Exclusive: A Collaborative Conversation with James and Hans

It is fair to say that we here at Superhero Hype! are big Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard fans. From Zimmer’s work on Gladiator to Howard’s work on I Am Legend, both composers give audiences something different with each new project. Some balk at that notion while others, like myself, become immersed in the music.

In The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan has created a world that has not been visualized so successfully with characters who originate from comic books. Since a film must include several different parts to make it whole, Zimmer and Howard needed to tap into the images and characters on screen. From the Joker’s theme in “Why So Serious?” to the 16 minute long closing track “A Dark Knight,” Zimmer and Howard created music that evokes emotion from the audience. Before their CD signing at the Virgin Megastore in New York, Hans and James were able to sit down with Superhero Hype! and spend a few minutes talking all things “Dark Knight” music.

Hans Zimmer: The Spanish Inquisition starts now. (laughs)

Superhero Hype!: So back for round two of Batman. Was it easier this time around?

HZ: No it is never easy. It is always impossible. It started a little earlier this time around.

James Newton Howard: Well you started earlier.

HZ: Well all that means is I extended the torture a little longer.

SHH!: So you had the premiere last night and did a performance. How did that go?

JNH: Hans had an idea that we should perform live at the premiere, which turned out to be a great idea. So really, Hans, I can speak for him when I say this, wrote the piece that we performed which is based and derived from much of the score, it is about 9 minutes long. Some pre recorded music but largely what we’re performing live with these wonderful modular old synthesizers…

HZ: ..and 8 French Horns. (laughs)

JNH: And 8 French Horns. And great lightening and we just really had a great time. It was kind of an experiment that really worked.

HZ: Well it seemed like a sensible thing to do. When you normally go and see a movie, you get there a little early, you get to see the trailers etc. but at the premiere it just goes to black while not everyone is sitting down and I did not want them to miss the first 10 minutes while everyone is gabbing and sitting down and switching off their cell phones.

JNH: There was no break. Our music segwayed, as the music was disappearing the stage was struck and the movie started so there was never any break.

HZ: The stage was struck; I mean these stagehands were amazing. They had to get this 400 pound taiko off the stage. And you had all these people freaking about “what if this thing rolls into the screen.” But I was more worried about me as opposed to the screen! (laughs) But I think it did exactly what it was suppose to. It set this up as something so extraordinary. Have you seen the film yet?

SHH!: I have. Loved it.

HZ: I liked it so much because it was so smart.

SHH!: It was not your normal comic book movie. And that is a label I think that people use to be derogatory when describing these types of films.

HZ: Absolutely. I think it is always derogatory. I think it portraits a world much closer to our real world. And these days, we really do not have time for the fantasy superhero world. It is pretty grim out there. And if it can get you to think, that isn’t exactly a bad thing. I speak for myself, and I know I speak for James as well, it was just refreshing that I didn’t have to write a score that had to be pretty, that could be as provocative as I wanted to be, I can be as dissident as I wanted to be, where I could be minimalist and unconventional. And I had a director who loved the crazy stuff.

SHH!: How is it working with Chris Nolan. Is he very hands on with you?

JNH: He said the greatest thing to us in the beginning when we started this second one. When he started to listen to the music, it made him want to do another movie.

HZ: That is how he actually got into the writing again. He just popped the CD in one day and then off he went.

JNH: With Chris, I never have seen anyone with his level of commitment, his tenacity to the bitter, bitter end. He is the first one to arrive and he is the last one to leave. And he carries that energy seemingly, on a very calm exterior, unflappable, just an extraordinary leader when you really need one.

HZ: The triumph arrives when we three work together. It really works really well because it is very rare when you get a director who is that solidly in tune with things. I am not exaggerating here. There is that rare occurrence when someone has a photographic memory but I can never remember knowing someone with a phonographic memory. With Chris, he can remember every note, every sound in a terrifying way sometimes.

