NPR

Hans Zimmer, Scoring Big with 'Da Vinci'

Composer Hans Zimmer offers some additional thoughts:

You can't see the big-screen version of The Da Vinci Code for a few more days. But composer Hans Zimmer's score is already out on CD, and the music sets a tone that is both suspenseful and brimming with emotion.

Zimmer is a cinema powerhouse. His past work includes Gladiator, The Thin Red Line, Batman Begins and The Lion King. The latter won him an Academy Award. He last collaborated with Da Vinci Code director Ron Howard on the movie Backdraft.

Writing the score for what might be the most-awaited film of the year required a delicate balance. The result is reflective, but rises to the occasion for action-packed sequences.

Zimmer talks with Liane Hansen about the composition process, writing electronic versus orchestral scores and the future of film music.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's eerie, ethereal, dark and foreboding. Hans Zimmer's score for Ron Howard's film The Da Vinci Code was just released, pumping up even more anticipation for the film's opening later this week. Zimmer is one of Hollywood's best known and busiest composers, with over 100 films to his credit, including Gladiator, The Thin Red Line, Batman Begins and The Lion King, for which he won a 1994 Academy Award.

We've talked about a number of his scores in our annual series on Oscar-nominated music with Andy Trudeau. Today, we talk to the composer himself. Hans Zimmer is in our NPR West studios. Thanks a lot for your time. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. HANS ZIMMER (Film Composer): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: This is a big score. How big was the orchestra?

Mr. ZIMMER: I never quite counted. I think Ron counted. I think we had 99 people in the room. Okay, I know, I know. I should've added the extra person, I know, just to make it a round number, but it just so happened, that's all I needed, 99.

HANSEN: Well, this huge orchestra, it's interesting because this is not a score that comes with a pound of sound. This is something that's very atmospheric perhaps more than anything else. Was that your intention?

Mr. ZIMMER: Totally. I think people don't really know this, but you don't make a loud noise because you have 99 people in the room. If you get 99 people to be very quietly and play very focused, you get just this remarkable tension in everything and just a remarkable beauty out of the instruments.

HANSEN: Did you use a lot of strings and there are a lot of stringed arrangements in this score.

Mr. ZIMMER: A lot of strings.

HANSEN: Yes, why? What was it that the strings provided in terms of the score for this particular film?

Mr. ZIMMER: I just -- well, and especially because the strings are sort of weighted down towards the bottom end more, there were more bases and more cellos than you usually have in an orchestra. As soon as you put a lot of brass players, it all starts sounding like an action score and I just didn't want to do that.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is also a score that has a lot of suspense and a lot of anxiety and there's something about the sound of strings that conveys that.

Mr. ZIMMER: For me, the interesting part was that strings are very agile and one of the things I wanted to get across in this score was the idea that watching a man think, using his intellect, using his brain, is actually an exciting occurrence, that that can be as exciting as a car chase. And the agility, the agility of intellect, the agility of, you know, strings playing, I thought was the right thing for the character.

I mean, I felt it was the right thing to do. I never quite justified it. I just thought, you know, as soon as I start in with a large brass section early on in this movie, I'll be hopelessly mired in Hollywood tradition of how you do these things and it'll sound like a biblical epic, which is not what I wanted to do.

HANSEN: You said for better or worse, I tend to become the characters in the film I'm working on, and part of writing is putting yourself inside the character. Did you get inside the head of Robert Langdon, which is the character played by Tom Hanks? Or Silas, the albino monk, which is played by Paul Bettany?

Mr. ZIMMER: Yes. You know, you know, why did I take this on? I mean, I didn't take it on because it's a controversial book or because it's a big hit or anything like this. But I thought in my way and in my language, which is far more secretive and can be far less, you know, overtly controversial than the language Dan Brown has to resort to, I could explore this idea, or different ideas that interest me, you know, the ideas of faith, the ideas of how do you make a movie where people are talking a lot as opposed to car chases, you know? How do you get into the heart or the mind of a character like the Silas character? The first thing I said to Ron was, you know, I'm not going to make him into the bad guy, you know, I'm going to write very respectful music for him, actually.

HANSEN: Did you read the book?

