Interview: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard on The Dark Knight's Score
by Alex Billington
June 5, 2008
Last weekend I had the wonderful honor of meeting both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard in person at their studio in Santa Monica. The two talented composers are teaming up again to bring us the score to The Dark Knight, a movie I know many are looking forward to this July. If you've seen any of the trailers for the film, you'll instantly recognize the iconic score that has so brilliantly become the sound of this new Batman. When I say that Batman Begins is my all-time favorite score, that is no understatement. The soundtrack is always near the top of my playlist and I typically listen to it almost every night, so you can understand why it was such an honor to meet these two. Let's just say that their work on The Dark Knight should not be overlooked - Zimmer and Howard have promised one hell of an incredible score!
When I showed up at the studio in Santa Monica, I wasn't sure what to expect. What I discovered was awe-inspiring -- Hans Zimmer's "office" was an immense room, constructed out of rich wood and filled with lavish red velour furniture and countless instruments, including a piano. One wall was completely covered with audio panels, amplifiers, and switchboards. To each side, books on music and composition filled the walls. In the middle sat a gigantic computer workstation with at least four monitors and a mixer. I couldn't dream of a more perfect studio to compose some of the greatest soundtracks ever heard. It was in here where I sat down to talk with Hans and James for a mere ten minutes.
To get the complete experience with this interview, I suggest you hit play on the track below and listen to some of the music from Batman Begins while reading. Unfortunately I can't share some of the score from The Dark Knight that I heard, however that soundtrack does hit shelves starting on July 15th. Let me assure that what I heard was phenomenal. If anything, The Dark Knight's score is an extension above and beyond what we heard in Batman Begins and I know fans won't be let down.
I'm really curious about the process of scoring and how you go about developing a sound, so I was going to start off asking how long does it take to develop from when you first met with Christopher Nolan to getting it finally recorded?
Zimmer: Nearly a year in this case. With sub-side tours and some vacations on other movies, but the conversation and the thinking -- I started actually making a noise a year ago, or roughly a year ago. But I think the conversation obviously probably started before that. I think it started the day Chris put the last full stop onto the script.
Howard: Well, you actually read that script.
Zimmer: I actually was the person who read that script.
Howard: He called me up and said you really should read this script.
Zimmer: Yeah, well that's because I didn't read the last one. Well, it's not as flippant as you think. I find it's more interesting to actually say to the director "tell me the story," because then I get his point of view as opposed to the script's point of view and of course, in this case, it's Chris and his brother Jonathan who are the writers. But I still did that thing, "tell me the story," and I remember doing it in London and then saying I'm flying back to LA tomorrow, why don't you give me a script. And [Chris] going, I'm not giving you a script! You're not going to read it anyway! No no, I'll really read it. I opened it on the plane with the full intention of not reading it, let's be honest. I started reading the first few pages just to get a little sense of the language and I got so hooked into it. In a way it's the writing that's really carried me through this all the way because I really think it's great writing. What I love is that we're doing the summer blockbuster and we can be quite uncompromising and dare I say nearly intelligent...
Howard: Well, let's not get fanatical.
So it sounds like at least for The Dark Knight that you guys worked with Chris well before he shot anything, right?
Zimmer: Yeah, I think that's what happened on the last one, too.
Howard: The last one -- Chris is two things: he's very security conscious, so he doesn't like to send internet copies of the movies around the world, which I understand. But he also loves to get music and fiddle around with it himself, so in Batman Begins he would call us up and say--
Zimmer: Oh yeah! That was hilarious.
Howard: Can you just write something and start sending it over and we'd say what do you want us to write? Well, you know--
Zimmer: I got this shot, he'd say, I got this shot of this and that going on, and he'd describe it, and we'd write something and we'd send it over.
Howard: And we'd start sending stuff over and he'd say well, that bit is working really well. Send me some more...
Zimmer: Right. This one was different and so some of the ideas were very much born before he started to shoot. The Joker thing was all done, or certainly a concept with one note attached to it, before he started shooting. We sort of knew where we wanted to go and it sounds crazy, or stupid, but it was just so hard for me. I had this idea of this sound in my head and to get to it, it took months. And it's so simple, but it's like chiseling away and trying to make it that simple and just finding people who could even play this thing because it was all about the attitude.