JNH: We make scores, and scores and scores and demos, different versions, always adding things. Hans initially prepares a 10,000 bar sequence…

HZ: 8,000 (laughs) It was 10 hours which we burnt on to an iPod for Chris to take on the plane to Hong Kong when he was shooting there and he learned the whole thing where he would go “875, there is this really cool thing going on.” (laughs)

JNH: I mean, even in a pragmatic way, we would be recording with the orchestra, a bit would go by, we had maybe 50/60 pieces out there at a time and we got hundreds of tracks on the synthesizers in the control room, and had to mix them all together, he will notice a very small element that is not there of a track that is one of the more obscure things and would be right.

SHH!: So I am a big fan of “Batman) Begins,” and obviously “Dark Knight” and one of the things that really worked for me was the unconscious symbolism that Chris puts into the script.

HZ: We are not that unconscious (laughs)

SHH!: As composers, do you like to play into that?

HZ: Completely. I mean look, the first thing you will hear, we call them the “Bat Flaps” because the plan was, lets have something like the Bat symbol which is very iconic seen on screen with the audience, because Batman does not exist for the first half of the movie. But when you hear that sound again you know he is coming. The two note motif he has… If you want to go into symbolism, it could be the beginning of a great superhero tune that never quite does that because I wanted to show the lack of this man. In a way, the hollowness of the idea of trying to do good but disguising yourself. Right at the beginning of “Batman Begins” when his parents get shot, there is this little choir boy note that just freezes in time and I think it just goes on for another four minutes and that just plays into the symbolism of arrested development. (laughs) So if you want to go into symbolism, I just described the first 30 seconds of the movie. Same with this Joker thing. I thought how can I get anarchy into one note. What I love about the Joker in the way that its written is that he is a singular idea, a singular philosophy, a singular concept. How can you strip everything away so that you really get this laser beam off a singular idea?

SHH!: Well when I first heard the “Why So Serious?” track, I heard it before I saw the movie, I had in my head what it was. But when you see it in the film, it is almost as if this flat line occurs, you know death is going to come, the storm is coming and then bam the Joker is on screen.

HZ: And you can have the tiniest fragment on the screen but you know who is in control of the screen at that moment. So yea… (laughs) some thought went into it.

SHH!: So you both split duties on this with James doing more of the Harvey music.

JNH: Yes I was Harvey’s guy. (laughs)

SHH!: With Harvey’s theme, you have the Gotham theme in there.

JNH: We talked about that a great deal. The Gotham theme really represented the state of affairs, the status quo. And it was presented in the context of the Harvey Dent character in a different orchestration as though the status quo had the potential to change. There was the possibility of change.

HZ: Towards a positive thing. For me, in the last movie, when Bruce Wayne’s father takes him on the monorail and we see Gotham, and it is this sparkling town full of hope, Harvey Dent is the white knight, he is the hope.

JNH: Hans and I write in a very similar fashion. Not so much musically, which I think makes the collaboration work, but in terms of our production values and the way we approach films, and one of the things we do from time to time and I guess is pretty much in every movie, is to construct a large suite from which materials derive. Music melody and tone just always seem to end up in a suite. But in this case, Hans called me up and said “why don’t you write a Harvey Dent suite?” So I did. Started it off in a very high register, which is kind of roborant of Batman. We don’t do a lot of stuff from the high register. We always start off in the low, mid range kind of things tonely. And it ends up in this piece that is very strongly American sounding and quietly heroic. So when it was finished, I was expecting a colder reception but Chris really embraced it and threw it in there and we had the beginnings of Harvey Dent. From there, the trick was to twist it and turn it.

HZ: I think one of the misconceptions people have is “they” do the movie and then we come on and do the music. I mean, we work from… well you can see it in Chris’ linear notes, one of the things that got him into this film was just listening to the music. And we were writing all during the shoot, and sending things over and meeting with Editor Lee Smith who comes from sound. So there is a real sonic sense that goes through the movie.

JNH: We started writing a lot of music even before we saw the movie. We both very much did that in “Batman Begins” as well. And I really like that. We send a lot of music over to Chris and he sends stuff back and we get into this conversation really.

SHH!: Now when you compare “Dark Knight” to “Batman Begins” and I do not mean this in a bad way, it feels like a different film.

HZ: Oh it is a different film.

SHH!: Were you aware of that going in?

JNH: It felt like it had matured.

