How Hans Zimmer Makes Music That You Remember

We sat down to talk to the prolific composer about how he made the 21st century’s most memorable scores, from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to his work with Steve McQueen.
Courtesy of Masterclass.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a musicality to the way that Hans Zimmer speaks. With over 150 film scores under his belt, ranging from Driving Miss Daisy to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, he’s one of the hardest-working men in the business, not to mention one of the most in-demand. Just after the announcement that he’s set to score the new Wonder Woman film, he’s at Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of Steve McQueen’s Widows, for which he also composed the score.


The film, which stars Viola Davis and centers on a group of women coming together to complete a heist after (as the title suggests) being widowed by their criminal husbands, is full of twists and turns, none of which would have any impact if not for the thread of grief running through the whole thing. The balance between action and introspection is one that’s reflected in the score — that is, when there’s any music at all.

As we speak the day after the film’s premiere (which marks Zimmer’s second collaboration with McQueen), it becomes clearer and clearer that one of the reasons Zimmer’s scores are so singular is that they’re all intensely personal. It’s not just a matter of composing something to help the movie get from Point A to Point B: it's a matter of translating a specific moment in time into music, and putting both heart and soul into the work.

I sat down with Zimmer to discuss finding the film’s sound, as well as working on the TV series upon which the film is based, revisiting his past scores, and hiding behind his music.

VICE: This is the second time you’ve worked with Steve McQueen. How did it come about that you worked with him again?
Hans Zimmer: Because I love him. Well, there’s more to it than that. We were talking about what interests him, what projects he’s working on, a few years back, and one of the things he mentioned was Widows. When I first started out, I was working as an intern for Stanley Myers, the composer, he was working on a television show called Widows, which this is based on, so I was the tea boy on the original series. It makes for a funny story, except that the story—by Lynda La Plante, who created the original series — what was so revolutionary at the time about it was that it was about not only four very strong women, but the sort of casual brutality women experience in the world. I remember at the time thinking, “This is an important piece of storytelling, and it’ll change the world.” And of course, it didn’t change the world. In fact, if anything, I felt Steve saying, “Hey, let’s do Widows,” I found it was more relevant than ever.


There are so many ways of thinking about Steve McQueen the artist, and Steve McQueen, but at the end of the day, the reason I love working with him is because he has such a big heart for humanity. I think his aesthetic is based on his love of humanity. And his whole team, from his DP, Sean Bobbitt, to Joe Walker, who I’ve known since 1988, who is really a musician. He started in music. He’s far more sophisticated than I am. I always think, and I think it’s because Steve comes from the visual arts first and became a filmmaker second, when I watch what they do, they’re actually creating a piece of music. They’ve already created the piece of music, and all I am is an orchestrator. It’s a different process. It’s really hard for me to describe, but if you look at the way the shots flow into each other, and especially in Widows, there’s not much music in it, because the music already exists in a different form. I don’t need to ruin their perfect piece of music with making more noise.

That was one of the things that I noticed: the score is very sparse in parts, and only kicks in at certain moments. Was that something you knew right away when you saw the film, or something that came through discussion?
We never discussed, we just did. We just knew. In fact, there’s one note just before the title Widows hits, which we put in at the last moment just to let people know that there might be the possibility of music appearing somewhere. Nearly a gratuitous note, but I think it’s the only time we actually did that.


I was reading a conversation that you’d had where you described your process with Christopher Nolan as a back and forth, where he’d send you some material and you’d send some music back. What’s your process like with McQueen?
We sit around a lot and talk about life. I mean, really, we do! We talk about everything that bothers us and concerns us, or that we love or that we don’t love, or whatever it is. Movies are sort of ultimately made in a moment. They freeze a moment in our life, and that’s how we felt, this is who we were at that moment when we were making the movie. There’s a lot of Steve sitting in my room and me playing the wrong notes or playing whatever notes. I feel very safe around both [Nolan and McQueen], so I don’t mind playing the wrong notes, and I know when something moves Steve. He can’t help himself, because he will interrupt and go, “Oh, don’t stop, that’s great! Okay, carry on!” It’s a very unscientific approach we take to filmmaking.

To that end, regarding freezing a moment in time, I read that you don’t revisit your work that often, but when you do, is that what you’re thinking of?
Yeah, I do. I always remember the experience as opposed to the— I can never remember the characters’ names, and very often I don’t even really remember the story, but I remember what it felt like when we were making it. I keep telling people this, but when we did Batman Begins, we never thought we’d do another Batman movie, and then one day Chris came and said, “I just want to run an idea by you,” and he started talking about the Joker. When all was said and done, we did The Dark Knight. We did three movies, but that was twelve years of our lives. There comes a point where you do have to look at things and the seconds of life lived. Was it a worthwhile experience, or was it not a worthwhile experience? I can honestly say it was a worthwhile experience. I can recommend to anybody, be playful, become a musician, or even if you’re not a musician, just behave like one. It’s pretty good.


