I am capping off my Lion King Press Day by sitting in a room with Hans Zimmer. We’ve spoken on the phone previously about his scores for Dunkirk and Widows, but this time we are sitting face to face. It’s a moment to cherish.
The iconic musical genius who scored Gladiator, The Dark Knight, Inception and 12 Years a Slave has only won one Academy Award. (He should have more). His musical compositions are renowned.
Perhaps his most famous work is The Lion King. He first scored it over twenty years ago, and when Jon Favreau took the helm for the 2019 version, he invited Zimmer back.
The score is in his DNA, Zimmer jokes. It’s also his most personal score as Zimmer explains. His father died when Zimmer was a young boy, and the theme of a young cub losing his dad haunted Zimmer. It haunted him in the 1994 version, and it haunts him still in the new version, but as he revisited his classic compositions, Zimmer spotted a moment where he could create a beautiful requiem.
And Beyonce? “She really got it. She really got this film. She was passionate about it.” Zimmer says.
You’ve lived this since 1994 or before that. Then you had the Broadway production-ish.
The good news is I’ve been living this music for 25 years so I felt a special harmony with it. I was mainly absent on Broadway, I let Lebo M do all of that.
But then you had Coachella.
That was Pharrell’s fault and Johnny Marr too.
It’s still out there, though.
Where are you from?
You know Johnny Marr?
Well, his son, Nile is 23 years old. I said, “We’ll do Coachella, but I’m not going to do The Lion King.” Nile said, “Zimmer, get over yourself, it’s the soundtrack of my generation. We have to do it, and if there’s one thing I do, I listen to a 23-year-old. Especially if he’s really passionate. So, we play it, and I do have a shit hot band.
I love that term and you totally do.
They play with passion and commitment, and Lebo is with me. We’re doing The Lion King at Coachella, and you look out, it’s this sea of people who are genuinely moved. I know it’s not sentimental. I know it’s just about this performance and that this really means something.
I showed the video to Jon. The great thing about Coachella is whoever their camera guys are, they are amazing. They’re really good, and it looked pretty good. So, I showed it to Jon and said,”This is what I want to do. I want to make it a performance and let me get all these amazing musicians in. Rather than rehearse this for two days, let’s play the movie from top to tail as if it were a concert.”
The big difference, and no one has really thought about this, is ordinarily when you record a film score, the musicians don’t know why they’re playing those notes. They don’t know the story. You can tell them the story, but it’s not the same thing.
But everybody knows this movie and everyone knew why they’re playing those notes, so you got this passion and commitment.
I once saw an interview with Don Hahn, the producer of the original. Animation is very controlled. It’s the ultimate art for OCD people because you can control everything. Don said, one of the hardest things for him to do was — when I would say, “I have this really crazy idea I want to try out” — for him to say, “OK, do it.”
Again, I went back to Disney and said, “OK, I have this really crazy idea. There’s this orchestra in New York. There’s an African-American orchestra who has this really amazing sound. Can we fly them in? And then, I want to use the people who played on the original and they’re in Los Angeles. Can we do that? I want my band to come in, and they’re in London, Cornwall and Manchester?” I wanted to get everyone into a room, rehearse it and put chairs up for the filmmakers. They never get to come to recording sessions, but it ups the game a bit for musicians. I wanted to do it as a concert.
By the third day, Jon, who is so incredibly supportive and directs from the heart, he took me aside and said,”I never thought it would happen. I thought it was a lovely dream you had, I never thought you’d pull it off.”But we pulled it off. I don’t know, you saw it. I think there is a sense of performance in the music. I think there is a sense of Coachella. We had also done it at Wembley.
It totally felt like a concert.
That was the idea. That’s what the score felt like this time around. It had that concert vibe.
The last score I wrote with Chiwetel Ejiofor was 12 Years a Slave and it was a slightly different score. I suppose in a funny way; the movie earned it so that I could have all this amazing talent and it was still pretty magical. I don’t know how to produce a vocal to save my life. I don’t sing. Just to have Pharrell go there and work with Seth, who has never sung in his life. I thought he knows what he’s doing.
What was it like though to go back there? The first time was so deeply personal.
It was right back to that. The thing that hit me so hard with the first one, my dad died when I was six. Suddenly, I had to deal with that. I thought the first one was my psychiatrist’s couch. I thought I had got it all out of the system. I went right back to the dark. It’s a pretty dark score.
It really is when you think about it.
I didn’t know how to hold back. Now that it’s photo-real or whatever it is, it’s more real, it meant I had to overdo certain things. Scar can’t raise his eyebrow so I have to be funnier. I have to be a bit sadder, or a bit more authentic. I never talked to Jon about it on purpose. I’d play him things, and it would resonate or it wouldn’t. I can’t tell you what to like. It doesn’t work like that. It moves you or you throw it in the bin.
Was there a moment to see played out in live-action photo-real for you?
The new scene. The confession, of course, is that I don’t know how to write an animated movie. I don’t know anything about it. I never saw a script. Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers had a room the size of this very hotel room with storyboards on the wall. They’d tell me the story by pointing at the storyboards. Inevitably, they’d get to one storyboard, and they’d disagree which way the story would go. It was like I wasn’t there.
I wrote everything in a linear way as the story came in. The death of the father came, and I knew it would be a problem for me. I never foreshadowed it. This time, I knew what all the themes were, so I could change the architecture. So, my favorite scene is with the tuft of hair. Jon led me to it, but it was always a requiem for my dad and I expanded on that. Even though it’s a hopeful scene, requiems don’t have to be sad. They can be in memory of somebody you love. They can be full of love. So, I got to expand on it and so that’s a favorite.
The other, and I’m not saying it because it would be commercially good, but Beyonce phoning and saying,”I’ve written a song. Can I play it to you guys?” It was really late in the game. She thought it was for the end credits, and she was so invested. She really got it. She really got this film. She was passionate about it and so she comes in with this diamond of a song. She thought it was going to be played in the end titles, and I thought, “Hang on a minute. This could be a key moment in the storytelling.” So, that’s what happened.
That was such a powerful anthem.
I love the idea because Nala says, “You have to go back.” Nala motivates the scene and Nala has the song. Times have changed. Let the girl be the driving force for the moment.
That’s the thing I loved about it. We had thirty extra minutes, and we had more of the female lionesses.
Absolutely. Look, I’ve spent the last few years working with Sir David Attenborough. A national treasure. He’s the coolest human being on earth. It was making me aware of what a precarious situation we’re in. I was looking at this movie in a completely different way.
I think we all do. I think you suddenly go, “We share this planet with these amazing creatures, so let’s be a little bit more responsible.”
We’re older now.
My biggest fear is, I originally wrote it for my daughter who lives in London. I’m going to London. Disney was really nice, and they gave me a shit-load of tickets. I sent them all back except for two and I just wanted to have a father/daughter date. At the same time, I’m thinking, what if she doesn’t like it? I have these fears and they never go away.
My youngest was sitting next to me at the premiere in LA. When the stampede starts, she starts digging into me. She’s pretty strong. I thought, “Shit, this stampede is a lot longer than the old movie. It’s really hurting.” [laughs].
How’s the tour going? You’re going to Asia.
I’m going back to London forever because I’m doing Wonder Woman there. How’s the tour going? It’s going. It’s the best life you could possibly have. Let me say this in English: “I’m a lucky bastard.” [laughs]