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“The Dark Knight is a punk score”: Hans Zimmer on his collaborative composing process

The Oscar nominee (for Dunkirk) joined his collaborators to talk the score for Blue Planet II.

2017 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 2 - Day 3
Hans Zimmer performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April 2017.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When I asked Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer why he so often works with collaborators, as opposed to the traditional image of film composing being a solitary pursuit, he didn’t even need to think about it.

“For me, music has always been about that magical process of being with other people in a room, and looking into each other’s eyes, and somebody picks up an instrument and starts playing, and suddenly, a profound communication happens. And it’s fun. That word ‘play’ is really important,” he said.

I talked to Zimmer on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, about his work on the new miniseries Blue Planet II, for which he composed music alongside Jacob Shea and David Fleming, who joined the interview as well. For the podcast’s second half, I talked to several of Blue Planet II’s producers about their time spent trying to capture images from under the sea.

The three composers share a great love for finding ways to get orchestras to make new sounds, something that has made Zimmer an unlikely Coachella headliner, thanks to the “braaaaaaaaam” and “booooom” of his work with director Christopher Nolan.

One thing I love about Zimmer’s work is the way that it blends disparate influences, even if those pieces might not seem to fit together, and especially might not seem to fit together when played by an orchestra. So I asked him just how he manages this. But he thought that question missed the mark. Instead, he said, the most important thing isn’t the composer; it’s the musicians.

I’ll let him explain:

The great thing is musicians are musicians. Look, The Dark Knight is a punk score, without a shadow of a doubt. And it was great standing in front of the orchestra and going, “Okay, guys. This is going to be a punk score.” And all these classical musicians just completely embracing this and being liberated by this sort of thing. And figuring it out! It takes a different attitude, and it’s not that easy to shed your well-behaved skin.

One of my major concerns in life — this is a bad non sequitur, but not really — is the survival of the orchestras. I think it’s strictly about making them relevant. They are relevant, but keeping them relevant.

For instance, I had an interesting year. I managed to take an orchestra and choir out into the desert and do Coachella with them, because I just thought, “Nobody’s done that! Take an orchestra and a choir and shove it in front of that sort of an audience.” And luckily my instincts proved right. Yes, orchestras are still relevant. If we were to lose the orchestra, we would lose far more than just this idea of a body of musicians performing together. We would lose a vast chunk of our humanity and our culture.

What’s also striking is that Zimmer’s work on Blue Planet II mirrors his most recent film score for Dunkirk, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Both projects are about the ocean — sort of. So after spending much of the interview asking Shea, Fleming, and Zimmer how the noises of the ocean (beautifully captured in Blue Planet II) informed their score, I had to ask how that differed when capturing a much more hostile ocean in Dunkirk. Again, Zimmer was quick to throw credit to others.

[The ocean] is the enemy in Dunkirk. Just over there is England, and we can’t cross this ocean. Working collaboratively, which was such a delight, with Richard King, our sound designer, and Richard would give me amazing tracks of the ocean.

The thing I’m proudest of about Dunkirk, in a funny way, is I don’t think it has a score. I think what we managed to do is that the music and the images are completely fused. Chris [Nolan] and I have been trying to do this forever, on every movie, and Dunkirk is a hugely experimental movie! I don’t think people really realize that Chris went out there and boldly made an experimental movie that is a commercial success. So don’t tell me you can’t go and make experimental movies and make them a commercial success!

But part of our journey was how do we truly not separate the eye from the ear? How do we really combine the senses? The record company will shoot me right now, but I don’t actually want people to listen to the music apart from the images, because I think the images absolutely complete the music and vice versa.

You can check out a small sampling of how Zimmer’s music informs the images (and vice versa) in this Vox video about Dunkirk’s score.

For much more with the Blue Planet II team, listen to the full podcast. Make sure you stick around for the story of how one of the project’s producers found herself several hundred meters below the ocean’s surface, just off the coast of Antarctica, in a submersible that was beginning to take on water. (Spoiler: She survived.)

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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