Q&A: Hans Zimmer

Grammy-award winning composer Hans Zimmer spoke with A&E about his latest intergalactic endeavor, “Interstellar.”

 Alex J. Berliner/AB Images for Paramount Pictures

Image by Alex J. Berliner/AB Images for Paramount Pictures

Alex J. Berliner/AB Images for Paramount Pictures

by Laini Devin

Hans Zimmer’s musical vocabulary is one without words, and one that he described as mysterious and personal.

His latest film score comes in “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s feature that opened in the United States on Nov. 7.

The award-winning pair has collaborated on movies including “Inception” and “The Dark Knight,” but Zimmer says his music for the new sci-fi motion picture is unlike anything he’s ever done.

Zimmer shared the methods behind his work over the phone with A&E, and he divulged the details of finally making music that leaves him completely satisfied.  


Where did the idea for “Interstellar” come from?

Chris and I have known each other for a long time now, and it was this fable about a father and his children, and it was all to do with a conversation we had a few years back about our kids.

This letter turned up — this beautiful type, not on a computer, but typewriter, and I knew it was the carbon copy page of what the movie was about.

I made this tiny, very personal, very intimate little piece. I said to him, “Do you want me to send it over?”

He came down and I played it to him, and I said, “What do you think?”

He says, “I suppose I better make the movie now.” I said, “Well, what is the movie?”

What was his response?

He goes off describing this huge space movie celebrating science. I said, “I’ve only given you the very intimate, very little piece.” And he said, “I now know where the heart of the story is.”

That’s where we started, and we kept going back to that. And the bigger the movie became, the more personal it became.

When Chris wrote the piece for me, he wrote it about a father and his son because what he knows is my then-14-year-old son wants to become a scientist. Of course then Chris switched it on me — he’s a daughter in the movie.

You and Christopher Nolan worked very closely.

Quite honestly, the inspiration comes from Chris and I spending an inordinate amount of time just talking and riffing. We just work in parallel constantly and communicate in form.

Chris is foremost a writer-director, which means reading the script is actually the truth. You’re truly reading the vision, and he writes beautifully. A lot of scripts, what happens is you get great dialogue and the action is sort of described in an idea, but Chris has such attention to detail that his writing just reads beautifully.

Having a director who fiercely protects my process — nothing gets in the way of my imagination. Whatever ideas we have we at least have to give them a go.

He gave me a watch at the end, and there’s a saying on the back: “This is not a time for caution.”

When in the process were you brought in to compose?

I suppose I was the first person on this movie, because partly I think the game was when Chris said he was going to send me that page, it actually forced him to write.

I sort of locked myself away in my happy little apartment and wouldn’t go out and wouldn’t see anyone. I was behaving like an astronaut, far removed from society — method composing.

The amazing luxury I have on this project is basically, each project becomes a journey — an adventure, where you can go and suddenly learn something.

[When working on] “The Da Vinci Code,” I got to hang out in the Louvre in the middle of the night; “Interstellar,” I get to read about science.

The score had such a different sound than a lot of your other work. How did you choose which instruments to use?

It was this sort of strange process. For instance Chris said, “What about pipe organ?” And as soon as he said it, I sort of saw just the shape of a pipe organ; it just looks like one of those rockets. And the other thing that so absolutely drew me to this idea: There’s no sound coming out of a pipe organ unless there’s breath, air coming through those pipes. And it was a great metaphor for being human.

We really tried to make use of as many organic instruments as I could possibly find. Each instrument is a piece of technology. I was getting excited about a movie that was celebrating science.

The musicians are my actors. I was being very particular about who I was casting. Then we recorded in these two very interesting sounding churches in London. One is a studio, which Chris and I have worked in a lot over the years, and the other was this place called Temple Church. It was consecrated in 1158. It’s a knight’s temple, and it just happens to have a magnificent organ in it. I placed my orchestra in the ground, all the effigies of the buried knights, all these string players sort of grouped around dead knights, and the organ above, and it’s the sort of place where you walk around in the hushed tone, and you unleash the organ.  

How did writing for “Interstellar” compare to writing for your other projects?

The great thing is that I don’t have to do what you do — I don’t use words. My language is a little bit more mysterious. It’s really hard to catch me at it. I write about intensely personal things.

The only way I know how to write is to write from my heart and to write about things that are important to me and to make it a personal journey. Each movie I find my little corner of the thing that they can’t tell to you in words or pictures.

This one was sort of extraordinary because on the one hand, I was forever trying to maintain this intimacy of the connection of this father and child, and at the same time I got to work in this huge canvas with a completely new palate and completely new songs.

What is it like to hear your music in its finished form in the complete movie?

It varies. I’ve done … 100-something movies, and usually I come away going, “Well, this could have been a little different. I wish I’d done a different take on this.”

This one was different.

A week before we were supposed to be really done, for the first time I found myself going, “I think I crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s. This is pretty good. On to the next adventure.”