The preeminent talent in composing film music reflects on why he accepted the task of scoring the feature drama, 12 Years a Slave.
Film composer Hans Zimmer
Tavis: The contribution of a movie’s score to its dramatic power is often underestimated by the public, but not by the filmmakers themselves, who know only too well that a great score can help to make or break a movie’s impact on an audience.
One of the most sought-after composers today is Oscar and Grammy winner Hans Zimmer. (Laughter) His breakthrough score was back in 1988 with “Rain Man.” Since then he’s scored movies as diverse as “The Lion King,” “The Dark Knight,” and this year’s “12 Years a Slave.”
So let’s start our conversation by taking a look at some scenes from “12 Years a Slave,” which of course highlights his musical work.
[Film clip for “12 Years a Slave”]
Tavis: Let me jump right in. Tell me how one approaches scoring a project like “12 Years a Slave.”
Hans Zimmer: With great trepidation and humility. It’s an enormous subject. It’s an important subject, but Steve and I felt it’s – both of us being foreigners to this country –
Tavis: Steve McQueen, the director.
Zimmer: Steve McQueen.
Zimmer: You come – I came here, what, in 1990. You feel there’s a sort of part of the conversation that never quite happened, that never quite got finished, and maybe it’s us foreigners feeling this, I don’t know.
But it just seemed like here was a chance to tell this story, this true story of this great man, and see it sort of from our perspective, which is just to send something to America that maybe America doesn’t get to look at quite as easily as that.
So I think yeah, a lot of responsibility came with it. It felt to us that it’s a story we needed to tell. We felt compelled we had to tell this story.
Tavis: Creatively, when Steve McQueen or any director calls you in and shows you I guess the first cut or whatever it is they show you – let me just back up. When do you get brought into the process?
Zimmer: Steve and I have been talking about working together for years now. He just phoned me one day and said, “Hey, what are you doing at 9:03 tomorrow morning,” took me to a small theater, and sat me down in front of this movie without really telling me what I was going to go and – and my day was different.
Just seeing this movie at 9:30 in the morning certainly sort of colors your day in a sort of way.
Tavis: Better than seeing it at 9:30 at night.
Zimmer: Yeah, exactly, right.
Tavis: Because it keeps you up all night, yeah.
Zimmer: I come from these sort of movies. The first movie I ever really worked on was a movie called “A World Apart,” which was about apartheid in Africa. So these are things which were close to my heart, and Steve was going, “Look, we don’t have Hollywood blockbuster finances on this. Are you going to do it?”
I’m going, “Of course I’m going to do it.” He’s a very compelling man. He’s a great artist. So I had to do it, and I love this movie.
Tavis: Tell me about your process. So when you’re sitting watching this film with the director, you obviously have an inkling that he wants you to do something with him on this.
So does the creative process start to gestate while you’re watching it? I’m just trying to get a sense of when this genius comes to the fore.
Zimmer: I don’t know. I don’t think there’s genius involved. In this one, the genius is in the movie itself. The genius is in the performances, the genius is in the story it tells.
Quite honestly, I was sitting there just thinking, “How can I be as translucent and as transparent as possible and not get in the way of the actors?”
Zimmer: Then it turned into many, many conversations with Steve, and I’m the great procrastinator. Nothing happens for the longest time, while I worry about it. It was just Steve and I talking. We talked about – we never really talked about the movie.
We talked around the movie. We talked about slavery in the modern world a lot. Then suddenly there was this sort of moment where I sort of had an idea. I felt I knew what I wanted to do and wrote something pretty quickly.
Steve came in the next day and I played it for him, and he goes, “Okay, that’s it, that’s it. Just do that.” Really honestly, one of the things I’ve experienced time and time again, when you’re dealing with very serious subjects the only way you get through them is if you have a team around you of friends.
So it really was just like hanging out with friends, supporting each other. Lots of joking, because otherwise you just can’t get through the day watching these scenes.
One of the things which – the movies have become, their genres have become clichés. You either get an action movie or you get a sad movie or you get a happy movie.
