Zimmer won his only Academy Award for the animated Disney film and, while he didn’t write the songs (those were by Elton John and Tim Rice), he did create an evocative, authentic-sounding score of African chants and percussion with the help of South African singer Lebo M. Only later, after recording it with a large choir and orchestra, did he understand how personal it was: “I never thought about my father dying, and writing a big requiem for my dad. I didn’t get it, until suddenly (with the film and score) there I was.”
“The Thin Red Line” (1998)
Zimmer’s Oscar-nominated score for Terrence Malick’s World War II film may be his masterpiece, a melancholy meditation on the madness of war. He worked on it over a period of three years, composing hours of music without seeing a frame of film. “We spent months and months just talking,” Zimmer recalled. “That first moment when Terry and I met, we knew that we wanted to make a poem. It was the antithesis of modern scoring techniques. If you didn’t know that it was the score for a war movie, you could never ever guess. It’s much more of a concert piece.”
Zimmer collaborated with Australian singer-songwriter Lisa Gerrard on music for Ridley Scott’s epic of ancient Rome. The composer visited the shooting location in England’s cold, muddy Farnham and met with Scott in Marcus Aurelius’ tent. “I had this idea that all the action sequences should be waltzes,” he said. “What if I take the shape and form of a waltz and just make it bloody, savage and brutal?” Zimmer’s three-quarter-time battle sequences were just one unusual aspect; Gerrard’s vocals added a haunting, human dimension to the saga of Maximus (Russell Crowe). It won the Golden Globe and the album went platinum.
“The Da Vinci Code” (2006)
For Ron Howard’s film based on Dan Brown’s controversial thriller, Zimmer attempted to write “a thriller with spirituality,” enlisting a large string section; mixed choir singing, chanting and whispering in Latin; and a consort of viols, the Renaissance stringed instruments. “It’s a medieval sound,” Zimmer explained. “There’s a coldness, a spartan, chilling quality to them.” As for the choral passages, Zimmer said, “I tried to use them in an abstract way, to make the words a mystery.”
“The Dark Knight” (2008)
Zimmer’s unsettling, edgy two-note theme for Heath Ledger’s Joker character drew in equal parts from minimalism and industrial rock. Much of it was the result of weeks of musical experiments involving cello, violin and guitar. Director Christopher Nolan likened the sound to “razor blades drawn across tortured instruments by tortured players.” Much of the score “was done with only celli and basses, giving you a very dark sonority,” Zimmer said. “It’s odd to put avant-garde touches on a blockbuster. Once we stepped away from supplying a hero’s theme, we spent most of our time getting rid of notes.” The score — co-written with James Newton Howard, who handled the Harvey Dent scenes — won a Grammy.
It all started with a London recording session for 22 brass players and nothing written for them. “Dissonance, played beautifully, is incredibly evocative,” says Zimmer. That session became the heart of Zimmer’s complex soundscape for Nolan’s time-bending thriller with Leonardo DiCaprio. The composer added the electric guitar of Johnny Marr from The Smiths, then manipulated many of those sounds electronically and interpolated the original recording of French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” into the score. As with “Thin Red Line,” Nolan refused to allow Zimmer to see film during the editing — “He wanted my imagination to run riot, no holding back,” Zimmer said.