Musically speaking, “Man of Steel” arrives in theaters facing enormous pressure: 35 years after John Williams composed the music for Richard Donner’s “Superman,” who could compose new music in a way that does the character equal justice, much less satisfactorily replaces one of the single most identifiable themes in movie history? Having already done similar work with another superhero — his music for Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy is as distinctive and memorable as Danny Elfman’s was for the ’89 “Batman” — Hans Zimmer stepped up to the plate and attacked the challenge head on. Director Zack Snyder’s reimagining of Superman’s origin story looks and feels completely unique to the character’s canon, even as Zimmer’s score oddly preserves a sense of continuity — emotionally more than melodically — that audiences have associated with him since he first debuted on screen.
Comic Book Resources spoke one-on-one with Zimmer at the Los Angeles press day for “Man of Steel,” in the very same booth on the Warner Bros. lot where he recorded the film’s music. In addition to talking about confronting the character’s individual musical legacy, Zimmer reflected on the evolution of his career, exploring the dichotomy between creating an identifiable sound as a composer and continually challenging yourself as an artist.
CBR News: When you initially started on the music for “Man of Steel,” did you think consciously about doing something different from John Williams’ work — not just melodically, but structurally? His leitmotifs are so bold, and this film’s are much more nuanced.
Hans Zimmer: Let’s get one thing straight — John is the master, so there’s no argument here. But I think if he had scored this version of Superman, he would have done completely different music. Lets make this interview about John Williams! There’s no composer who understands nuance better than John. I mean, “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List” — those are impossible acts to pull off. For me, the problem was I’m a fan. I said I was the reluctant bride on this movie, and I kept saying no because of the looming shadow of John, until I sat down with Zack and I said, “Tell me the story,” which was so different and so much more about things that I knew about — being a stranger in a strange land, being the kid that gets bullied, all of that stuff. [And] the word we were both talking about was humble.
Look, I know how to make a big racket, you know. And it was funny having Russell there because we old gladiators know how to make a big noise. But what I was far more interested in was, first of all, not to do something so dark any more, after nine years of “The Dark Knight.” The world has changed; somebody in the press conference mentioned the word hope, and I wasn’t even thinking of it at the time, but when Zack was telling me the story, I was going, here’s a thing nobody’s done in a long time. Just celebrate simple folk, those good people that don’t make the press because they haven’t done anything outrageous. They’re not celebrities, but they are the heart of this country. And this is the foreigner speaking, but this country is misunderstood by itself and it’s misunderstood in the world. I’ve been to places in Kansas — there are those farms where they leave the door open, unquestionably trusting you — and the idea of these parents taking in this child and raising it and giving it values, I thought was something we should go and celebrate. That’s really what that score is about.
Was there ever an impulse to just vaguely evoke those earlier themes Williams created, in the way that Michael Giacchino did with “Star Trek” or Thomas Newman with “Skyfall?”
No, never, because I thought then I would turn it into a parody. I’m not saying that’s what happened with “Skyfall” or “Star Trek,” and I’ve done it before — I did it on “Mission: Impossible 2,” where every once in a while, like a great little bonus, I would drop in the Lalo Schifrin “Mission: Impossible” riff. But I didn’t think it was appropriate [here] because I thought it would be breaking the fourth wall; it would be a nudge nudge, wink wink. It would be off our movie, it would be off our story. It would pull you out because you would recognize it.
There’s this little making-of that’s all about blowing up the Sears department store, and while everything else is of a reality, it’s a real America. I was never thinking of it in those terms, but had I put the theme in, I probably would have gotten a cheer — in the wrong way.
What is your technique or approach as a composer? Do you come up with a central theme first? An individual theme? Do you start with an instrument?
I start with a concept, and I try to create a palette. The palette for “Dark Knight,” it just kept evolving, but they’re pretty much all handmade sounds — it doesn’t matter if they’re electronic. On this, I didn’t want to do electronic. From these conversations, just seeing the endlessness of the Midwest, I was thinking about the telephone wires running across the fields — oh, hang on a sec, that’s like a pedal steel guitar. Nobody’s tried to do an orchestra out of pedal steel guitars, so I got eight pedal steel players in here and I found out the reason no one ever did it: you can’t conduct them. They’re looking down at their fingers! [Laughs]
So there was a little learning curve. I kept shying away from saying I want to do an Americana score, because I think that means Randy Newman, “The Natural” or [Aaron] Copland, and that’s not what I wanted to do, because it’s not that time any more. I think that was sort of the unspoken rule — we never had to say it to each other, but we’re doing our Superman for our generation. And yes, I keep calling him Superman, not Man of Steel, which I suppose is the proper title of our movie, but I think we all know what we’re talking about.
