Hans Zimmer Interview

Interview from PopMatters [international magazine of arts and culture] Find more PopMatters content at www.popmatters.com.

Hans Zimmer’s career as an Academy Award-winning film composer had a bit of an unusual start: He has the distinction of being in the first music video ever broadcast on MTV.

Having orbited around a New Wave band called the Buggles in the late ’70s, Zimmer — a keyboard wizard who grew up in Germany before moving to London as a teenager, soon indulging his love of pop music at any chance he could get — managed to get a small spot on the video for the song “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which not only became a huge hit for the band, but also has the distinction of being the first video ever aired on the then-fledging Music Television Network. Following that, he bounced around various projects before partnering up with noted film composer Stanley Meyers in the early ’80s to do movie work. From that point onward, Zimmer’s pioneering use of electronic instruments in film scores helped usher in a new generation of young composers, soon securing his place in cinema history with his work on films such as “Rain Man,” “The Lion King” and “Gladiator.”

Known for his willingness to collaborate with others, Zimmer found a kindred spirit with noted director

Christopher Nolan, who brought on both Zimmer and James Newton Howard to work on his Batman films. The resulting scores for both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” were powerful and dynamic, but very atypical of what a score for a superhero movie should be: There was no endlessly-repeated theme, no collaborations with pop stars. Zimmer and Howard wrote for the needs of the film, drawing viewers in to a dark, sometimes terrifying world without the usual Hollywood score tropes dogging them the whole time. Mixing electronic elements with ambient violins and thundering percussion, Zimmer has proven that at 52 years old, he is showing no signs of slowing down.

The much-hyped sci-fi action film “Inception” marks the first time since his 1998 debut “Following” that Nolan has written an original screen story entirely for himself. Despite its A-list cast and daring action sequences, the film has its roots in distant memories and painful regrets, mixing a high-end concept with real human emotion (Nolan’s forte). Speaking about his work on the score, the warm and funny Zimmer reveals why he brought along Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to provide contributions, how his relationship with Nolan works, and why the “Inception” music was inspired by both David Bowie and mathematician Roger Penrose.

Roger Penrose famously described ‘quantum consciousness’:

It is best known to the wider public for his view that there is an essentially non-algorithmic element to human thought and human consciousness. Example: It has been known for about forty years that there is no algorithmic way of deciding whether a given collection of polygonal shapes will tile the plane, that is, the tiling problem is non-recursive.

Q: Having finally seen the final cut of “Inception,” what are your thoughts on it?

A: It was a very different process. You know, usually, films are being made in bits and pieces and there’s a structure of how you work it: the composer sees the movie and discusses the themes with the director and he goes off and he writes the theme — we didn’t do any of that on this one.

Christopher Nolan

Like many future filmmakers, British-born Christopher Nolan began making amateur movies at an early age, playing around with a Super 8mm camera that belonged to his father. When his family relocated to Chicago for three years during his formative years, this child of a British father and American mother traded tips on movie making with pals Roko and Adrian Belic (who in 1998 premiered their documentary “Genghis Blues”). While an undergraduate at University College in London, Nolan saw his short “Tarantella” air in the USA on PBS in 1989. By the mid-90s, he had hooked up with Jeremy Theobold who appeared in the shorts “Larceny” and “Doodlebug”. Theobold would go on to produce and star in Nolan’s feature directorial debut, “Following” (1998). Serving as director, co-producer, co-editor and cinematographer, he inverted some of the conventions of the film noir to recount the tale of a blocked writer (Theobold) who spends his days stalking strangers in the hopes of jump-starting his imagination. Then, one of his “victims” turns the tables and invites the scribe to join in a series of petty thefts. Juggling time via flashbacks and flash forwards, Nolan established a key signature of his work in which chronology takes a back seat to character. Critics found much that was admirable in Nolan’s first feature, although most felt it was a marginal achievement, at best.