Mr. ZIMMER: Of course I did. I spend a lot of time on airplanes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Were you hearing things as you were reading it, knowing you were going to do the movie?

Mr. ZIMMER: No, no, no, no, no. I didn't -- no, I read the book before I even was considering the movie. In fact, I didn't know Ron was doing it. We were just having a conversation about something completely different and I said, Oh, what are you doing next? And he said, Oh, Da Vinci Code, and I went, Oh, that'll be tricky, it's all exposition, you know, where the cinematic elements -- I just started thinking, you know. I mean, it just all -- all this stuff poured out of my mouth, how impossible it would be to make into a movie. You know, I suddenly went, But hang on a second, the music could be helpful here to tell those things you can't elegantly tell in words and pictures.

HANSEN: Did you get nervous before you played it for him?

Mr. ZIMMER: Of course, you know. Here is my child, I'm presenting it to all of you people to go and be really critical of, you know, yes. Great idea.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: There's parts of it where you've really, you know, I could feel myself inside something with big vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows.

Mr. ZIMMER: Actually, I recorded it in a beautiful church.

HANSEN: You did?

Mr. ZIMMER: With big vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: What is the process like with you? How do you work with Ron as opposed to other directors you've worked with? I mean, given the number of films that you've done. Ridley Scott, you know, people like that.

Mr. ZIMMER: You know, it starts off with a conversation, and I have a big mouth and I think, you know, I mean literally, that first conversation, Oh, Ron, I don't know how you're going to pull that off, it's all exposition. We had a dinner in London. There were two other people there. It started at 7:00 o'clock in the evening. They were completely ignored and I think at about 2:00 o'clock at night we were still talking about ideas and da, da, da.

What I love about what we do is having somebody who is willing to go on this journey of exploring something with you. You know? And when you can't come up with idea, he will come up with the idea, or he'll recognize something and -- I mean there was a perfect example of this. There's a car chase in the movie. I had no idea what to do with it. So I went, you know, I wrote a car chase, I know how to write car chases. It's a dull thing to admit to, but I know how to write car chases.

And so it was just another pedestrian car chase. And Ron said, you know, there's a little bit in your suite, you know, can we just lay that up? And it had no rhythm, all it had was a romantic emotional tone to it. It was the opposite to an action cue and we just put it up and it was absolutely magical. And I would never have thought of it, and you know, it's great having somebody else who makes you look like a genius sometimes.

HANSEN: How long did you have to do the score?

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, you know, I think I'm really the person who put the word pro into procrastination. Like always, at the last moment I started actually really writing to picture, but you know, I was really writing from August, September on, and then really started to get down to the, you know, the nitty-gritty of actually making these ideas fit to the picture in January. Long enough, put it that way. You know.

HANSEN: You have another big score in the works, Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man's Chest. It opens in July, which has got to be a different style?

Mr. ZIMMER: I wish you wouldn't have said it opens in July. That seems so very soon.

HANSEN: Oh, you're on deadline, are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIMMER: And I wish you wouldn't use the word dead either. I mean, you're not doing well here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I'm sorry. I'm terribly sorry.

Mr. ZIMMER: Fine, okay. Okay. Okay. Yes, I'm talking to you and I feel incredibly guilty. You know, here is the other thing, being a great procrastinator. Somebody on the -- I overhear somebody in the production say, Oh, but he'll get it done. He'll get the idea. And I'm forever trying to say to them, but what if I don't come up with a good idea? You know, I get up in the morning and most mornings I can't think of the great idea.

You know, I actually did right the themes for the first Pirates movie. But they all got written in one day and one night. Now I'm not saying that makes them good or bad. I'm just saying I did manage to come up with a whole load of ideas in one day and one night. So I don't know why this one's taking me so much longer.

HANSEN: But you love your work, admit it.

Mr. ZIMMER: Oh, completely. Wouldn't trade it for anything.

HANSEN: Hans Zimmer, he wrote the score for The Da Vinci Code, which premiers this week. The soundtrack CD is already in the music stores. He joined us from the studios of NPR West. Mr. Zimmer, thank you so much for giving us your time today.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you. Great pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And here's a question for you. Does Hans Zimmer prefer working with electronics or a live orchestra? Find the answer at our website NPR.org. You can also listen to excerpts from his score. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular