Interview: Hans Zimmer talks "Inception" Score
Mon, 12 Jul 2010 19:00:29
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"I do unspoken things," says Hans Zimmer with a smile. "I do things that cannot exist unless there's an audience as a participant. You contribute the emotion to it as much as performer and the composer."
That especially holds true for Zimmer's hypnotically haunting score for Christopher Nolan's new masterpiece, Inception.
The score evokes Bernard Hermann with a modern noir sensibility and flourishes of guitar courtesy of the legendary Johnny Marr [The Smiths, Modest Mouse, The Cribs]. It's easy to fall into Zimmer's score, whether you're hearing it along with the film or simply spinning it on your iPod. He weaves an aural tapestry colored with lush orchestral passages, moments of tribal darkness and an ethereal, entrancing haze. It's as much of a gorgeous headtrip as the film itself is.
Moreover, Zimmer really wants audiences to participate in this film and its music directly. After the world premiere on July 13th, Zimmer and Marr will take to the stage for a special concert that'll be streamed live on USTREAM worldwide here so no one can miss out, and Zimmer will further engage fans at a special signing of the soundtrack at Hollywood's Amoeba Music on July 15th at 8pm. No composer's ever made a score (or experience) this immersive, and Zimmer's going all out for Inception…
Hans Zimmer sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for an exclusive interview about creating the music for Inception, working with Johnny Marr, a certain sonic "transgression" and so much more.
Your scores have always translated emotions into music. That's what makes them so poignant. What's that process like for you? Do you get closer to the plot or the characters themselves?
Closer to the characters…good question! I never thought about it, but I can actually analyze it pretty simply because this project started off with me reading Christopher Nolan's script. As soon as I started reading it, I might not have had the notes, but I had a feel for who these characters were. There weren't any actors attached to them yet. They were pure creations in Chris's head. Chris loves just letting me loose, and he does anything and everything to spark my imagination and not put any fence around it. Once he shot the movie, I was really involved all the way through pre-production and shooting. Then he wouldn't let me see the movie when he started editing it because he didn't want to narrow my vision. He made me write a whole score from how I felt about the characters and the story. I would send him these really long chunky pieces of music. Then, when he felt he had enough to basically populate the whole movie, he let me see the film. It had a complete score in it that I could refine and go crazy experimenting with.
Characters will spark action in any great film. Music remains the purest extension of emotions within this context too.
Exactly! Remember, we're dealing with Chris Nolan here who wrote the Edith Piaf piece, "Non Je Ne Regrette Rien," into the script as something that triggers action. Music for him is an integral part of motivating action. Part of what the music does is open doors for the audience. Another part of the action that's triggered is making the viewer be a participant in the movie as opposed to dictating how the audience is supposed to feel.
The music is more like a painting. You can pull a myriad of meanings from it. It's not a blatant, on-the-nose exposition of emotion.
For Inception, I started off going, "Chris, I think this is an incredibly nostalgic, romantic movie. I think this is a great love story. Let me go write it as a love story." However, I knew I couldn't use the vocabulary that we're used to in films for whatever a love theme is. I wanted to stay in that idea of mathematics and the minimal world. I spent a year playing with what is the world of mathematics, what is the world of dreams and what is the world of time. People keep talking about the movie is if it's about dreams. I think this movie is about time and our perception of time. I think it's a great time travel movie, actually [Laughs]. I came across all of these ideas of recreational mathematics, which I thought was really funny. When I was in school, mathematics was just hell and there was nothing "recreational," amusing or emotional about it. Then you find about people like Bertrand Russell, Roger Penrose or Martin Gardner, and you go, "Hang on a second. These guys felt mathematics. They felt numbers." I have a twelve-year-old son, and as much as I was dreaming about music at his age and its possibilities, he does that with numbers. I understand what he feels, but I can't possibly understand how he could feel it about numbers [Laughs].
There's a real noir element to the music.
