Hans Zimmer Talks MAN OF STEEL, How He Crafted the Score, Dealing with the Pressure of Following John Williams, Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, RUSH, and More

     June 6, 2013


I think we can all agree Hans Zimmer is one of the best composers in Hollywood.  If you look over his incredible thirty-year resume on IMDb, you’ll see a wide variety of amazing work across every genre.  However, while he’s done fantastic work over his entire career, his score for Zack Snyder‘s Man of Steel is easily one of my favorites.  Like every great piece of music, it helps tell the story and makes you feel for the characters you’re watching.  Trust me, after you’ve  seen Man of Steel, you’ll be buying the soundtrack.

At the recent Los Angeles press day, I landed an extended interview with Zimmer.  During our wide ranging conversation he talked about his love for John Williams and how nervous he was to tackle Superman, he tells a great story about how he got involved with the project in the first place, he talks about his writing process, which piece of music he struggled with the most, some of the great people that he collaborated with on the soundtrack, and more.  In addition, he reveals he’s writing the score for Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar, talks about his work on Ron Howard‘s Rush, and shows us around the Eastwood Scoring Stage on the WB lot.  Hit the jump to either read or watch the interview.

Here’s the video.  However, the studio was dark so the lighting isn’t ideal.  The full transcript is below.

hans-zimmerCollider:  Let me start by saying congratulations.  I really mean it when I say that you nailed the score on this.

ZIMMER:  Thank you.

I’ve been a huge fan of your work for a while.  Superman for me is a very big part, I’m a huge Superman fan.

ZIMMER:  How do you think I feel?  Hang on, I got the double whammy, I got… there’s no more masterful composer than John Williams.  Let’s just declare the truth here: there is nobody better than John.  One of his best scores, of course, was the original Superman film.  Secondly, I grew up with Superman.  Superman is in my DNA.  I don’t want to be the one responsible for ruining it for future generations.  There was some procrastination that happened at first.

I have a lot of questions for you, the first being: you’ve done some fantastic scores.  When you were first approached for Man of Steel, was there any hesitation?  How long did it take you to say, “Hey, I think I’m going to do this?”

ZIMMER:  It’s like a whole comedy of errors how this whole thing came about.  I knew Chris [Nolan] was muddling around with an idea with David S. Goyer, and Zack [Snyder] was going to do it, and this was during Inception time.  We had just finished Inception, and we had some party with lots of journalists and loud disco blaring and this journalist asked me if I was going to go do Man of Steel.  I said, “Absolutely not!”  Because, number one, I’m never that presumptuous.  I’ve never met Zack Snyder and he’s obviously an artist with an autonomous point of view, and he probably has a composer that he wants to work with.  Secondly, it’s just too daunting a task.  Come the next day, she completely misunderstood, or wanted to misunderstand every word, every internet comic book blog says “Hans Zimmer’s doing Man of Steel.”  I phoned Zack — “Can someone get me Zack’s number?” — to basically say I’m sorry, I didn’t say this. This is really embarrassing and really presumptuous.  He goes, “Oh, it’s great you’re phoning because I’m listening to some of your music and I really rather like it.  Can we talk about it?”  I went, “Well, I don’t think I’m your guy.  I’ve still got The Dark Knight Rises ahead of me, etc.”  But we did meet, and I didn’t read the script.  I said to Zack I didn’t want to read the script, let’s just meet.  Let’s see if we get on.  We instantly got on, and we have too many things in common.  We’re far too similar not to get on.  I said to him, “Tell me the story.”  He started telling me the story, and I realized this is not the Superman movie that I, one, imagined. 

Man-of-Steel-Henry-Cavill-imageNumber two, he was talking about certain things that were sort of resonating in me.  If he had asked John, John would have written a completely different score as well.  This is a very different movie.  Then came the whole thing, I was completely overwhelmed, number one, by the iconic nature of it, and number two, John Williams cast a huge and daunting shadow through his brilliance.  There was a period of procrastination, plus I had Dark Knight Rises going on, and I kept saying to Chris, “Guys, don’t even talk to me about another movie with the world ‘man’ in it until we finish this one.”  Foolishly there came a moment where I said I’m finished, and within fifteen minutes, it wasn’t even an afternoon, there was the phone call.  “Get to work!”  The only struggle was me. The only person who kept saving me from me was Zack.  All my demons, like everybody’s, every artist has those; you don’t want to be compared.  You cannot compare yourself to anybody because you’ll always end up on the losing side of things.  It just became this thing of do honest work.  Look at the movie.  Serve the movie.  Forget anything that’s happened before.  We’re doing our autonomous Man of Steel, I still call it Superman. 

