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Hans Zimmer Talks ‘Dune,’ James Bond, ‘The Lion King’ and Scoring His Way Through the Pandemic

The leading composer, who's taking part in an online chat this week in conjunction with his ASCAP Screen Award for "Lion King," speaks with Variety about the startling array of films he has lined up.

Hans Zimmer

Composer Hans Zimmer must be glad that ASCAP’s 2020 Screen Music Awards are virtual, because he’s so busy with upcoming films that he wouldn’t have time to pick up his Top Box Office award for last year’s “The Lion King” anyway.

He is, however, doing a live Q&A Thursday with Mitchell Leib, Disney’s president of music & soundtracks, to commemorate the ASCAP honor. (That live interview takes place at 3:25 p.m. PT /6:25 ET June 25 at  www.ascapexperience.com/; virtually admission is free but registration is required.)

Variety caught up with the Oscar and Grammy winner to talk about why his “Lion King” experience is more relevant than ever, and how it happens that 2020 — despite the pandemic — is turning out to be his busiest year ever

VARIETY: You have seven movies scheduled to come out this year…

ZIMMER: It’s like, I’ve never been busier. I’m trying to keep it super-busy because most of my musician friends have had their gigs canceled. So I’m loving that I have a lot of work, because it means I can keep a lot of musicians busy – in Australia, in Europe, in England, in America. I’m sort of working on four continents. Time zones are not my friend right now.

You’re being honored for your “Lion King” score, played by an orchestra that you specifically designed to be heavily African-American, by supplementing the usual mostly white, Los Angeles session players with the New York-based African-American Re-Collective Orchestra (and other, former members of that group from Detroit, Kansas City and elsewhere). It may have been the most diverse orchestra ever assembled for a Hollywood film score.

Yes. I really do not want to pat myself on my back, but I think there was something very important and very good that we actually managed to get done, which was to make a new orchestra: a Black Music Matters More Than Ever orchestra.

In light of our current national conversation about race, it seems especially relevant now.

Yeah. I wish it wasn’t, if that makes sense. That was the reason I wanted to do “Lion King” again, because I thought, “Let’s be inclusive. Let’s just go and celebrate this.” It was wonderful.

So have you been spending time at your studio, or are you working at home?

No. I used to have a sitting room, a living room, but I built a studio [at home]. I was working in London until things got really bad, then I came back here, around the beginning of March. I was working on “Top Gun: Maverick” there. Tom Cruise and that whole team was supposed to start “Mission: Impossible 7,” but they couldn’t start their movie, so they all came back, and we started playing around on “Top Gun” a bit more. In fact, I’m doing something on it today.

That’s scheduled for release in December. What about “Hillbilly Elegy,” which reunites you with director Ron Howard (“Da Vinci Code,” “Frost / Nixon,” “Rush”), which Netflix seems to be positioning for awards contention?

We were finishing “Hillbilly,” we had one screen, which was the movie, and then we had about 15 people just on Zoom. Luckily, it’s working with people that know each other very well, because [this process] is really much harder. It’s much easier to stand in a room with a hundred musicians and say something once, and use body language and be present, than to do anything over technology.

What can you tell us about the score?

I’m a huge fan of [blues guitarist] Derek Trucks. We got together with [violinist] Ben Powell and [composer] Dave Fleming to do this movie with Ron. I knew Derek was touring. Everybody was recording wherever they were. Now I’m working on “Dune,” and “Top Gun,” and I think we’ve finished with “SpongeBob” (“SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On the Run”).

And “Wonder Woman 1984” was already done?

“Wonder Woman” was done except when it came to… Patty [director Patty Jenkins] had some more ideas. So we went back into the studio for two solid days of orchestra in the middle of “Top Gun” — or was it Bond?

Yes, let’s talk about “No Time to Die,” the Bond movie you scored earlier this year. What was that experience like?

Well, it was surprising, and let me explain why. I’ve known [producer] Barbara Broccoli for a long time, and we’re friends. I never thought we would work together on something like that, so it was surprising just to get the call. And I asked her if it was okay that Steve Mazzaro, who is one of the most fabulous composers I know, could do it with me, because there was very little time. And of course she said yes. Steve should really be the top name on the Bond film. I hope we’ve done it justice.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. So I phoned [guitarist] Johnny Marr, and I said, “I have two questions to ask you. First question is, what’s the only guitar part worth playing in a movie?” And he said, “the Bond part” [the James Bond Theme]. And I said, “yeah right. Second question: Do you think I should do the movie and would you play the guitar part?” So that sort of settled that. Johnny was right. He wanted to bring guitar back into the score. We were just embracing our inner John Barry [the English composer who established the Bond music traditions back in the 1960s].

Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas came up with this great song, and we did a bit of that. It was great, because we played the BRITs [Feb. 18], Johnny played guitar, and we were moving forward. Suddenly it became a No. 1 hit, and the movie was going to come out, and then everything stopped.

We’re all tremendously excited about the musical possibilities of “Dune,” which, last we heard, was scheduled for a December release. Where are you on that one?

Right now I’m in the middle of making these sounds. I just have these ideas, and it’s like this every day. I’m doing all these experiments, and I have no idea if any of them will ever really end up in the movie. But we are so dedicated, trying to do something different, to do solid and honorable work, and do justice to the book.

It’s such a great canvas for a composer — so many directions you might go.

And I am. And some of them will probably be complete and utter disasters. But I’m having a go. Absolutely full on. I’m being obnoxious and telling people I need more time. The usual.

And we’ve seen that you’re reuniting with director Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) on a movie, “Harry Haft.”

That’s done. Brilliant, brilliant film. I mean, forget the music. Barry’s work, and [actor] Ben Foster’s work, are extraordinary. It was a tough movie to look at, a tough movie to write. It’s a Holocaust story. Everything about that movie is unflinching. I finished “Harry Haft” before I went to London, a long time ago, it seems. October or something.

What about “Top Gun?” Are you splitting that with [original “Top Gun” composer] Harold Faltermeyer?

It’s his tune. We were all friends of Tony [Scott, who directed the original]. I knew Harold from Munich. Harold and I are not just from the same town, we literally grew up in the same neighborhood. If you really want to have a good time, go to Munich, find Harold, and get him to take you to some of the restaurants. On this movie, I just wanted to be his arranger.

We were wondering if, after all of the concerts you’ve done in the U.S. and Europe over the past three years, maybe you burned out on the live performance bit and you just wanted to get back into the studio.

Not at all! No, it’s just, everybody said, “Come on Hans, why don’t you make 2020 the year of writing the most scores and look at the middle of 2021 as time to do a few more shows.” Because I was having a really good time. I had two shows going [one with Hans fronting a band, the other an orchestra playing more large-scale versions of his scores]. I occasionally turn up to play Johnny’s guitar part [in the orchestra show]. I insist that they don’t light me. Sometimes people figure it out and sometimes they don’t. The musicians in that show are extraordinary as well.

But I’ve got all the soloists. Everybody is working with me right now [on various scores]. I’m quite the opposite of being burnt out. I never thought I would miss it, but I really do. And my crew, my band, we’re all like geezers in an old people’s home, reminiscing about our travels, our adventures, and going, “Come on, let’s get the band back together. We’re on a mission from God.” It’s the Blues Brothers.

You’ve been scoring films for something like 35 years now. Do you ever tire of it? Does it ever get old, writing music for movies?

Yeah, it does. And then something like “Dune” comes along with somebody like [director] Denis Villeneuve. And you have to remember that Joe Walker, the editor on the film, he and I did our first television series for the BBC in 1988 [“First Born”].

I’m driving everybody crazy on “Dune” because I’m so full of ideas. And it’s Denis, you know? He lets me be part of this world. It’s totally and utterly inspiring, and it’s great people I get to work with – scrap the word “work,” it’s great people I get to play with.

Since “Dune” is a large-scale, universe-spanning saga, won’t you need an orchestra? And if you do need one, how will you manage that between now and the end of the year?

Don’t know yet. So far I’m doing okay. There are possibilities opening up. Recording is going on in London and Vienna. And look, I’ve always used odd lineups, and I’ve sort of, for better or for worse, invented a way of working where you can have different small sections come in at different times. So to me, that’s not so different. Working remotely is horrible, but I’ve done it. And if we have to do it like this, we’ll do it like this.

All I want to do is make sure that, number one, we all know the material, and number two, we keep the musicians busy, and number three, the thing that we started on “Lion King,” by having truly a diverse orchestra, that we keep this going. Because selfishly, it was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard out of an orchestra.