Without question, Hans Zimmer is one of the most successful film composers of our era, if not the most. There are hundreds of valuable lessons young composers can learn by studying his work and career, and one I’d like to discuss now is how his scores keep getting media and fan attention.
During awards season this year I began to notice something interesting. Hans was being interviewed on the red carpet at the major events. Now if you know anything about film composers, one of the main things you know is that the general public has no idea who they are. They want to see Robert Downey Jr. and Reese Witherspoon, not some film composer. But here Hans was, being interviewed and treated like a rock star.
The score of his that was getting attention this year was Inception. Now of course scoring an amazing movie with an incredible score is useful for getting attention, but what stood out as interesting to me was that he kept talking about Johnny Marr. Johnny Marr is the guitarist from The Smiths, and he played the guitar parts on Inception. Every interview I saw, Hans was talking about Johnny’s guitar tone and how it contributed to the music. Sometimes he even had Johnny there with him!
This led me to think about the last major score Hans wrote that got a lot of attention, Sherlock Holmes. In all the interviews for Sherlock Holmes, he would talk about the Gypsy musicians and the unusual instruments he used, including and old Cimballom he bought off of Craigslist.
Think back to another great score, Gladiator, and you’ll remember the mournful vocals from Lisa Gerrard and Djivan Gasparyan , the Armenian duduk player.
Thinking about these scores, a pattern began to emerge. There are actually two critical lessons from these examples, collaboration being the first but we’ll save that for another day. The other lesson that stood out was that Hans always adds to his scores something to talk about.
Regardless of the genre, the style of music, or any other factor, adding a unique element to each score that is interesting helps get him attention.
Imagine interviewing your average C-level composer about they’re latest score:
Interviewer: “So composer, tell us about your score for XYZ Movie!”
Composer: “Well, I used a standard film orchestra.”
I: “Ok, any unique instruments or vocalists?”
C: “Nope, just the standard setup.”
I: “How about the music, did you incorporate some special folk music from the film’s era or do something special with the way the music incorporates songs?”
C: “No, but I wrote a love theme and had a violin ostinato for the action scenes. Have to play it safe, you know?”
I: “Right, well… Thanks for the fascinating interview.”
Ok, a little contrived but you get the point. Most scores are boring. And they’re boring for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that they don’t offer anything unique.
Is using a weird instrument or a celebrity musician enough to make your score completely unique and sound like nothing else? No, but it’s interesting and it gives people something to talk about. And after paying attention to the pattern of what is getting HZ attention, that extra little edge certainly helps.
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