Film composer Hans Zimmer is too sensible to play favorites with his scores, but he hasn’t taken any new work since completing his score for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar this summer. “I threw everything into it,” he says. “Right now, I'm not willing to go on another journey. I don't quite want to leave it.”
This would make sense. Both score and film are about the sweet sorrows of intergalactic parting, ramped up to full ambience across the Escher-like distances of Einsteinian space-time. The $165-million epic is Nolan and Zimmer’s fifth collaboration together, after the Dark Knight Trilogy, and Inception, Zimmer’s score for which singlehandedy rewrote the rule book for the blockbuster: Zimmer’s dire, insistent “BRAAAMMM”, sounded by an army of brass instruments, all playing in unison, at the very bottom of their register, is now the klaxon-like call of summer. “I called Hans before I even knew exactly I was going to do this project,” says Nolan. “We realized we spent so much time on the other films we'd done, near the end of the process, trying to penetrate the mechanisms we'd created and get back to the heart of the story.” This time, he thought, “Let's flip the process. Let's start with the score and then build out.“
A short time later, an envelope arrived at Zimmer’s office containing a single sheet of paper on which Nolan had typed, using the same typewriter given him by his father when he was 21, a short précis of the film, drawing as much on Zimmer’s own relationship with his 13-year-old son Jake, as the father-daughter relationship portrayed in the film. Zimmer worked for a day and called Nolan’s wife Emma and the pair drove down to Zimmer’s studio in Santa Monica, where the composer made the usual nervous sounds when playing a filmmaker a new score, sneaking glimpses at him to see how it was going down. Zimmer could tell Nolan was moved. At the end of it, he said simply, “I suppose I better make the movie, now.”
“Well, yes, but what is the movie?" asked Zimmer, and Nolan started describing this “huge, epic tale of space and science and humanity on this grand scale.”
“Chris, hang on, I've just written this highly personal thing, you know?”
“Yes, but I now know where the heart of the movie is,” replied Nolan, who referred to Zimmer’s demo throughout production to keep himself and the film on track. It’s the piece of music that plays over the end credits. The score itself, released on iTunes on November 18th, is as remarkable for what it does not contain as what it does. It has no driving drums and string figures, no dominant-key brass swells such as was used to herald the villain’s layer in the later Bonds. Instead it comprises a series of hymn-like compositions for 34 strings, 24 woodwinds, four pianos, and 60 choral singers, in which the strains of 19th century romanticism and the ticking clockwork of Phillip Glass can be heard equally. But the star of the show is undoubtedly the 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ housed at the 12th-century Temple Church in London and played in the movie by its director of music, Roger Sayer. It was Nolan’s idea.
“He has a quiet way of suggesting things,” says Zimmer, “He very quietly said to me, ‘What about the pipe organ?’ Have you ever done a score with that?”
Zimmer immediately saw the shape of it, saw the consonance with that of a rocket ship, and also a breathy rhyme between the air pushing through the pipes of the organ and that being fed into the suits of astronauts. “Between the 17th century and the invention of the telephone exchange, the pipe organ was the most complicated man-made creation,” he says. “Stand next to them and you can hear them breathing, like giants. I just loved the idea that we were, in a funny way, following on in this great endeavor, built over generations — the idea of exploration and invention and time. I have a suspicion, which Chris and I talked about, I said to him, ‘I think all movies, all futuristic movies are inherently nostalgic’.”
A quick test of this hypothesis reveals it is broadly true, in so far as filmmakers have frequented sought to anchor the emotions of their futuristic visions with backwards-facing scores. In 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick balanced György Ligeti’s Atmosphères with Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. For Star Wars, John Williams used a 19th century musical syntax, full of tumbling Korngoldian brass fanfares and sweeping Steineresque strings, as befits a tale set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Williams’s entire career has been built on this principle of musical reverse-engineering. Spielberg called him “a modern relic from the lost era of film”. His score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind contains an echo of ‘When you Wish Upon a Star’. Close your eyes and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is scored like the romance it is. Jurassic Park is a hymn with strains of Elgar, not such much Jurassic-era as Darwinian. Zimmer’s own Hollywood career began with a similar stroke of counter-intuition in the opposite direction, when he scored Barry Levinson’s Rain Man — a road movie, crying out for slide guitars and a harmonica or two — with a set of sleek, syncopated synthesisers, such as much accompany a visit to Mars. Some might say that was exactly the trip as it felt to Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant, tunnelling through inner space.
Zimmer’s score for Interstellar isn’t without controversy. Some audience members have complained of not being able to hear the dialogue in some sections of the movie, so rumbling are the bass notes on that pipe organ; one cinema in Rochester has even put up a sign reading “Please note that all of our sound equipment is functioning properly. Christopher Nolan mixed the soundtrack with an emphasis on the music. This is how it is intended to sound.” The pay-off came for the composer when he showed the finished film to his 13-year-old son Jake at Nolan’s editing suite in his garage. “He's sitting next to me, and we're talking about a 16 year old teenager, sitting next to his father. As a 16-year old the last thing you want to do is let your father know that there any emotions. The last 20 minutes, he's crying and I mean sobbing. I'm looking straight ahead because I'm trying to not invade his space and embarrass him. We get to the end of it and I lean in slightly, and I go, ‘So, Jake, what do you think? Is it all right?’ He goes, ‘All right, Dad? It's a-maz-ing.’ When he said ‘amazing’ I wish I could have recorded it.”