The music in the background of a movie is often crucial to how the movie is experienced. In some cases, it can become as memorable as the movie itself. Think of the screaming violin in “Psycho” or the haunting pop in “Jaws” — written by John Williams — who for more than a generation has been Hollywood’s leading composer.
But over the years, as directors and studios began looking for edgier hits, they increasingly turned to a German-born composer named Hans Zimmer. If you’ve been to the cinema in the past 40 years, you’ve heard Hans Zimmer’s score.
Action, drama, comedy, romance, movies – he’s done it all.
Including the movie “The Lion King” in 1994, for which he won an Academy Award. It opens with a Zulu chant, sung by Lippo M, a South African musician who was working at a car wash in Los Angeles when Hans recruited him.
Hans Zimmer: That’s literally how the opening song came about. Microphone in the room, not in a booth or anything like that.
Hans told Disney executives he wanted to say right off the bat that this isn’t a typical Disney movie; It is a father and son story that takes place in Africa.
Hans Zimmer: And they said, “Exactly. That’s fine. Do–do what–do what you’re doing.”
He showed us what he does in his Los Angeles studio, composing his scores on keyboard and computer. For example, the music for the first “Pirates of the Caribbean”.
Hans Zimmer: If you have a “hacker,” which is basically that kind of thing, there’s a picnic, right —
Leslie Stahl: Yes.
Hans Zimmer: It’s — the music is really cool. And he’s in a little boat with a little sail, and you hear this huge orchestra. Because that’s the music he hears – in his head, because he’s the greatest pirate that ever lived in his imagination. So when you listen to the joker [from “The Dark Knight”], it’s just the opposite. It’s like a bow on a bow and arrow. And you stretch it.
Leslie Stahl: Oh. Gosh.
Hans Zimmer: It’s not pretty.
Leslie Stahl: It’s a very emotional stimulator. I can’t even express why. I will not know – I will be able to express in words. But-
Hans Zimmer: That’s the idea. At my best, words will fail because I use my own language.
Since the 1980s, the language of Hans Zimmer in his recordings, like last year’s hit, Top Gun: Maverick, has not only defined characters but helped tell the stories of fantastic action films and sci-fi epics. Like “Dune” for which he won an Academy Award in 2022, for which he used vibrato drums and electronic synthesizers.
Leslie Stahl: You’ve been called a dissident. You have been summoned by vision. How would you describe yourself?
Hans Zimmer: I would describe myself as someone who is deeply in love with music, deeply in love with movies, and fun. I love to play, like any musician, as in any language. She says, you know, turn on the music.
His choices were unexpected. For every “Man of Steel” movie, there’s “Kung Fu Panda” and “Sherlock Holmes,” in which he used a broken piano and banjo for a 19th-century detective turned quirky action hero.
Leslie Stahl: How important is a tool to get what you want?
Hans Zimmer: Very important. I mean, because the tools come with the luggage. You know, for example, the definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo but refrains from doing so.
Leslie Stahl: Whoa. (Laughs)
Hans Zimmer: Why did the banjo work, right? Because it was funny.
He made use of banjos, bagpipes, and loud electronics. And this, good, old-fashioned orchestra.
Think of the author of “The Dark Knight” writing something with such sensitivity.
Hans Zimmer: Really good. Can we get another one to protect the innocent?
He invited us to watch him score for a new film in a London studio last summer. It’s about a young girl coming of age based on Judy Blume’s book, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, which will be released in theaters this spring.
Hans Zimmer: Like the sound?
Jim Brooks: Alright.
Academy Award winning director Jim Brooks is a producer on this film. This is the eighth film they have worked on together.
What’s unique about Hans, Brooks and the other directors say, is how deeply involved he is in more than just writing the music. His process usually begins with a conversation with the director long before a single frame of film is shot.
Jim Brooks: You’re talking about what the movie is about. his story. What is the scene about? You don’t turn to a composer for that.
Leslie Stahl: Almost became a partner in–
Jim Brooks: Absolutely–
Leslie Stahl: – Writing and directing –
Jim Brooks: Yeah, yeah, yeah–
Leslie Stahl: — At every stage?
Jim Brooks: Yeah, yeah.
In Gladiator, he is partnered with director Ridley Scott. He says he told him he thought this movie should be about more than just a man in a skirt going into battle.
Hans Zimmer: And I initially felt that we needed to identify the possibility of having poetry in this film.
Leslie Stahl: Can we just listen to a little–
Hans Zimmer: I mean–
Leslie Stahl: – of the music you wrote for –
Hans Zimmer: It just starts with this observation.
Leslie Stahl: And you see the hand.
Hans Zimmer: And you see the hand. And you are already in a different world.
Leslie Stahl: And there’s no–nobody’s talking–
Hans Zimmer: I left the twentieth century. Don’t expect tenderness.
Leslie Stahl: I mean, you kind of set the mood.
Hans Zimmer: It’s a cry. It’s a cry.
His love and obsession with music stemmed from his childhood in West Germany. While other kids like to play games, he loved to play the piano.
Leslie Stahl: So did you take piano lessons?