The tone is so different.  Once I had a hook about what I wanted to write about which I think was very different than what John’s original idea was.  I wanted to write about humble things, about little things.  I wanted to write about the people who never get celebrated.  You know, the farmers in Kansas, the people who are just decent and honest, who leave their doors unlocked.  The people who invite a stranger in without questioning.  All those people who never make the news.  All those people that aren’t celebrities, who don’t need a big sound.  I wanted their cue to on an old upright piano and it was an old upright piano.  I’m not a great keyboard player, I’ve played it, and it could have been better.  Every time I got someone who was a really pianist and played it, it lost all its quirkiness and heart. 

Man-of-Steel-Henry-Cavill-imageOnline right now, over the last month or two, as music has been slowly getting released from the soundtrack, I’ve seen on many websites, my own included, everyone posting clips and being so enthusiastic about the music.  Have you paid attention to all that, and seen the positive reaction online to the score?

ZIMMER:  Yes, I have.  Paranoia is my middle name.  Neurosis and paranoia.  That third trailer, which made people go, “Oh, hang on a second.  This isn’t just an action movie.  This might be something else.  This might actually have some heart in it.”  It uses my theme, but it’s my theme cut to those images, it’s sort of the theme inverted.  I’m really worried that people are going to get so used to that theme that isn’t quite the theme, that when they see the movie they go, “How is that the theme?  That’s not the theme I love!”  It’s slightly different.  The tone is there. 

The third trailer, I can tell you, based on reading online and just talking to people, Warner Bros. has sold this movie in an incredible way.  Also because the movie’s fucking awesome.  Let’s start with that, so it’s easier to sell something when you have great visuals, great music, great action, but more importantly, great characters and great writers.  You have it.  About the writing process on this one compared to the other projects you’ve done, how long was your writing process on this?  Was it more abbreviated?  Was it the typical length?

ZIMMER:  It was abbreviated because I just wouldn’t get started.  All I kept thinking about — American icon, I’m going to ruin it for everybody.  I had ideas.  I had a palette, I had ideas, I knew what I wanted to write about.  It’s just the fear of committing to the first few notes because it’s sort of forever.  I kept thinking, you only get to do a Superman movie once in your lifetime.  There was an artificial importance, being a fan, which came with it.  One day Zack phoned and said, “Have you got anything yet?”  I’m going, “Uh, uh, uh, I can describe it as little post-its you might be able to put on a fridge and some piano noodles.”  And he goes, “Oh, I love piano noodles,” and he says, “You know what, I’m going to come down.”  He came down, and I had the theme that was in the trailer, and it was literally me playing it live right in front of him, making mistakes and stuff.  He’s a decent human being.  He wasn’t going, “Oh my God, this is a disaster!”  Because the whole point about it is it’s so simple.  It’s unbelievably simple.  There’s no great artfulness, there’s no great orchestration flying around, there’s no great whatever.  It’s really, really, really, really simple.  He’s going, “This is great, we’re off to a good start.” 

man-of-steel-superman-henry-cavillSomewhere in this conversation he said, and this wasn’t in any way putting his movie down, he said, “Hans, it’s just another movie.”  That was really liberating.  Part of what I think a great director does, and I think he and Chris are fantastic at that, they figure how to direct me.  He never told me what to write, and he was just endlessly encouraging.  For instance, the scene where Krypton explodes — I don’t think it’s giving anything away, we all know that — the idea was huge, epic orchestral, because that’s what the images are, and I suddenly thought what if we go the other way.  What if we stay focused on Mom.  What is that?  To save the world, to save your child, to give your child away, to send your child across the universe.  What must you be feeling?  I went for the smallest, just a single violin, middle e stradivarious, but that violin going for the epicness, we kept focusing in on the small, the personal.  I try to just keep my eye on that, don’t ever let go of that, don’t ever let go of the characters.  Quite honestly my way into this movie, having grown up with Superman and knowing that Kyrptonite can kill him, I never thought about what else could kill him.  I finally figured it out, it’s very simple: he has feelings.  You can break his heart.  That’s his vulnerability.  He’s a decent man, or Kryptonian.  This idea of wanting to be a part of the human race, that struggle that people have go through.

One hundred percent.  What was the one piece of music in the movie that you struggled with the most?  The one that you rewrote and rewrote and rewrote and were never exactly happy?

ZIMMER: I’m absolutely happy with it now, the Clark Kent piano thing.  Those few notes, I don’t even know how many I did.  I kept doodling around with it, so much so that my music editor, who I hope sees this, said to me, “I hope we can get through one meeting without having to listen to the new Clark Kent theme.”  I knew what I wanted to say, I just didn’t know how.  It’s this weird thing.  I just came off Dark Knight Rises, and I was at my most darkest and whatever, and now you have to get this other under your fingers.  You have to develop the language, you have to spend hours procrastinating and talking to the director about all sorts of things.  The great thing about Zack is he’s a doodler, he draws.  As he’s talking, the image starts forming in front of your eyes, which is pretty much how I work.  Sitting around and I play.  We’re trying to hunt down that thing in our languages, and words aren’t it. 

