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!
Nice Score for an interview, Alex! Well done- these guys are an A-Class Act. Certainly a perfect fit for Nolan's work, much in the way Elfman was the perfect fit for Burton's take.
Djozer on Jun 5, 2008
"this is a different world and this is a different Batman." Oh please. It's a blockbuster franchise. It's about as revolutionary as a Disney direct-to-video. What the movie needs is a good score. Or maybe just Newton Howard.
Andrew Wickliffe on Jun 5, 2008
Excellent interview! I am interested, educated, and anxious to see the movie because of this interview! Good Job, Tim
Tim on Jun 5, 2008
Nice interview regarding an aspect of filmmaking that doesn't get nearly the attention that it should. I can't wait to see this "direct-to-video"-quality film when it comes out! 😀 You should have asked them if you could add something to the score. Then when they look at you with puzzled looks on their faces, just hop up and break into Will Ferrell's flute solo routine from Anchorman. Sweet.
kevjohn on Jun 5, 2008
This is fantastic, Alex. Great, great interview. Like kevjohn said, the music really kind of takes a backseat to everything else, but it's so prolific (especially when coming from these guys!) that it needs to be discussed. Thanks for bringing this to us. I really enjoyed it.
Ben on Jun 5, 2008
Wonderful interview, Alex. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and am looking forward to the movie, if possible, even more, knowing so much thought was put into this aspect as well. I really loved your recommendation to listen to the score while reading, thanks a lot!
Ivan on Jun 5, 2008
Excellent interview, Alex. Thanks for putting in the time...I love all of Zimmer's work.
Matt Suhu on Jun 5, 2008
Great interview Alex. Very impressive indeed. I can't wait to see "The Dark Knight". You have certainly done us fanboys proud. Keep up the good work.
Spider on Jun 5, 2008
You lucky bastard, Alex. 😛 Film scores have been one of my favorite elements of the industry since I was very young, and I absolutely loved the score for Begins. I can't wait to hear what they've come up with for the new one!
Dan on Jun 5, 2008
Ryan on Jun 5, 2008
Aside from being a movie spaz, I'm also a music spaz. I've seen Zimmer's studio a couple of times in Keyboard magazine over the years, AND YOU GOT TO BE THERE. I"m so jealous. Of course It's probably for the best, as I'd most likely be arrested for trying to smuggle out a synthesizer or two in my pants!
jason_md2020 on Jun 5, 2008
...which would lead to the inevitable line: is that a smuggled-out sythesizer in your pants or are you just happy to see me?
kevjohn on Jun 5, 2008
I think of movie music as important as any character in it. It conveys the mood so well. Batman Begins was great as well as the score, I can only hope for an even better showing.
Breach on Jun 5, 2008
I agree with a lot of these posts - the score to Batman Begins is one of my favorite movie scores. I can't wait to see what the two composers have in store for this next film...
Boo-Yah on Jun 5, 2008
Awesome. I haven't read a single thing about this movie yet that makes me worried at all. July can't come soon enough!
Icarus on Jun 5, 2008
I have to say to #2: How dare you!?!?! Hans Zimmer is THE REASON why Batman Begins was so amazing. James is great, don't get me wrong, but he can't compare to Hans Zimmer. Hans is the BEST composer in film today. Why do you think people loved Pirates so much? Hans!!! Love this article, Alex. I love to hear the creative process in making a score. Especially one as dynamic as this one will surely be.
Brian on Jun 5, 2008
""Let me assure that what I heard was phenomenal. "" OF COURSE IT IS... I get giddy anytime I hear that Zimmer is involved in the slightest. 1. ""BlackHawk Down"" was not the most impressive movie, but the soundtrack had me hooked. 2. ""Gladiator ""- WOW, all I can say... WOW 3. ""The Last Samurai"" - (crap movie for many, but private favorite for me) - WOW #2 4. ""The Rock"" - the intro music on that one was just outside... or when cage was up in the tower in slow-mo and the music much louder while he was trying to stop the rockets, etc. 5. ""The Ring"" - Hated the movie - but that music.... damn thing climbing out that hole and that freakie music... crazy how he can do that so well 6. ""The Lion King"" - Nah sabainya, boba beach a doowa (HEHE) Anyways... I am sure others will come to mind later... I just love the 'Hero' movies, where the music is something that I will remember forever, sometimes it is the villian that stands out more like the Ring ... but either way, Music is Queen. Imagery is King.