I’ll get to the specifics you asked about — do I write leitmotifs, yes I do write leitmotifs — but the way I work is, it’s like a diary. On the first day, whatever the first idea is, [I jot it down], and whenever I get tired, that’s when I stop, and the next day I just carry on. So, for instance, on the bonus CD, that whole diary is there and you can see how the themes develop. There are clues in the story all of the time — the idea of DNA, the idea of family, this idea of humble and honorable people, simple folk. That ‘good’ is cool. Zack was talking about this and I thought it was a wonderful thing — what’s cool, robbing a bank, or helping somebody who’s being robbed? I’m sorry, but if I had to choose my friend who was cool, I’d come down on the guy who’s helping me out in a crisis. The first responder idea was something really important, and how you deal with that. How do you deal with being a stranger in a strange land, which is something I know a thing or two about. In one way or another, I’m an egomaniac and I just write about myself. But the one thing I do know is, I have no superpowers, and the first thing that was there was the tiny piano motif. And the weird thing about that piano thing is, it doesn’t sound very good, and it’s not very well played. I tried to get better pianists and better players than myself to play it, and it lost all its charm. It had to be played by somebody inept.
You talk about the period of time in which you did the “Dark Knight” films — do you look back at your career and see certain thresholds? Having paid attention to your work since the days of “Rain Man” and “True Romance” —
Well, you mention two thresholds right there. But here’s the thing: The way I work is through forgetting. There’s a whole bunch of movies I won’t remember on purpose, not because they’re good or bad but because you’ve got to make room, you know — you’ve got to empty the brain to create something new. But then there is “Power Of One,” which led to “The Lion King.” There’s “Gladiator.” The movies I did with Ridley, they’re all so different, and they’re all in different musical styles. That was the thing, because I kept watching Ridley reinvent himself. That’s supposed to be the job. I don’t know where that idea comes from, to keep it that narrow — the reason I’m pausing is because I’m thinking of painters who endlessly paint water lilies. [Laughs] “Can’t you think of something else?!”
Those early scores sound vaguely similar, but your work on “Crimson Tide” was more deliberately operatic, and obviously, your “Dark Knight” work was all of a piece. Your work here evokes a little bit of that same tone, like the work I think you did on “TRON: Legacy” —
No, I didn’t! All I did was meet the guys! But somehow, I think a bit of my DNA got stuck on the coffee cup or something. But whatever — I have a style, I have an aesthetic. I mean, talking about it in comic book terms, I used to be a huge fan of Barry Windsor-Smith, who did “Conan.” He did a load of other things, too, but the hand was unmistakeable, even though he was interested in many different stories and many different ways of telling them. Still, there would be a common aesthetic that would run through it. I was having this argument with a director not too long ago: It’s a girl walking in the rain crying because she broke up with her guy, and he’s telling me how to score the scene. I finally had to say to him, have you any idea how many scenes I’ve scored with a girl walking through the rain crying because she broke up with her guy? The whole idea is you make it appropriate about that moment and for that person.
So tell me about your collaboration with Zack Snyder, whose emphasis on humility might run counterintuitive to what your natural impulse might be.
No, it was exactly how I wanted to approach it. Everybody will tell you when they work on their movie, when we get to this point where we do interviews, that it was fun and it was a jolly good experience and it was the best time they ever had — and in most cases, they are lying. But in this case, I’m not lying. In fact, it’s so bad that a music editor on a film I’ve been involved in recently asked, “Can you guys stop talking about how good a time you had on ‘Superman?'” It really was that, and it’s not just because he leads from the front. He leaves me complete freedom, and at the same time, I think we have a similar way of communicating — like Ridley, in a drawing. Words ain’t our strong suit, but he’ll start drawing something. Or he’ll just free me up.
This might sound crazy, but I kept saying, “it’s Superman, but I’m a German, and he’s such an American icon,” and one day he said to me, “Hans, it’s just another movie.” He didn’t mean that in any way belittling his own work, he was just saying, “You can do this.” The only problem with any of these projects is the self-doubt that creeps in. The composer is the last person in line, and a lot of people have put a lot of their life into these projects. Even though you’re supposed to be an artist and not care how much it costs, when you’re sitting there with Chuck Roven and he mentions how much a shot costs, it does weigh on your shoulders. You don’t want to be the one to ruin it for everybody.
At this point in your career, how often do you raze all of that experience and knowledge and start over from scratch?
You do it every time. That’s supposed to be the job. The job description is really simple — it’s “invent.” And try to be just a weeny little bit ahead of the curve, and maybe this is a mean thing to say, but “Dark Knight” came out before “TRON.” “Sherlock Holmes” the movie came out before the English television series, and I still don’t understand to this day why there should be any similarities in the music. And at the same time, you go, wow, “Sherlock Holmes” — I have this completely new idea! And everybody says, “Yes, give us a new idea!” And then you play it for them for the first time — I’m not talking about Guy [Ritchie], but we work within a system, and some people in the system go, “I don’t get it.”
The only answer is, you put it in front of people — and that’s who we make it for. It’s not about sitting there to be analyzed. You make it for people, and that’s the stuff that will tell you how far you can push it. “Sherlock” was a good example — we put in front of people, and they loved it. Anybody who had doubts about the music was swept away by the communal experience that going to the movies does for you. It’s like I was always wondering about “Inception,” which is so about communal dreaming, so that works great when you’re in the cinema with everybody around you — but how does that work when you’re by yourself? Because you’re actually doing the antithesis of what the movie’s telling you to do.
Directed by Zack Snyder, scored by Hans ZImmer and arriving in theaters June 14, “Man of Steel” stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni and more.