RUSSELL CROWE as Jor-El in MAN OF STEELThe thing I realized a long time ago, the luxury I have, is I get the next movie lined up.  Your question is which one didn’t work out so well.  There’s always bits left over, ideas left over, and the cool thing is to go and do another movie.  You can start using those ideas.  The way I work, it’s like a diary.  I start off by writing really all the themes and all the orchestration, the sonic palette, and I try to create this world.  I come in that day, see how far I can get that day.  I don’t revise what I did the day before.  Actually on the soundtrack album, on the bonus disc — and for you internet folks we have this rather really cool app called Z+ and it’s literally like my experiments.  There are a few things that are very different about this score, it’s stuff I started to explore during Inception.  Rather than just releasing a soundtrack album, I released an app.  The app was an interactive thing which really self-scoring your dreams, which thought was far and away.  We did something for Dark Knight.  One thing that’s always bothered me?  I can’t listen to my soundtrack albums.  I can’t stand it, because they’re in stereo and my world is a surround world.  This movie, I think you noticed, they were using the surround quite heavily.  So I got together with DTS, they have this headphone x technology which allows you to hear actually 11.1 surround in stereo headphones.  That’s basically the stereo version, and if you put it through the app, it’ll work on Android or the iPhone, you get the full surround sound experience with your cheap and cheerful headphones.  Finally I’ll listen to it.

Actually, what have you recorded in this room?  If you don’t mind.  I don’t know if you remember that I interviewed you in your studio a couple years ago, so it must have gone well.

ZIMMER:  Yes, or else you wouldn’t be here!  One of the things I was thinking about was getting the world’s greatest drummers together, which I pretty much did, and putting them in a square and basically have the audience in the middle of this.  We did some pretty extraordinary stuff with people like Jason Bonham and Sheila E. and Pharrell Williams came out, I can go on.

man-of-steel-laurence-fishburne-amy-adamsThose are some big names.

ZIMMER:  And people who hit things hard.  There is so nothing wrong with 24 timpani going off at the same time.  The other rather odd idea I had, because part of what I kept seeing in my head when Zack was talking about the movie is the endlessness, the endlessness of the fields, the endlessness of the Midwest, the telephone wires, and what would that sound like, the wind in the telephone wires that go on beyond the horizon.  I thought, oh pedal steel guitars, which everybody always thinks is country western, but nobody actually put eight pedal steel players into a room and got them to play basically orchestral music.  It was sort of exciting because these guys all knew each other, but they would never be in the same room together.  These sort of experiments — all of the horrible things you could say about Hollywood, one of the things it’s very good for is it commissions good music for other people to play on a daily basis, and it really drives technology forward.  Like the DTS thing was sort of a no-brainer, let’s just go try this out.  If you think about the consequences of it, when you’re looking to add a movie on computer, you’re only hearing it in stereo.  Now you can actually go and give you your movie in a 5.1 environment headphones.

I’m curious about this room specifically.  We’re at Warner Bros. right now.

ZIMMER:  We’re on the Eastwood Scoring Stage.  You can see it’s sort of set up for somebody’s session that’ll happen tomorrow.

A lot of people don’t get to see the behind-the-scenes inside a room like this.

ZIMMER:  Yes, which to me is an odd thing because I’m so used to these environments.  This a large bit of real estate.  Instead of it being turned into offices and being around for musicians, it’s called the Eastwood Scoring Stage because Clint [Eastwood] really saved it.  He wouldn’t let be torn down and turned into whatever.

man-of-steel-posterYou’ve worked in here a lot then.

ZIMMER:  I’ve worked in here a lot, I’ve worked in Sony a lot, I’ve worked at Fox a lot, and I work in London a lot.  It felt really important that this score was recorded — this is Man of Steel, this is Superman, it had to be recorded in America. 

So you did a lot in this room?

ZIMMER:  We did a whole orchestra in here.

I’ve seen a few behind-the-scenes stuff and I think it was this floor I was seeing.

ZIMMER:  Actually, this floor is a little too shiny right now.  When the floor gets really dull, the sound doesn’t reflect up into the ceiling, it goes right to the microphones.

Oh, I didn’t think about that.  I have to wrap with you in about a second.  Of course I have to ask you have you already started the conversations with Mr. Nolan for a certain sci-fi movie [Interstellar] he might be doing?

ZIMMER:  It’s a longer answer, but put it that way, I wrote something, and he’s been writing, so yes.  We have started.

That’s awesome to hear.  What can you tease people about The Lone Ranger and Rush?

ZIMMER:  Rush is phenomenal.  I love Rush.  It’s just brilliant writing, it’s… let me give you the really short version.  Who would have thought Ron Howard is one of the coolest, most young filmmakers around?  There’s an energy in it, there’s a style in it, it’s brilliant.  Lone Ranger, I finished yesterday.  So I’m still reeling from it.  It’s my friend Gore Verbinski.  I have absolutely no perspective on it other than it’s an honorable and honest piece of work.  There are the comic books, and there are the Westerns, and those are what I grew up with.  It’s a magnificent movie.

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