How Does Hans Zimmer Keep His Film Scores Fresh? He Invents New Instruments

Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer

For Man of Steel, composer Hans Zimmer gathered eight pedal steel guitars — those traditionally country music, twangy tabletop instruments — to form an unorthodox string ensemble, creating an entirely new sound. He was inspired by the image of telephone wires stretching across the prairie, and what the Kansas wind of Clark Kent's childhood home might sound like running along them. The effect is a sustained, shimmery texture, which Zimmer uses in the film's moments of reflection.

Zimmer is the German-born Kaiser of Film Music, composer of the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Gladiator and almost every trendsetting score written in the last 30 years. For director Zack Snyder's new take on the Superman story, Zimmer moved his imagination from Gotham to Krypton, Smallville and Metropolis — and once again set out to paint a new musical landscape.

Like many of today's film composers, Zimmer studied music at the conservatory of rock & roll, beginning his career as a keyboardist for '80s New Wave band The Buggles ("Video Killed the Radio Star") and programming synthesizers for other composers. Ever since he exploded into Hollywood with his catchy pop score for Rain Man in 1988 (earning his first Oscar nomination), he's kept with — or ahead of — the times, always reinventing himself to create a new language, often using unconventional instruments or making new ones outright, native to the films he scores.

"Filmmakers create these little autonomous worlds," says Zimmer, sitting in his cozy, denlike studio in Santa Monica, where a huge bank of computers houses an ever-growing library of proprietary samples for him and his team. "They might be imaginary worlds, but they have to adhere to a logic. I don't like the idea of the score being this objective thing that sits on top of the movie. It needs to come from inside, and seep into the pores of all the buildings, not just the characters. The colors the [director of photography] chooses and the colors I choose need to get muddled up."

For Man of Steel's action sequences, Zimmer put 12 drummers in a circle and recorded them playing different rhythms from inside it — producing a 360-degree, 5.1 surround effect that provides audiences with a uniquely visceral experience.

"I didn't want to do another electronic score," he says. "I thought I'd see what orchestra I could invent that hasn't really been done before, that would be appropriate. I felt that would include humble instruments, instruments that are part of American folklore."

For Zimmer's other summer movie, Gore Verbinski's upcoming The Lone Ranger, he turned the film's omnipresent train into the score's rhythm and bass line. He actually captured sounds from an old train on the property of his neighbor, The X-Files creator Chris Carter. "I said, 'Chris, do you mind if I come over with a tape recorder and a sledgehammer, and we do some unspeakable things to your train?' " Zimmer says. He then turned those sounds into a programmable drum kit.

"I don't care what my instruments are," Zimmer says. "I like when they bleed into what you see on the screen. Trains have great rhythms and grooves, and all I wanted to do was order the chaos a bit so that, maybe a little like Mussolini, 'the trains would arrive on time.' "

From Inception's brass blares to the 100,000-voice chant in The Dark Knight Rises (made possible by the Internet, when enough individuals responded to the composer's challenge and sent in recordings of themselves), Zimmer looks for an image or concept in the script or on-screen, imagines a complementary sound, then goes to whatever lengths necessary to realize that sound. Ultimately, though, he keeps it playful.

"I never quite had to grow up," he says. "That would be the worst thing, in fact. It would all be over then. The playfulness is really important, and a sense of the absurd and a sense of humor. I never take any of these things all that seriously."

It's not difficult to understand why Zimmer is the most in-demand composer in Hollywood. (Later this year his music will accompany the very different Rush — Ron Howard's drama about Formula 1 racing — and Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave.) He's a true collaborator, loves to begin creating at the earliest stages of development, is witty and self-deprecating ("I write stupidly simple music — there isn't a theme I've written you can't play with one finger on the piano"), and writes infectious music with a rock & roll attitude. And it's all tailor-made.

"I think if you put on Dark Knight, you know this is Gotham City, and I hope if you put on Man of Steel, you can say, 'This is the world Zack created' — and from the first note to the last that holds true," he says.

"That's partly why I use unconventional instruments," he adds, "because it stops it from being a generalization. It becomes very specific to those movies and to that world."


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