You don’t really get a provocative movie anymore. You don’t really get something where you have to experience something. You leave – I feel you leave this movie having experienced something you want to talk about, and I just thought that’s important.
Tavis: Describe to me what I heard. There are, I’m sure, millions of folk watching who have seen this movie already as we head toward the Academy season, all the buzz on the film.
So I know what I heard, I know what I felt when I saw it. Musically, tell me what you did to me. What was I listening to? What was I hearing?
Zimmer: Somewhere in these conversations with Steve, there came this sentence. He said, “I’m making a movie about love.” So however brutal the subject matter is, at the end of the day, this is a man who needs to come home to his children, he needs to come home to his wife, and it’s a movie about love.
Ultimately, it’s a movie about loving each other. So the music is actually about love, and really, I sort of stuck to that. Doggedly I stuck to this idea that it had to be about that.
Plus you get inspiration from – there’s so much inspiration to be had. Sean Bailey’s (sic) cinematography, just the way every frame is a painting. Again, there’s a translucency to the colors that he uses.
The actors themselves, who are so articulate and so brilliant. Then there was this other thing which the actors experienced and which everybody on the set experienced.
I wasn’t there, but everybody sort of told me at one point or the other what it was like. They read the book, they read the screenplay, they went to Louisiana, and they shot on these plantations.
The trees surrounding them, the trees that had been there for hundreds of years and had seen – they were the witnesses to what really had gone on. That once you were on the set, it was a very, very different experience. It was real. It wasn’t make-believe.
Tavis: So you would regard this soundtrack for “12 Years a Slave” then as a love theme?
Zimmer: Yeah. The other thing is because the movie, of course it’s a period piece, and the only person who could step out of the period and not get caught in it was me. So the music is not period music, the music is of our time now.
I thought – my ambition was that I would be this little door that could be opened into the now to let that conversation start happening, and hopefully to get caught at it.
The music is small, it’s humble. It’s just myself, a great violinist from Virginia called Ann Marie Calhoun, a German cellist, Tristan Schulze, and this other great musician, Wallfisch. It’s just the four of us, really, playing with Steve in the room.
So it was like Steve McQueen was sort of part of the band. It’s like gathering round and making music in a very – the way music is supposed to be. It’s played, it’s organic, and it’s a conversation we were having.
Tavis: I want to circle back to where this conversation began, and that is with your confessing that there’s something a little bit unique and different about what you bring to the table, in part because, to use your word, you’re a foreigner.
You moved here, what, 1990? Give me some sense of what that has to do with the way you approach your work, with the way you approach these opportunities. You came here in 1990, you’re one of the toasts of the town when it comes to doing scores, but I’m trying to connect the dots between that experience that you bring as a foreigner to what you do every day.
Zimmer: Well, I’ll give you a perfect example. When we were doing “Thelma and Louise,” it’s Ridley Scott, an Englishman, and myself, and we’re like at the Grand Canyon during that scene.
We’re looking at the Grand Canyon and we think this is the most amazing thing ever. There’s a family not too far away with their kids, and the kids are going, “Can we go home now, Dad? It’s just the Grand Canyon.”
To us, America is a magical place, and I think my job, or the job of a lot of us European filmmakers is to just hold up America to Americans and present it to you in a new way.
Even in “Rain Man,” if you think about it, the character of Rain Man, it’s a road movie, and you see all this amazing America. To me, it was all new. It was all, “Oh, wow.”
All I wanted to do is in a funny way say, “Look at your country. It’s magnificent. It’s magnificent. Look at the side of the road. There’s something there.” Just put a spotlight onto it in a musical way.
I think it really does help when you come in with fresh eyes, and then present it as a new tale to you.
Tavis: I’m looking at you and I’m tempted to laugh. I won’t laugh in your face, but I’m laughing on the inside.
Zimmer: Go on, then.
Tavis: No, I’m laughing on the inside because this all happens to a guy who took piano lessons for what, two weeks?
Tavis: (Laughter) I was in there for years, banging away –
Zimmer: Oh, I’m sorry.
