We Built Our Own World: Hans Zimmer and the Music of ‘Inception’

Hans Zimmer’s career as an Academy Award-winning film composer had a bit of an unusual start: he has the distinction of being in the first music video ever broadcast on MTV.

Having orbited around a New Wave band called the Buggles in the late ’70s, Zimmer — a bit of a keyboard wizard who grew up in Germany before moving to London as a teenager, soon indulging his love of pop music at any chance he could get — managed to get a small spot on the video for the song “Video Killed the Radio Star“, which not only became a huge hit for the band, but also has the distinction of being the first video ever aired on the then-fledging Music Television Network. Following that, he bounced around various projects before partnering up with noted film composer Stanley Meyers in the early ’80s to do nothing but work films. From that point onward, Zimmer’s pioneering use of electronic instruments in film scores helped usher in a new generation of young composers, soon securing his place in cinema history with his work on films like Rain Man, The Lion King, and Gladiator.

Frequently known for his willingness to collaborate with others, Zimmer found a kindred spirit with noted director Christopher Nolan, who brought on both Zimmer and James Newton Howard to work on his Batman films. The resulting scores for both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were powerful and dynamic, but very atypical of what a score for a superhero movie should be: there were no endlessly-repeated theme, no collaborations with pop stars, or any other excessive nonsense. Zimmer & Howard wrote for the needs of the film, drawing viewers in to a dark, sometimes terrifying world without the usual Hollywood score tropes dogging them the whole time. Mixing electronic elements with ambient violins and thundering percussion, Zimmer has proven that even at 52 years old, he is showing no signs of slowing down.

This weekend’s much-hyped sci-fi action film Inception marks the first time since his 1998 debut Following that Nolan has written an original screen story entirely for himself. Even with its A-list cast and daring action sequences, the film still has its roots in distant memories and painful regrets, mixing a high-end concept with actual human emotion (Nolan’s forte). Speaking to PopMatters about his work on the score, the warm and funny Zimmer reveals why he brought along Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr to provide contributions, how his relationship with Nolan works, and why the Inception music was inspired by both David Bowie and mathematician Roger Penrose …


Having finally seen the final cut of Inception, what are your thoughts on it?

It was a very different process. You know, usually films are being made in bits and pieces and there’s a structure of how you work it: the composer sees the movie and discusses the themes with the director and he goes off and he writes the theme — we didn’t do any of that on this one.

Well given the fact that the structure of time within the actual story itself is altered and changing, it seems to lend itself to much more atypical conversations as to how you’re going to structure the score.

The score was really coming together in my head after I read the script and just in talking to Chris — technically for over a year. Then Chris went off and shot the movie, and I went to the set, saw the designs, saw actors doing their thing, etc.; but when it actually came time for Chris to edit the movie, he wouldn’t show it to me anymore. He didn’t want to go and inhibit my imagination. I never asked him about it before but I think I am going to ask him about it [now]: one of the themes of the movie is very much the idea of shared dreaming. He wanted me to sort of have a parallel dream of music to the film. So I wrote the whole score without seeing the movie. So for a good few months, I wrote what my version was, you see what I mean? I sent it over to him, and then the first time I saw the movie, it was surprising how well that idea of shared dreaming/parallel dreaming actually worked.

I’m a huge Star Wars fan and I’m a huge John Williams fan, but if you think about the music in a Star Wars or Superman film, the function of it is to be sort of “above” the film: that theme nearly is on top of the movie as opposed to being inside it. In this one, it became much more interesting that all of [the music] was inside it. I’m going to tell you one thing [about the film]: the first thing you hear over the logos — later on you realize — is already telling the story. We tell a lot of story with the music of the film.

Inception‘s Ambient Music Designer Mel Wesson on designing the film:


“I’ve been operating in this orbit around the score and around the sound design. For me, I read the script and my first thought was “How do you make this world? How do you make this world with sound?” And then it suddenly struck me that you can’t do this and create something that is wholly abstract, ‘cos there’s a line in this film which is absolutely true [about] how the dream seems real while you’re actually in it. So I went ahead and made all these crazy Star Wars alien-type worlds, but it’s not going to pull anybody — the whole concept was to create something that’s sort of under your skin and that you’re in a space that you could relate to, that had some emotional gravity.”