HZ: It’s like back to your first question. I think the honest answer is that we all got a little better at it. Plus I think… quite a few things have happened that I think makes this a better movie with just the nature of the process. I think with the first one, everyone was watching us and seeing if we were going to ruin the franchise or rather the potential of the franchise. So with this one, we worked with incredible privacy. We really kept our doors shut. It was just Chris, the editor and us two. We would never need to show anyone, we would never need to have a test screening and it made for a much more unconventional approach. I never had to go and write a pretty note. I never had to go and write a summer blockbuster. In its own way, for me, it was a much more enjoyable experience because I got to drag out all the old “synth” and do all that crazy stuff. And the Joker thing was an idea I always had in my head. Can you tell a character through one note? Just through someone performing it in a certain way. To really distill things down to such a level. I mean everyone is going to say it is just one note. But you have no idea as it took forever to get that right. It had to be iconic. And I think people will always talk about themes. And a theme can be one note, a theme can be two. Because what it needs to do is tell a story and if we can evoke a certain emotion. I think what people are still getting use to is that I am not evoking an emotion they are use to. I do not think there is anyone as anarchistic as the Joker out there or has quiet that punk attitude since Sid Vicious. But to capture that character, it is a very good adventure to go on.

SHH!: To stay on themes, with “Batman Begins,” you hinted at a Batman theme. It is not there in all its glory.

JNH: Yes it is.

SHH!: Well, I mean you have something where you know when Batman is on screen, you know when he is coming. But it is not the theme in the traditional sense where you walk away from the film and you are humming and whistling.

HZ: But don’t you think, a little counter question and I will show you the thinking involved. Don’t you think in a peculiar way, it is much more interesting to deal with this impossible character who puts on this mask. Which is a very old idea, like “Phantom of the Opera.” Try to deal with it in a different way and try to deal with the psychology of it. Treat it for real. Work with the corrosion of it. Work with the way of the world is going to sh*t around it. It is a colder approach.

JNH: We get this question asked a lot. People forget. What they forget is they do not consider the work as a whole. It is a film. It is a film made up of dialogue, acting, sound effects and music. And it all coalesces together into one work. The intentionality of the music is beyond approach as far as we’re concerned. We chose to do this because we liked the austerity of it. We did not want to have quote unquote a superhero theme which tells you things about this character which are just not true. This guy is constantly evolving, and in many ways evolving in a negative way.

HZ: Deeply damaged.

JNH: I mean he is falling apart. This is not a situation where we can assign conventional musical sensibilities to them. And I think people have to either accept that or you don’t.

HZ: I think with the structure of the movie, I always knew it instinctively, is that if you had a theme for him, you could not play until the last words have gone by because the last word explains to you what the movie is. The last words are “Dark Knight,” but it is the context of what he puts the words in. It is funny in a summer blockbuster what people will expect. They will always go in with their expectations. They know how the popcorn will taste. If the popcorn doesn’t taste like that, it can’t be a summer blockbuster movie. And it is a great thing to actually go in there and do that for once. I think the worst thing someone can do as a filmmaker is ask the audience what they would like to see next. Actually, in this case, they will probably tell you that they would want to see another Batman movie (laughs) or another superhero movie. But our job is to do the stuff that they can not imagine. We are supposed to come up with new things; we are supposed to break the rules. We are supposed to go and be provocative, not be pretty, not be sentimental.

JNH: We wanted this collaboration in many ways to shatter everything… To put ourselves onto less than secure footing because we have been in situations so many times before that are redundant. For us, this was something completely different. We tried to make it uncomfortable. We kind of reveled in it. That is where we wanted to be. That is what makes this project exciting for us.

HZ: Plus, people will always be banding about the collaborative nature of scores. And then, sort of deny it because the director’s name is there by himself. Everybody is really by themselves. I think one of the interesting things is to actually say something really is collaborative. It is great to have Chris in the band. And sometimes it would feel like that. This “lets play” attitude as he is tireless. He would be the first one there at the session and he would be the last one to leave. And that’s how it should be. It is a conversation.

Watch a clip from their performance at the premiere!



The Dark Knight opens in conventional theaters and IMAX tonight at midnight! The soundtrack is now available in a limited edition here and standard edition here.

Source: Tom Tinneny