In tune with Oscar winners

As if Academy Award-nominated composer Hans Zimmer didn't have enough things to worry about in the weeks before the Oscar ceremony, along comes a reporter wondering what piece of music will be played when -- and, of course, if -- someone associated with "Gladiator" hears his or her named called from the podium.

"Actually, the show's musical director picks the music, but maybe I should talk to them about that," says Zimmer, who's already begun scoring "Pearl Harbor" and really doesn't need the extra work.

Before you know it, though, Zimmer turns to his piano -- strategically placed under a wide-screen video monitor, in his Santa Monica studio -- and plinks out a familiar melody.

"It's the 'Earth' theme ... the one piece that really gets to the heart of the movie," he says. "But there are 19 themes in 'Gladiator.' So it's difficult to decide."

Ridley Scott's sword-and-sandals drama was a huge commercial and critical success when it was released last spring, but no one in Hollywood really expected it to linger in the minds of academy members long enough to garner a dozen Oscar nominations. Even if a best-picture nod then seemed unlikely, though, few people would have bet against the possibility of a nomination in the category of best original score.

Along with a handful of other top-shelf composers working in this town, Zimmer has become a perennial favorite when the votes are tallied every February. In 1995, he won an Oscar for "The Lion King," and last year, he received two nominations, for "The Thin Red Line" and "The Prince of Egypt."

Not bad for a German-born keyboard player, who, 20 years ago, was best known for being a member of the Buggles and co-writing the first song featured on MTV, "Video Killed the Radio Star."

"All I can say is, I'll go to hell for that," Zimmer remarks with a laugh. "Back then, I was desperately trying to get into film, but had to earn a living. We were trying to make little movies and didn't know MTV existed.

"We couldn't give that song away at the time. But the deejays in England heard the name of the song, wondered what it was about and started playing it."

A new generation

Within two years of the launch of MTV, Zimmer realized his dream of working on films. After serving an apprenticeship under the estimable Stanley Myers ("The Deer Hunter"), he joined a growing number of other upstart musicians -- Jack Nitzsche, Alan Price, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream -- who were combining electronic music with rock 'n' roll and soul to add new energy to traditional soundtrack orchestration.

Despite the immense popularity of the hip "The Graduate" soundtrack and Ennio Morricone's innovative collaborations with Sergio Leone, back in the '60s, mainstream Hollywood was slow to warm to the new generation of composers, and it continued to take its musical cues from such established maestros as Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and Elmer Bernstein. Nonetheless, by the time MTV first aired the Buggles' video, soundtrack albums for "Performance," "Superfly," "Shaft," "Midnight Express" and "O Lucky Man!" were finding a place on the Billboard charts, alongside Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.

"A soundtrack recording had to stand on its own as a relatively decent piece of music … you couldn't cheat and use the images to stand behind," Zimmer explains. "If you think about 'Performance,' and what Nick Roeg and those people were doing, they had a very strong sense of [the importance of] black vinyl records, and what rock 'n' roll meant at the time. To them, an orchestral score was old-fashioned."

Through his connection with Myers, Zimmer was brought in to work with Roeg on "Eureka" in 1982.

"There was a scene in which Gene Hackman discovers gold on this mountain, and he literally just gets spat out on this frozen lake," the 43-year-old Frankfurt native recalls. "I was so intimidated by Roeg. When I asked what he wanted there, he said, 'The sound of the Earth being raped, dear boy.' That was when I knew I was in the right business. Anyone who wanted to hear the sound of the Earth being raped was slightly crazier than the guys I was working with before."

Zimmer later worked on such hot properties as "Rain Man," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Days of Thunder," "Thelma & Louise," "Backdraft," "True Romance," "Crimson Tide," "As Good as It Gets" and, last year, "Hannibal." As head of DreamWorks' film-music division, he also has supervised the animated musicals "The Prince of Egypt" and "The Road to El Dorado."

Epic effort

When it was released last May, "Gladiator" drew comparisons to such historical epics as "Spartacus" and "Ben Hur," but Scott and Zimmer wanted to push the genre into a new direction. To this end, the score incorporated both ancient and new instruments.

