Filmmakers like James L. Brooks (“As Good As It Gets”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Dune”) feel safe hanging out on the plush red sofas at Hans Zimmer’s Santa Monica studio. The prolific German composer creates an atmosphere that encourages play and experimentation.
“I built something that wasn’t a recording studio,” he tells me in our Zoom video (above), “but a work environment where you feel free to go and play the wrong note, and a creative spirit reigned. It’s not me and my loneliness. I surround myself with great artists whose work I enjoyed and conversations I loved. Everything we did is more of a conversation and finding out response in conjunction with something. The bedroom was exciting and at the same time a comforting bedroom. We artists are so insecure all the time.
Zimmer said composing can be a lonely job as he finds cues, sound components and arrangements, but after that “I like to open up the conversation”. He often shares his first scores with the young musicians who work in his enclosure and asks: “What would you do with them?
ALBERTO E. RODRIGUEZ
The composer brought in musicians straight out of university music schools, often struggling with loan debts. “They come out with formal training, which in any case prevents them from being effective on a film score,” he said. “Somehow what they learn and what the trade is really about is different. If you’re an intern making coffee, you’re still in the room overhearing a conversation between me and Villeneuve. If you’re good enough and have the balls to open up and give an idea, you’ll be heard!
Zimmer has spent decades composing film scores in the studio under tight deadlines, but always creates something bespoke. They range from six-title Nancy Meyers and Penny Marshall comedies with mastermind Christopher Nolan, from “Inception” and “Interstellar” to “Dunkirk.” Nolan was unhappy when Zimmer opted to collaborate with Villeneuve again on “Dune” — a frontrunner for many Craft Oscars this year — on “Tenet.” What Zimmer likes about his collaboration with Villeneuve: “He directs with kindness and lets you express your most secret ideas.”
It’s easy to recognize Zimmer’s oversized superhero scores. There’s a reason he keeps getting hired by the likes of Zack Snyder (“Man of Steel”), Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”, “The Lone Ranger”), Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) , Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes”) as well as Ron Howard (“The Da Vinci Code”, “Rush”) and Steve McQueen (“Hunger”, “12 Years a Slave”). He is a serious collaborator for these directors.
For Zimmer, the focus is always on the word “play”. It was especially crucial on “Dune,” which brought Zimmer and Villeneuve back to their deep feelings for Frank Herbert’s novel. In fact, Zimmer was the first creative Villeneuve asked to join him on the film. Zimmer has never seen the David Lynch film. “I made my own movie in my head and I didn’t want that vision to be dulled,” he said. Working on “Dune” “took us back to 13 years old. Our approach was to find the carelessness and inventiveness of a teenager.”
Villeneuve kept surprising him. “I didn’t expect this,” Zimmer said of the music that welcomed Paul Atreides and his family to the desert planet of Arrakis. “Denis’ crazy idea when they arrived: they were announced not by trumpets and a brass band but by bagpipes.
Villeneuve leaned on Zimmer to express things he hadn’t even thought of. “He was obsessed with this idea that the music had to come from another world,” the director told me. “He created instruments, and it took a long time. He was like a mad scientist doing an experiment, creating a library of sounds. He creates wind instruments with friends. He had read the novel several times and knew all the layers and was one of my best allies, because sometimes he knew how to bring the subtext of certain scenes, a bit like in the book when you hear the thoughts of the characters.
The men also agreed that the women are the strongest force on planet Arrakis. “It’s not really a movie just about a male hero,” Zimmer said, “The power comes from women, the mother [Rebecca Ferguson], the Bene Gesserit, the generations that are embedded in the DNA of it all. Even when Jessica isn’t on screen, you feel like she stays in the background.
Zimmer has also surrounded himself with extraordinary female singers. “Lisa Gerrard is like my sister,” he said. “We are experimenting, we don’t know if it will work. She gave me a present. Loire Cotler is the big voice with some authority; it gouges out your eyeballs. Its song seems to carry for miles across the desert. Her singing in her closet with coats over her head became her studio.
Inventing the new instruments required a word processor for music. “You type music, play notes in Cubase,” Zimmer said. “It’s the main sound generator in this score.” To create an entirely new sound, Zimmer could use Cubase to analyze the spectrum of a Tibetan war horn and channel Lisa Guo’s cello playing.
It also rolled out the otherworldly sounds of Chas Smith, a musician/welder/sculptor who creates “an unholy alliance of jet-makers and reject metals,” Zimmer said. “His whole house is dedicated to a huge resonating chamber, with shiny metal and pots not quite of this earth. When excited, these metal plates and rods howl, scream, moan and talk to you.
Zimmer constantly sent sound ideas to sound designers Theo Grant and Mark Magian as well as editor Joe Walker to create the film’s elaborate soundscape. “I don’t know where I start and where they end,” Zimmer said. “Joe was a composer. He is a remarkable editor; he edits as a composer writes; he has a sense of rhythm. It’s the score of a film made by people who loved working together and collaborating.
Next : The collaboration continues with “Dune” Part II. Zimmer has already plotted it. “Of course, I approach this story as a whole,” he said. “In my own head, the structure lasts until it comes to a complete stop on the last page of the book.”