By Michael A. Levine. 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.
3) HANS IS THE BEST FILM MUSIC PRODUCER IN THE BUSINESS.
We’re not talking about technical music skills. Hans is a so-so pianist and guitarist and his knowledge of academic theory is, by intention, limited. (I was once chastised while working on The Simpsons Movie for saying “lydian flat 7″ instead of “the cartoon scale.”) He doesn’t read standard notation very well, either. But no one reads piano roll better than he does. [The piano roll is a page of a music computer program that displays the notes graphically.] Which gets to the heart of the matter: Hans knows what he needs to know to make it sound great.
Sometimes, that is the right musicians. Sometimes it is the right sample library. Sometimes it is the right room, or engineer, or recording technique, or mixing technique. All that counts is the end result. And it always sounds spectacular.
4) HANS WORKS WITH GREAT PEOPLE.
Take a look at the composers who have worked for Hans: John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Heitor Pereira, Henry Jackman, Steve Jablonsky, Lorne Balfe, Trevor Morris, Ramin Djawadi, Jeff Rona, Mark Mancina, Atli Örvarsson, Geoff Zanelli, Blake Neeley, Stephen Hilton, Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenborg and on and on. And Alan Meyerson, his mixer. And Bob Badami and Ken Karman, his music editors. (Bob’s credits alone dwarf about everybody in the business). His great percussionists, Satnam Ramgotra and Ryeland Allison. Sound designers, Howard Scarr and Mel Wesson. Not to mention Steve Kofsky, his business partner. And all the tech whizzes he’s had over the years: Mark Wherry, Sam Estes, Pete Snell, Tom Broderick. Even his personal assistants – Andrew Zack, and later, Czar Russell – are remarkable.
Of course, the really amazing talents are the ones he works for: Chris Nolan, Gore Verbinski, Jim Brooks, Ron Howard, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Jerry Bruckheimer. But he would never get the chance to work for them if he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.
5) HANS IS A CHARMER.
The first time Jeffrey Katzenberg heard Hans’ love theme for Megamind he said, “It sounds like 1968 on the French Riviera.” It was not a compliment. And it wasn’t wrong. Actually, what Hans realized – and Jeffrey hadn’t – was that the heart of the love story in the movie was right out of A Man and A Woman and La Nouvelle Vague. Rather than point this out, Hans said, “Let me work on it some more.” Over the next two weeks he played revision after revision for Jeffrey, each time making small changes to the arrangement or structure, but keeping the same basic tune. A couple of weeks later, after Jeffrey tore apart the music for a different scene that we’d worked pretty hard on, he said, “Well, at least we have a great love theme!” The rest of us looked at each other. When did that happen!
Hans is acutely aware of the presentational aspect of our business. His capacious control room, rather than being the strictly functional wood and bland fabric of a typical studio, is a lurid red velvet – a 19th century Turkish bordello as Hans describes it. With a wall of rare analog modular synthesizers in the back. At dinner, he serves his guests fine wine, and gives others cleverly appropriate (more so than lavish) gifts. As one of his clients said to me, “Hans makes you feel like a great chef is inviting you into his kitchen.”
Not all of us can afford HZ-level dog and pony shows. But most of us can use what we do have better.
6) HANS DELIVERS.
Hans often gets hired for massive projects. The reason he uses an army of people is that he needs them to keep up with the demands of the directors and the studios. Halfway through Rango, Gore Verbinski suddenly changed direction, threw almost everything out, and we started over. Without a team to carry out the new directions, we’d have been dead.
Look at what happened to Howard Shore on King Kong, Marc Shaiman on Team America, Maurice Jarre on River Wild, Gabriel Yared on Troy, or the great Bernard Herrmann on Torn Curtain. In each case they were fired because the studio or director lost faith that they could shift direction quickly enough once their original approach was rejected. In 150+ films this has never happened to Hans.
BTW, he is also very aware of what the power structure is – who really makes decisions. I was fired – or more accurately not hired after a trial period – from a film because I jumped through hoops for the director who brought me in while not spending enough time figuring out what the producer – the actual power – wanted. Rather than being sympathetic, Hans told me I had failed in a fundamental task: determining who was my boss. He was right, and I haven’t made that mistake again.
So, is Hans my favorite film composer? No. He’s not even Hans’ favorite film composer! (I’m guessing that would be Nina Rota or Ennio Morricone, but you’d have to ask him.) And he can be dismissive, condescending, arrogant, exploitative, and just plain mean. Like me. And, I suspect, you.
But he is exceptionally smart, gifted, accomplished, and hard-working. And here is the hard truth: outside of a few rare exceptions, the people who are successful in the film business are successful because they deserve to be. They have earned it. Yes, they have been lucky. But everybody gets lucky eventually. The question is what do you do when good fortune arrives. If you want to be as successful as the people you admire, you need to be as smart, resourceful, and determined as they are. As Hans is.