Hans Zimmer is a composer who has risen to the top of Hollywood’s land of dreams by blurring the line between orchestra, electronics, hip rock, and traditional scoring, conjuring a miasma of sound with his crack team of musical adventurers at Remote Control. But in all of the directors’ minds they’ve invaded to ferret out the indescribable, secret language of music, no imagination might be more mysterious or complex than Christopher Nolan’s. First re-jigging memory for Memento before hitting the summer big time with Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to score his two daringly bleak reinventions of The Dark Knight, Nolan’s success has gotten him his own Hollywood catbird seat — one that has allowed him to unleash whatever puzzle he desires. His newest film, Inception, is a Chinese box as crossed with an M.C. Escher drawing. A sci-fi dream heist flick on the surface, Inception is actually a mesmerizing, maddeningly entertaining maze of a film with metaphysical layers upon layers whose icing just happens to be spectacular zero-gravity fight sequences amidst full-throttle car chases and gun battles.
Seeping through nearly every pore of Nolan’s dazzling visuals is Hans Zimmer’s equally hypnotic wall of sound. Topped with a retro synth vibe that recalls Blade Runner’s future noir, Zimmer brings in powerful acid rock guitar-playing by The Smiths’ Johnny Marr. Along with eerie atmospheres and thrumming symphonic action, Zimmer’s music doesn’t so much score Inception as it creates a sonic bed for us to lie down and dream on. It’s an ever-shifting soundscape of well-defined themes that complement the purposefully perplexing nature of Inception – music that at once thrills and intoxicates while making us doubt the reality of the movie theater whose music is shaking the walls. Now Zimmer talks about his surreal dive into Nolan’s mindscape.
Daniel Schweiger: Do you think Chris Nolan is the most intellectual director you’ve ever worked with?
Hans Zimmer: No, far from it. I’m not going to go and name the most intellectual director I’ve worked with, but Christopher and Nicolas Roeg (whom I worked with composer Stanley Meyers for Insignificance and Cast Away) both have a lot in common so far. I think they are the most visceral, emotional directors that I’ve ever worked with because they bring our subconscious feelings to the surface.
DS: After the musical bleakness of Chris’s Batman movies, were you happy to do something that was more melodic in nature, albeit unconventionally melodic?
HZ: It’s where we started off right away. After reading the script, my first conversations with Chris were me telling him how I thought this was a hugely emotional story — one that needed a tune. But how to do that tune? It’s very interesting because a conventional tune doesn’t work anymore in a modern-day movie somehow. I have yet to discover how to put them back in. Even using the kind of musical style you’d hear in Star Wars or Superman just wouldn’t work in this movie because it would somehow sit on top of the action as opposed to being a part of the emotional tapestry of the whole thing. The music would comment on the film as opposed to being a part of its emotional glue. Plus, scoring Inception like that would answer questions as opposed to asking questions. I wanted the music here to let the audience be participants in that way.
DS: Do you ever create music in your dreams?
HZ: All the time. The really annoying thing is that the music is absolutely fabulous and, as soon as I wake up, I can’t remember it! All I remember is that I lost something really precious.
DS: Inception is about going into a dream and creating a memory that isn’t there. In that respect, do you think your role as a film composer is creating thoughts or ideas that were not there when these images were shot?
HZ: I think the thoughts in Inception were there very strongly. Chris and I spent a lot of time talking about the film before he shot it, and we settled on some certain ground rules. We talked incessantly while he was shooting film, and I would go to the set. But as soon as he started cutting the movie, he wouldn’t let me see a single image anymore. He made me write the score independently of the movie. Part of that was because he wanted my imagination to run wild. He didn’t want to inhibit me in any way. My suspicion is that it’s partly because this movie deals with this idea of shared dreaming. Chris wanted to find out what would actually happen if I dreamt my dream and he dreamt his dream, with both of us creating within the same world. So the first time I actually saw the movie, it was with my complete score — one that had been written completely independently of how Chris had cut the picture. The great advantage you have when you work with a writer/director like Chris is that the script is more than architectural, more than just a blue print. This is the script he shot. So having the script in my mind at all times, I literally wrote my version of the script. That made it even more thrilling to see how things came together. But while it’s true on one hand that I scored Inception without seeing the film, I certainly did a whole pass after I watched it to illuminate it a little more for the audience.
DS: Inception uses the kind of synth sounds I haven’t heard since Blade Runner. Did you want a retro feel to the electronic music in that way, especially in how Blade Runner transformed a film noir sound into the future?
HZ: It’s a synth world that I come from, and it’s nice to have a director who understands that there’s magic in those sounds. I went in there tweaking all the knobs and buttons to making complete custom sounds for this movie. Synthesizers have always have had the bad reputation that they’re just supposed to imitate acoustic instruments. What happened on Inception is that we did it the other way around where we came up with a very abstract sound scheme and had the orchestra imitate these electronic soundscapes. The scientific journey of this movie could fill a whole book.
DS: There are some incredible guitar and orchestra builds in your score. In that way, do you think Inception is the score that draws the most heavily on your own progressive rock beginnings?
HZ: I think I’m one of the main offenders at the horrible rock guitar sound orchestra. It’s just a cheesy horrible thing, but I think the thing I learned over the years (I am evolutionary after all) is that there are certain people who can pull this off and certain people who can’t. I kept saying to Chris, “I know this could sound like the most hideous thing, but I wanted to put some guitar to this score, and there’s only one guy who can do it. It’s Johnny Marr from The Smiths. If Johnny doesn’t want to do it, I’m just going to go and throw this idea and out and we’re going to start again and go in a different direction.” Luckily, Johnny was up for it.
DS: Some critics have noted that this is like a James Bond film in a lot of ways, and musically, your score goes through some cool John Barry-like moves during the ski chase sequence here, which is exactly the kind of scene we’d expect to find in a Bond movie.
HZ: I’m a huge James Bond fan and a huge John Barry fan. With Inception, the aesthetic I tried to take from John Barry is how he writes these incredibly drawn-out soundscapes. His tunes are incredibly evocative.
DS: In a way, did you want your music under Mal to play the emotions of Edith Piaf’s trademark song “Je ne regrette rien,” which plays such an important part in Inception?
HZ: Both Chris and I love Piaf, and we started off with a terrible recording of the song. It was a copy from a copy from a copy so it sounded like it had been recorded in some smoky cabaret in the ‘40s in Paris. When we finally dug out the pristine master from the National Archives in Paris, it turned out to be actually rather disappointing. We worked quite hard at making it have that sort of nostalgic feel again. And then, of course, crises arose when Chris cast Marion Cotillard in the movie. She had just played Piaf in La Vie En Rose. We don’t want that as a reference, so we wondered if we should go and find a different song. But “Je ne regrette rien” had been in the Inception script for seven years, and part of what sent me on my course was the idea of Paris and nostalgia — the idea of Edith Piaf and what her songs meant. So in the end, we couldn’t really think that anybody was foolish enough to think that we were making some sort of inside joke. We wanted our movie and Marion’s character to be taken at face value. At the same time, I still haven’t had the courage to ask Marion what she thinks about using the song!
DS: Inception is nearly wall-to-wall music. Did you ever imagine there would be this much score in the film? And would you have pulled back on the score if left to your own devices?
HZ: The first time I saw Inception, it had all that music in it so I couldn’t ever imagine it to not have that much music. Afterward, I went back and asked Chris because I wasn’t sure myself that all those things from my early experiments should be used. Did I ever lose sight of the aim? Did I ever write something that wasn’t appropriate for the film? The answer ended up being that everything I wrote is in the film. And of course, I had great joy writing all of that music, but I also had great fear, and days and weeks of dry spells and all that stuff that goes on in really trying to push this out. It all came from Chris’s script. Though I love reading, I usually don’t like reading scripts because, on the whole, they are very poorly written. You don’t get the same joy out of them that you do from reading great literature. It’s usually the director and actors that put life into these things. But when I read Chris’s script, it was like great literature because it was so well-written. So the responsibility that I was dealing with something that was not only a great idea but was so beautifully written gave me the inspiration to write this music all the way through.
DS: In summer films, it’s a miracle if you can even hear the score over the sound effects, yet the music is often the loudest thing in Inception. Were you surprised you got such a dynamic mix?
HZ: I knew, from my very first conversation with Chris, that music was going to be the heart of the movie. So instead of using a temporary soundtrack of other film scores, or even a demo, we began the first day of working on Inception by putting the real music into it. It was the foundation of where we were going to end up. I also didn’t go to the dub stage on purpose while Chris was mixing in the music because sometimes even just peering at the movie can influence the outcome, like having someone say, “Oh hey, the composer said we better turn the music up!” I didn’t want to do any of that. I just wanted Chris to have the privacy to be able to work with this music. I know Chris likes pushing music sometimes. Once a week, I would phone him and give him a talk about making sure you can hear the dialogue. That was like my weekly mantra to him. I also taught him a new German word, which you don’t have in the English language. It’s the greatest word an artist can have in his vocabulary because it means, “To ruin things through improvements.” So I didn’t want Chris to overdub this one or get rid of all the rough edges. That would make sure we kept the musical life going in this thing.
DS: You did live streaming of a concert suite from your score for the Inception premiere, which people can now watch on YouTube. How did you get the idea to play such complicated music live?
HZ: Movies are sent out into the world for people to see, but at the same time, we seem to have this weird way of celebrating finishing a movie by putting a velvet rope around a premiere and not letting the world in. So I asked if there was something we could do that invites everybody to our premiere, and we came up with the idea of live streaming our Inception concert on the Internet would be a way of truly celebrating why we do this work. But that didn’t stop me from getting such stage fright. Putting me on a stage is the most dreadful thing. It’s the greatest sacrifice I could make! But it also ups the ante. You can see Zimmer really freaking out! We had 20 brass players, an incredible string trio, and more electronics than should ever be allowed to pass through one wire, and it was always teetering on the edge of disaster, which is the only way to go and do it.
DS: Even after the hundreds of times you’ve probably watched this movie, are you still trying to figure out Inception?
HZ: It’s interesting because people keep thinking of this as an intelligent movie, which I don’t think says as much about our movie as it says about all the other movies that are out there. I think really, quite honestly, this was a very straightforward love story with a lot of action it. That made it so fascinating for me to work on. The other thing I love about this movie is that, ultimately, it lets you, as the individual, interpret it in any way you want. In other words, Inception gives you an individual experience. Whatever I believe to be the truth about Inception, it’s my own personal truth, given what the story is, and I think that’s part of the magic. When you sit in the cinema with other people, you really get a sense of shared dreaming, and Inception is just intelligent enough not to treat you like a fool or as part of the herd. You’re allowed to have your own personal opinion and experience with it, but it’s certainly an entertaining, overwhelming watch that pins you in your seat.
The 'Inception' Soundtrack is out now on Watertower Music.