Composer Hans Zimmer's More Than 100 Movies

Hans Zimmer has written the scores for scores of movies, from Rain Man and Thelma & Louise, to The DaVinci Code and The Dark Knight. In 1994, Zimmer won an Academy Award for Best Original Score for the The Lion King. The music for the dream invasion sci-fi thriller Inception is his latest film composition.

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(Soundbite of music)

NEAL CONAN, host:

Part of the score from Christopher Nolan's new movie "Inception," where for the third time, he worked with composer Hans Zimmer. Zimmer is also responsible for the music in the next theater over where "Despicable Me" is playing. Starting with "Rain Man," Hans Zimmer has been one of the busiest and most successful composers in the film business and many of the rave reviews for "Inception" go out of their way to marvel at the music.

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CONAN: If you'd like to talk with Hans Zimmer about how he does his job, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Hans Zimmer joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. HANS ZIMMER (Film Composer): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: You must spend so much time listening to the score, tweaking things, rearranging things as you go. Is there ever a moment, even after the movie is finished, where you say, all right, let it go, stop listening critically?

Mr. ZIMMER: Oh, God. No, no. Actually, I stopped listening to it a few days ago just because you drive yourself crazy. And no, you can't do anything about it anymore. And in a funny way, I mean, the premiere becomes this sort of Irish wake in a funny way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIMMER: But, you know, we're all very happy. We finished it. People seem to like it. And at the same time, you know, there are still lots of nagging thing off. You know, well, I could have just changed this a little bit. But I suppose that's why you get to do another movie. And, you know, you're supposed to get better at these things. It's supposed to be evolutionary.

CONAN: It's supposed to be - well, you've had a lot of chance to evolve.

Mr. ZIMMER: I think so, yes. I mean, this town has been very kind to me at giving me these jobs, and these filmmakers.

CONAN: And you've done, well, well over 100 movies. Does it ever - do you ever say, oh, my gosh, I can't figure out how to approach this one?

Mr. ZIMMER: Every single one. I mean, unfortunately, I think the demons are basically always there and it always starts with the blank page, and that doesn't seem to get any better. You know, on "Inception" - well, it's an easy story of - it's a heist movie with a profound love story and somewhere it all takes place in dreams, and where do we start. I mean, there are sort - but at the same time, that's what makes life exciting. It makes it interesting.

CONAN: It is - you say it's a simple movie, and in a sense it is. It's a love story, as you've described it. It's a very complicated plot, however.

Mr. ZIMMER: Yes. Well, you know, and - it could be. I just hang on to the love story for dear life and I basically thought, you know, if I just deal with a man who feels a little bit guilty about things, you know, I could make that work as a through line.

CONAN: Let me ask you about - and this must have come up in many of the movies that you've written music for, and it is the trope of trope for Hollywood movies and it's the chase. We're going to listen to a little bit of this scene from the score. This is from the scene called "Mombasa."

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CONAN: And you'd think it would be easy to come up with a device for a chase, but you have to have done this dozens of times.

Mr. ZIMMER: Yes, exactly. And nothing new can sort of happen in a movie really until the chase is over. That's part of the dilemma. This one was actually different. We had a very strange way of going about working on this film, whereby Chris had me involved from very early on, from the script stages. I saw all the designs. I was talking to Wally Pfister, our fantastic DP. So I knew everything that was going to happen.

And then, soon as we finished shooting, he wouldn't show me the movie anymore. And he, sort of, had this idea that I should just go away and write the music independently of what he was doing, because he didn't want to go and, sort of, inhibit my imagination through, you know, just the simple mechanics of having to get from cut to cut. And so the first time I saw the movie really was after I wrote my version of what this movie should be musically, and...

CONAN: Well, how did you know how long the scenes were?

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, it wasn't really about how long the scenes were. It was more - I would give him, you know, long pieces that would relate, for instance, to the main characters or would relate to my idea of how - because I kept thinking the movie was - I was less interested in the dreams as opposed to the idea of how do you stretch time, because in dreams time gets stretched in a really interesting way. And, you know, so I was sort of playing around with those things.

But once I saw it and we had all this music in there - I mean, the one thing that was missing was just a good old-fashioned, very exciting chase. And actually I wrote that thing sort of - it's the only thing I wrote overnight. Everything else took forever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There is another important character in the film whom we never see, but her voice is vital to how things turn out in the middle of chaos. And for -seemingly at the worst time, if you listen closely, her voice beckons from a faraway place.