"People kept saying to me, Make it more like 'Spartacus,' but I think what they meant was that they wanted to recapture the thrill they got when they first saw that movie," says Zimmer, noting that he did refresh his memory by watching the Stanley Kubrick classic. "My job became reinventing everything, to give this generation that same sense of discovery. Ultimately, though, there's a vocabulary that we all use on these films, and which we all sort of have in common.

"Actually, all my battlefield stuff is a complete conceit -- tongue-in-cheek -- because it's all based on Viennese waltzes."

The idea sprang from a visit the composer paid to battlefield locations, south of London, where the screen Romans finally ended the last-gasp hopes of Germania.

"All of the guys behind us were yelling at each other, yet we were in this red silk tent, surrounded by all of these marble busts and beautiful furniture," Zimmer says. "I said, 'Ridley, this is taking moviemaking too far. This is supposed to be a battlefield.'

"He said, 'No, this is how it was. Marcus Aurelius spent 16 years at war. He would have gotten his slaves to bring all that art, and the trappings of Rome, to him.'"

So, Zimmer says, "it wasn't all savagery, and that's what I wanted to get across in my music. It was fun taking these Viennese waltzes and bloodying them up."

Creative differences

Not being archeologists or cultural anthropologists, the filmmakers didn't feel an obligation to be historically precise. Interspersing poetic moments with scenes of violence and deceit became crucial.

"For me, one way to do that was to take the music in the desert scenes in a Middle Eastern direction," says Zimmer. Soundtrack contributor "Djivan Gasparyan is 72 and doesn't speak a word of English. But you can feel the burden of history on his shoulders when he plays the Armenian duduk, an instrument that's 1,000 years old.

"And, of course, there's singer Lisa Gerrard, who grew up in Australia among the Turkish community. Her whole cultural outlook is completely different."

Gerrard is known best for being half of the Australian goth rock group, Dead Can Dance. Her ethereal voice resonates throughout the first half of the movie, especially in the opening sequences.

"I wanted to get some poetry into the movie ... to literally go from that hard, tough word -- 'Gladiator' -- in the opening credits, to that incredibly poetic image of the hand on the wheat field," Zimmer says. "That's the antithesis of what audiences expected to happen, given the title of the movie. That music gave Ridley the liberty to add poetry, and tell the audience this wasn't going to be the usual gladiator movie.

"Just having Lisa's voice there, in the beginning, transported you, and let us settle down and have these quiet moments."

The most obvious musical set piece actually proved to be the toughest to pull off in a new and different way.

"I kept procrastinating on the fanfare, which every gladiator must have," Zimmer says. "At one point, I asked Ridley, 'What are those funny trumpets you used on the shoot? Maybe they'll sound good.'

"He said, 'Oh, those were plastic. They wouldn't sound like anything.'"

In the last hour of the last session," he adds, "it hit me that I should transcribe Commodus' tune -- this warped, decadent melody you can hear on the first cut of the CD -- onto a gaggle of French horns. It was Commodus' tune, and, of course, Rome was his place."

One final note

On Sunday evening, Zimmer will be in the same arena as fellow musical gladiators as Rachel Portman, for "Chocolat"; John Williams, for "The Patriot"; Tan Dun, for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; and sentimental favorite Ennio Morricone, for "Malena."

It's unlikely that "Gladiator" will be entirely shut out, so Zimmer is willing to tempt fate by recalling how, on the big night, the academy orchestra handled the music he composed for a previous Oscar nominees.

"It gets funny when you have something like 'Thelma & Louise,' which had a bluesy, guitar-y sort of score, and they give it to an orchestra," he says. "Then, for 'Rain Man,' I remember Barry Levinson telling me, 'You wrote me this nice fanfare.' It was never intended to be a fanfare, but when the tune was played on the wrong instruments, it sounded like one."

At least his latest score has one thing going for it, Zimmer notes. "Everything in 'Gladiator' is completely manageable by an orchestra."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading