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Hans Zimmer on Composing the Score for Dunkirk

Before you read any further, head over to YouTube or Spotify and take a listen to some of the scores composed by Hans Zimmer. Seek out the sounds he has created in his partnership with director, Christopher Nolan and listen to the atmospheric, trailblazing sounds he creates.

His scores captivate. Whether it’s Ridley Scott’s Gladiator or the rich sound palette of The Dark Knight, Zimmer’s music is an incredible achievement. I caught up with the Oscar-nominated composer while he was in his studio to have a chat about how scoring Dunkirk pushed his music to the edge.

You and Chris have a long history of working together but this was unlike anything he’s ever done before. What was his story to you?

The way Chris and I work is that I read the script and the conversation started from there. The main thing Chris said was that he wanted an objective score and I completely understood what he meant by that.

Modern war movies fall into two categories, they either have no music, or music that gives you a sense of heroism and we didn’t want to do either of those things with the score.

Going years back to our work on Batman Begins was figuring out how to merge the visuals and sound completely so it becomes one total experience. In all honesty, I knew from the minute that Chris showed me the script that this was going to be a bold and experimental movie that he was going to make and all caution was going to be thrown to the wind and that was the only way we’d tackle this.

I think knowing each other and having spent all that time together and knowing that we were in this together made it possible to do something that nobody has ever tried to do. I don’t think it’s a typical score, and I don’t think it’s a typical movie. It was excruciatingly complicated. It was always Chris leading from the front. Every ten seconds, I would come up against an unsolvable problem, but doing it together made it possible.

So, it was totally collaborative?

The script itself is almost written in a musical form. The script certainly suggested which way we were going to go more than any other script I had read.

What sounds are you hearing as a composer when you read the script?

There were a few false starts and experiments that went completely wrong. We all know that it starts off with Chris’ pocket watch. In one way or another, we were playing with the perception of time in other ways and we’ve done that in pretty much all the movies we’ve done together.

This was the most obvious way to start. I was looking at it with an orchestral approach and went to London to record a vast amount of orchestra music and as soon as we put it up against the film, I knew we had to be more experimental.

The sounds I hear in my head are in the score, virtually each note you hear is crafted from nothing. Each note is electronic and at the end of the day, there were some patches of an orchestra, but on the whole, it was really a small ensemble of great soloists. The smaller the group, the tighter the sound became and the more specific the sound the better everything became.

I had Richard King’s amazing sound design constantly there as well. Rather than Richard doing his thing and me doing my thing, part of the idea of creating the sonic world was us all working together. Very often I don’t want you to know what is score and sound design.

The whole score is unusual as you say, talk about some of the unusual orchestrations.

It is. It was more a matter of double bass players playing at the extremes of their ranges. I remember apologizing to my players because it wasn’t just hard for them, it was also physically painful as they were playing at extreme dynamics. They went from very quiet to very loud and developing techniques with what they could do with the instruments.

They were driving technology to its complete edge. With some technology, what it says on the box isn’t really what it delivers and we really pushed it. We’d call manufacturers and software writers telling them we found bugs asking them to fix it because we couldn’t get to the next step of the score.

The very extreme nature of what we were trying to do exposed all sorts of weaknesses including pushing me to the edge of what I’d done before.

What was your learning curve on this?

There was always this underlying thought: Chris and I were making a movie about a real event. I think there comes a certain responsibility with that which was not to sentimentalize anything ever. At the same time, it’s an interesting thing that the music came out of a darkness. It came from serious tension and music written from that place is different than music written for an imagined story. I think it’s a very disciplined piece of filmmaking.

Chris said from the beginning before we even started that it was going to be 90 minutes long. Our shortest movie with the least amount of dialogue turned out to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. Part of the discipline of never overreaching and never getting sentimental and even using Elgar’s Nimrod, which means so much to England, involved us radically recomposing and restructuring it.

I remember when Chris called me he was hesitant to mention it, we’re all fragile when we do these things and declare ourselves, but we were so desperately trying to stay in this objective sound. and never ever make it at all sentimental.

The whole movie is about the tension and there’s no real melody. It is purely about the sound and what we’re hearing as we’re being immersed into this world.

Exactly. That was the first thing. I kept cursing Chris for it. I kept saying, “If you want objective, I can’t play a tune.” The thing that I always hang on to and what always saves me at the end of the day is that I have a tune.

I started by writing a hundred minutes, a wire framed structure of the whole thing and giving it to Chris. It seemed to be fine except once we got into the details of things, it was about how to keep the tension alive for that length of time without getting redundant. The problem with tension is once the audience figures out what you’re doing, there’s nothing left. The thing is constantly shifting.

The strange thing was when I tried the orchestra experiments, it became curiously predictable, by sitting down and making the sounds ourselves, we managed to maintain that specificity and the tension.

And, the Shepard tone, how much of a part did that play?

The Shepard’s tone is a small element, but there are a lot of other things going on that we don’t talk about because that sound that Chris and I work on suddenly become’s everyone else’s tone, so we’re going to be a bit cagey. [laughs].

The Shepard’s tone was in the script and the structure of the script. My job was to see how far I could push it. Partly, I think the score helps you orient yourself in the timeframe and it does unify.

Part of the music’s job in Inception was to take the audience along on the journey and move you forward, and that’s what the score does here.

I do want to talk about Coachella, Lion King and so many great projects, but is there anything on a bucket list for you?

Oh, it’s so simple. I’m sitting in front of my next project. It’s always hunting down that good tune or a good idea. You’re catching me right now when I’m sitting here thinking, “How am I going to solve this?” [laughs] Why am I putting myself in these impossible situations? The great thing about it is I’m still being asked to write music and I’m still being asked to do reckless things like drag an orchestra and choir into the desert and do a festival that has nothing to do with film music and get out of that pigeonhole and tell people that it’s just music and that’s really exciting.

I’ve heard your music on Planet Earth and that’s a show I grew up watching in the UK on BBC. You also worked with Johnny Greenwood and Radiohead, but what was it like working on show like that.

Blue Planet and Planet Earth are shows we all grew up with. For all of us including Radiohead, what David Attenborough has done has been consistently inspiring to us. I can honestly say, and it’s such a cliche, but it’s an honor to be a part of that. It’s such an honor that people and the audience embrace it.

The work the crew did on it is remarkable, all we wanted to do was to help to elevate the story and get the beauty of David’s message out there. I think we managed to do that. I think the most exciting thing for me last year was reading that more people are watching Planet Earth than the Kardashians. I thought, great. That this is time well spent and putting the effort into the right place.