That’s one of the things I noticed as well. You’re describing how films like Superman had an overarching theme. But with this and your Batman scores, you move away from a deliberate theme. It’s more like you’re capturing internal dialogue with the score. Certain motifs reoccur, but it’s never one piece that is truly “defining” what this score is.

Well, in a funny way, they are. The score is a very big 3D chess game, because one of the things I was very interested in was time; rather than Chris writing a movie about dreams, I thought he wrote a great time-traveling story. Nobody has figured out how to go and cheat time, but in a dream, you dream for five seconds and it can feel like five minutes, and you dream for five minutes and it’s really five years. I kept going back to the mathematician Roger Penrose who kept talking about [how] if an electron can be in two places at once, why can’t you? Things like that. It became an interesting puzzle. You have all these little structures that interlink and that can expand and contract in time at the same time and be forward and backwards and upside down! [Laughs]

And for me, in listening to the score, it feels that each individual track doesn’t have its own individual identity: things may start out with a looming romantic feel, but then suddenly we get a horn blast or electronic beats, altering the landscape unexpectedly. It’s not like you separated different moods from track to track: each portion of the score twists and turns within itself, almost independent of the other parts that surround it — if that makes any sense.

Absolutely, because each layer is different. But at the same time, I try to create one world that ultimately comes from one character — and that character is me. All the score is trying to do is ask questions and open doors to let you in as an audience, as opposed to telling you what to feel or give you answers. If at the end of the day I have you walk out of the cinema asking some interesting questions and at the same time have an emotional experience … I mean, how can you make time and mathematics an emotional experience?

Therein lies the challenge.

Yeah! And that was the fun thing, and what did Chris and I talk about? We talked about how that to me, this movie was a deep and meaningful love story. I kept thinking “How can I find a language that’s romantic but isn’t of some old-school Romanticism that’s not Rachmaninoff or 19th century or early 20th century Romantic composers?” — which is what movie music had been for such a long time.

In the score, you seem to go more for a more longing, painful sense of romanticism. It’s not “I’m in love right now” as much as it is “I was in love and it hurts to think about it.”

It was fun to do a futuristic movie that had a complete sense of nostalgia about it. To have those contradictions go on all the time — and they started right off with Edith Piaf fragments that appear a few times in the movie [“Non Je Ne Regrette Rien”]. I mean I fought tooth and nail for to keep because after Chris saw Marion Cotillard play Piaf, we had to have like a “band meeting”: should we now get rid of the song, ‘cos it comments overtly on the actor? We decided “No — we’re making our movie and she’s a character — we have to ignore that.”


One of the other interesting things about this score is how you have a bit more guitar parts in it, largely due to the contributions by Johnny Marr of the Smiths. One of the things I like about it is how he doesn’t dominate the proceedings: he just very subtly adds small touches to the score itself.

That’s why it had to be Johnny Marr. I myself am not a main offender of rock guitar orchestra, which, in retrospect, you love [when] you grow up: those hideous, horrible things where the intake barometer just goes screamingly into the red — it’s a hideous aesthetic. So when I started writing a tune (actually, two tunes) on the guitar, I kept hearing Johnny play them, and [for] the first one I sent off to Chris, he actually gave me a great compliment: “You can stop writing now.” [Laughs] It’s not meant like “You’re fired!” or “You’re so wrong!” He said “No no, this is really good. Stop writing now.” I thought I was at a good point with him, so I said “How would you feel if I asked Johnny Marr to come and play guitar on it?” And he was totally into it, because [Johnny] could get it. Part of what we do is we try to surround ourselves with people who have a similar aesthetic — then you don’t have to explain anything!

You just know; you have that instinct.

Exactly, and Johnny came in, and it wasn’t going to be where we would have an improvisation or something; it was really strictly written. But he came in and he totally got it. You can only get to these things if you have a certain work ethic, you know? Unbeknownst to most of the world, Hollywood isn’t all about partying and taking massive amounts of drugs and then having to go to rehab. It’s about people being passionate about their art … and working with rock stars!

In my experience, the best designs in a production tend to come from when a director truly trusts his designer completely, letting them explore instead of tightly micromanaging every element that they can.

