Interview: Hans Zimmer on Building the Aural World of Man of Steel

At first hesitant to board the Nolan-produced project, Zimmer explains in the below conversation with what it took for him to embrace the story on an artistic level and reveals some of the aural experiments he undertook to make the new score something wholly unique.

The project also marks the debut of DTS Headphone X, a new technology backed by Zimmer that allows for surround sound to be duplicated within any pair of regular headphones. Fans who have purchased the Man of Steel soundtrack are able to download a special app that simulates the 11.1 surround with perfect accuracy. As he says below, Headphone X is the only technology that allows Zimmer, searching for the optimal experience, to listen to his own soundtracks outside of a movie theater.

You can read more about the soundtrack release by clicking here.

Q: What is it about encoding process that allows for this kind of experience?

Hans Zimmer:
The experience isn’t about that. It was simply that, when we came up with the insane idea of doing the drum circle — which I knew would work great in the cinema — I was going, “I want to have that on my CD. I want to have that on something.” Here’s something I probably shouldn’t be saying: I never listen to my soundtrack albums because I can’t stand it. It’s just stereo. When I write, I write in surround. My life is in surround. Why would I settle for less? We were playing around with a few systems and Peter Asher kept saying, “No, no, no, no. There’s this really great system. You’ve got to go and hear what these guys are up to.” It was as simple as that. I heard it and went, “Yes, this will work. This is the future and the future is now.” Of course, my banter with them was, “Guys, you only get to do a Superman movie once in your life.”

Q: Are you sure about that?

Actually, I just had a conversation recently with Zack where we were trying to look at my life in the future. He’s going, “Well, we want to go and do this and we want to go [and do this]!” I was thinking, “Here we go again!” While you work on something, you never have any idea if it’s going to be any good. I’m starting to get a sense. When we released the third trailer, which had the music from the movie on it, I started to get a sense that we were relevant. People were going to embrace this. They were going to understand that this will be different. This is a different movie from any other Superman movie that has ever happened. This is the thing that I’ve always tried to do: Let’s try something new. Let’s push the technology. Let’s use these movies to go and introduce people to new technology. There are many bad things you can say about Hollywood and they’ve all been said, probably. One of the things people forget is that it does push technology. It does one other thing, which I love. It’s the last place on Earth that commissions real musicians playing every day. It’s the last place on Earth that commissions orchestral music every day. Except, in our case, the orchestra was maybe a little different. But that was part of the mission. Make it different.

Q: What made “Man of Steel” the right film to debut this technology?

Really because, partly, the visual style that Zack has… It’s funny how movies get made. It’s all these different teams working in their own little departments. You deliver your music to the dub stage and then there’s a new team that hasn’t had any involvement. I remember walking into my writing room one day and Chris Jenkins, our main dubbing engineer is sitting there. I asked him, “What are you doing here?” He said, “I just want to look at the whole movie the way you hear it.” I thought, “This is pretty good.” The whole team, Zack as well and, of course, Chris Nolan, they’re just into this. They respect not just the few notes I write but the sonic quality of things. Chris and I, we spent nine years together with Batman. Part of those conversations were all about sound and how we could make the sound better. I’ve been waiting for this moment where I could actually go and listen to one of my soundtracks without going, “Oh dear. It’s only stereo.”

Q: If you sit down and read a Batman or a Superman comic book, do you find that a score starts to develop naturally in your head?

