‘Dune’ Composer Hans Zimmer Reveals the Note That ‘Tore the Enamel Off My Teeth’

TheWrap magazine: Oscar winner wanted his singer to “unleash that inner female strength” for a key scene

Warner Bros.

This story about the making of Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” first appeared in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

At the moment in “Dune” when Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides sticks his hand into a box and feels a surge of enormous, unrelenting pain, Hans Zimmer wanted singer Loire Cotler, whom he describes as a sweet and gentle person, to “unleash that inner female strength” for what would become a primal wail in his “Gom Jabbar” theme.

“She sang just one note, and it tore the enamel off my teeth and ripped my eyeballs out,” Zimmer said. “She’s like, ‘Something like that?’ Yep! Something like that!”

The score’s female voices, which were provided by four women Zimmer handpicked not just for their singing but for what he said was their courage, were necessary to lend Denis Villeneuve’s film the otherworldly, spiritual quality that is so driven by its women.

“You can hear that commitment in the voices. You don’t understand the words, but you know there’s a master storyteller at work,” he explained of the vocalists he chose. “For me, it was incredibly important that the movie was carried by the strength of the female voices and that there was a sense of spirituality that went all the way through the score.”

Zimmer, an Oscar winner for “The Lion King” (1994) and an 11-time nominee, said that he went to work “building a sonic world” within the film just as Villeneuve built the visual world. And though no one asked him, he wound up recording multiple albums’ worth of material beyond what’s been released on the original soundtrack. The German composer, who is a natural when it comes to manipulating sounds with electronics, could have his way inventing and contorting sounds to create something truly otherworldly — even if that quest for alien sounds sometimes circled back to familiar instruments and forced him to, for example, figure out where the heck he could find a bagpipe player during the pandemic. 

His “Dune” score features a cello that he twisted to make it sound like a Tibetan long horn, as well as sounds fashioned inside a friend’s resonating chamber full of bizarre metals. And while his colleagues spent time in the desert recording sounds you can’t believe come from Earth, he spent time sitting at his synthesizer trying to “make things up.”

“If you set something in the future, you wanted that foreign-ness,” Zimmer said. “Why would you have a bunch of strings? Why would you rely on the Western vocabulary?”

He even created drums that were “completely fake” and wholly electronically generated. The goal was to have rhythms that would be unplayable by human beings, though Zimmer is certain that it won’t be long before some drummer on YouTube figures out how to play it anyway. 

But Zimmer also worked closely with the other departments on the film. He collaborated with the sound team to meld the heartbeat rhythm of the thumper used to lure desert sandworms into the score itself and bonded with film editor Joe Walker over music. (Walker went to music school; Zimmer did not.) 

“He cuts in a very musical way, just as Denis shoots in a very musical way, and I can’t explain to you what that means other than I’m very influenced by his color palette,” he said. “I know when what I’m doing sounds wrong against his colors.”  

Zimmer’s partnership with Villeneuve began auspiciously on 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049.” “He showed me ‘Blade Runner,’ he got to the end of it and I didn’t know what to say,” Zimmer said. “So I just started to play, and what I played moved him and became the beginning of the score. Sometimes the best conversation you can have with a director is not to use words.”

Dune - Denis Villeneuve and collaborators
Left to right: sound editor Theo Green, cinematographer Greig Fraser, editor Joe Walker, sound editor Mark Mangini, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert, composer Hans Zimmer, director Denis Villeneuve, costume designer Jacqueline West, production designer Patrice Vermette, costume designer Bob Morgan

Read more from TheWrap’s “Dune” package here:

Making ‘Dune’ – Here’s How Denis Villeneuve and His Team Pulled Off Sci-Fi Epic (Video)

Why ‘Dune’ Production Designers Built a ‘Visual Bible’ Before Day One of Shooting

‘Dune’ Costume Designers Were Inspired by Everything From Balenciaga to Tarot Cards to Insects

‘Dune’ Cinematographer Still Finds Sand in His Luggage 2 Years After the Shoot

The Sound of ‘Dune’: The Giant Worm Was Hard, but the Magical Voice Was Harder

Why ‘Dune’ Editor Traveled to Budapest But Wouldn’t Go on the Set

Why ‘Dune’s’ Biggest Visual Effects Challenge Wasn’t the Worms But the Sand

Read more from the Below-the-Line Issue here.

Wrap Below-the-Line issue - Dune