Hollywood film composer Hans Zimmer comes to New Zealand

by Russell Baillie / 18 April, 2017

Hans Zimmer with Ann Marie Calhoun live in Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

Hans Zimmer is taking his music on tour after being told stage fright is no excuse not to perform. 

Before he can conquer the world, Hans Zimmer must beat the retreat.

The prolific film composer is about to embark on a stadium tour that takes in the giant Coachella music festival in California before heading to New Zealand and Australia then on to Europe.

Today, though, he says from his Los Angeles studio, he’s been head down trying to finish Dunkirk, his soundtrack for director Christopher Nolan’s dramatisation of the 1940 British military evacuation from France.

He’s been working on a noise. He says he won’t describe the sound or what scene it’s for. But before the Listener’s call interrupted him, he was completely lost in it. “You do that sort of thing when you go, ‘I will be home in an hour’, and when next you look at your watch, it’s 1am,” he says in a voice that retains the German accent of his Frankfurt childhood.

The film’s trailer suggests Zimmer isn’t giving Nolan a score of sweeping strings. It’s all subsonic rumbles, ominous ticking, backwards guitars, or possibly synthesisers, or both. As with his previous soundtracks for Nolan on the director’s Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar, it may prove difficult in Dunkirk to tell where Zimmer’s music finishes and the sound design and effects begin.

Just what goes into some of Zimmer’s more famous scores will be apparent at those live shows. Clearly, after more than 100 features, which include the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Gladiator and other Ridley Scott films, and animated hits ranging from The Lion King to Kung Fu Panda, he isn’t touring for the money.

He says musical friends such as Pharrell Williams, with whom he worked on the music for the black-women-in-Nasa drama Hidden Figures, encouraged him to get out of the studio and play live. The musicians appeared on stage together at last year’s Grammys, with Zimmer on guitar.

“I come from a band background and my excuse was always that I get terrible stage fright. Everybody else was going, ‘Well, so do we, get out there.’ It was basically a challenge thrown down.”

Early live-show photos reveal something surprising about a man whose roots lie in European electronic music and the 1980s – he’s playing a banjo. “Everybody expects the esteemed film composer to sit there at the big black grand piano and look soulful and rhapsodic … I just thought I want to break that straight away,” he says, explaining the instrument was a mainstay for his Sherlock Holmes soundtrack.

“The only thing I have got going for me is that I am prepared to humiliate myself by playing the banjo. Then I might be able to get away with getting all symphonic on Gladiator, or stuff like that. You’ve got to have a bit of a laugh.”

Gladiator.

It was the piano, then synthesisers – he was briefly part of Buggles of Video Killed the Radio Star fame in the early 80s – that were the first instruments for the self-taught Zimmer, who shifted to London as a teenager. He didn’t much like being in a band and gravitated to work with English film composer Stanley Myers, whose work included scores for The Deer Hunter. The pair worked together on the early films of director Stephen Frears, with Zimmer adding his electronic touches to Myers’ traditional instrumentation and learning from his mentor while also being in charge of making the coffee.

“He knew everything about the orchestra and our deal was he had an overcomplicated espresso machine. So I would work the espresso machine and he would teach me about the orchestra. But I pretty quickly figured out that the orchestra is a big synthesiser. Because I don’t have a classical background and I have absolutely no proper schooling, I don’t have a drawer full of ‘How did Beethoven do it’ or ‘How did Mozart do it?’

“I never fall into the trap of spouting strange Italian words at my director. When we talk about music, we talk about story and so that is the language. What is the story we are trying to tell? How are we going to tell it and what is the best way to go about it – is it an oboe or 7000 guitars? What is going to get us to what we are trying to say?”

Zimmer’s Hollywood breakthrough came with his percussive score for 1988’s Rain Man, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. He won his first – and so far only – Academy Award six years later for The Lion King. He’s kept up quite a pace since and delivered sometimes five or more scores a year. Some directors, such as Scott, more or less leave him to it. Others, such as Nolan, start with long discussions.

“Chris is really musical and engaged and we talk endlessly, partly because I will do anything to procrastinate from actually writing the notes.”

Inception.

But it sounds as if Zimmer’s urge to play his works live might be part of a creative turning point. He’s vowed not to do any more superhero movies after last year’s widely panned Superman v Batman, which turned the bombast levels up to 11.

Maybe he’s afraid of being typecast as the guy who does the pile-driving scores. “God, I don’t know. People think Gladiator, but they forget I did Thelma and Louise, which is totally different. They forget that Black Rain is totally different. That Black Hawk Down is totally different. Matchstick Men is some 1960s Italian Nino Rota-type thing. There is a modicum of versatility there, put it that way.”

Along with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Massive Attack, Zimmer is creating music for the Walled Off Hotel, Banksy’s new Bethlehem-based art project. He hasn’t met the famously reclusive artist and is circumspect about saying too much about his involvement. But he laughs when it’s suggested he could have fun giving the hotel’s lift music a blast of his trademark “Braaam!”

Zimmer likes being part of the project with its pointed political themes. “I would never be able to do what I do for the Banksy thing in a movie. The great thing is I am at a point in my career where I can try some things out that I have never been able to do. This thing of standing in real time in front of people, shaking in my boots and being incredibly nervous and still doing it – it’s exhilarating, terrifying and the right thing to do at this moment. If I don’t do it now I will never do it.”

HANS ZIMMER REVEALED, Vector Arena, Auckland, April 29.

This column was first published in the April 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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