Dusty on Jun 6, 2008
Danny Elfman reigns supreme.
Michael on Jun 16, 2008
So what you are saying amongst all these people is that Danny Elfman is better that Zimmer, I don't think so. He doesn't even hold a candle to Zimmer, or even Howard. But I do have to say that I'd rather watch a movie along with music rather that pay the money just to watch a blank screen with Zimmer in the background, if I'm gonna say a movie was better because of the music, I'd damn well better like the music. but in Batman Begins, it was all good.
Casey on Jun 16, 2008
I think Hans Zimmer's music is generic, sterile and unexceptional in every way. Danny Elfman makes my hair stand on end, gives me chills, and can make me cry. Danny Elfman is a bad ass. Hans Zimmer is an academic.
Michael on Jun 16, 2008
Hey posts 18-20, just curious, what do you think of Graeme Revell? 14 years later and I'm still listening to his sound track for The Crow... Alex, got an idea, maybe we can start a separate section reviewing soundtracks?
jason_md2020 on Jun 20, 2008
#2 - Andrew Wickliffe Shut your whore mouth. #20 - Michael Elfman's circus music is weightless and repetitive. Zimmer rapes him in a dark alley.
SlashBeast on Jan 19, 2010
"Elfman's circus music is weightless and repetitive. Zimmer rapes him in a dark alley." say what you will about the rest of the Elfman canon, but his Batman score decimates Zimmer's with a sneeze.
Michael on Jan 19, 2010
Elfman recycles the same circus music over and over again. His Batman theme is cartoony, weightless and lacks any depth. The guy's pretty much on auto-pilot for 99% of his scores for Tim Burton films. The only time he's experimented with some music with depth is when he isn't composing repetitive carnival music. His music is stuff for kids movies. Zimmer's score is for true adults, unlike Elfman's.
SlashBeast on Mar 9, 2010
Lol, you're so right. Almost all of Elfman's shit sounds like carnival music! That Family Guy poke at him was absolutely spot-on! He's a poor-man's John Williams.
Governor on Mar 9, 2010
"Zimmer's score is for true adults, unlike Elfman's." ha. sounds like something a "true adult" would say. "His Batman theme is cartoony, weightless and lacks any depth." pretty sure you haven't heard the batman theme. Yes - elfman is largely on auto-pilot THESE DAYS, but back THEN - pee wee's big adventure, edward scissorhands, batman, beetlejuice etc Hans Zimmer has never come close to making a score as good as any of those. The idea that the Zimmer score for the Dark Knight is thought of as anything other than blockbuster schlock identical to EVERY OTHER BIG BUDGET ACTION MOVIE that comes out is patently ludicrous and anyone who thinks otherwise is either a Dark Knight fanboy or an idiot.
Michael on Mar 9, 2010
"say what you will about the rest of the Elfman canon, but his Batman score decimates Zimmer's with a sneeze." decimates is the word.
Michael on Mar 9, 2010
ps - I didn't just respond to myself. different michael.
Michael on Mar 9, 2010
Lol, his Batman theme is inspired for sure, but everything else in the score is just filler music. It sounds no different than all his other indistinguishable scores. It's unemotional and doesn't convey any depth or nuance, it's artificial. That catroon shit is for children. Zimmer's score is more dynamic and actually conveys some weight which Elfman's are incapable of. Elfman should get the same amount of bashing as Horner does with regurgitation of themes and notes but doesn't.
SlashBeast on Mar 22, 2010
Elfman's Batman work is unique and complex. Balfe/Gibson/Howard/Wesson/Zimmer's Batman work (TDK composers in alphabetical order) is common and minimal. It's the kind of music any composer can write requiring no imagination or skill, which is why so many people can sound the same at the good old Remote Control artist killer factory. Down with the empire that is Remote Control's legions of doom. Remote Control is dance club music forced into film by shortsighted suits.
Pablo Pickasso on Dec 12, 2010
Sorry, new comments are no longer allowed.