Nolan took a giant leap forward with his second film, “Memento” (2000), working from an unpublished short story by his brother Jonathan. An intriguing skewering of the conventions of film noir, “Memento” centers on a man with “anterograde amnesia”, a condition that does not allow him to form new memories, who is seeking the man who raped and murdered his wife. While the heart of the piece was a conventional revenge drama, the story unfolded in an intriguing manner — backwards, with bits of additional information added each time. Fascinating and complex, “Memento” earned great acclaim when it opened in Europe in fall 2000 and at its US premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival where Nolan picked up the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The film also earned him numerous citations from critics’ groups. Despite the fact that the idea for the story originated with his brother’s fiction, Nolan’s screenplay was deemed an original for the purposes of Academy Award consideration, in part because the film had premiered in both Great Britain and the USA before the short story was published in the March 2001 issue of Esquire. Capitalizing on his success, Nolan directed the English-language remake of the 1997 Norwegian crime thriller “Insomnia” (2002), starring three previous Academy Award winners, Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank . The critical response to the film was mixed: while some labeled the thriller as an early Oscar contender and heaped praise on Williams’ smart, controlled performance, others found the film a lackluster sophomore follow-up to the bravura efforts of “Memento.”

Nevertheless, Warner Brothers, which produced “Insomnia,” was still confident enough in Nolan’s talents to tap him to direct its long-aborning effort to revive the all-but-defunt “Batman” franchise after various other incarnations failed to make it into production. Teaming with screenwriter and comic book author David S. Goyer, who’d previously translated the “Blade” character from comics to film, Nolan took the film series 180 degrees from its increasingly gaudy and campy direction, envisioning “Batman Begins” (2005) as a pitch-black, deadly serious psychological exploration of the origins of the legendary comic book superhero. Taking direct inspiration from many sequences from the post-“Dark Knight Returns” era of the comics, Nolan’s film traced Bruce Wayne’s journey from orphaned millionaire to intensely skilled crimefighter, taking pains to craft both a Gotham City and an outer world that was as realistic as its pulpy source material would allow and eschewing over-the-top theatrics and computer-generated special effects in favor of nuanced acting and old-fashioned stunt work. Nolan and Goyer’s take attracted an all-star cast, including Michael Caine as Wayne’s faithful aide Alfred; Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Gotham’s sole uncorrupt cop; Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, the provider of Batman’s technology; and Liam Neeson as the mysterious, machiavellian Henri Ducard; but the true discovery of the film was Christian Bale in a star-making turn as the titular superhero. Though the film lacked some of the darkly manic pop inspiration that characterized the Tim Burton films, “Batman Begins'” soberer take was a breath of fresh air for loyal fans of the comic books and moviegoers turned off by Joel Schumacher’s more recent camp efforts, and the film proved to be both a critical and commercial success. Nolan was set to return to the franchise for “The Dark Knight” (scheduled for release in 2008) reteaming with Goyer on story chores (with a script by Nolan’s brother Jonathan) and helming again, this time with Heath Ledger in the role of the iconic villain The Joker.

* Born:
July 30, 1971 in England
* Job Titles:
Director, Screenwriter, Director of photography, Producer, Editor


* Brother: Jonathan Nolan. wrote short story upon which “Memento” (2000) was based


* University College, London, England, English


* 1989 Made short “Tarantella” which received airing on PBS in USA
* 1996 Short film “Larceny” screened at the Cambridge Film Festival; Jeremy Theobald made acting debut
* 1998 Feature directorial debut, “Following”; Theobald starred and served as one of the producers
* 2000 Helmed second feature, the acclaimed thriller “Memento”, adapted from a story by his brother
* 2002 Directed the English-language remake of “Insomnia”
* 2005 Directed and co-wrote the fifth Caped Crusader installment “Batman Begins” which starred Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman
* 2006 Directed Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in “The Prestige,” about rival magicians working in early-20th-century London
* Began making short films at age seven
* Collaborated with Theobald on the short “Doodlebug”
* Spent three years of his youth living in Chicago; made early films with Roko and Adrian Belic (the future Oscar nominees for the documentary “Genghis Blues”)