How Movie Maestro Hans Zimmer Became a Rock God
The Oscar-winning composer behind so many memorable film scores, from ‘The Lion King’ to ‘The Dark Knight,’ opens up about his spellbinding world tour and summer hit ‘Dunkirk.’
It would be hard to guess from his beatific persona onstage, or the way he beams when crowds roar his name, but Hans Zimmer—the Academy Award-winning film composer behind dozens of memorable scores, including The Lion King, Gladiator, The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Inception, and this summer’s acclaimed World War II epic Dunkirk—is plagued by stage fright even as we speak.
“I can never get over it,” he says, minutes before taking the stage yet again for rehearsals. “That’s just how I’m built. But you have to get used to it. Like, ‘OK, that’s me. Mr. High Anxiety.’”
The legendarily prolific German composer is nearing the end of his first headlining world tour—19 musicians, 46 dates, and a setlist spanning almost three decades of soundtracks, from Driving Miss Daisy and Thelma and Louise to Man of Steel and Wonder Woman. He’s been on the road continuously since the middle of May, barring a two-week break between the European and North American legs of the tour (time he only spent writing more music), with stops everywhere from Helsinki to Radio City Music Hall to a headline-grabbing set at Coachella.
Life on the road has begun to take its toll, though. Before the Hans Zimmer live experience debuted in Europe last year, he hadn’t toured since his days playing keyboard for a heavy metal band (the unsigned, short-lived Krakatoa) in the late ’70s. “Listen, it’s amazing,” Zimmer laughs, still winded from the night before. “I have all sorts of muscles aching I didn’t even know I had.”
Two hours spent watching him live and you’re likely to emerge feeling windblown, too.
A Hans Zimmer concert is no traditional conductor-and-orchestra affair. There’s no podium, for starters; one imagines none could contain him. Instead he stomps around the stage, flitting between keyboards, piano, and guitar. (“There are very few conductors, I think, that are amazing and entertaining to watch [from behind a podium]—and I’m certainly not one of them,” he says.) While performing songs from The Dark Knight, notably the anarchic showstopper “Molossus,” he even shreds opposite The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, who tours with Zimmer alongside his son Nile, also a guitarist.
There are no images from the films projected onscreen either, keeping focus on the orchestra instead. “I’ve gone to movies I’ve done which they play with an orchestra and I know it sounds great and wonderful, et cetera,” Zimmer explains. “But if the movie’s any good, within five minutes I’m in the movie and not looking at the orchestra anymore. And I thought, why not celebrate the orchestra?”
Zimmer gushingly introduces each of his musicians—his “friends”—by name, creating a sense of familial closeness onstage. (He’s big on hugging and high-fives, too.) Between songs, his off-the-cuff memories associated with each track—from the chaos that gripped South Africa during his time composing the The Lion King soundtrack, to the challenge of devising a theme that captures the late, “dear” Heath Ledger’s monumental performance as the Joker—extend that intimacy to the audience as well. It’s the “only way” he knows to do this, he says. “I have to treat it like a big dinner party and say whatever comes into my head and falls out of my mouth.”
Bright, mesmerizing lights dance overhead too, often transitioning into close-ups of the instruments. Paired with his powerfully evocative, eclectic catalogue, the effect is transporting—a cathartic exercise in imagination. The idea, Zimmer says, “comes a little bit from a line people kept using during Inception, this idea of shared dreaming. If you have enough people in the audience, I think you get to make up your own images in your head.”
“I mean, the whole thing is just some crazy experiment which seems to be going alright,” he allows. “People seem to like this.”
Wild experimentation is indeed a hallmark of Zimmer’s career. The self-taught composer’s film work is known for its outside-the-box approach to sound: Inception’s oft-mimicked foghorn “BRAAAMS,” for instance, is famously the result of Zimmer hauling a piano into the middle of a church, putting a book on its pedal and having a dozen brass players blare into it. The eerie, frenetic Bane chant from The Dark Knight Rises was crowd-sourced from 100,000 Batman fans who submitted their own voices through a website.
Razor blades sliced on piano wire for The Dark Knight; another piano was completely destroyed for Sherlock Holmes; and for The Lone Ranger, Zimmer sledgehammered the side of an old train in his neighbor Chris Carter’s (aka the creator of The X-Files) yard. (“Trains have great rhythms and grooves,” Zimmer later reported.)
Over nearly 150 different soundtracks, Zimmer’s willingness to innovate and buck industry trends has helped his sprawling oeuvre become impossible to pin down. For every bombastic orchestral score (he composed all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman soundtracks, effectively defining what modern superhero movies sound like) there’s an earthy collaboration with a world musician like South Africa’s Lebo M (currently touring with Zimmer along with his daughter, who is also a singer, and recognizable as the belting voice from The Lion King’s “Circle of Life”), or a pop ditty with artists like Will.i.am and Pharrell.
His first big success with a film soundtrack came with 1988’s Rain Man. But his first brush with semi-fame came before that with the Buggles, the one-hit-wonder ’80s new wave band known for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first music video ever broadcast on MTV. Zimmer recently staged a mini-Buggles reunion onstage in London, complete with a rap-off (a rap-off! Hans Zimmer rapping!) and a pair of white-rimmed glasses famous from the music video for every member of the orchestra.
Since Rain Man, he’s pumped out a dizzying number of soundtracks every year. More impressively, he’s the rare composer to create a number of melodies that transcend their films and remain instantly recognizable years after their release. (You’re able to hum the Pirates theme right now, aren’t you?) He’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that his scores, however innovatively conceived, often become blueprints for entire genres. Those Inception horns became inescapable, and his Thin Red Line soundtrack was often used as a stand-in in trailers for films that still lacked their own.
