Zimmer and Howard discuss remote collaboration

Hans Zimmer’s lair within his Santa Monica studio, Remote Control, serves a testament to the music he creates. It blends old-school elegance (textured wallpaper, a rare Chinese Ghuzeng harp, shelves filled with books, wine goblets and jeroboams) and technical virtuosity (racks of recording gear with lights blinking like props in a sci-fi movie). “Welcome to my home,” Zimmer said. “Anybody steals the art, I’ll kill them.”

All kidding aside, Zimmer and his partner on “The Dark Knight,” James Newton Howard, hosted the ASCAP composers at a summit in which they discussed the process of remote collaboration. (Howard works out of his own Los Angeles studio, JNH.)

HZ: “I wanted to do the dark bits, but not the love bits.”

JNH: “He didn’t want to ruin the franchise.”

HZ: “Because it had been ruined once before.”

JNH: “We were very nervous in the beginning. I was not used to people hearing my music in the [early] stage.”

Gradually, via emails and MP3s, they built up a score. Zimmer said that by collaborating with another composer, meeting with director Christopher Nolan meant “having three people in the room, which turned it into a conversation.”

He added that directors “don’t tell you what to write; you’re supposed to do what they can’t imagine. If you just become a musical secretary, you’re not doing the job.”

Howard opined that’s it’s not always best to write slavishly to what’s on screen. “Write some good music; when you have two minutes of good music, put it up against the movie and see if it works.”

Said Zimmer, “We both do that and hope the editor likes the music so much he recuts the picture.”

Since this was the last workshop session before the final presentation, many of the composers’ questions circled back to the same point: “How do I get here?”

Zimmer recounted working on movies for the BBC’s Channel 4 when “Barry Levinson’s wife heard something I had done. She bought the CD and I got ‘Rainman.’ ” Howard noted that he was a sideman for, among others, Elton John, when he got the chance to do a movie.

Remote Control is known for a tireless work ethic and Zimmer acknowledged, “We do work 18 hours.” However, voices from the back of the room — longtime Zimmer engineer Alan Meyerson, composer Geoff Zanelli and former ASCAP workshop composers/current Remote Control leasees Trevor Morris , Jim Dooley and Alti Örvarsson – corrected him: Try 71 hours. Three days straight is the record. Zimmer said he’s trying to cut back: “You can solve a lot in your sleep.”

When Howard and Zimmer talked about over-composing on MIDIs for “The Dark Knight,” workshop participant Luke Richards asked, “Did you have to condense a lot of those to get those minor thirds?”

Said Zimmer, “Yeah, it was a bitch. It needed to be iconic, as iconic as when you see the symbol. You don’t need to say Batman. I mean, it’s a dumb brag, but who spends the most time on one note – I do!”

Nonetheless, Zimmer said it boils down to “it communicates or it doesn’t. Did it create a better thing than what was there before? Over the last 10 years, I’ve never had a director not pick my first one as the theme, but it takes a lot of work to get there.”

Howard concurred: “You can’t talk someone into liking something. You can defend other things, but if they don’t like the tune, you lose – and you use it in another movie.”

After Zimmer and Howard took their leave, the workshop composers peppered the Remote Control residents with their favorite question: How’d you get here? “Make coffee right,” advised Morris, who won an Emmy for his work on “The Tudors.” “It’s a metaphor, but know where Hans puts his feet up on the desk so you don’t set it where he’ll spill it, open the door as quietly as possible.”

Örvarsson said he spent a summer caulking ceilings for a working composer. “Everything’s a hustle. I sent out 300 letters, but I got one response.”

The Remote Control field trip ended with a journey down the hall to Ramin Djawadi’s (“Iron Man”) studio. Among others, Djawadi worked with Paul Westerberg (“Open Season”), a collaboration that prepared him for working with Jon Favreau on “Iron Man.” Said Djawadi, “Jon is a rock star – he was always saying, ‘Put in more guitars!’ ”

“This is a good place to learn,” Djawadi said of Remote Control. “If it’s not good, hit ‘select all’ and ‘delete.'”

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