While Hans Zimmer has long established himself as one of cinema’s most accomplished and influential composers, he has continued in recent years to push the boundaries and see what he can learn, finding the opportunity ideal to do so in Denis Villeneuve. Dunes.
On the sci-fi epic from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, which was nominated for 10 Oscars, Zimmer and his “SWAT team of musicians” encountered a distant future world that gave them the license to “go imagine and build instruments and invent instruments” from zero, tinkering with musical notes that “don’t actually exist” within the framework of conventional vocabulary, and “rhythms that were humanly impossible to play”.
This notion of making the impossible possible seems particularly relevant, given that Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel on which the film was based had previously been deemed impossible to adapt to the screen, after a series of failed attempts by iconic filmmakers. like Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch.
The intimate sci-fi epic tells the story of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of a noble family who is embroiled in a war in the deserts of the inhospitable planet Arrakis, after being entrusted with the protection of the most prized possession in the galaxy.
Zimmer shares in today’s edition of Deadline’s Production Value video series that he first read the book when he was around 13 and loved it so much he loved it. couldn’t bring himself to watch the past film and television adaptations. “So when Denis whispered to me, had I ever heard of a book called Dunes, [and] it was a dream he had, it was a kind of dream that I had too”, says the composer. “I reacted I guess the way an excited puppy reacts, jumping up and down and being a little silly.”
Much of the work done on Dunes, in terms of inventing new sounds, involved “machine-generated rhythms” carefully crafted in concert with such talented synthesists as Kevin Schroeder and Howard Scarr. Another part of the process, for Zimmer, was to take an orchestral instrument like Tina Guo’s cello and shape its sound into something like a “Tibetan war horn,” befitting the singular universe of the film.
Zimmer notes that while most elements of the score were intended as “complete abstractions”, the one that was not was the female voice. “It’s mostly my friend Laura Cutler or Lisa Gerrard or Suzanne Waters,” he says. “These three became the power of the female in this film, because Denis and I have this secret suspicion that really, Frank Herbert wrote a story where the female characters move the story forward. They are the power behind the whole story. .
Part of what made the film and its score so successful, from Zimmer’s perspective, was that while everyone leaned into the unconventional nature of the source material, Villeneuve also strayed to some respects of a book, which was “tremendously dense with information and… internal monologue.”
As with the overabundance of voiceovers, “the conventional way” of scoring a film, designating themes for each character and situation, quickly went out the window, mounting the adaptation. “Rather than working with [traditional] musical patterns, it was much more interesting to figure out how, in a sonic way, much more like an impressionist painter, finding different colors, where the color was the truth,” Zimmer says, “as opposed to normal, ‘Oh, here we lets go. Here is the theme of love. Here’s the one for the car accident.
As Zimmer recounts his “100% collaborative” exchange with members of the Dunes team to “build this universe” was a strong point of the project, the honesty with which Villeneuve approached Herbert’s book was another. “There is a deep, deep commitment to being true to history, to being true to the telling of history. I think we both have that 13-year-old feeling about it; it meant something to us,” he says. “All we’re trying to do is find a way to introduce it to you, introduce it to an audience, invite you in, and let you be part of our dream.”
Zimmer is an Oscar winner with over four decades of experience as a composer, who with Dunes gets his 12th nomination. He was born in West Germany in 1957 and discovered a “most delicious toy” called the piano at an early age, taking refuge in music after his father’s death and quickly starting to make “a hell of a racket”. “[And] it’s always the same,” he said to himself. “If I don’t darken a city’s power grid, or something explodes, or something catches fire, I’m doing it wrong.”
Zimmer learned to play the guitar as a teenager and found that “being asked to quit nine schools isn’t very helpful for furthering his education” so he “had no other choice than to join a group”. He played with bands such as the Buggles in the 1970s and began his film career in the 80s in London alongside his friends from the fledgling production company Working Title. “At the same time Margaret Thatcher was in power, things were very political. The punk movement was on the way and England began to have a new television channel, Channel 4, [that] necessary equipment,” he recalls. “We didn’t really know how to make movies, but we said we did, and they somehow believed us. So that was one way in.
Another way Zimmer entered the world of composition was an apprenticeship with composer Stanley Myers, who had recently written the score for Michael Cimino’s classic. The deer hunter. “Stanley had this very, very complicated Italian espresso machine that he didn’t know how to use,” he says, “and the deal was that I was going to make the espressos, and he was going to show me how the orchestra works. ”
Zimmer learned the ins and outs of music and composition by studying the work of “the world’s greatest composers and musicians”, but sought to learn the technical components of his craft on his own, at a time when “the music was changing rapidly” with the Computer presentation. “Nobody could teach you how to make music with a computer…because nobody had. There was just no process,” he says. “I just ripped the guts out of the thing and perverted it playing notes and synthesizers and electronics, and the rest was like that.”
Zimmer found that some composers of this era were reluctant to use the computer in their artistic process. But early on he embraced it, given his notion that every musical instrument is a product of the technology of its time. “The violin…the pipe organ is a product of the technology of its time. So what’s wrong with embracing the computer and synthesizers? ” he asks. “It was weird because of course there was this whole thing about ‘Oh no, no. Not synthesizers. No electronics. Oh no. This is the devil’s playground. Well, I was like, “That’s exactly the playground I want to play on.”
Making the computer a key tool in his creative process allowed him to quickly get his vision for the score in front of an image and its director, so that quick adjustments could be made and he didn’t waste time. in orchestra sessions, which “should be all about the heat, the adrenaline and the brilliance of the players”, during arguments with the director. It also contributed to his singular voice, as an artist who could serve a story through the kinds of unconventional orchestrations experienced in Dunes.
While Disney The Lion King brought Zimmer his first Oscar and it’s a project he looks at with great emotion, two others were Working Title’s “provocative…political” My beautiful laundromatwith “Daniel Day-Lewis Before Anyone Knew Daniel Day-Lewis”, and Barry Levinson’s rain man, which earned him his first Film Academy nomination. He came to this project by chance, when Levinson’s wife, Diana, watched a film he had composed and titled A world apart, bought a CD copy of his score and took it to the filmmaker. “I still want to be very clear about the mention of Diana Levinson’s name, because she could have liked the movie. She could have just liked the music. She didn’t have to go buy her the CD,” Zimmer says. “She could have just told him, but it made a huge difference, and sometimes your career is shaped by the generosity of someone else’s spirit.”
For Zimmer, there’s nothing more to love about the work he does as a composer than the “world-building” opportunities it affords him. “Someone says, ‘Well, it’s a planet and it’s full of sand and the weather is terrible. What are we going to do? How are we going to go and sound represent this? And it gets really interesting’ , he says, referring to Dunes. “There is a language that is different.”
The composer, who is now 64, says someone recently asked him, “When are we going to slow down?” When are you going to retire? But rest assured, Zimmer’s retirement day is a long way off. “Before he even finished that sentence, I was just going, ‘What do you mean? I’m just getting started. I’m just excited. And that’s what this movie [Dune] done,” he said. “It was like, ‘Hey, wait. Throw it all away. Throw it all away. Let’s go in and bend the instruments. There’s stuff in there that you’ve never heard before.
Zimmer’s upcoming projects include Dune: part two and the expected Top Gun: Maverick. Check out highlights from our conversation with the composer above.