I do think Chris truly trusts me, but that’s because I truly trust him as well, you know? So we come from a really good place in our conversations. There was a conversation we had on Dark Knight where Chris had something very specific: he wanted big action scenes and everything going at 150 miles and [having it all] super super fast and furious. I did these slower string things — just the orchestra playing incredibly slowly — and I showed it to him and … it worked. [He saw this] and went “… well I suppose that works too.” [Laughs] On [Inception], he said “Look: you were like a day ahead of me on [Dark Knight] with that concept — but now I’m a day ahead of you with this concept [for this one scene].” And yeah, of course he was right. That’s the great thing about collaboration: we try to inspire each other, we try to help each other out. We watch each other’s back.

Well it makes great art more than anything else. When the audience feels that incredible sense of collaboration out of all of you, it’s ultimately going to say more than something where it’s obvious that people were arguing over one part or another …

I think there’s always a question [about that] in Hollywood ‘cos I’ve been very open about my collaboration. But I think ultimately when you watch Chris’ movie — it can only be a Chris Nolan movie. It can only be a Hans Zimmer score. I don’t think it sounds like anybody else.

Well I think that also just points to your nature towards collaborating with others, like Lisa Gerrard or John Powell. It strangely reminds me of a quote from the film Black Dynamite: “It may be bigger than you, and it may be bigger than me, but it ain’t bigger than you and me.”

Exactly — and that’s the joy of it. You know, we are in such an amazing position, that we get to make music, that we get to make movies — it’s everybody’s dream come true, and it’s certainly my dream come true, so I can easily leave my ego at the door.

As long as you have a job that you love to do every single day, that’s really all you could ever want.

I love every single day — but that doesn’t mean they don’t get a little rough sometimes. And the word “fun” doesn’t really apply. Producers always say “Come on, do this movie! It’ll be fun — you’ll have a great time!” … it’s not fun. It’s passionate. It’s serious. It’s infuriating when you find your own limitations, knocking your head against the wall — which I did a lot on this one. I mean Inception wasn’t easy. There was nothing casual about it. [Laughs].

I get that sense coming from it. One track that kind of stood out to me was “Mombasa”, which was the chase/heist-type song, which had a bit of a more techno vibe to it, wherein it was less reliant on subtlety and instead went for a more direct, visceral feeling.

Literally, we were looking at the movie and we got to that scene and I said “You know something? I think we need to break all our rules here. We just need to do something exciting here. We need to throw our caution to the wind and stop trying to preserve that dream world: let’s just do something reckless and exciting.”

Now you mentioned being a fan of Star Wars earlier, which makes me think: what are some of the albums that inspired you directly?

Oh, on this movie I can be really specific: David Bowie’s Low. Fripp & Eno. One other instance: when Chris & I were talking about what we wanted the movie to feel like, we were talking about movies from the ’70s and early ’80s, and mainly movies by Nicolas Roeg. I had worked on some. I was thrilled when Chris came in one day and said “I just saw this movie Insignificance and the ending is really amazing!” And I’m going “Yeah, I did that.” [Laughs] I was a little ahead of him, and all the rather experimental electronic stuff [of my early days] I had completely forgotten — it hadn’t been appropriate to be part of my vocabulary anymore. So to me, it was really wonderful to got back and look at it with a completely fresh mind. I mean, the last time I looked at something like that was really Thin Red Line. I remember this whole other vocabulary, this whole other language I have that I very rarely get to use. And, infuriatingly, other people are using all the time! Thin Red Line must be one of the most plagiarized scores. And I don’t mean that in a mean way — I think it truly is a compliment when it sort of seeps into the zeitgeist and people start embracing it. Nobody plagiarizes it in the way that they steal the tune, but just the feel of it.

There’s a certain interval which I use in Batman Begins and Dark Knight [that] I gravitate towards and I had to forced myself not to use it in this one. Really, I was serious about “don’t use anything from Dark Knight or Batman Begins on this movie.” The sonic world [for Inception] is completely tailor-made.

Finally, given your storied career and everything that you’ve done up to this point, what is your biggest regret and — conversely — what is your proudest accomplishment?

My biggest regret … there’s been so many! [Laughs] If we’re talking within the context of writing, honestly, what haunts me is something Americans don’t know about. When I was first starting out and I was a pop musician and I needed to pay the rent, I did a tune for a quiz show in England called Going for Gold — and everybody knows it. It’s hideous; it’s a hideous piece, but it did pay the rent for a few years. Greatest accomplishment? I don’t know. I mean, my greatest accomplishment right now is that I managed to get through Inception without dying!