Are you crazy? (laughs) No! I was the reluctant bride on this one. I kept saying no. Chris Nolan was saying, “Come on, Hans! You can do Superman.” I actually said to him, “Look, when you walked in and said, ‘I have an idea for Superman’, you walked in with an idea. That puts you at an unfair advantage for saying this to me.” Quite honestly, I thought, “It’s an American icon. The John Williams score is iconic in and of itself and I think it’s among John’s best scores. Do I really want to follow in those footsteps?” I said to both Zack and Chris, “Look, I’m going to finish ‘Dark Knight Rises.’ Don’t tell me anything. I’m not going to look at anything.” Fifteen minutes, I kid you not, after I finished “The Dark Knight Rises,” I had Zack on the phone going, “So, are you coming in?” I sat down with him and said, “I’m completely overwhelmed and intimidated by this task. But tell me the story.” Rather than reading the script, it was just two guys sitting around. He’s telling the story and it’s really compelling. It’s about a lot of things that concern me. A lot of things I know about. An outsider. A stranger in a strange land. Humility. Let’s not make this Superman bombastic. Let’s make this a score which deals with and celebrates the farmers and the people in the heartland of America. Let’s make this about those endless plains. I kept hearing the sound of telephone wires with the wind rushing through them. During this conversation, a framework started to happen. Once you have a framework, it becomes a sort of inevitable thing that you want to go on this adventure, I suppose. In a funny way, Zack’s most brilliant move — because I kept saying, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to do this.” — was to go, “Hans, it’s just another movie.” By putting some sort of reality around the whole thing, it suddenly opened up. Plus, I’m dealing with people between Chris and Zack who are really open to ideas. When you say, “I want to do this thing with eight-pedal steel players,” you usually get people to start laughing at you. The idea of the drum circle was very specific. It’s not just to show off. When you read the names in the drum circle, it’s a jaw-dropping list, but when you think about what a string section is, it’s about individuals who are extraordinary players. By bringing that group together, you get a very different sound than if you have a solo violin. I did that on “Sherlock Holmes.” It’s a very different sound, a single violin versus an orchestra. I tried to create these orchestras which were unusual. At the same time, you can hear the energy and, in a way, the competition between all the players, just to give it their best. It was fun just looking at everybody’s different style and realizing that everybody’s style, I think, survived the experience.

Q: What was the first piece of music you composed for “Man of Steel”? Did you compose it to a scene?

No, no, no, no, no. They were shooting while we were doing “The Dark Knight Rises.” I just refused to look at anything. It’s actually funny coming from the press junket just now. I always thought that “The Dark Knight Rises” and Superman have nothing in common. One is Zimmer at his darkest and all that stuff. But, if you think about the journey that both characters take, it’s about the first responder. It’s about the guy who doesn’t look away and is there to help. That’s what both of these characters ultimately have in common. The subtext of “Dark Knight Rises” — which is maybe just my subtext because nobody is ever really talking about it. The subtext in that story is that Alfred is forever telling Bruce Wayne, “Grow up. Stop beating people up. What the world needs is your brains and your ingenuity. Stop acting like a teenager. Use your words.” Weirdly, this story is very similar. You have this extraordinary outsider. The first punch that happens in the movie is to protect his mother. All he wants to do and all he has learned in this dichotomy of having two fathers is that you have to be there for people. Try to make the world a better place. I think that’s what both these movies, in a funny way, do. But I very much on purpose tried to use a different language. To answer the question, I was doing my normal procrastination and insanity and worrying about, “I’m not worth” and etc, etc. Zack phoned and said, “You got anything yet?” I was going, “Uh, uh, uh.” All I had was post-its on my fridge and couple of piano doodles. He goes, “I love piano doodles! I’m down on Tuesday.” He came and heard that little piano thing and said, “That’s great. See you later!” It was really oddly important to make it casual and friendly. The big action stuff and the big bombastic stuff is really easy to write. It’s finding the small phrase that sort of illuminates the heart of the characters. That’s the one that kills you.

Q: One of the big thrills for comic book fans is the sense of a combined universe. Do you get an aural comparison in thinking about the disparities between, say, Batman and Superman and imagining how they might work together?

Well, sure. Are you asking I try desperately to make them sound different?

Q: I’m sort of asking if you imagine them in the same universe. Does one fuel the other?

Well yes, in theory. The first superhero movie I ever did was Batman. One of the things Chris and I talked about was creating an autonomous sound landscape. I think we did that. I think if you forget the notes and just hear the ambience, you know this is “The Dark Knight.” In a funny way, we tried to do the same with Superman. That’s why I have this mental image of telephone wire and fields, etcetera. The little out-of-tune piano was really important to me. Every movie I get to, I virtually start from scratch, throwing out all the songs and going through craziness trying to come up with a new vocabulary.

Q: Have you ever turned down the offer to do a score for a film and later regretted it?

Yeah, but I can’t remember what it was. I turned down this one about three times, but out of all the right reasons. I didn’t feel that I was ready. Weirdly, even though I kept saying to Chris, “Don’t talk to me about Superman while we’re doing ‘Dark Knight Rises,’ there was a subtext in our conversations going on all the time.”

Man of Steel is in theaters now.

(Photo Credit: Daniel Deme /