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Why Hans Zimmer Got The Job You Wanted (And You Didn't)

I worked for Hans Zimmer for about 8 years, 5 of which were in a studio at Remote Control, his facility in Santa Monica. Since leaving Remote, many people have said to me, usually in a conspiratorial tone of voice, things like this: Hans doesn’t really write his own music. The studios only give him work because he’s famous. He’s not a real musician. He just gets his clients drunk and all the work is done by guys in the back room. And so forth.

The underlying implication is that this underhanded semi-musician has Hollywood in his thrall due to Svengali like powers and maybe, someday, they’ll wake up and hire a “real” composer – like whoever is whispering to me.

No other composer seems to stir up this kind of ire – I never hear people say, “Yeah, that John Williams only writes 12-line sketches and it’s up to his orchestrators to make it into real music!”

Well, I hate to break it to you, but Hans gets what he gets because…he deserves it.

Here is why:

1) HANS IS A VISIONARY.

In films there is a process called “spotting” in which the composer and director decide what kind of music is needed where. Hans is the best spotter I’ve ever observed. He has an extraordinary sense of what will work. But long before spotting, he will spend weeks writing a suite which is the source of the musical themes of the film. Oddly, this isn’t really about music – it’s about the essence of what the story and the characters are. Film composer great Elmer Bernstein (Magnificent Seven, To Kill A Mockingbird) once said to me, “The dirty little secret is that we’re not musicians – we’re dramatists.” Hans is an outstanding dramatist.

But he also fearlessly pushes himself, challenging the limits of what is acceptable in our medium. In Batman: Dark Knight, long before we had footage of the film, Hans asked Heitor Pereira (guitar), Martin Tillman (cello), and me (violin and tenor violin) to separately record some variations on a set of instructions involving 2 notes, C and D. This involved a fair amount of interpretation! For those who are familiar with classical music, it was John Cage meets Phil Glass. We each spent a week making hundreds of snippets. Then we had to listen to each other’s work and re-interpret that. The end result was a toolbox of sounds that provided Hans with the attitude of his score.

Later, he asked me to double every ostinato (repeating phrase) pattern the violins and violas played. There were a LOT. And a great studio orchestra had already played them all! I spent a week on what I considered an eccentric fool’s errand, providing score mixer, Alan Meyerson, with single, double, and triple pass versions of huge swaths of the score. Months later, I joked with him about how “useful” my efforts had been. Alan told me that, actually, they had turned out to be a crucial element of the score, that he often pulled out the orchestra and went to my performances when something needed to be edgy or raw.

The video below shows something from Man of Steel. Hans assembled a room full of great trap set drummers to play the same groove at the same time, each with tiny variations. Is it a stunt? Maybe. But does it deliver a sound you’ve never quite heard before? Definitely.

2) HANS WORKS VERY, VERY HARD.

When working on a project – which is most of the time – Hans usually arrives at the studio at 11 am and then works until 3 or 4 in the morning. 7 days a week. For months. As the deadline approaches, everything else fades away. Harry Gregson-Williams once told me you could tell how far into a project Hans was by the length of his beard – at some point, he stops shaving.

His late-night hours provide welcome relief from badgering studios and the noise of running a business. They proved to be a challenge to my metabolism when I was getting up at 6 a.m. to go to yoga. Which leads me to a the title of another post, “Never Keep Different Hours Than Your Boss.” But I digress.

Hans is not as fast as his one-time assistant, Harry, or his current go-to arranger, Lorne Balfe, both of whom work at superhuman speed. Hans once suggested that I worked too fast. I was puzzled at the time, but what I think he was really saying was that I needed to pay better attention to the little details that, cumulatively, make all the difference.