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Interview with Hans Zimmer, Best Original Score Oscar Nominee for Gladiator

Come see the rest of Culturekiosque's Oscar 2001 Coverage!

By Mike Zwerin

GHENT, BELGIUM, 22 March 2000 - Hans Zimmer is hot. As a prelude to the Flanders International Film Festival in Ghent, the main thrust of which is "the impact of music on film," Zimmer performed selections from his scores for Gladiator, Thelma And Louise, Mission Impossible 2, The Thin Red Line, Driving Miss Daisy and others.

He had never performed them live with a symphony orchestra before. Instrumentation included a five-piece rock band (three electric keyboards), Brazilian guitarist Heitor Pereira, the singer (and Gladiator co-composer) Lisa Gerard and Dirk Brosse conducting the 90 piece Belgian National Orchestra, plus a choir of hundreds.

Please excuse any blown-up numbers, dodgy credits and ego trips. Hollywood does that to you, even Hollywood on the North Sea. In addition to the composers, there were agents, publicists and actors and producer Lili Fini Zanuck presented the festival's Joseph Plateau award for lifetime achievement to the elegant Morgan Freeman, who deserves an Oscar in the award-acceptance speech category.

A boyish, bashful 43 with a quick and ready smile, Zimmer jumped back and forth between keyboards on stage. The German-born Zimmer still has a trace of an accent and suffers from stagefright and his between-tune announcements were, charming smile notwithstanding, unintelligible. He did not address the microphone with much respect. Soundtrack concerts can be awkward in more ways than one.

Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer
Photo: Alia Mohsenin

A Hollywood studio-shark contingent included monster trombonist Bruce Fowler, now Zimmer's orchestrator. Fowler, who became something of a legend after many years with Frank Zappa, said that Hans reminds him of Frank in some ways. For one thing, both are said to be control freaks. Zimmer likes to make music with Fowler ("my brother in arms") and other musicians he respects on his lawn and "if something good happens we record it. Crazy stuff. Then I go back to the other extreme. Very strict. ‘I am the composer. I am responsible for every note.' I am too much of an ego-maniac."

Zimmer was somewhat guilty and insecure about savoring the sweet smell of success in Ghent instead of slaving over a hot Macintosh Quadra 800 in Santa Monica for his latest score, Hannibal. Still, it was an honor. Ennio Morricone had been in Ghent conducting the same orchestra playing his music for The Good And The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West and so on.

Film composers in general are hot. They command increasing attention and money. And, remember, once upon a time we didn't even know who the director was. This year's festival included seminars with the composers Patrick Doyle and Elliot Goldenthal discussing their collaborations with directors Regis Wagnier (Indochine) and Julie Traymor (Titus) respectively. It was obviously neither the time nor the place to express the opinion that, with the possible exception of Miles Davis with Elevator to the Guillotine (that's going too far, there must be others), film music tends to be derivative, egotistical and unswinging and is by nature secondary and ought to stay that way.

Composers do not like being reminded that their sounds support images and not the other way around. They do not like to think of themselves as guns-for-hire. There is sometimes talk of writing an opera. But the fact remains that listening to a film score on it's own is poor ecology, similar to a recorded improvisation. A recorded improvisation is close to an oxymoron. But we accept recorded repetitions of music intended to be heard only once and created here and now because hearing John Coltrane twice is better than not hearing him at all. Whereas, on the other hand, the old saying goes that if you remember a film score there must be something wrong with it.

Zimmer, on the other hand, said that a concert of film music is "not necessarily a contradiction." Although he is "of two minds" about the increased notoriety it signifies: "We all love being praised for doing good work but there's also something to be said for obscurity." Obscure he is not. His greatest triumph was his score for Disney's The Lion King. The soundtrack had sales of 15 million on CD and earned him an Oscar, a Tony and two Grammy Awards. All in all he's been nominated for seven Oscars.

Zimmer, who has an English education, recalled discussing "how light falls in certain Renaissance paintings" with Terry Malick, the director of The Thin Red Line. Later, returning from a shoot, Malick said that he had not been able to get the color they discussed. Zimmer wrote a piece of music and they played it under the scene and suddenly there was that Renaissance light: "Then we took out the music, and the light was gone. The music allowed you to see more than there was." The composer is more present throughout the filmaking process than he once was. The festival itself is a measure of increased stature.

Zimmer is a partner in the mega production company Media Ventures, which consists of "a bunch of composers composing in the same environment." It has been criticized as a "factory environment," which he considers a compliment - perhaps it's his German side - because a good factory is a smooth-working operation: "Heck, it's just a crazy idea I had." Often he describes who he is, what he does and the business he's in as "crazy." Crazy as a fox, he seems to like the sound of it:

"Composing is a lonely job, playing with a band gets too crowded. I wanted a happy medium. So I put an infrastructure together - I built a little ‘village' that would allow crazy composers to get some support and still do their own thing. We can shut our doors when we want to. And we can be critical of each other in a positive way. Sometimes I feel desperately inadequate and can't think of another note and I go in the corridor and see a composer I respect with the same look of desperation on his face and that makes me feel better. Composers are fragile."

Hans Zimmer - Gladiator: Music from the Motion Picture [Soundtrack]

Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard: Gladiator: Music from the Motion Picture [Soundtrack]
DECCA 289 467 094-2 (2000)

Hans Zimmer More Music From Gladiator

Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard: More Music From Gladiator (2000) [Soundtrack]
DECCA 440 013 192-2 (2001)

Hans Zimmer Hannibal: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Hans Zimmer: Hannibal: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2001 Film) [Soundtrack]
DECCA 289 467 76962 (2001)

Related articles and links: Film Review of Ridley Scott's Gladiator

Hans Zimmer Official Site: Media Ventures

2001 Academy Awards: Oscar Overview

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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