Totally! Look at the costume design and the architecture in the film. Great science fiction movies are incredibly nostalgic. I don't know why and how, but I thought there had to be a sense of nostalgia. Chris had written that Edith Piaf song into the script, and I found this recording of it. The recording was a copy of a copy of a copy, and I don't even know where I found it. It was scratchy, it had no top end, it was mono and it sounded like some nightclub in Paris in the '40s with the German army marching up the shores. It felt dangerous, and it felt like the anthem of a forgotten dream, of a forgotten love and of a forgotten life. Chris and I loved it. Then we finally found where the copy had come from, and it was this pristine '60s recording, in stereo and all of this. We were actually really disappointed [Laughs]. It took us a long time to go muck it up again! The song is such a perfect headline for the movie—"Non Je Ne Regrette Rien"—"I don't regret anything."
Have you always felt there's an orchestral element to rock 'n' roll?
I think two things. Let me make this a public apology [Laughs]. I have been guilty of that hideous aesthetic crime of rock guitar with orchestra. Wailing guitars and orchestra is probably as offensive as serving a Big Mac at Thomas Keller's restaurant or having shag carpets at The Louvre [Laughs]. I've done a few of those. However, when I was writing this, I came to this tune and I saw Johnny Marr play it. I was channeling him. I sent the tune to Chris, and he said, "You can stop writing now." I took that as "You're fired." [Laughs] What he meant was, "This is it. This is the heart of the movie. This is the heart of darkness. You've found it." Since I was sort of on a roll, I said, "I know rock guitars on top of orchestra are hideous but if Johnny Marr played on the score, something extraordinary could happen." Chris went, "I love Johnny Marr. Knock yourself out!" He knew I wasn't ever going to do the jazz odyssey rock guitar thing. I try to cast my team. In a funny way, it's like this movie or any heist movie. I cast the driver and the safecracker; I get the right team around me, but it's still my point of view. We're on the same wavelength—just like the way Chris casts me. He knows our aesthetics are going to match.
Adding other artists makes the final product that much more vibrant.
Exactly! Me and a pencil is a pretty boring existence apart from anything [Laughs].
Has you philosophy behind composing film music changed since you started?
Yeah, I think so. It's evolutionary. For instance, I wouldn't be able to write a tune like Gladiator anymore because it feels like it's inappropriate for where we are. I think I have a very good sense of that other devilish German word "Zeitgeist"—the heartbeat of the times. If you wrote a big overtly heroic theme, it would just feel wrong. I think I'm getting a better at what music can do in a film, thank God. [Laughs] Maybe it's just because my interests have changed. I'm not interested in the massive heroic tunes anymore. I've been there, done it, got the t-shirt, even the crew jacket [Laughs]. Now, I'm interested in how I can take two, three or four notes and make a really complex emotional structure. It's emotional as opposed to sentimental. It's not bullshit heroic; it has dignity to it.
There's a timeless nature to the Inception soundtrack that transcends the boundaries of what we'd typically consider a film noir, a love story or an adventure. It's lives in a different realm.
I must admit, we're not good with the comedy on this one [Laughs]. Even on Dark Knight, we kept joking, "Hans isn't helping Chris's jokes one bit!" I guess the ultimate prototype for a Dark Knight is a German composer sitting in this room [Laughs]. I truly love films. How can I not? I love what we do. Working with people like Stephen Frears, it was a different way of filmmaking and using music to support the images. I worked with Terry Malick. Suddenly, Chris Nolan says, "I saw Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance, and it's really cool what the music and images do at the end." I can turn around and go, "Hey, I did that, but I hadn't thought about that since then." Nicolas Roeg gave me my first brief. I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing and what he wanted for the scene and he said, "The sound of the earth being raped." That's a pretty good way of starting a conversation about music. He's not talking about flattened fifth notes and tritones. I was always thought a "Tritone" was that big thing Nautilus had [Laughs]. These are the conversations we have. I was trying to take those technical terms out of the conversations I have with directors. We're talking about the heart of the movie.
The score's reminiscent of Bernard Hermann.
Bloody hell, Bernard Hermann could do emotion like nobody else. The great thing was, he was never sentimental. Ridley Scott once said to me, "Sentimentality—that's unearned emotion." He was saying it's a throwaway. It always stuck in my head. You can't analyze it, and you can't put it into words, which is the whole point of why we're making a movie!
Will you be seeing Inception Friday? Have you heard the soundtrack?