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Hans Zimmer Grilled on ‘Inception,’ Tragedy … and Batman

The composer talks about his ninth Oscar nomination, adding what Chris Nolan couldn't to “Inception,” and the next Caped Crusader movie

In a year of big, bold movie scores ("The Social Network," "How to Train Your Dragon," "Tron: Legacy"), Hans Zimmer's work on Christopher Nolan's blockbuster brain-teaser "Inception" has to count as one of the biggest and boldest. Dark and portentous but with an undercurrent of loss and longing, Zimmer's music plays a crucial role in defining the feel and mood of the film; he also uses shifts in tempo to help orient viewers in Nolan's multi-level dreamscapes.

The German-born Zimmer is a nine-time Oscar nominee whose only win came for 1994's "The Lion King." He was consistently nominated throughout the '90s, and then went almost a decade without Academy recognition until last year's nod for "Sherlock Holmes."

Among his scores that were overlooked was his acclaimed collaboration with James Newton Howard on Nolan's "The Dark Knight." As part of Nolan's trusted circle of collaborators, he'll soon venture back into the Batcave for "The Dark Knight Rises."

When you started talking to Chris Nolan about "Inception," did he tell you what he was looking for in the music?
He let me read the script very early on, before he started shooting. And we would always talk about story. We would talk about the ambition of the storytelling, and occasionally I'd hear things in my head. But the actual talk about specifics of the music was very minimal.

I was trying to figure out what my journey through this script was, in a way. Just sort of parsing it out. Okay, dialogue takes care of this, Wally Pfister's cinematography is going to take care of this. So what is left for me? What is the thing that only I can say that is impossible for him to say elegantly with words or pictures?

So what can you say that the others can't?
There's a great sense of foreboding, and a great sense of tragedy, I think, in the score. Chris and I talked a lot about English movies of the '70s, the movies Nic Roeg did and the way he used music. And we were talking a lot about John Barry and what he did in the James Bond movies. They had a very distinct voice, and they found a modern way to deal with age-old emotion. And I was just trying to find out, what is the current voice to tell a tragic love story?

Marion Cotillard and Leonardo DiCaprioDid you reach a conclusion?
For me, the Marion Cotillard character was absolutely the cornerstone for all my writing. Everything, in a funny way, is about her. The scene where she's sitting on the ledge was absolutely the center for me.

I approached it as just a big love story, really – a doomed love story. And how often do you get to write a great tragic love story? I think people actually forget, because the movie is so dazzling, they forget how personal the story is. And with all that huge noise that I have managed to make, I still tried to keep a single voice going through everything, whether it was the guitar or the piano. There's always something small and fragile in the middle of it.

But those small and fragile elements are in the midst of a large, powerful score that's also playing around with time and tempo.
All the time-travel and dream aspects, in a funny way, are easy for us musicians to do. Because while language, unless it's poetry, is just linear prose, where one word just follows another and you can't jump around in time, in music we're always jumping around in time. Because we are already in this grid where we divide tempi and rhythms up. So to have many different layers of time going on simultaneously is something I didn’t have to think about that too much.

Still, it must have gotten complicated during that long sequence when we're simultaneously watching the action in four different dream levels, each with a different sense of time.
Okay, a little hubris comes in here. There was always the ambition that you’d have two different pieces of music in two different tempos with two different feels, and the Edith Piaf song on top, and at one point you’d get all of this to become this sort of ginormous fugue.

When it happened, both Chris and I looked at each other and went, "Oh, it worked out."

Inception filmmakersWas it tricky to pull off?
No, it wasn't. It was tricky in my mind planning it. (pause) Although, if the truth be told, I say, "Oh, I had a fun time on it," but if you ask the people around me, they'll tell you that I just forget the surgeries, forget the scars and the pain.

Apparently I was really struggling there for a bit. But I just remember the result of the orchestra playing 3/4 against 4/4, which was great. But I struggled a little bit getting there. (Pictured: Pfister, Nolan and Zimmer at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon;.)

There was a big fuss when people discovered if you slowed down the Edith Piaf song "Non, je ne Regrette Rien," which figures prominently in the film, you'd hear a motif from the score …
(Sighs) Yeah. The Edith Piaf was always in the script, and I loved that. And I loved the song, because it gave us some weird sense of nostalgia, which I thought was really important for the character.  But Chris' idea was always that we would take those two notes the brass plays in the intro of the Piaf, and we would go and expand that sound and slow it down. But I thought that was too easy, to just slow something down.

So I got some extraordinary scientists, and went through all sorts of convolutions to make this amazing sound, which of course was so abstract that Chris said, "Nobody's ever  going to figure out that these two things are related." So we actually ended up doing just the common, garden-variety slowdown thing. I thought, it's too much of a cliché, everybody's going to get that. But of course, it's supposed  to be an obvious signpost. I was always amazed when it took people forever to actually work it out.

But the score doesn’t use any elements of the Piaf, on purpose. Because the Piaf is supposed to be like an alarm bell going off, so the last thing you want to do is do a score that has similar sounds in it. One of my tasks was to harmonically and melodically stay completely away from the Piaf, so it would be the singular event that cuts across the score. Except for reel seven, where her voice becomes a counterpoint.

This year's Oscar nominees in the score category are a remarkably varied group.
We're very international – let's start there. Maybe it's because I'm a foreigner, but it has always been important to me that film is international. And music does it particularly well. Nobody minds my German accent in my music.

You know, I just adore John Powell's score to "How to Train Your Dragon." And having Trent Reznor in there as well is just great. The whole genre is opening up, which I think is fantastic, and I think that's what music is all about. It's all about including other cultures and other people. That's when it gets exciting. And each one of those scores really has a point of view, I think.

Aren't you doing a score in collaboration with John Powell now?
Yes, we're doing "Kung Fu Panda 2." I have a lot of sequels on my plate. "Kung Fu Panda," "Pirates," another "Sherlock Holmes" and another "Batman" with Chris. So all these things are in different stages of disarray at the moment in my mind.

Is the discipline different when you're working on a sequel to a film that you scored before?
With the sequels, I try to see them as autonomous movies and forget anything that came before. I know that at the back of mind that eventually I'll have to go and put some of the old tunes back in. but that'll be more like guilty pleasures. You'll have to wait and bide your time until the "Batman" theme returns.