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Music In Film...Hans Zimmer
Welcome to the final installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. This segment features composer, Hans Zimmer.
“Finding that first idea or cue of music for a film…the first bars are impossible to write. Then suddenly, something happens and I don’t know how it happens. But something is there that is appropriate for this film. It happens with me on every movie.”
– Hans Zimmer
German-born Hans Zimmer is one of the most well-known film composers in the industry. His company, Remote Control Productions, is a kind of think-tank that is similar to The Sundance Institute in its mentoring of a large group of composers. Zimmer’s highly innovative, versatile style has influenced many in his field. By integrating electronic music with orchestral arrangements, he enhances his musical scores with brilliant dimensions that embody the mood of a film, perfectly.
Hans Zimmer’s ability to re-invent genres is remarkable. He has scored over 100 films, including The Lion King, Rain Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, The Batman Trilogy and 12 Years A Slave. This installment focuses on his collaboration with directors, Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan.
“The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor.”
Ridley Scott’s stunning direction, cinematography and film score resulted in an Academy Award-winning classic. Gladiator was nominated for 115 awards from BAFTA, the Oscars and other organizations. Although the plot is fictional, this epic film was inspired by actual historical events. Scott invested considerable time and resources in researching the culture of ancient Rome and the psychology of the film’s characters from that era. Granted, creative license was taken with certain facts. Nevertheless, Scott avoided the various anachronisms evident in other historical epics such as Cleopatra.
It is 180 CE and Rome is ruled by Caesar Marcus Aurelius, a stoic philosopher. His favored and trusted general, Maximus Meridius (Russell Crowe), has just led his army to victory over the Germanic tribes. The ailing Caesar confides in Maximus that he plans to name him as heir to the throne over his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), to help the senate restore Rome to a Republic. Enraged with jealousy over Caesar’s decision, Commodus smothers his father to death and informs everyone that he died peacefully in his sleep.
Maximus is incensed at the murder of his beloved emperor. He turns his back on Commodus, refusing to offer his loyalty. Commodus orders his immediate arrest and execution. The general is told that his wife and son are also to be slain and will join him in the afterlife. Unbeknownst to Commodus, Maximus manages to kill his executioners and escapes. Although wounded, he travels day and night in a desperate quest to save his family. Upon arriving at what remains of his destroyed villa in Spain, he discovers the seared and crucified bodies of his wife and son.
Near death, Maximus is found by slave traders and transported to a province in North Africa. Once there, he is sold to the owner of a Gladiator school (Oliver Reed) where men are trained to fight to the death. Maximus is known simply as “The Spaniard,” and befriends Jugga (Djimon Housou), an African slave. They are soon taken to Rome to compete in the Coliseum arena where Commodus has reinstated the games to commemorate his father’s death. Maximus welcomes the opportunity to confront the new emperor and exact his vengeance.
Zimmer fell in love with this film. He composed some of the scoring in collaboration with Lisa Gerrard. It is one of the best selling soundtracks of all time. The music fits Scott’s story like the proverbial glove, bringing the emotion of the film to life. Zimmer grew up listening to classical music and German composers; with Gladiator, we can hear how his style was somewhat influenced with elements reminiscent of Richard Wagner. In the Coliseum scene that follows, Maximus wears a face helmet to mask his identity. He and his fellow gladiators fight in the style of Roman soldiers under his leadership to defeat the Barbarian Horde:
(A few of these musical phrases are also present in the background music Zimmer created for the battle scene where Maximus leads his men to victory over the Germanic tribes.)
“Brothers…what we do in life echoes in eternity.”
--- Maximus to his men on the battlefields of Germania.
The afterlife figures prominently in Gladiator and is a central theme. Zimmer was impressed with this sense of poetry in the film. He discovered a musical soul mate in consummate artist, Lisa Gerrard, who is known for her unique aesthetic sense. The profoundly beautiful “Now We Are free” is sung in her own special language she created as a child, and how she "talks to God." [The following clip contains spoilers.]
The Dark Knight from The Batman Trilogy
“Why so serious?”
Director Christopher Nolan’s brilliant visionary scope brings Batman’s legacy as a comic-book hero to a new dimension. Exceptionally crafted and skillfully paced, Nolan takes us to the dark side of the Batman narrative with special effects, deeper characterizations, and a musical score that is extraordinary.
The Dark Knight Theme
Although the storyline is essentially a simple one, it is the characterizations that are engrossing, along with the unexpected twists in the storyline. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has matured, but has become more personally isolated due to Batman’s ongoing war with organized crime. Gotham’s new DA and white knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), initially represents a legitimate heroic figure to Wayne and police Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Wayne views Dent as an inspirational leader for Gotham City. Dent could relieve him of his crusader duties which would enable him to live a normal existence. Unfortunately, a maniacal criminal know as “The Joker” has other plans for Gotham, Batman and the white knight.
Heath Ledger’s iconic, mesmerizing portrayal of The Joker -- for which he was awarded a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor -- is this film’s standout performance. The Joker is non-negotiable; there are no rules in his world. Maliciously unpredictable, he is a man unhinged and cannot be understood. In addition to plunging Gotham into chaos, he seeks to reveal the true identity of Batman and destroy Dent’s heroic image by driving him insane.
Zimmer’s Score (In Collaboration with James Newton Howard)
- The Joker’s Sound
During filming, Chris would send Hans footage of Heath’s characterization to give him a better feel for his interpretation of this psychotic agent of chaos. Zimmer was trying for something provocative to make the musical nuance to The Joker more personal. He experimented by recording various sounds, such as razor blades on piano wire -- much the same way Ledger experimented with different voices.
Zimmer sought to define the character in two notes that clashed in dissonance: “I wanted taught strings that get tighter and tighter but never break.” The result is an edgy cello note joined by a guitar, played with a piece of metal. This tense, ragged sound is ever-present as the surrounding music builds to a crescendo and explodes in resolute anarchy:
“We never remember the beginning of a dream, do we. We always end up right in the middle of what’s going on. So how did we get here? Where are we right now?”
As a director, writer and producer, Nolan became fascinated with the concept of time, which we can observe in his films, Memento, Insomnia, and later, Interstellar. His brilliantly conceived Inception was ten years in the making. The infinite potential of dreams offers a tantalizing world for any fiction writer or filmmaker. Accordingly, Nolan transports us into new dimensions of time and space where events collide with other parallel realities. The intellectual theme, striking visuals and musical score combine to create a fascinating science fiction thriller few directors could have created so skillfully.
Metaphors abound in this story as we ponder the nature of reality, acceptance, and the ways in which all things exist in relationship.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a freelance thief who has the ability to probe deeply into the subconscious of others and infiltrate their dreams. Dreams are filled with secrets and ideas. Ideas can transform the world, and are valuable to corporations that hire Cobb to steal them by extracting hidden information from the subject’s dreams.
Cobb is the protagonist and emotional center of the film. Having lost his beloved wife (Marion Cottilard), he embarks on a dangerous job in search of deliverance and a reunion with his estranged children. Rather than stealing an idea, wealthy entrepreneur Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb to plant one in his competitor’s subconscious.
In order to accomplish this “inception,” Cobb must first gather the necessary team of experts to accompany him into the dream. Ellen Page plays his architect who designs the dream as a maze. The plan is to bring the competitor (Cillian Murphy) into that construct. Memories and details from his subconscious must then fill the maze in order for him to believe that the dream -- and the idea being sown there -- are his own creation.
Each team member is armed with a personal totem. Dream worlds are tricky in that they can begin to parallel reality. Hence, the totem is used to help differentiate the two worlds. Cobb uses a small top for his totem which he spins. (He carries it with him wherever he goes.) If it topples over, he is in reality; if it continues to spin, he is still in the dream.
The beginning of the opening scene in Inception is exactly the same as the beginning of the final scene. Without giving too much away to those who haven’t seen the film, Cobb is a much older man who has washed ashore on a lonely stretch of beach in a dream world.
In the video that follows, Zimmer’s inspired music -- and one of my favorite scores -- begins with the top spinning in a dream limbo with Cobb and Saito. A four-note musical phrase dominates and repeats, drifting rhythmically. This motive builds, swells and then recedes, as ocean waves, with a compelling force. The muffled pulse sounding time accompanies the repeating phrase until it is eventually taken over by the hum of the spinning top -- Cobb's trusted totem. Zimmer’s “Time” embraces the shifting architecture of the dream and the very nature of Cobb’s “awakening.” Is he awake, or still in the dream? [The following clip contains spoilers.]
How were these wonderful sounds created and what was the creative process? In the clip that follows, Nolan and Zimmer discuss the idea and formation in context of the musical film score to Inception:
Creativity is a bursting forth of the soul. For example, without music, would we be who we are today? Sometimes, we are inspired to write poetry and summon meaningful, profound images and emotions when listening to music. Film composers are often inspired by the sense of poetry and emotion in the words they hear and the images they see. Either way, it is this union through which we discover and experience a great deal more about the miracle of the creative spirit and imagination.
This is the closing installment to "Music In Film." I want to express my gratitude to those who supported this series. I have valued your thoughtful comments and kind words of encouragement. Thank you!
Key Art Awards 2014; Hans Zimmer; Academy Award Winning Film Composer
Interviews on a Score: Gladiator; The Dark Knight Trilogy; Inception
Film Tracks: Hans Zimmer; Filmography Reviews; March 2014
Written content has been copyrighted, 2014, by Genna East. All rights Reserved. Said copyrights do not extend to the videos that are utilized solely for learning purposes.