Music Man I Write the Songs

One of Hollywood's most successful composers of film music, Hans Zimmer, has been nominated this Sunday for an Oscar for the ninth time. The German-born musician is a perfectionist and pioneer.
The sound of music.

Hans Zimmer, one of Hollywood’s most successful composers of film music, has been nominated for an Oscar this Sunday for best original score for the music to “Interstellar,” a science-fiction drama by Christopher Nolan.

He won his last Oscar for his score for “The Lion King"  in 1994.

The latest nod is the German-born composer’s ninth Oscar nomination in a career that includes writing scores for films which have made millions of dollars, from hits like “Batman” and “Transformers,” to the critically acclaimed “12 Years a Slave.”

Mr. Zimmer is also known for revolutionizing the way music for movies is written.

While other film composers work with orchestras and pianos, Mr. Zimmer was an early user of technology and works in a warehouse-like space in Santa Monica that has more in common with a computer center than a music studio.

“Every project is highly personal and I’m scared at the start,” he said. Described by his friends as "plagued with doubt," he said he picked his film projects based on whether or not he trusted the producers and directors involved.

“I get really nervous when I play them a piece,“ he said.

Mr. Zimmer had a difficult start to his musical career. He lost his father at the age of six. Throughout his education his problems continued as he was thrown out of seven schools in Germany.

At school, he said, he often daydreamed, composing music from sounds heard in the classroom. Where others could hear a melody, he heard a full orchestral score.

Life became easier when he went to a British boarding school that encouraged creativity. He was also close enough to London to travel to concerts and was inspired by new wave music by Ultravox and The Clash.

Later, moving to London as a young musician, hard times continued. He remembers eating baked beans from a tin because they were cheap and being unable to pay his electric bills. “I was always a failure,” he said.

Mr. Zimmer still tells people he can’t read a musical score – but he has a different way of making music anyway.

He started experimenting with synthesizers early on in his career and won three minutes of fame as keyboard player of The Buggles when viewers could see him play in MTV’s first ever music video, "Video Killed the Radio Star," in 1981.

Later, director Barry Levison noticed his work and Mr. Zimmer was soon an industry pioneer.

Usually, a piece of music starts out as a conversation.

In 1988, he made the “Rain Man” soundtrack almost entirely with the synthesizer.

He admitted that Hollywood was a surprise. “I imagined it would be the most advanced place in the music industry in terms of technology, but actually it was unbelievably conservative,” he said. Often, music studios at MGM or Disney were as conservative as any business departments.

Video: Hans Zimmer and director Chrostopher Nolan about making of "Interstellar" Soundtrack .

Mr. Zimmer built his own studio in Santa Monica and in the process, achieved a measure of independence. He still invests large amounts of his music budget – often up to €2 million per film – in new technology.

Mr. Zimmer’s company, Remote Control Productions, has 70 employees including sound technicians, classical musicians and composers who work on scores for the next blockbuster. For the big studios, they often only have six weeks to make the music. They work for up to 20 hours a day, producing music for 30 films each year.

A perfectionist, Mr. Zimmer often puts the final touches to scores right up until the last moment. Working for “Black Hawk Down” in 2001, he and his team completed the last part of the soundtrack just two hours before the film’s global premiere.

Mr. Zimmer doesn’t pay his new recruits very much. Instead, he said, working at his firm is a bit like college and gives musicians and technicians a chance to learn.

Many of his former employees have gone on to become successful film music composers, including Henning Lohner, who said, “Everyone who worked for him profited from an enormous knowledge, a network which is second to none in Hollywood, and after a few years has a chance of seeing their own name under a blockbuster.”

Mr. Zimmer has worked a lot with director Christopher Nolan on films from “Batman” to “Inception.” Usually, a piece of music starts out as a conversation. Once, Mr. Zimmer said, Mr. Nolan didn’t show him any of the images until Mr. Zimmer had completed the score. “He didn’t want to influence my imagination,” he said.

Video: "Interstellar" Movie the Official Trailer.

Working on his scores, Mr. Zimmer immerses himself in a world of ideas. His dedication is a lonely business as he shuns daylight and distraction to pursue the music of his next soundtrack.

It is a stark contrast to the sound and lights he will face at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood on Oscar Sunday.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]