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Ms. EDITH PIAF (Singer): (Singing in French)

CONAN: And that, of course, is the voice of Edith Piaf, the French singer - the great French singer. And, well, there's a lot to talk about there. Tell us what's going on there.

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, you know, we are using Edith Piaf. We're using the song. And the song was in the script. I mean, the song was in the script from day one when Chris wrote it, what, 10 years ago, whatever. And it's - we are using it as a plot device. And without getting into the mechanics of the plot right now, I mean, the thing that attracted me to it was, I think - when Chris first came to me, he was talking about a science fiction movie. And both of us, in a funny way, have problems with the straight concept of a science fiction movie.

And the more we were talking about it, we realized that all good science fiction movies are incredibly nostalgic. I mean, if you look at "Blade Runner," "Gattaca," there's a feeling of nostalgia that sort of seeps through their pores. And we kept going back to the Edith Piaf idea and that it was actually, you know, the perfume of that song. I mean, the mood of that song was perfect, you know?

And actually, the version we had - the version Chris and I was listening to what was a copy of a copy of a copy. So it had been - it was very sort of a degraded bit of tape that sounded like it had come from the '40s. And when we actually really had to figure out which version it was that we liked, it was a pristine 1960s recording. And it was slightly disappointing because it wasn't in mono and it didn't have quite the sort of, you know, the smokiness of a French cabaret in the '40s about it. So we destroyed it again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But you can hear there. You pulled her voice out, the tune, the music...

Mr. ZIMMER: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yes. Some science fiction actually did go into the score. I mean - and nobody has actually asked me this question. So how did you get the voice totally separate? Because we've extracted her voice out of a preexisting recording. We found some scientists in France who could do that for me. So I actually have a pristine, clean version of Miss Piaf singing the song without any backing track. It's a bit like, you know, pulling out one cell out of a DNA of somebody.

CONAN: Do not offer that to any rap singer.

Mr. ZIMMER: No, exactly. I know. I know. I know. And there were a lot of very big computers churning away for a very long time to get that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Hans Zimmer, the Academy Award-winning composer and music producer - his latest, "Inception." 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Let's go with Trevor(ph), Trevor with us from Reno.

TREVOR (Caller): Yes. First of all, I'd like to say I'm one of the biggest Hans Zimmer fans. I listen to your music quite wonderfully. And real quick, I just wanted to say on a side note, your piano thing in the beginning and end of the cue for "Time" in "Inception" is just beautiful and sad at the same time. I can tell it's representing the emotion of Leonardo DiCaprio trying to see the faces of the children. Real quick, what key elements do you look for in a film to come up with a theme? And is there any advice you can give to a novice film composer like myself?

Mr. ZIMMER: Let me start backwards, Trevor. Number one, never take no for an answer because everybody is a novice film composer, you know, that wants to be a film composer. And everybody seems to tell you that it's impossible and it will never happen and all these sort of things. And here I am, you know, some guy from Germany sitting in Hollywood doing these big movies. So it can - you know, just don't take no for an answer.

TREVOR: Okay.

Mr. ZIMMER: I think that's the most - you know, resilience is important, you know? Talking about what am I looking for - I mean, what I look for is filmmakers who come up with great ideas. I mean, working with Chris Nolan is truly wonderful because, you know, the two of us, we sit in a room and we just talk about ideas and we talk about things we like. And slowly, these ideas turn into music and turn into movies. And it's really the company I try to keep that defines what I want to do, which movies I want to do.

TREVOR: Wonderful. And I'd like to ask real quick, how expensive is it to write a film score? Because I hear it's like $10,000 a minute for an orchestra. Is that true or not?

Mr. ZIMMER: God, I can't remember. It depends on the price of the orchestra. Yeah. One of - okay, one of the requirements is you have to be quick on your feet and you have to make decisions quickly, because if you have 100 players sitting out there on the floor and you can't make a decision, yes, it's going to add up. And it's probably not a good thing to do.

TREVOR: Yes.

Mr. ZIMMER: It's - yeah, but it - look, I've done all sorts of movies where -it depends on the ideas. It - you know, and, you know, if you give me a rubber band and a cardboard box, I can probably come up with something as well. And you give me a hundred-piece orchestra and it will be a different thing. It's -you always try to do what's appropriate for the film. "Inception" is a very electronic score. It just felt right somehow...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ZIMMER: ...that we had, you know, that we had otherworldly sounds in a way, you know, things which were - and we manipulated a lot of orchestral sounds as well electronically.