Zimmer isn’t thrilled by the experience of hearing his own music aped back at him. But rather than reprimand, he offers advice to those who might consider it: “The question any director should ask is, how can you turn this on its head appropriately and come up with something new and original? That’s the job,” he says.
“It’s weird because when we did Batman Begins and Dark Knight, we in a strange way had more freedom because nobody was doing superhero movies,” he continues. “So we invented a new style for it. And then, of course in a funny way, that style sort of seeped into other territories. And I tried really hard, I actually did try hard at coming up with something original.”
He stresses that even between Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel, two superhero movies released only a year apart, he didn’t dare replicate the same soundscape. “I had to make a huge distinction,” he says. The brooding energy of his Batman scores contrast with the soaring hopefulness of Man of Steel—just as Wonder Woman’s fiercely thrilling theme is yet another world apart.
“The Wonder Woman theme was based entirely on Tina [Guo],” Zimmer says, naming his star cellist who plays the theme live in concert. “I couldn’t figure out how to write it. I was sitting there probably three weeks. Then I just thought of Tina and who she is. She’s so polite and so quiet when you talk to her, but when she picks up that instrument like a sword and she becomes that character, she becomes Wonder Woman. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is easy. I just write something for Tina.’ I was Method composing.”
Zimmer broke nerd hearts in 2016 when he vowed not to write more superhero-themed scores after Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Writing for Ben Affleck’s gruff, dour vision of Bruce Wayne after nine years composing for Christian Bale’s proved too difficult, he explained, in part because he “didn’t feel the pain” in Affleck’s performance that he had felt in Bale’s.
But while he’s pulled out of scoring Affleck’s solo debut in the Snyderverse, Zimmer says he regrets making the “typical, flippant German statement” about quitting cinema’s biggest blockbuster genre entirely.
“Ron Howard, who is a wise and measured friend, very quietly said to me, ‘Hans, you should never say these things,’” he laughs. “‘You should always say, what about if a great script comes along?’ Which is really the truth. If a great story comes along, of course you’re gonna say yes. But the whole point is not to say I don’t want to do superhero movies anymore. The whole point is, I want to reinvent superhero movies.”
Though Zimmer won his first Oscar in 1995, and is now perhaps the only film composer to rival John Williams in name recognition, it was his work with Nolan that transformed him into something of an icon among younger fans. (One teenager’s delightfully elated review calls Zimmer’s concert “one of the best nights of my life.”) Coming face-to-face with those young fans, he says, was the idea behind driving the band out to Coachella.
“I was thinking backwards,” he says of that now-legendary set and its crowd of gyrating millennials. “I kept living in fear that the orchestra was going to become irrelevant and passé. It’s not part of youth culture to go to the opera or a concert hall or classical concerts. So when the opportunity came up to go and do something at Coachella, I thought, you know, nobody’s ever dragged an orchestra and a choir out into the desert. Let’s do it. And let’s just see what happens.”
“Let’s introduce the orchestra to this audience and the audience to this orchestra,” he continues. “Will they get along? Will the orchestra resonate with an audience that, first and foremost, was not made up of film music aficionados or whatever? Let’s just see if we can’t break down those walls and get the whole thing out of its pigeon hole.” And so he did.
If the wild success of his tour this summer wasn’t enough, Zimmer is also riding high on acclaim for his sixth Nolan collaboration, Dunkirk. “Chris wrote a screenplay that was really based on a musical form,” he says. “I really, really, really do feel this, that Chris is as much a co-creator of the score as I am…It’s hard to explain, but it really does feel like every note, we agonized over together.”
Zimmer’s score for the film is pure wall-to-wall intensity—on a scale of one to ten, it begins the first frame at an eleven, and only escalates from there. Writing it began with the loud ticking of a windup pocket watch Nolan sent over, and which Zimmer then translated through a synthesizer. It was also Nolan’s idea to use Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the 19th-century “Enigma Variations” as part of the pulsing theme for Allied troops being rescued from a French beach.
“It’s this strange piece which I’ve always loved because it’s not heroic, it’s none of those things,” says Zimmer. “But it’s got this sort of quiet dignity that I think very much describes that English spirit.”
“Chris very sort of slyly said, ‘What about…?” he continues. “All our best ideas are always prefaced with, you know, this might be the worst idea you’ve ever heard. We always do that with each other.”
Nolan later confessed that “Nimrod” had played at his father’s funeral just years before. Scoring the film felt personal for Zimmer as well; his family escaped Germany in 1939, fearing for him and his Jewish mother. “It’s meaningful. We would not be having this conversation, I believe,” he says, if his parents had not fled.
Even after the war ended and Zimmer’s family returned, he found himself making his own getaway. “I always had a problem with authority,” he laughs. “Which doesn’t go well very well when you’re a kid going to school in Germany. I think I was the antithesis. I finally ended up in school in England and everything was fine.”
In concert, Zimmer occasionally draws attention to tragedies in our recent past that have informed songs like “Aurora,” the stirringly beautiful ballad he wrote to raise funds for the Colorado victims of a mass shooting at a midnight showing of Dark Knight Rises. He mourns the Manchester terror attack and the Grenfell tower fire. As he emphasizes, for him and for us, the concert is a place to come together; to create what he calls “a place of sanity.”
“What I was trying to do onstage was basically show off,” he says. “I have musicians from all nations, from all continents all over the world. And look at us. We play nice together because we have to listen to each other. We’re 40 shows in or whatever, living sort of on top of each other, and we’re still getting on [despite] the stressful touring thing. If we could still get on after this amount of time, there is absolutely no reason the rest of the world can’t.”
“I just think we’re living in extraordinarily disassociated times,” he continues. “But I think that the nice thing about being a musician right now is, rather than shouting at each other with words, music seems to be a language where we can all agree.”