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Hans Zimmer’s Inescapable Shadow

The man behind the bombastic scores of Christopher Nolan’s biggest movies changed how Hollywood sounded; now, it sounds like only him

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Ask other composers about Hans Zimmer, and you’ll receive a complicated response. Zimmer is just that towering, a trailblazer whose work is magnificent, but whose influence is inescapable. "Hans has created this immense shadow that all of us, at one time or another, have struggled to run outside of," says Joseph Trapanese, who wrote the score for Straight Outta Compton and helped M83 and Daft Punk compose proper scores for Oblivion and Tron: Legacy, respectively. "It’s both a wonderful thing and a terrible thing."

The German composer is well aware of how his scores — from Rain Man (1988) to Interstellar (2014) — have trickled into the Hollywood water supply, an osmosis that will surely continue following the release of Dunkirk, Zimmer’s latest collaboration with director Christopher Nolan. "There are elements of style I started to develop during The Thin Red Line that — how am I going to say this kindly? — people have homaged over the years," he told me in an interview for Inception in 2010, his mischievous smile almost audible over the phone.

Eight of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2017 have scores that either nod to Zimmer or — particularly with Wonder Woman and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — sound like they might have been composed by him. (Only one, The Boss Baby, actually was.) His style’s supreme infiltration into contemporary film music — particularly the simple, whole-note themes with extramuscular brass and churning bass that typify Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan — is owed to its vogue suitability to modern filmmaking, the mark he left on dozens of composers who started their careers under his wing (like Wonder Woman’s Rupert Gregson-Williams and Pirates’ Geoff Zanelli), and the near-viral use of his scores in the temporary soundtracks — "temp tracks" — that films are edited to before a composer gets hired. All that and, of course, because his music is undeniably captivating.

Born in 1957 in Frankfurt, Germany, Zimmer’s musical education was a swift rejection of formal classical training — he barely tinkered with piano lessons — in favor of teaching himself guitar and, most importantly, synthesizers. After moving to London as a teenager, those synth skills landed him in the studio with the Buggles, where he programmed and performed on their 1980 album, The Age of Plastic. That’s him, clad in black leather, tinkling keys during the final chorus in the music video for "Video Killed the Radio Star."

Zimmer’s coming of age with the Buggles isn’t just a funny footnote on his Wikipedia page: His experiences in the era of New Wave and Kraftwerk, of pop minimalism and sonic experimentation with synths and early samplers, sunk deep into his DNA. When he transitioned from music studios to film studios, first through apprenticing and cowriting with English composer Stanley Myers (Insignificance) and then as a solo composer, his style was aptly characterized by a poppy, groove-fueled sensibility and electronic curiosity.

"It’s really difficult for me not to go for a rock ’n’ roll vibe," Zimmer told me in another interview in 2013, "because that’s where I come from. That’s where I’m comfortable."

He was hired to score Rain Man, his first Oscar-nominated score, because director Barry Levinson heard A World Apart and wanted that fresh sound: a synthy meld of world music and anthemic pop. From there, Zimmer became the cool new flavor, gradually replacing Hollywood’s old guard (he took French composer Georges Delerue’s seat on Driving Miss Daisy and again on Regarding Henry).

Ironically, though, the synthesizer was losing its chic in movies just as Zimmer came on the scene, after a decade of electronic scores like Wendy Carlos’s The Shining, Giorgio Moroder’s Midnight Express, and Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire. So Zimmer learned how to wield an orchestra. With the help of trained orchestrators — notably the late Shirley Walker — he married live instruments with an evolving bank of samples, real instruments and sounds that were recorded and digitized, infinitely malleable and transcendent beyond human limitations. The unique marriage worked: Zimmer won his first and only Oscar in 1994 for The Lion King before gaining more renown with scores for a battery of action movies for directors Ron Howard (Backdraft), Tony Scott (Crimson Tide), and Michael Bay (The Rock).

"He was finding a way to translate his synthesizer writing into live instruments, so that they could coexist somewhat seamlessly," explains Doug Adams, a musicologist and author of The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films. "He changed the sound palette for a lot of these films by creating a world where there’s a lot of crossover between a synth and a player. Just look at the cello writing in [The Dark Knight Rises], and how it’s basically doing what a sequencer could do — these arpeggiated patterns where you’re doubling every note. He changed what orchestras did in a lot of film music."

"He basically turned the orchestra into a rock band," says Trapanese. "I don’t want anyone to interpret that as derogatory — I think that was an amazing achievement, for him to take the orchestral palette as it existed, and completely turn it upside down; instead of writing for the orchestra, he reimagined the orchestra to fit his vision."

Zimmer’s action style in the ’90s — with its power anthems and orchestras beefed up on electronic steroids — became de rigueur for a time. You can hear it in movies like Speed, Con Air, Bad Boys, Armageddon, and Face/Off. But two of Zimmer’s scores at the turn of the century separated him from the pack and turned him into the ubiquitously influential composer we know today: The Thin Red Line and Gladiator. The Thin Red Line introduced a more meditative, hypnotic application of his minimalistic style. It also featured a clock-ticking rhythmic idea that Zimmer’s still exploring in Interstellar and Dunkirk. With Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, on the other hand, Zimmer showcased a more serious brew of Gustav Holst–inspired action writing and drama tinged with ethnic instruments and Lisa Gerrard’s moaning vocals. Those two scores became the standard, creeping into temp tracks for years. Not only did a track ("Journey to the Line") from the former get cut into every other film trailer, it wormed its way into projects as disparate as HBO’s Carnivàle and Steve McQueen’s Shame. And the moaning woman became such a cliché — thanks to subsequent films like 300, Minority Report, and Munich — that composer Theodore Shapiro parodied it in Tropic Thunder.

