ASCAP Henry Mancini Award Honoring Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer is a truly international icon of film scoring. Born in Germany, educated in Britain and a genuine Hollywood success story, Zimmer is a charming bundle of contradictions. At 45, he has won an Academy Award for his work on The Lion King and has racked up a total of six Oscar nominations. Zimmer is a maverick who always challenges authority but is simultaneously worried that a director might say, "You're score isn't good enough." He creates lavish orchestral scores, yet he had no more than two weeks of formal music training. A former aspiring rock star, he was part of the first video ever shown on MTV, but insists that he found creative freedom in turning to film music.
Hans Zimmer is versatile and prolific. His range of scores include blockbusters such as Gladiator, Pearl Harbor and Crimson Tide to more scaled-down hits like Rain Man, Green Card, As Good as It Gets and Thelma and Louise to art-house favorites that include My Beautiful Laundrette, Smilla's Sense of Snow and A World Apart. Zimmer has also made his mark with such family films as Muppet Treasure Island, The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado and on TV with the theme for the adult animated series, The Critic, and the acclaimed ten-part documentary, Millennium: Tribal Wisdom. With a great many musical accomplishments of which to be proud, Zimmer can also point to his co-founding of Media Ventures, a custom-built Santa Monica studio for the writing and production of music for film, television, and commercials, as a major achievement. A hive of activity, Media Ventures is home to over a dozen resident composers and a support staff of nearly one hundred.
Let's begin by talking about how and why you became involved in music. Did you become aware of film scoring as you watched television?
No, it was exactly the opposite because we had no TV at home. My parents deemed TV to be an uncultured intrusion to the home. But we had a piano and that was the only entertainment I really had and I loved making noise on it. I think even as a little kid you realize something happens if you just manage to put two or three notes together and they make a pleasant noise. Remember, here I am at 45 and I still play everyday and the world here at Media Ventures is play. I don't think lawyers and accountants get to play everyday.
So, your parents must have made sure you had lessons.
Well, we did have a two-week episode where a strict German authoritarian figure appeared at our house trying to get me to read other people's music. I must have been five or six and I did not understand what that was about. I enjoyed playing the piano badly, making what I thought were pretty wild noises and I thought this guy would teach me how to make my wild noises better. I think my complete resistance to authority started right there, with that man. After two weeks he basically gave up. That ended my formal music education.
And your informal education?
I was very lucky because I grew up outside Frankfurt, just down the road from a wise old man, a restorer of churches, and somehow, somewhere on his journey, he managed to persuade a small church that they really did not need their 2500 pipe church organ any more. He stored this thing in an old tower and I use to go down there on a pretty regular basis and just let rip. Everybody, and especially my parents, thought it was ghastly noise but the wise old man would sit there and say, "What daring harmonies!" When you're a kid, you have to have somebody who actually thinks what you do is interesting; especially when you hear everybody else say it is rubbish.
How did you begin to work as a composer?
My formal education did not get a lot better. I managed to be kicked out of nine schools in pretty rapid succession. I was like one of those little dogs that bite postmen and policemen just because they wear a uniform. I was sent to the obligatory boarding school in England. And that was great because I made a pact with the headmaster on the first day that I would not give him any problem if I could just play music all day long.
When you were in England, were you listening to the rock & roll of the time?
Absolutely. For a while I pursued a career in trying to become a legend in my own lunchtime, in becoming a rock star or something like that. There were some grim times after I left school- where there was no money, and they cut the electricity off. And you could not get a job because you could not make the phone call, because the phone was cut off. I just carried on playing music because that is all I wanted to do; actually it was the only thing I knew how to do. I started doing commercials in London so some money was coming in. It was really through commercials that I met a film composer called Stanley Myers, who had written the music for The Deer Hunter. This guy was really good. It was an apprenticeship but it was a partnership, as well, because he knew every thing about orchestras and I knew about synthesizers and stuff like that. He was really interested in electronic music but his technical know - how basically went as far as turning on his coffee machine.
When did your interest in electronic music begin?
My dad was an inventor, so there was always stuff at home. As a kid I remember sitting on the floor with his tape recorder. My lack of piano lessons really did not help my playing technique but I knew that technology could help me get the stuff out of my head into some sort of concrete form. I do not really write at the keyboards - I write in my head and I use computers as musical word processors.
You were in a band that had a major success, the Buggles ("Video Killed the Radio Star").
We did "Video Killed the Radio Star" two years before MTV started. We had a gut feeling that something like that was around the corner. But the band ended before it started. I thought it was a dead-end situation being signed to a record company. When we were trying to get a deal, no one wanted to hear our song because it was different. Once it was a hit, everyone wanted us to do the exactly same thing again. And I thought that was incredibly limiting - what if I wanted to do a psychedelic/ country & western/ heavy metal album next?
What was your first significant film project?
In England, it was the end of the punk era and Channel Four had just started and was hungry for material. There was a small company called Working Title Films and I do not think any of us knew how to make movies, but we did a thing called My Beautiful Laundrette for Channel Four. It was punk film-making at its finest. Suddenly we were off and running. You could make a movie and get it on TV or even get it into one or two theaters - it was a great sense of freedom.
Was it an easy change to make? You had more freedom working in film but you obviously had to fit the music to what was happening on the screen.
There was a long learning curve. I learned from the best, because of Stanley's involvement with all these really great directors I got to work with, like Nicholas Roeg. I did not know how to be a filmmaker - it's not just about writing a pretty tune and shoving it into the movie. It is about literally embracing storytelling and film and being a filmmaker in your language, in music.
How did the collaboration with Stanley Myers work?