TREVOR: Yeah. And I will say, when I listen to your score in the film, it made me feel almost insane with, with that...

CONAN: I'm sure he meant insane in a good way.

Mr. ZIMMER: No, no, no, no. The difference between him is...

TREVOR: In a good way, yes.

Mr. ZIMMER: ...I am, by now, insane from this movie. He only got to the edge of it.

CONAN: Trevor, thanks very much. We appreciate your time.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thank you, Trevor.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Hans Zimmer. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email. This is from Rob in Santa Barbara. I think you've really outdone yourself this time with the soundtrack for "Inception." I normally don't specifically notice the music in a movie, but during this one I was constantly getting goose bumps from the mix of the music to the visuals. My next question is, after scoring so many films, how do you come up with new material? Where do you come up with it? Do you lock yourself in a room and just write? How are you inspired?

Mr. ZIMMER: I lock myself in a room, but at the same time, a lot of conversations happen with the director, and curiously enough, with the DP, because I think music and light - I mean, the cinematographer and the composer need to somehow get onto the same page and inspire each other. And I think that's - that - that's always been very helpful. I mean, I did this with Terry Malick on "Thin Red Line." You know, even on my first movie over here, "Rain Man," I was, you know, I was amazed at John Seale's cinematography and...

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. ZIMMER: ...I just try to be an extension of that.

CONAN: Frank Zappa once said that most composers, the thing they most want is a chance to hear their music performed. They never get the opportunity. You not only get to hear it performed, you get to hire a hundred-piece orchestra if you want or bring in those banks after banks of computers. It must be a great privilege.

Mr. ZIMMER: It is an enormous privilege. And I'm - I pinch myself every day because I still can't believe that this is still happening. I mean, I never get over the idea that people actually let me do what I, you know, what I wanted to do, what I'm passionate about. And I've - I'm always aware of the tough responsibility that comes with it. And it's a fantastic life. I have nothing to complain about.

CONAN: Well, how dull. Maybe Phil will give you something to complain about.

Mr. ZIMMER: Oh.

CONAN: Phil, calling from Gainesville in Florida.

Mr. ZIMMER: Hi, Phil.

PHIL (Caller): Oh, it's great to talk to you. I'm a big fan of your work from every - "Gladiator," "The Rock." They are masterpieces. But anyways, I just wanted to ask you if you had any sort of special signature trademarks that you would put in a soundtrack through all your soundtracks, like sometimes directors will do that, where they'll have like - I think Michael Bay did it in "The Rock" and then "Bad Boys II," where you had sort of like the wheelchair-bound basketball team that was, like, almost got run over in some of the chases.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PHIL: Do you have anything sort of like that that you sort of put in like a musical signature?

CONAN: Your Hitchcock cameo.

Mr. ZIMMER: No, no. Well, not really because I'm finding it hard enough to come up with something new, let alone smuggle in something as a signature. But I suppose the signature is, you know, is my style. And, you know, very often I try to sort of jump over my own shadow, but I think it's virtually impossible, I think. You know, we're - I don't know if we are born with it, but there's a certain aesthetic that doesn't quite leave me. And you know, so I try never to repeat myself. And of course I keep falling into the same things and I keep thinking about trying to solve certain musical problems in a better way. I mean, that's what I said earlier. These things are evolutionary.

I just try to write a good piece of music by the end of the day and I feel I -it could still get better.

CONAN: Phil, thanks very much.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thank you.

PHIL: Have a good one.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thanks, Phil.

CONAN: Hans Zimmer, can you tell us briefly what you're working on now?

Mr. ZIMMER: I am working with my good friend Jim Brooks on his new movie. And, yes, I'm sitting there with a blank piece of paper in front of me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIMMER: ...so it's terrifying. It really, you know, it really is, because I don't quite know where the music comes from. So you don't quite know if somebody's going to turn off the tap or something like that. So every time when I'm at the beginning of a project, it's a little hard on everybody around me as well, because I turn into this, you know, neurotic thing that doesn't think he knows what he's doing and doesn't know how to write anymore. And, you know, the tunes are actually quite hard-earned. You know, there's a lot of sweat and late nights that goes on.

CONAN: Hans Zimmer, we hope you'll figure it out. Good luck with it.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Hans Zimmer joined us today from our NPR West studios in Culver City, California. He composed the score for the film "Inception" that's in theaters now, currently holding the number one spot on the box office, also nominated for an Emmy for music for "The Pacific" on HBO.

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