Christopher Nolan loved The Thin Red Line, and when he got the plum assignment to direct Batman Begins (2005), he dropped his regular composer and college buddy, David Julyan, in favor of Hans Zimmer. (James Newton Howard co-composed Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, bringing a more traditionally melodic element.) It was the start of a partnership that would produce the most influential film score work in the past 10 years.

"I absolutely think that Nolan is the most important single director he’s ever worked with, in terms of developing what people now think of as a Hans Zimmer score," says Justin Chang, film critic for the Los Angeles Times. "The most stirring moments in those Batman movies, to me, are very much dependent on the score. In Batman Begins there’s that scene where Bruce Wayne is going into the Batcave for the first time, and he’s enveloped by these bats — he doesn’t fight them, he just kind of gives himself over. And the score just rises and rises, that very repetitive kind of thing. That, to me, is still one of the most thrilling moments in any Christopher Nolan movie."

Zimmer’s work for Nolan, while involving some reinvention with each new project, has been marked by that hypnotic minimalism (chugging ostinatos and cyclical chord patterns), sonic palettes created uniquely for the film’s world (the Joker’s scratchy violin in The Dark Knight, Johnny Marr’s electric guitar in Inception, the church organ in Interstellar), and a unique architecture where the score almost ignores the narrative beats and picture cuts and just bleeds and grooves across swaths of film.

Due to their specificity, it seemed unlikely that the sonic worlds created by Zimmer for Nolan’s films would become the norm. But their power was apparently just too undeniable, and today, these scores are the go-to music for temp tracks.

"When you hear a Zimmer score, it’s pretty much unmistakable," says Blake Neely, who writes the music for Supergirl (and composed with Zimmer on scores such as The Last Samurai and The Da Vinci Code), "until you dig in a little bit and go, ‘Oh wait, Zimmer must have been in the temp,’ because it sounds like him, but it’s someone else."

Both Neely and Trapanese say that every single temp score they hear, when getting a new assignment, contains at least one piece of Zimmer music — regardless of genre, regardless of scale. "It’s not only because he has done so many scores," Neely reasons. "It is because he has done so many scores that work under any genre. There’s a gorgeous track from Interstellar that can work under literally romantic, family drama, someone getting a bloodbath. … It’s crazy how his music works so singularly with the movie he writes it for, and yet can blend in and work so well in temps. That’s why people love it."

Zimmer’s scores are modular and repetitive, packing their punch with mood and groove rather than busy, symphonic composition or lengthy themes and variations — tactics used, for example, by John Williams. That means they work well under just about anything (and are extremely easy to edit to), but are also easy to imitate.

So the chugging ostinato in The Dark Knight — or the foghorn brass blast from Inception, or the trancelike organ in Interstellar — gets cut into another blockbuster, and the hired composer either has to emulate Zimmer or persuade the director, who has often fallen in love with the temp, to try something new. This is the stain of Zimmer’s influence: It’s not just that his style is popular and uniquely suited to modern filmmaking; it’s that it has spread like a virus.

Add to that the fact that Zimmer, through his Remote Control Productions company in Santa Monica, California, has groomed dozens of disciples since the early 1990s. A mere sampling of film composers who began their careers assisting Zimmer include John Powell (The Bourne Supremacy), Harry Gregson-Williams (Kingdom of Heaven), Rupert Gregson-Williams (Wonder Woman), Klaus Badelt (The Time Machine), Lorne Balfe (The Lego Batman Movie), Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), Heitor Pereira (Despicable Me), and Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road). Zimmer’s presence is felt in each of the films and TV shows scored by his descendants, from the performance-enhanced orchestra playing club grooves in Mad Max to the drum circle and sequencer-cello action in Wonder Woman (a score that, to bring this full circle, uses the electric cello theme that Zimmer cowrote with Junkie XL for Batman v Superman).

The quality and originality of music written by these composers varies, of course, and the word "disciple" is a stretch in the cases of some. But it remains that the composers who were first trained to write by and like Hans Zimmer have seeded Hollywood in disproportionate numbers.

Remember the Scarecrow’s plot in Batman Begins, the film that launched the Zimmer-Nolan juggernaut on the world? The evil Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) pumped liquid fear into Gotham’s waterworks, with plans to wipe out the entire city. Hans Zimmer is certainly not malevolent like the Scarecrow, but his work is just as infectious. His rock-’n’-roll-influenced, hybrid style broke tradition and pushed the boundaries of film scoring, and then wormed its way into the ears of directors and other composers, eventually spreading across an entire industry. Teaming up with auteur filmmakers like Ridley Scott and Terrence Malick — and especially Christopher Nolan, our preeminent pop auteur — has given his music a prestigious and far-reaching megaphone. And now we’re here, living in a world composed by Hans Zimmer.