Stanley was super smart. He suffered from that terrible disease of very, very good taste and he had run-ins with his producers frequently. He was not always diplomatic about things, but the way we worked was very democratic, but without a lot of consulting going on. On My Beautiful Laundrette, I did the opening title. I came in the next day and Stanley had basically wiped off my tune and kept all the rest of the arrangement and put a new tune on top of it. He had written a wonderful energetic string piece and I took half of it apart - and we never commented on what changes the other person made. He never was so vulgar as to criticize all the mistakes that I was making because I did not know any better. He just gently steered me towards the right thing. I was actually learning how to be a film composer. That partnership lasted about five years. There was so much I learned from Stanley, plus he gave me an awesome amount of opportunities. That tradition of apprenticeship is not something that really exists in America - here everybody goes to music school and film school and they assume that as soon they are out college they know how to score a film.
Did you come to the States before you were offered a job?
Do you think I'm crazy? I thought Los Angeles had enough waiters and I knew I was going to be terrible waiter so I made a point of never, ever coming to Hollywood before I was offered something. I had done a small movie without Stanley in London for Working Title called A World Apart. I think every director in the world saw it but we had no audience beyond directors, and it truly is a magnificent film. I think what happened was that Barry Levinson's wife saw it and she bought him the soundtrack and he was working on Rain Man at the time and he kept plopping in bits from A World Apart on the temp track. Finally, he literally showed up on my doorstep in London and asked me if I wanted to come and work in Los Angeles on Rain Man, and I did. Afterward, I thought, "That's it, back to the art movies in England," but this crazy thing happened. I kept being offered more things. I literally went from Rain Man to Black Rain and Driving Miss Daisy. The next two scores were written in the same month but are as different musically as you possibly can get and that was a great joy. I wasn't typecast.
How do you decide what films you wish to work on?
Usually by the director. You try to work with people where you feel you can learn something or where you feel you're not going to have not a dull time.
The variety of what you've done is pretty incredible from the big adventures to stories on a much smaller scale, like As Good as It Gets.
The way Jim Brooks (writer/director of As Good as It Gets) writes words truly challenges a composer because suddenly you realize that you have to be as articulate as Jim is in his words within the language of music. As for the big adventure stuff, it's partly because when I was living in London doing art films, I wanted to get at movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. What I wrote for Crimson Tide would not fit into As Good as it Gets, but all of it is about trying to tell human stories and there many aspects to that. Whatever emotion is going on in the scene isn't something that I can't empathize with - even if it's really big and it's guys in submarines or gladiators hitting each other over the head. With The Lion King, I didn't think of it as animation. I love working with African musicians because while I write very much as a European, I take it to Africa and magical things happen when these two cultures collide. I didn't know Lion King was going to be a big hit, and all I was worried about was changing Elton John songs - would he have me killed? But he liked what I did.
Was The Prince of Egypt a challenge?
That was a tough one. I never mind being a bit controversial. Yet, it's very difficult when you're dealing with people's innermost faith, so I got incredibly stuck for weeks and weeks. What I was desperately trying to do in Prince of Egypt was to disassociate it from any known church music. I was trying to make it about spirituality and not put the dogma of any one religion onto it.
Is there one major thrill or satisfaction that stands out above all the other projects you've worked on?
I don't know, I'm working on this film with Ridley Scott right now called Matchstick Men and Ridley said something to me that I thought I'd never hear a director say: "Look, if we don't have an accordion in this movie, we don't have a movie." This is from the man who brought us Alien, Gladiator, and Blade Runner. The great thing is you never know what's around the corner.
A lot depends on the individual directors and how much they understand the importance of music to an individual scene.
Yes, and sometimes to my detriment, as when they say it's not good enough. But it makes for good movie-making if you're open with each other. I still believe writing music and actually playing it to somebody is a really scary thing. I do not know how to write music other than from the heart, and so you expose yourself a bit. Jim Brooks wrote a great line in As Good as It Gets, where Jack Nicholson says "The only thing you've got going for you is that you're prepared to humiliate yourself." That is my vow everyday to just write and play for them and hope that you survive the next note.
Is your firm, Media Ventures, a music production company?
Oh, that is a big word to use. It really is an extension of an idea. Stanley Myers took me under his wing when I had no idea how to write a film score and I had no chance of ever getting a movie. I think there are amazingly talented people out there who do not get access - I try to give them access and tools, as well. It is a factory in the true sense of the word, where just because you have not done many movies should not mean you should be excluded from really good recording engineers and technology. It is also very collaborative. I love running into the other composers to play them a tune and ask, "Hey, is this any good or how should we tweak it?"
Hans and Friends
I see that you performed live for the first time at the 2000 Flanders Film Festival and a concert recording from that show was released as The Wings of a Film: The Music of Hans Zimmer (Decca).
I get really bad stage fright, always did. It was actually great fun, so I might want to do a few more concerts.
What other film composers were important in terms of what you have learned, in addition to Stanley Myers?
When I first came to Hollywood, whenever I had a chance to see John Williams I'd ask him the most inane questions. My wife was very good friends with Henry Mancini and it was just great knowing him. He was such an idol. And my absolute hero has always been Ennio Morricone. I think it is important to have heroes.
And here you are getting the Henry Mancini Award!
I kept saying that I am absolutely not deserving. Seriously, because with Henry there was a lightness and elegance to his stuff; he was a genius. He would have never written Crimson Tide! But the main lesson I learned from Stanley Myers, Henry and the others, is to write a good tune and hang a score on it. It is an old-fashioned concept, but I am still sticking with it.