20 Billion-Dollar Composer: For Hans Zimmer, ‘The Real Risk Is Playing It Safe’

Variety's 20 Billion Dollar Composer knows no creative boundaries

Hans Zimmer Billion Dollar Composer
Michael Lewis for Variety

Composer Hans Zimmer — the first creative to raise Variety’s Billion-Dollar milestone 20-fold since the series was introduced in 1993 — likes to take chances.

Who else would have:

» Recorded a London brass section, electronically processed their sounds, then played them back through speakers placed in the studio’s stairwells for an even stranger soundscape in “Inception”?

» Solicited choral contributions from fans via the Internet to create a 100,000-voice chant that would eventually appear in “The Dark Knight Rises”?

» Traveled to Eastern Europe to record Roma gypsy violinists and accordionists to incorporate into his music for “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”?

» Defied comicbook, heroic-music tradition by creating “drum circles” of renowned percussionists creating grooves that he could then employ in his “Man of Steel” score?

» Recruited South African singer Lebo M. to create authentic-sounding choral chants for “The Lion King,” Australian singer Lisa Gerrard to compose and perform the haunting vocals of “Gladiator,” and guitarist Johnny Marr to play on “Inception”?

» And most recently, convinced a supergroup of rock ’n’ rollers, including Marr, Junkie XL and Pharrell Williams, to jam with him for three days to come up with themes that he would adapt into the score of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2?”

“One of the things that always separated Spider-Man from all the other superheroes was, he was young,” Zimmer says. “I suddenly had the thought that it’s perfectly appropriate to have Wagnerian horns for Batman, but the way a young person expresses emotion is in rock ’n’ roll.”

It’s among the most unconventional scores ever for a superhero film (Variety’s reviewer called it “house-infused”), incorporating electric guitars, electronica, dubstep, industrial sounds and whispered voices (plus a smattering of orchestra and choir).

“I’ve worked with Hans on many projects over many years,” says Sony president of worldwide music Lia Vollack, “and I learned early on that, when Hans comes in and he’s excited about an idea, you should just say ‘OK, we’re going to do this.’ He really understands that the function of film score is to tell the story. To infuse (‘Spider-Man 2’) with that youthful energy was really inspired.”

Adds “Spider-Man” director Marc Webb: “It’s very different for Hans, and certainly different for ‘Spider-Man.’ It was by far the most fun component of making the movie.”

Zimmer, sitting in his plush Santa Monica studio on a recent afternoon, says the challenge is always “to find a specific sound for every movie. What’s the sonic landscape?”

But it’s not just the relentless search for fresh approaches that has made him Hollywood’s most in-demand composer.

Admirers and detractors alike say Zimmer has irrevocably altered the film-music business over his 20-plus years in the U.S., partly because of his use of technology in music-making, partly because of his frequent use of collaborators and because of the comfort filmmakers find in working with him and with his process.

Zimmer’s studio, says “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen, “was my refuge when I was in L.A. He had musicians from all over the world there. It was a place to think and have conversations. He’s amazing in the way he can facilitate that environment.”

Adds producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a collaborater on nearly a dozen films with Zimmer including “Crimson Tide” and four “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies: “On just about every film, he comes up with something you’ve never heard before or an approach that’s totally unique.”

Bruckheimer likes Zimmer’s habit of creating a lengthy “suite” of themes at the start of every project, often the launching point for more scene-specific music later on: “He pretty much lays out all the melodies. It’s beautifully done. You’re always in awe of what he comes up with.”

It’s a process that Zimmer has refined over more than 30 years in films.

Born in Frankfurt, but growing up as a teenager in London, he made his way into the music business as a keyboard player and synthesizer programmer (that’s him in the background of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,”
the first video played when MTV launched in 1981).

He learned about film scoring by assisting, then partnering with, British composer Stanley Myers (“The Deer Hunter”) on a series of films in the 1980s. In 1988, director Barry Levinson tracked him down to do “Rain Man” and Zimmer not only snagged his first Oscar nomination, but he also launched a Hollywood career that, in short order, produced “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Backdraft.”

A 1994 Oscar for “The Lion King” helped catapult him onto the A list and subsequent collaborations with James L. Brooks (“As Good as It Gets”), Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”), Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”), Ron Howard (“The Da Vinci Code”), Christopher Nolan (the “Dark Knight” trilogy”) and animated films with producer Jeffrey Katzenberg (“The Prince of Egypt”).

Nolan, now working on the ultra-secret “Interstellar,” has enlisted Zimmer for the fifth time, but the composer will not discuss it, even to confirm that he’s working on it, although his name is on the trailer. Two years ago, at the time of the last “Dark Knight” film, Nolan said of Zimmer, “I have never worked with someone so dedicated to the idea that the real risk is in playing it safe.” (Notes Howard: “Hans has a very big appetite for complicated, challenging pieces.”)

Although his background is in electronic music, he embraced the orchestra in the 1990s and helped to pioneer the hybrid symphonic-electronic score that is now commonplace in film music today.

He has given at least a dozen younger, less-experienced composers a leg up in Hollywood by employing them as arrangers, orchestrators or technical assistants. Former Zimmer assistant Harry Gregson-Williams (“Shrek”) recalls being “a fly on the wall” during Zimmer’s meetings with Bruckheimer, Scott and Katzenberg. “I’d see him on the firing line, and it was an invaluable experience,” he says.

And his power of persuasion with filmmakers is legendary. “If Hans tried to sell a minute of silence as a cue, he’d probably do pretty well,” Gregson-Williams adds.

“Being creative is what interests him,” adds composer John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon”), who, like Gregson-Williams, worked for Zimmer in the late 1990s. “He’s very generous with his credits and his time. He loves working with other people. He likes being in a band, so to be able to create with other people is his favorite thing.”

Powell admires Zimmer’s ability to see the big picture and delegate less-important tasks to others, especially when deadlines loom. “Hans is the master of investing fully in the ideas of the film more than the details. By having orchestration help, arranging help, you’re able to stand back a bit and have an objective view that you would otherwise never have.”

Zimmer says his habit of grooming younger composers comes from his time with Stanley Myers, and being invited to attend meetings with director Nicolas Roeg. Among more recent collaborators, Zimmer cites Henry Jackman, who started as a programmer and “additional music” composer in 2006 and is now doing major films like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” as the wave of the future. “Film music will die unless we have some new voices,” Zimmer says.

“That thing that happens in music-making, playing for other people, is magical. Filmmakers know what that is. If you think about most films, their closest relative is not a novel or a painting. It’s a song. A good movie works like a good song. So that’s very much part of why I’m still excited about doing films.”