what you might have done? Zimmer: I hope so. That’s the idea. Look, I don’t want to have to reinvent myself all the time. I expect those other bastards to go and reinvent themselves.
CS: Do you find that you’re always looking for new composers once they go off and make their own mark in the business? Zimmer: Yeah, it’s great. It should always be like that. It should be completely evolving. The whole point is that I don’t want anybody to sound like me, and I want everybody to go and figure out their own style and figure out their own life. It’s just fun while it lasts to hang around and come up with ideas together.
CS: What do you think of the new composers these days who are coming more from a rock background? Zimmer: You mean like me? [The interviewer spaced on the fact that Zimmer used to play keys and synth in a few ’80s rock bands.]
CS: I was thinking more of the Clint Mansells and the composers who come from a sound design background, more than necessarily an orchestral one. Zimmer: Look, I think that he is absolutely amazing. I’ve always really, really liked his stuff.
CS: They definitely seem that they approach their scores very differently, more from textures than musical themes, etc. Zimmer: Yeah, but they can do the other thing, too. If you think about it, in the last Batman movie, it was just as much sound design as there were notes. I think the iconic thing of the last Batman movie as far as music was concerned was the big flapping of wings sound design thing, which my friend Mel Wesson did, so it was part of the music and it was great because the sound effects guys actually turned around and said that they thought it was really cool, because usually they don’t tell that to you. [What they usually say is] “Why are you getting into our turf?” but it was a really nice production in that respect, that it was very democratic.
CS: Well, good luck with the next one and if you do any sort of live performance in the next few years, I’m sure I’ll be there to throw flowers on stage or whatever you do at those sorts of things. Zimmer: Oh, thank you.