Personal moments are key for 'Man of Steel' composer

05:00 AM, Jun 14, 2013

German-born film composer Hans Zimmer created a powerful and dynamic score for the new Superman movie, "Man of Steel." He also did Christopher Nolan's three Batman films. Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY/


Written By by Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

Here’s how committed composer Hans Zimmer was to crafting a truly original score for the new Superman movie Man of Steel: He didn’t listen to John Williams, one of his all-time favorites, for a year.

Man of Steel marks the first Superman feature film that has not used at least part of William’s memorable Superman March from the 1978 movie Superman, one piece of music among many Williams classics that Zimmer actively avoided hearing while figuring out his own fanfare and themes.

Although he admits embarrassment about just now getting around to Williams’ score for last year’s Lincoln, it was worth it.

Zimmer’s Man of Steel score for director Zack Snyder is powerful and dynamic, like Mahler with a synthesizer and the occasional pedal steel guitar, yet also modest in key musical sequences — to underscore the iconic superhero being an alien raised in the rural Midwest and becoming America’s greatest champion.

If we can find that one moment that’s intensely personal for us, that’s the dime we can turn on. That’s what unleashes creativity,” says the German-born Zimmer, 55.

The Oscar-winning composer — who received an Academy Award for The Lion King (1994) — has been scoring films in Hollywood since the mid-1980s, after a stint with the New Wave rock group The Buggles.

His tunes and style change for every project, he says. As Good as it Gets is very different from The Rock, and The Thin Red Line sounds unlike Crimson Tide. He feels Driving Miss Daisy and Man of Steel have more in common than you would at first glance think but at the same time they are different, too.

I can’t escape my style. I have an aesthetic,” Zimmer says. “I don’t know if I was born with it or raised with it. I have a German accent when I speak, and I suppose I have a German accent when I write music.”

In recent years, superheroic scores have been on his music stand as he composed for Christopher Nolan’s three Batman films, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

I had always said to Chris and Zack, don’t even dare talk to me about Man of Steel until we finished The Dark Knight Rises,” Zimmer says. “And foolishly, at one moment, I said, ‘Oh, I think I’m finished!’ Within 15 minutes, I was reading on the Internet that I was doing Man of Steel. I didn’t even get the afternoon not to think about it.”

Zimmer had more in common with Batman than just working better late at night — that’s when the composer does his best writing “because the world gets a little quieter,” he says.

Finding personal experience is essential when working on a movie for him, and that’s how he tapped into the Dark Knight well.

I saw my father die at a very early age, and ultimately that’s all I wrote about in (Nolan’s films) because that’s what happens to the character,” Zimmer says. “You do try to grapple with things that actually mean something to you.

And with Man of Steel, I wasn’t thinking about what the shape or the form of the theme should be, but I was thinking about what it should be about.”

Zimmer found a couple of things about Superman that were relevant to him, mainly the idea of being a stranger in a strange land and, always being a foreigner, how does one then look at America?

Especially throughout the last few years of working on Dark Knight, etc., we’ve been looking at America in a rather sort of grim way,” Zimmer explains. “The thing that has been left out of any conversation is just to honor hard-working folk. I thought, ‘Wow, I just want to use this movie to celebrate the endlessness of the Midwest, the farmers, the people who leave their doors unlocked because they trust in the people who invite the stranger in and give them a cup of tea and coffee.’

The dignity of the blue-collar man – wouldn’t that be nice to celebrate? Just stop with all the dark stuff for a second.”

Snyder talked a lot with Zimmer about finding a theme for Superman that was humble yet didn’t undercut the epic scale of the film.

He was really able to do that in a poetic and beautiful way,” Snyder says. “When you listen to that simple piano he played himself on the movie, you’re brought to some rural drawing room and it feels like some standup piano in the corner. You can kind of imagine that kind of sound, and it’s really powerful and cool.”

Zimmer wanted to capture melodies that used Superman as a metaphor to show the ambition of us inspired to be better because of him, and he thought of the idea of the first responder.

While everybody else turns their eyes away from the car crash, somebody will actually walk over there and help,” the composer says. “There by the grace of God I’ve never been in that situation, but can’t I just for once write about that? Can’t I just write and celebrate those people?

I did it years ago with Ron Howard on Backdraft. There’s nothing ambiguous about firemen and ambulance workers. All they’re trying to do is help, and there’s something really wonderful about somebody who does that. We don’t hear enough about that.”

Superman’s themes are very different from those used for General Zod and his crew of antagonistic Kryptonians. For them, the music is much more kinetic and percussive, similar to what Zimmer used for Inception — Zimmer’s percussion section included a 12-person drum circle with Sheila E., Pharrell Williams and Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.

The great thing is when you have a nice protagonist like this that you can go really dark on the antagonist,” says Zimmer of writing for Michael Shannon’s Zod. “But it’s not that simple. It’s not like that character is evil — it’s a different mind-set, a different philosophy, a different point of view.”

Zimmer actually had to change his initial mind-set on doing Man of Steel in the first place. There was a long period where he wouldn’t sign on because of the influence Williams had on him.

I grew up with his Superman theme. I don’t just see John Williams as a great film composer. I just see him as the Great American Composer,” Zimmer says.

The Superman music of course came at one of his most amazing periods, and he’s had many amazing periods. To write Superman and to write Schindler’s List, it takes a fairly large emotional arc. It takes a master to do justice to both.”

People comparing him to Williams wasn’t the problem — all composers are neurotic and paranoid, he says, so there’s already the internal conflict and intimidation of comparing himself to an idol.

What brought him around was Snyder telling him that this wasn’t Richard Donner’s Superman movie from the 1970s and what the film was about. And rather than Zimmer reading the script, he simply had Snyder tell him the story.

I got swept up in the story and I started in my head scoring him speaking. I started hearing little sounds and little moments of tune,” Zimmer says. “I’m sure if he had told that story to John Williams, he would have written a very different score than he’d written for the first Superman. It just is a different movie.”

He remembers working on the 2000 film Gladiator, and Steven Spielberg told him that, ever since he went to see Spartacus when he was 14, Alex North’s score was how he’d always heard Rome.

Here I was doing something completely differently, and I said to him, ‘But Steven, I’m exactly doing what you want me to do, which is get 14-year-olds now to love Rome. This is their movie, this is not your movie.’ ” recalls Zimmer, whose music will also be heard in the upcoming The Lone Ranger. “I wasn’t thinking about that so much then as I think about it now. I want this to be this generation’s Superman movie.

At the end of the day, to use a line of Gladiator: “Were you entertained?’ “