A few years ago, Hans Zimmer wrote Ben Wallfisch a fan letter. Zimmer had just seen “The Escapist,” a film he didn’t like but whose music he admired. He never received a reply.
A few months later Zimmer was in London meeting a mutual friend, fellow composer Richard Harvey, and Wallfisch’s name came up. Later, when Harvey later told him Zimmer had written but not heard back, Wallfisch was mortified.
As both Zimmer and Wallfisch tell it, that very day Zimmer received an email from another Benjamin Wallfisch, a Texas lawyer, who wrote to say, “I think you meant to write the composer Ben Wallfisch.”
Zimmer, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand composers, had been impressed. “I looked at a video on YouTube, a piece that he had written for an orchestra in Holland,” the composer recalls. “I thought it was astonishing. Brilliant writing, and quite witty. And it had 254 views. I said to him, ‘You can go and write another one, have it performed by an orchestra and get another 254 views. Or you can try this film stuff.'”
A fast friendship followed, and after assisting Zimmer on “12 Years a Slave,” he rented a studio at Zimmer’s Remote Control facility in Santa Monica. The two subsequently collaborated on “Hidden Figures” in 2016 and “Blade Runner 2049” in 2017. Wallfisch’s classical background also made him the ideal person to adapt Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” for a key sequence in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” which earned Zimmer a 2017 Oscar nomination.
“Hans is an extremely important mentor figure for me,” says Wallfisch. During that same two-year period, Zimmer recommended Wallfisch to his director friend Gore Verbinski, who wanted a composer on standby throughout the editing process of his “A Cure for Wellness.”
Wallfisch started on the first day of cutting, and was there — or nearby, writing music — for the next 10 months. “I was able to witness, from the ground up, a master filmmaker at work,” the composer says. “He has an incredible way of describing music, so vivid and inspiring. It was like being in a master class every day.” As Zimmer later told him: “I just sent you to film school.”
“A Cure for Wellness” is just one of several little-known films with fresh, original Wallfisch scores. Another is 2017’s “Bitter Harvest,” about Stalin’s 1930s campaign of mass starvation, whose score is rooted in Ukrainian folk music and employed Ukrainian musicians and singers.
Earlier this year, “King of Thieves” boasted a big-band jazz score and, with a nod to Michael Caine’s 1965 classic “Ipcress File,” sported the Eastern European cimbalom as a prominent voice.
“Michael Caine! It’s a heist movie!” exclaimed Wallfisch. “Obviously [I looked to] John Barry, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, some of my favorite scores of all time,” he said, referring to composers of the 1960s period that was crucial for the aging gangster characters of the film.
“Film is an exchange of ideas,” says “King of Thieves” director James Marsh. “Some of mine were half-baked, but we found our common ground musically. And of course he’s a very agreeable person to be around. Composers of Ben’s quality are kind of geniuses; music just flows out of them. That’s a privilege for someone like me to be around, to enjoy their talent, and essentially appropriate it as well.”