It's safe to say that no living composer, save John Williams, is more of a household name than Hans Zimmer. His movie credits are a laundry list of summer blockbusters, Oscar winners, and certified classics. Here's just a handful: Rain Man, A League of Their Own, True Romance, Inception, The Dark Knight Trilogy, 12 Years a Slave, and—soon—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Impressive, right?
But now, Zimmer's mind is still firmly planted in the world (or worlds) of Interstellar. For his latest collaboration with Christopher Nolan, Zimmer's score moves from thunderous percussion to elegiac piano as Matthew McConaughey's character travels through time and space on an epic journey to—you guessed it—save the world.
But as big as the film is (and it's very, very big), Interstellar's theme arose from remarkably humble beginnings. Before the movie had its massive sets or A-list stars, Zimmer received a letter from Nolan asking him to write a theme about the love between a father and son. That quiet piano piece, which Nolan listened to the entire time he wrote the script, spiraled and expanded into the epic music drives the film. Here, Zimmer discusses his rock 'n' roll past, relationship with Nolan, and Superman's greatest weakness, which isn't what you'd think.
So, I saw the movie yesterday.
Did you see it at the IMAX?
I did! It's hard to imagine it seeing it any other way, really. So my first question is, when you’re making a score that's as visually intense as this, what do you want the person to notice when it comes to the score?
I don’t want them to be thinking about it at all, I want them to figure it. Oh God, that’s a great question actually. Ultimately, the thing I’m after is that I want you to feel it, and this is what I want you to feel. I don’t want to tell you what emotions to have, but I want to be like a door opening into the movie that says to you, "You have to listen to feel something." I’m trying to be really careful at not being manipulative in the wrong way. But I think music can do this thing where it allows an audience to engage on an emotional level.
I don’t want to tell you what emotions to have.
I heard the story of how it started with the letter from Christopher, but I was wondering what part of that musical refrain made it into the film?
It’s throughout. It gets disguised and metamorphosizes into a thousand different fragments, of course. But the tune is really all the way through. And then in typical Chris fashion, when it cuts to black at the end, the first thing you hear is actually me just playing the piano, my little demo that I did on that day one. So we end the way we started, there is a circular shape to the whole thing. Here’s the thing, when I originally wrote it, Chris, the sly fox, had written me this fable about my son and that of course turned it into a daughter in the movie. But for a while I was driving myself crazy saying it’s not feminine enough, it’s not feminine enough. But of course it was, because it’s really about a child. Here’s the thing that takes you all the way through it. I managed to figure out so many different variations. Just as the characters get further and further away from us, the tune loses its bearings more and more and becomes more and more abstract. Does that make sense?
There’s a particular piano refrain—and I might be totally off-base—but it reminded me a little bit of the soundtrack to Suspiria that Goblin did. It’s almost a horror movie refrain as it starts coming in later in the film.
Well it’s actually the counterpoint, it’s the inverse to the tune I wrote. A lot of music is based on this Gregorian chant. It’s nobody’s in a funny way, it’s just a medieval mode and one of the things I was forever reaching for was contrast. Just like you get the lowest organ note and the highest organ note, you get things which are very modern in the music, and you get things which are way from our past. What I was trying to do was draw a little map of human endeavor, human development, our development through science. I was trying to celebrate science, celebrate the adventure. Say we come from there and we don’t know where we’re going. Where we’re going is a big, big question.
One of the things I was very aware because we were using those big church songs, I didn’t want it to sound gothic. There is somehow no way around that you have to go around and remember your Bach a little bit.
Is there a type of scene that you find particularly difficult to underscore?
Look, they all have their own difficulties, but I wouldn’t call it difficulty—it’s a hard job. I’m the one who creates my own difficulties because I know what I want to say. I’m just trying to figure out how to say it. All I have in front of me is a bunch of notes that everybody has access to and you’re just trying to figure out some sort of vocabulary out those notes which has meaning to those images in front of you or that story. The only thing you can do is figure out how it resonates in you. That’s pretty much what I do—I keep thinking. Rather than inventing, I’m discovering. I’m discovering the set of notes only going, "Oh hang on a second! If I put these three notes together there seems to be a message in them somehow." If you combine that with the images, suddenly there is context. The one completes the other.
Looking back on the amount of movies that you’ve done, is there a particular moment or refrain that you're the most proud of?
Not really. I like that piece “Time” from Inception a lot because I think it works really well emotionally, and at the same time there’s a really good geometry to it. When you write it out, you look at the shape of it. It’s really interesting, and it’s so simple. It’s really only four notes. And I love being able to condense something down to its absolute Bauhaus-type minimalist shape and still figure out how to give it some sort of emotional resonance.
You’re in a generation of composers with Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh, and others who started with punk and new wave roots. How often do you refer back to the time you were in rock bands?
A lot. I just did a concert in London and we did The Dark Knight and I just strapped on a guitar and went back to my punk roots. One of the classical cellists said to me that, for the first time, he really understood The Dark Knight because it’s all written for strings. [Then] he saw me playing it on a guitar, and he suddenly realized, oh of course, it’s a punk piece. It could have been written by The Clash or the Sex Pistols or The Damned. That, for me, was the character of course. The fun thing for me is to go and take my German classical roots, which got all mixed up with punk, and unleash them upon an orchestra.
The fun thing for me is to go and take my German classical roots, which got all mixed up with punk, and unleash them upon an orchestra.
Like you were saying, that Inception refrain—it’s only four notes. That's the same sort of economy of sound that punk was working with, too.
I think you can make really simple devices incredibly epic just by giving them space. And in a funny way, I think the size—and I think this is the great lesson from pop music and great rock songs—they let the audience be a participant somehow. “Time” is written on purpose in a way that I never wanted to close the tune off. I always wanted you as an audience, in your heart, or your head, or wherever, to complete the sentence. So the music is incomplete without the listener. And you can’t do that if you shove a hundred thousand key changes into it. You’re forever leading your witness.
I’m not trying to tell you what to feel, all I’m trying to do is set up the possibility, set something in motion that lets you know that you can feel something. I don’t want to be that manipulative that I’m actually going to go and say what you’re supposed to feel. I’m trying to leave some autonomy and free will with the volumes.
Can you give us a little preview of what you’re thinking about now for the Batman v Superman theme? How did you approach Superman's theme?
Well, the thing that intrigues me about Superman is just the idea of somebody who is an outsider—he always is an outsider. Just the idea of how did he becomes a better human being, because I think that’s really is his journey. I think if you really want to fight and destroy Superman it’s not with kryptonite or anything like that—or even throwing vast amount of buildings at him. I think all you have to do is break his heart. I think that’s his true Achilles’ heel. It’s not that dissimilar to—and maybe I’m thinking about things at the moment because I’m still in my Interstellar mode—but the idea that we just want to belong, we just want to be part of humanity. I think that’s everybody’s question: how not to be alone.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.