No name has become more synonymous with the very concept of “movie music” than that of Hans Zimmer. Beginning in the 1980s by composing for such cult filmmakers of distinctive vision as Jerzy Skolimowski, Nico Mastorakis, and Nicolas Roeg, Zimmer soon rose to Hollywood heights, creating the scores for big hits like Rain Man, The Lion King, As Good as It Gets, Gladiator, and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In recent years, he has entered into an ongoing collaboration with the director Christopher Nolan, himself an indie favorite turned blockbuster king, scoring his Batman movies as well as Inception, Interstellar, and Nolan’s new World War II picture Dunkirk, whose unusual sonic intensity the Vox video above explains.
“My weakness is that I didn’t go to music school, and that my formal education is two weeks of piano lessons,” Zimmer told Indiewire a couple years ago, after the release of Interstellar. “My strength is that I know how to listen,” and “the way Chris Nolan and I work is we listen to each other.”
Unlike many productions where “the composer is this nearly uncontrollable element that comes into the film” and to whom the director must defer, Zimmer starts working on Nolan’s movies from the beginning, a process he describes as a conversation: “While he was writing, while he was shooting, I was writing, and the music was happening sort of in a — to use an Interstellar term — parallel universe, really.” With no need for the dreaded “temp score,” the drama of Zimmer’s music and Nolan’s stories develop together.
You can hear the results of Zimmer’s process in this nine-hour playlist, which includes Zimmer’s work for Nolan’s films up to Dunkirk–its sound based in part on the ticking of a watch Nolan had given him–and others besides. (The playlist also includes Zimmer’s soundtracks for Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Black Hawk Down, Sherlock Holmes, Gladiator, and The Thin Red Line.) If it leaves you with the desire to learn a bit more about how this instinctive master of movie music does it, have a look at the trailer above for “Hans Zimmer Teaches Film Scoring,” his $90 course from the online educational platform Masterclass. The very first piece of wisdom he offers reflects the fact that his instinct for back-and-forth collaboration extends well beyond his partnership with Nolan to his view on the craft itself: “In music, you’re basically having a conversation” — with your artistic collaborators, with your fellow musicians, with anyone to whom you can listen.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.