HANS ZIMMER, '12 Years a Slave'
Hans Zimmer says he was so moved by "12 Years a Slave" that when director Steve McQueen asked him to score it, he wasn't sure he was the right choice. "It was the questions that tumble through a neurotic German mind," he confesses. "Am I up to it? Am I worthy? Do I have anything to say?"
In the end, he approached it in the humblest possible way, assembling an intimate group of four string players from among his friends, and recording at his home studio with McQueen present. "It was just friends talking about the story and trying out ideas," says Zimmer. "And Steve was conducting us with his body language, or a smile, or the glint in his eye."
The cello-led theme for the kidnapped Solomon Northup that recurs throughout the score has a somber spiritual grandeur that serves to elevate scenes while scarcely intruding. "The job of the music is to open the door and invite you in," says Zimmer, "not to tell you what to feel. When I saw the performances these actors are giving I wanted to leave enough space to experience that."
The movie's traditional songs and spirituals were laid in before he began — violinist Tim Fain ("Black Swan") performs the music of fiddle-player Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — freeing Zimmer from period constraints. "My music could be a bridge to the present, and this was important because for years I've been obsessed about how much slavery still exists in the world."
Stripped-down sounds evoked the plantation's natural world: the high-pitched singing of insects, done with violins and synthesizer; the tension of an escape, via a wood block beaten harshly with a stick. Zimmer's instinct was to be experimental, to "create situations where anything could occur." One example: When Solomon tries to write the letter that could lead to his freedom, cellist Tristan Schulze began to hum deeply, adding a moving, spiritual element to his playing that Zimmer preserved in the recording.
"Because Solomon is a musician, Steve asked us what we as musicians would do in a difficult circumstance. That was easy — I got into music because it was a refuge for me," says Zimmer. "Music for a musician is salvation."
THOMAS NEWMAN, 'Saving Mr. Banks'
Music plays a big role in "Saving Mr. Banks." The scenes that show brothers Richard and Robert Sherman working out their iconic tunes for Disney's movie musical "Mary Poppins" are among its most delightful. As much as he loves songs like "Chim Chim Cheree" and "Feed the Birds," composer Thomas Newman says his original score contains almost no quotations.
"The movie takes place in two periods — 1961 in Los Angeles and 1906 in rural Australia. The majority of my contribution is toward telling the back story — who ['Poppins' author] P.L. Travers was as a child, her relationship with her father, and the emotional themes and issues that carry over to the time when she visits L.A."
Some of his most spirited and slyly funny music accompanies the author's arrival in America — she's chauffeured around Beverly Hills in a limousine to the sounds of a pizazz-laden jazz combo of piano, drums and trombone. "It's a little ridiculous, because I'm poking fun," says Newman. "Here's this very proper Englishwoman who's appalled at what she's seeing in L.A." Another cue, introducing Walt Disney himself, is all brio and brassy, upbeat excitement, meant, says Newman, to express "a very archetypal American character."
The chance to spend time with fellow composer and Disney veteran Richard Sherman, now 85, when he attended a recording session on the Fox lot was a highlight for Newman. "Sherman was a master of three-quarter waltz time, so in tribute, I used a waltz theme that I brought up when things in the back story hinted at 'Mary Poppins,' like when the aunt who looks so much like her arrives for a visit."
Despite his many accomplishments — his previous scores have landed 11 Academy Award nominations —Newman, the youngest son of the late film composer Alfred Newman, says he strives to create in a relatively ego-free way.
"The fun for me musically is that you never quite know what works and why. So why pretend you do? Why not just put things together and discover, in the creative process, if and why they work? That approach has served me well."