Hans Zimmer Talks About Oscars and ‘Inception’

Hans Zimmer has composed scores for some of the biggest movies, from “Gladiator” to “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” to “The Dark Knight.” This year, he was nominated for his groundbreaking soundtrack for Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending work “Inception,” for which he received an Oscar nomination — his ninth.

We talked to him about the pros and cons of getting an Oscar nod, creating the iconic blast at the heart of the “Inception” score, and Nolan’s uncanny musical memory.

Yahoo! Movies: You’ve been nominated nine times for an Oscar. Does it lose any of its luster?

Hans Zimmer: The thing to remember about the Oscars is that it’s your peers that vote for you. I don’t know about most people, but my self-esteem goes up and down like a yo-yo. So to have people who you admire actually nominating you is a big deal. And that feels really good. The negative side of it is that I’m most happy when I can just sit in my room and play music and work with other musicians. I’m not the most comfortable getting dressed up and going to big events. And I’m extremely uncomfortable making speeches in front of people. That’s just like the worst thing. It scares the living daylights out of me. The time I won before, I was so nervous I forgot to thank my mother. And that became a whole other story. So whichever way you look at it, you can’t quite really win. There’s a downside to everything.

But forget about me winning or losing or any of that stuff. I am genuinely excited about the composer nominations. I love that it’s so international this year. There’s not a single person from the same country. It’s great. The music is so diverse. There isn’t a single score in there that doesn’t deserve to win.

YM: Aside from “Inception,” what’s your favorite score?

HZ: “How to Train Your Dragon.” It does everything. It’s an epic modern score. That really isn’t easy, and I love what John did. But at the same time, I really like that Trent Reznor is in there with ‘The Social Network.’ I’m a huge Nine Inch Nails fan. The thing that I always hoped for is that film music would shake itself up and renew itself. That there would be new faces in there. And it’s really starting to happen.

YM: How did you approach a movie as complicated as ‘Inception’?

HZ: The answer is really simple. Chris Nolan is not just a great director but a great writer. I read the script, and it read beautifully. Very often scripts can be like instruction manuals on how to build a model airplane. This read like a great novel. It was all there. Everything he needed to say to me was all there in that script.

Of course, I read script differently than if you just read it and didn’t have an involvement in the project. As I was reading it, I was already going, ‘OK what do I like here? What do I think is interesting? What can I do with this that Wally Pfister, the cinematographer, isn’t going to do? What the production designer isn’t going to do? Or the actors aren’t going to do?’

For me, the really interesting part of it was ideas of time and of dreams, which is, of course, something that music does really well. Music is not a linear language.

YM: How did you come up with that iconic blast that’s part of the score?

HZ: Let’s talk about this. Chris had the Edith Piaf song in the script. Right in the intro of it, there are these two little brass nubs. Just in the accompaniment. They’re not even the tune. They’re just lying in the corner of your vision, as it were. And it seemed like a good idea to take the rhythm of that and play it at something like 800th of its speed. Play it really slowly.

I put a piano in the middle of the room and put a brick on the sustain pedal. So when the brass section was blasting away, the strings on the piano would vibrate. That’s what I recorded. Then I slowed it down and did all of the stuff to it. But it’s the same rhythm as the notes in the beginning of Piaf’s song.

I actually had a conversation with Chris [about] if just slowing it down makes it too obvious. Everyone will know straightaway. Shouldn’t we make it a greater riddle? It did actually take people about four weeks to work it out. Well, actually, that’s untrue. People probably did work it out faster. It took someone four weeks to make a YouTube video.

YM: How is working with Nolan different from working with other directors?

HZ: One of the things with Chris is that I think he has a photographic memory for music. And I’m not saying that in a casual way. I had written over 900 bars for ‘Dark Knight.’ Just ideas. And Chris could literally go, ‘You know somewhere around bar 845 there was this really interesting thing.’ And I’d have to go and wind down to bar 845 and figure out what he was talking about. But he’d actually remember it.

He understands the importance of music. Like really understands. And not just music, but sound. I really think one of the things which we managed to do even from ‘Batman Begins’ is blur different categories between music and sound. Richard King, our sound designer, was like another band member. Rather than the music sitting on top in this sort of objectifying way, what we try to do is have the music ooze out of the pores of the film.

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February 2011

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