Hans Zimmer: Absolutely. It was two weeks of sheer torture.
Leslie Stahl: Two weeks?
Hans Zimmer: Well, yeah, because then he went to my mother and said, “It’s either him or me.” And, fortunately, my mother made the right decision. You kept me, you know? (Laughter) No, no–
Leslie Stahl: No, no. Tell me about the piano lessons —
Hans Zimmer: I drove – drove him crazy. You know, I’m six years old. So my idea was that a piano teacher is someone who teaches you how to — the things that happen in your head, how to put that into your fingers. This is not what they do. They make you do the scales. They make you play other people’s music. And I didn’t want to play other people’s music.
Leslie Stahl: From the very beginning.
Hans Zimmer: From the very beginning. But I promise you, I know Beethoven and Bramsay inside out.
He learned about them from his mother, a classically trained pianist.
Hans Zimmer: And there’s the other side, which is my dad who was an extraordinarily dreadful jazz clarinetist, but with great enthusiasm. In the middle of his workday, he would bring out his clarinet. I’ll be banging about-and-and we’ll be jamming, you know? This is where I got joy.
Instead of college, he became a rock and roll player, performing with the Buggles.
The young man was wearing a black jacket on the synthesizer. They made pop history in 1981 with the first music video to air on MTV, “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
He started composing scores for low budget films. One of them in 1988 caught the attention of Hollywood director Barry Levinson, who one night suddenly showed up at what was then Hans’ studio in London.
Hans Zimmer: And so he said, “Would I mind coming to L.A. and maybe making his movie?” So, I went to Los Angeles. I was nominated for an Oscar.
Leslie Stahl: The first movie, really.
Hans Zimmer: The First Film. I didn’t win, but it didn’t matter because everyone wanted to meet me.
It was no less than “Rain Man,” which led to “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Black Rain,” and more than 140 other films that began pushing the sound of film music into a new direction. .
Hans Zimmer: I like the idea that electronics allow you to shape sounds in a way that goes beyond what an orchestra can do.
He pioneered the fusion of electronics with orchestral music, using his secret weapon: a digital library he created himself, with original computer code. He carefully recorded every instrument in a real orchestra, note by note, using world class musicians and the best instruments, and uploaded it all into his computer.
Leslie Stahl: Take a fiddle. And you have the violinist in middle C. And then you have this instrument that plays in middle C loud, soft, and it’s all different–
Hans Zimmer: Yes. look look. can play pizzicato. It can play short, you know.
Leslie Stahl: So, you don’t make it a picato. They played it that way.
Hans Zimmer: They played it that way.
Leslie Stahl: And you bring that up? Stop. That must have taken months. years?
Hans Zimmer: No, it took years.
And millions of dollars. He doesn’t write his compositions down on paper, his computer does it for him, and helps create the “funky sounds” you find in his scores.
Leslie Stahl: Metal Scraping.
Hans Zimmer: Yes.
Leslie Stahl: And electronic strokes. Music?
Hans Zimmer: It could be. Everything can be made into a musical instrument in one way or another.
He often collaborates with Pedro Eustache, a world-class flutist, who has made alternative instruments that produce the unusual sounds Hans thinks of in his films.
Pedro Eustache: This is an ostrich egg, okay?
Leslie Stahl: This is an ostrich egg! Put holes in it.
Pedro Eustache: Yeah, and I put all of that in there. It is a musical instrument.
Leslie Stahl: I made–
Pedro Eustache: Yes.
Leslie Stahl: – Ocarina from Ostrich –
Hans Zimmer: Lemmy, explain.
Leslie Stahl: Yes, please.
Hans Zimmer: When he’s not stealing eggs at the zoo, (Laughter) he’s a very good customer for Home Depot. And– (Laughter) and– (Applause) And many of his devices are made of PVC pipe.
In fact, Pedro used PVC pipe to come up with the 21-foot long horn that Hans wanted for “Dune.”
He is currently working on “Dune: Part Two”.
Now he goes on tour with an orchestra of 38 bands and bands to perform his film scores.
Leslie Stahl: How have you changed? You’ve been in this business for 40 years.
Hans Zimmer: I tell you what. So, when you start out, you have all those things that you never did before. Every movie has every idea, every device, every chord change, every – whatever is in it. Now, I think it’s more about figuring out what’s new. But it gets more difficult, because I’ve used up a lot of ammo in the past.
He told us that after over 150 movies, he lives in constant fear of the day his phone will stop ringing.
Leslie Stahl: Even after 150? Do you think you’re driven by this fear–
Hans Zimmer: But it’s only 150, you know what I mean? (Laughter) Like, what if 151 was a total disaster? (Laughs)
Leslie Stahl: Oh, wow–
Hans Zimmer: I’m still alive. You know, I’m 65 now and people will go, “Are you going to retire? You’re going to go and put your feet up?” And I’ll say, “No, I’m full of ideas. I’m just getting started.”
Leslie Stahl: Do you really think so?
Hans Zimmer: I really think so.
Produced by Richard Bonin. Associate Producer Mirela Brosani. Broadcast Assistant, Wren Woodson. Edited by Richard Bodenhagen.