Tavis: – and I’m hosting a show on PBS, and you get to be Academy winner and every other award in town, and you took lessons for two weeks and stopped. What happened?
Zimmer: Well, you should have met my piano teacher. (Laughter) You would have stopped too. No, no, no, it’s like I was always banging around on the piano. I love the piano. Music is – I take refuge in music, and as a kid – my father died when I was very young, and it was sort of this place of refuge, the piano.
Then my mother said, “Do you want some piano lessons?” As a six-year-old, you sort of misunderstand what that means. I thought – I had all this music inside me, and I thought this guy was going to show me how to get it out.
As opposed to doing acrobatics, exercises. I wasn’t interested in playing other people’s music; I wanted to play my own. Luckily, like after two weeks he went to my mother and said, “It’s either him or me,” and she made the right choice. (Laughter) It was sort of knife’s edge there for a moment.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Zimmer: But then luckily I got involved in – like at school, I was always playing with other people, and that’s still my favorite thing. The operative word in music is “play,” and that was the thing which we were doing with Steve McQueen.
This idea that we just sat in my room and just brought our instruments out, looked at the picture, written a tune, and we just reacted to the picture. But it was pulling the director into the band, in a way.
It doesn’t matter if you can play an instrument or not. If you’re in the room, you’re still part of that process, and there has to be a playfulness about it. I suppose I’ve never had to grow up.
Tavis: I want to explore, Hans, a little bit further if I might this notion of music being, for you, in the aftermath of your father’s death, a place of refuge. Because I know that for many of us, music is that place, and it is – how might I put this? – it is pregnant with the kind of power that no other art form has – to soothe and to heal, it’s a sort of a balm. But give me some sense of how music became a refuge for you.
Zimmer: Well specifically it was here I was, this kid whose father just died, and my mother was not only heartbroken but she was desperate, panic-stricken how we’re going to get through life.
I very quickly figured out that the only thing that put a smile on her face was me playing the piano. So there was – oh, hang on a second, you’re getting – so suddenly, I’m a performer, and you’re starting to get that.
Then many, many years later, I have a daughter, she was six at the time, and I could never take her to premiers, because all my movies were not suitable for six-year-olds, and I was offered “The Lion King.”
I was offered this cartoon. I’m going, “I don’t know what to do with this,” and I suddenly thought no, no, I want to do it because I want to take my kid to the premiere. So all the wrong reasons.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Zimmer: So now I’m sitting in front of this cartoon with fuzzy animals, and I realize the story really is about a son losing his father. For the first time, it forced me into dealing with it – all that stuff I’d shoved away.
So “Lion King” became this requiem that I wrote for my father. So luckily, nobody sort of knew at the time, but I think it’s a pretty heavy piece of music, and again, it’s working with this friend of mine South Africa, Lebo M, who’s an amazing South African singer.
I loved this idea of always being a foreigner, of always – there’s this thing where people bring cultures, bring the music together. I don’t quite do that. I love it when the music, when the cultures collide and something sort of new comes out of it.
I think I still do this to this day. Having the great opportunity on a daily basis to sit in front of a blank page is terrifying, and at the same time really exciting. I can’t actually get better at my job, because every time you finish something you start with a blank page, with nothing. You know nothing.
So the only thing you can draw on is try to tell the story, follow the story, stick with the story. Talk to your director, and somehow, the notes will come.
Tavis: We’re just days away from the state funeral of Nelson Mandela.
Zimmer: The great Nelson Mandela.
Tavis: You mentioned South Africa. I assume, and I think I read that you actually went to South Africa to do some research before you did the score to –
Zimmer: Well, by that – yes. Actually by that point it was still the apartheid regime.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Zimmer: By that point I had such a – I had a police record in South Africa because I’d done two anti-apartheid movies, and the second one I sort of snuck into South Africa pretending to make a record, when I was really working on yet another movie against the regime.
We had this ridiculous meeting at Disney where it was two weeks before the general election where the ANC actually finally won, so there was a civil war going on in South Africa at the time.
We had this meeting about who was going to take over the score when I was going to get killed or imprisoned when I was going to go to South Africa. I was sort of suggesting people. “Well, he’d be pretty good,” et cetera.
Finally, somebody said, “Hans, you’re not going.” I’m going, “No, no, no, of course I’m going.” It never occurred to me – you get so involved and you fall so in love with what you’re doing with the music, yeah, I would have gone.
I would have been thrown in prison, at the very least, but I was quite happy to do it. So I didn’t get to go and I had to send my friends, but it became this really interesting thing, because we were recalling all these choirs. The studio became this refuge.
Here, you have sessions that start at 10:00 in the morning, and it’s all very three-hour sessions, et cetera. There, they didn’t want to leave. At 11:00 at night, 12:00 at night, people were still singing, because once they left, they were back in this war zone.
So “The Lion King” sort of – maybe it’s just me imagining it, but I can hear it in their voices. I can hear the joy, I can hear the passion, I can hear all that stuff. It was a very special time.
Then I was friends with the Slovo family, Joe Slovo, and I never met Nelson Mandela, but I always thought it was amazing to see these people who had dedicated their life to freeing their country actually see this dream come true.
Joe Slovo died very soon after the ANC came to power, but still, you hear so many people -our Solomon in “12 Years a Slave,” he never saw the fulfillment of his dream. The tragedy is we don’t know what happened to him. He just disappeared.
Tavis: As I recall, Mandela eulogized Joe Slovo, because he was out at that point in time. The other reason why I raised Nelson Mandela, as we are, again, just days away from his state funeral, is because your story about “The Lion King” underscored for me what I think I’ve heard you express in a variety of ways already.
Which is – you haven’t said it quite this way, but I want to just put it out there – that it’s important for you, I sense, to find your way to the humanity in the story, whether it’s “The Lion King” or “12 Years a Slave,” before you begin your process.
Zimmer: It’s the only thing we have. It’s the only thing – maybe I picked up on Steve’s words, that this is a movie about love. Because I want everything I do to be about love, and to make a connection.
We live in this day of the Internet, so a lot of information is floating around really fast, and I see, I write something, or a piece of my music comes out and I see people writing about it on the Internet as if I’m having a conversation with them.
We’ve never met, but somehow, my music is communicating something to them. Very often, it really makes them feel something. What better job could there be in the world than you’re touching somebody’s heart? You’re actually getting under the skin in one way or the other.
Tavis: Is that the greatest joy for you in your work?
Zimmer: Yeah, absolutely. Though there was, again, another very anti-apartheid movie, “Power of One,” and I don’t know who the guys were. I caught some interview on television where two Wall Street bankers were going – this was just after the war came down and they were – no, it was a bit later.
They were going to go to Russia to try to help Russia sort its problems out, economic problems or whatever. They were asked, “Why are you going?” One guy said, “Did you ever hear the music to ‘Power of One?'”
I thought, oh, that’s pretty great. It changed something, it moved something ever so slightly. It gave somebody courage. I had a very, very smart man come to me recently, he wanted to meet me, and he was very much part of the Egyptian spring, the uprising.
Zimmer: I said, “But why do you want to meet me?” He goes, “Well, I had a choice. I was outside of Cairo, and my car was pointing away from Cairo, and I knew if I went back to Cairo I would be arrested and probably tortured.
“The easy choice would have been to leave, but I knew I had to finish it. I put on ‘Time’ from ‘Inception.’ I just turned it up really loud, and I just hit the gas and I went back in. I just had that piece on a loop.”
Sometimes, it’s not the words that can make the difference. Sometimes, a piece of music can motivate people into doing something.
Tavis: There is no doubt about that, and you have motivated a lot of people, I suspect, over the years to do a lot of good work with your music. The latest wonderful piece of music from Hans Zimmer is the score for “12 Years a Slave.”
I suspect you will be hearing his name and the name of that movie a number of times as we head into the award season in this town. Hans Zimmer, good to have you on this program. Congrats in advance on all the good stuff that is yet to come for you, sir.
Zimmer: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. Thank you for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
[Film clip of “The Lion King”]
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad.]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.