So going back to the process, how do you get inspired for this score? Do you sit down, and I see you have images over there, and look at them--
Zimmer: Yeah, that's actually very much my way of working and James will probably have a different point of view. I like working away from the movie actually running. I like working from most conversations and from those concepts and from the images in really good color because I think, especially in Batman, what we tried to do is create this whole world, this whole iconic world, and it has to seamlessly fit with Wally Pfister's cinematography -- the colors have to be right, and there's nothing worse than when your colors are clashing.
Howard: What's always interesting working on these two Batman films to me is that the cut we work on for security reasons is always in black and white, so we're watching the movie in black and white and I'm convinced that that has played a role in the austerity and the angular quality of a lot of the music.
Zimmer: Oh absolutely! And sometimes when I see it in color I go, "this looks all wrong."
Howard: Yeah, I know.
Zimmer: Oh, this looks much better in black and white!
You're both individually very talented composers -- what is it like working together on these films? Does one of you put in more work than the other? Do you sit down and have meetings all the time? How does it work when you're both putting in effort? Both collaborating?
Howard: Well, if I may, I think first of all this was Hans' gig so--
Zimmer: He's blaming me, though.
Howard: He asked me to join in on Batman Begins because we had wanted to work together for a long time and we were already good friends. It's a tribute to the collaboration that we're better friends now. Somebody had to be designated leader and that's Hans, and I love that because it's the only time in my musical life where I've had somebody essentially producing my music, so to say, in such a wonderfully intelligent and insightful way. For a modern composer, that just doesn't happen. Most other composers would be very insecure or nervous about doing that.
Zimmer: I am insecure and nervous about the whole thing!
Howard: Well, so am I, too, but it's still really valuable, so I really enjoyed that aspect of it. We have done so much work on Batman Begins that we were able to use that as a foundation for parts of this new score and allow us to go off and write these other less traditional kinds of things. Hans was very much singularly responsible for the Joker. I'm singularly responsible for Harvey Dent and the arc of that character and then everything else in between we would just collaborate on to various degrees.
So when you guys are composing, what influences play a part in your musical decisions beyond the film? Are there other scores or is there other music or anything in your life that influences you?
Zimmer: Let me start this answer. The influences were actually more about subtraction. I thought – if I get this wrong, Batman will be a superhero film and I don't think it should be a superhero [film]. I think it should be about an iconic character, a human being that hides behind a mask and has certain old-fashioned romantic notions of chivalry, and--
Howard: Totally out of step with his time.
Zimmer: Yeah, totally out of step with his time and the time -- we don't live in Kansas anymore, that sort of thing. So just trying to get rid of the baggage that comes with, "oh, superheroes need to have a tune." We've been talking about this a lot today because it suddenly occurred to me, there's probably a whole bunch of people out there still waiting for us to write that happy superhero tune -- the Superman Returns or the old Batman type tune. I just want to say categorically, don't hold your breath. It ain't going to happen, because this is a different world and this is a different Batman.
The other part of that journey is how do you make something iconic? How do you make it a singular thing that is this Batman, and this Batman only, and when we did this successfully on the last one and I don't want to sound big-headed here, but I knew we had done it when -- there came a certain point in the proceedings where I just knew we had done that, and even though Warner Brothers liked the score a lot, they never realized quite how iconic it was until basically everybody was trying to rip off the sound. Then when we came to this movie and the first time you hear those two notes again, or you hear the sound of the flapping again, you know they got it! You don't even have to have the character on the screen and you know, this can only be this movie.
So the influences I did take on board are actually looking at Francis Bacon paintings. Things like that. The other influences I take on board are very much the conversations that actually the four of us have: Lee Smith, the editor, Chris [Nolan], our director and James. So together this really is collaborative.
Howard: Any other work that we do on these movies is extraordinary disciplined in terms of the composition. We talk about virtually every note of the score and why it exists and should it exist and how it exists relative to the other ideas that are being expressed in the movie. I think that part of what Hans was saying, the idea of subtraction, was such that we're very critical about what we allow to go into the movie and the music, and it's through a long process, a distillation process, [that we] really get to the core and the purest way of saying what we want to say.
Zimmer: And then the other thing was I didn't want to do another summer Hollywood blockbuster, so I thought to be very provocative in the music, which I think that little Joker ditty is certainly not something you expect in -- it's not the first thing that you'd think of when you think Hollywood blockbuster. And actually do that. Be provocative! That's the way Chris is -- very provocative in his writing this time.
Thanks to both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard for this opportunity!