Do you get the sense of whether it’s going to have been worthwhile while you’re working on a film or afterwards?
I have this terrible habit that even after the film is out and anybody asks me about it, I’m going, “Yeah, I’m nearly done. It’s not quite done yet.” It’s like everything is not quite done yet. Last night was the first time I saw Widows with an audience. It’s just been Steve, Joe, and I sitting and watching it on a screen, or Joe, Steve, and I watching it on a screen, and sometimes it’d just be Steve and me watching it on a screen. We like it, you know? It’s as simple as that. We like it, but we don’t know if anybody else will like it. It’s our baby, it’s our child, and we want it to go out into the world and we want people to be kind to it, and not beat the living daylights out of it. So putting it in front of an audience is nerve-wracking. There was a large group of us yesterday, the actors and everybody, so you feel very, very protective of everybody who’s been working on it, because you know that everybody really put everything into it.

In terms of the sound of the film, it goes between these two extremes, from these very long, languorous pieces to these very frenetic pieces for the heist sequences. Was there a moment when you settled on how that score would play out or sound?
I knew what I wanted to do long before we started actually working on it. It’s not an action movie, it’s a heist movie. A heist is about working things out, and it’s about using your brain to solve problems and time running out on you. The other part, the longer notes — one of the things I was really concerned with was I knew I wanted to write for strings, and I knew I wanted to write something beautiful, but strings have an automatic way of romanticizing things. They have a way of sounding lush. I love recording in this church in London. I didn’t record there. I recorded in a much smaller room, much drier, nothing epic — the opposite. Part of the dilemma is very often that those notes accompany a woman by herself, grieving, and the last thing I wanted to do was take away from the acting or the performance or the story by giving her companionship, which music automatically does. I had to think long and hard about how to write music that was not ugly, but at the same time wasn’t sentimental in any way, and in a funny way underscored her solitude as opposed to giving her comfort.


Were there any other outside influences that were helpful for scoring the film in addition to the images from the film themselves?
Outside influences? Have you opened a newspaper recently? [laughs] I mean, there’s so much story, so much stuff packed into this movie, so many things that meant something to Steve, and then meant something to us. We’ll see if it means something to an audience, but I think part of what it is, is what all good movie are supposed to be: they’re very personal. They tell the stories that interest the filmmakers, and hopefully are relevant to an audience, hopefully resonate with an audience, because, at the end of the day, Steve—yes, I know he’s a brilliant and famous visual artist, he has a career that’s separate from him as a filmmaker — the way I think of Steve is as a man who loves humanity, and who has a huge, big heart, and that's it. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and it shows in his movies.

Had you been familiar with his work prior to working on 12 Years a Slave ?
Oh, absolutely. I was virtually begging. I didn’t know he was going to make 12 Years a Slave, he just phoned me up out of the blue and said, “What are you doing at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning? I want to show you something.” And he didn’t warn me. So I was bloody and raw for the rest of the day, and I’m not good in the mornings.

I also wanted to talk about your career more broadly: you recently branched out with the tour and also the MasterClass , do you have any other aspirations as to what else to try?
No! I don’t! I didn’t even have aspirations for any of that. The tour was all my musician friends going, “There comes a point where you have to stop hiding behind having stage fright, because you owe it to people who have been listening to your music to actually look them in the eye. You can’t hide behind a screen forever.” And the stage fright never went away. It was terrifying every night, but I started to use it, in a way. It became, okay, it’s going to be terrifying, because I never script anything I say, so I just go out there, and whatever happens is going to happen. I just sort of went, “Okay, so I’m built that way, and I’ll never get over the fear, but just live with it. Just do it.” And my friends were right, there is something slightly more honorable to actually turning up and looking people in the eye than hiding behind a screen. And making things happen in real time is very different. A lot of those scores were recorded over days and days or weeks, and now I’m asking my musicians to go and play Pirates, which has French horn parts where basically your lips just start bleeding. We would record that over six days, and I’m saying, “Guys, here we are. Go for it!”


The MasterClass thing was really interesting. It seemed like a fun thing to do until I started doing it, and suddenly realized—they were great, and I hated them for it. The thing I found out is, everything I know, I never had to articulate. I learned by learning, I just learned by being there, I never had to put it into words, and suddenly I had to go and explain something. The guys from master class would just be sitting in front of me and go, “We didn’t understand a word of what you just said. Go again.” So I was learning what I instinctively knew. I had to and, as I said, articulate and find the words to describe some things.

Jumping off of the tour, one of the things that I think was written a lot was that it proved that the music you wrote for these films can stand on their own.
Yeah, because I refused to have a single image from any of the movies.

Do you think about that while you’re composing?
I think they need to stand on their own, but I didn’t want to prove that my music could stand on its own two feet. What I wanted to do was let the audience see these amazing musicians I’ve been working with all these years, I wanted it to be about them. I wanted to go, “Look at Tina, look at Guthrie Govern, these guys are amazing!” I didn’t want to distract from them with the images, because I love them, I’ve had the experience of watching them play, so I just wanted to go and see—plus, in a funny way, that was me yet again hiding a little bit, because I can hide behind extraordinary musicianship.

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