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Interview with Hans Zimmer

May 1, 2013

An evening in October, 2000. A convoy of busses passes through Ghent . Those busses are filled to the brim with people. Destination: Hans Zimmer Concert. One day prior to the concert. The Maestro is nervous. “What is the worst that could happen,” he asks himself. “It could all go wrong and my career is in the toilet. But here I am. Here I will die on this battlefield.”

(From the Archives – by Peter Simons)

He covers it up with humor, but Zimmer doesn’t seem to be the confident man you’d think him to be. His language is typically American, his gestures big. He is friendly and above all funny. He launches one one-liner after the other and he tells the craziest stories. It is quite an experience to interview him. More than once he is distracted by the music. The musicians are practicing hard and the music is audible in the room where five journalists simultaneously fire their questions at the composer.

Hans Zimmer, a 42-year-old German who in the 70’s left his “heimat” for England where he wrote jingles and produced the hit song Video Killed The Radiostar . The age of punk is far behind him, he has moved to Los Angeles to write film scores, but Zimmer is still a rocker with heart and soul. Even though he has written big orchestral scores like The Thin Red Line or Prince Of Egypt , he prefers jamming with other musicians.

“I did it for a dollar”

Take An Everlasting Piece for example, the new comedy by Barry Levinson, director of Rain Man for which Zimmer also wrote the music. The composer was just working on Mission Impossible 2 when Levinson phoned him. Zimmer’s  initial response was ‘no’ but Levinson didn’t give up that easily and visited Zimmer at his home. Obviously, he brought the film with him. “It made me happy to see such a small human film while I was in the middle of a big Hollywood production,” recalls Zimmer. And so he decided to do it anyway. But for how much? Levinson didn’t have any money. “For half my fee would be ridiculous, so I did it for one dollar and the guarantee that we would have a great time.” With a group of musicians Zimmer started improvising in his garden. “We ate good food, drank good wine and we made music from early in the morning until late at night. That is a pretty good life,” he says smiling.

He seems to be at his best when surrounded by fellow musicians. “I am not the Great Composer,” Zimmer says about himself. “We all did it together.” Most of his scores feature guest musicians. On The Road To El Dorado Heitor Pereira played the guitar, while John Powell co-composed the score. “I wanted to write music for three violins and a guitar,” says Zimmer, “but everyone wanted big orchestral music. John warned me that my music wouldn’t work and in a way he was right. It doesn’t evoke the grandness that the images suggest.” A few years ago on The Lion King we could hear the vocals of Lebo M. “I deliberately didn’t try to write African music. What do I know about African Music? What right do I have to write such music? I wrote very European music and invited Lebo to sing. Just do something, I told him. Let’s see what happens.”

“Oscar? Throw it out the window”

What happened was that the soundtrack went on to become a major financial success and that Zimmer won an Oscar. “It was marvelous, exciting and very dangerous. It is addictive and you want it to happen again. But you can not allow yourself to write a similar score, because that would mean the end of your creativity. You have to brave and throw it all out the window. After The Lion King I chose a film that guaranteed I would not be nominated again.” That was The Fan a box office flop starring Robert de Niro, for which Zimmer wrote rough, almost industrial, music. “It was a shitty movie, I know that, but it was a great experience. A producer at DreamWorks listened to my music and after three minutes she ran away screaming. A week later she called me to say that she was having nightmares ever since. I thought, yeah this stuff is really good! And I know no one bought the cd, but it was a great experiment and it is as Zimmer as it gets.”

Another typical Zimmer-experiment, although this one sold much better: Ridley Scott’s Roman epic Gladiator that dominated the theatres all through the summer. This time Zimmer worked together with Australian composer and singer Lisa Gerrard. Until a few years ago she was one half of Dead Can Dance. “Ridley and I heard a cd of hers and we though she’s good. Get her,” recalls Zimmer. The collaboration resulted in an enchanting score for which Gerrard wrote the emotional parts and Zimmer the bombastic parts. And it does sound a lot like Wagner. “Yeah, I get a lot of shit about this Wagner thing,” Zimmer says irritated “and so what if it does? I just wanted to see if I could do that kind of music. I wanted to be Little Richard Wagner. And you know what the scary thing is? I wrote that theme in about ten minutes. I’m not saying it is any good, but it was a lot of fun,” he says and again there is that radiant smile.”

“I get really scared”

He dismisses the remarks about Gladiator, but he is affected by criticism. “Whenever I read something bad about me it still hurts. I really want to do my best for a movie. I want to have a clear moment and do something really original,” he sighs, “I sit behind my keyboard and I want to do something brilliant, but how do I do that? I get really scared at that moment and I think every composer will recognize this. When you read a bad review you really don’t feel like trying anymore. I think I’ll just do my stuff, because you’re not going to like it anyway.” Luckily he conquers such thoughts and has embarked on two new ambitious projects. Hannibal and Pearl Harbor . Is he looking forward to that? A typical Zimmer answer: “Does the criminal look forward to the electric chair? I’m sure he’s going to get a buzz out of it!” In other words, he can’t wait.

Many thanks to Hans Zimmer and to the Flanders International Filmfestival.

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