For a while, Hans Zimmer’s circle of life didn’t seemed destined to end up in Hollywood.
In 1988, the German-born, British-educated film composer arrived in Los Angeles deep in debt to work on the musical score for what would become director Barry Levinson’s Oscar-winning film “Rain Man.” Zimmer hoped to wrap up the job in a couple of weeks, then return to his London home, far away from the town that intimidated him with its reputation for eating alive young talent.
Eight years later he’s still here, with an Oscar for best original score for “The Lion King” and enough solvency to buy a Malibu beachfront home, thanks in part to the growing popularity of film soundtracks. Despite childhood musical training so limited that he summarizes it as “two weeks of piano lessons,” Zimmer has moved into the elite ranks of the most sought-after film composers, someone who already says he knows what he’ll be working on in 2001.
Zimmer, 38, is also moving beyond composing, building with his business partner, Grammy-winning music producer and engineer Jay Rifkin, the company Media Ventures into a small entertainment conglomerate with a record label called Mojo Music, developing music for commercials through a division called Cyberia Inc. and even film production. He and Rifkin, 39, are also exploring ways that composers can use cyberspace to communicate with the filmmakers they work with on projects.
At the same time, Zimmer is quietly taking on yet another task, heading the music department for the fledging DreamWorks SKG studio formed by former Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, director Steven Spielberg and entertainment mogul David Geffen. As a DreamWorks executive, Zimmer’s tasks include planning the film music operations that will be built at DreamWorks new studio lot at the Playa Vista development near Marina del Rey.
Although he will be able to work on outside projects if he chooses, Zimmer is composing the music for the studio’s first two animated feature films, “The Prince of Egypt” and “El Dorado,” the latter of which will reunite him with his “Lion King” collaborators, music superstar Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote such songs as “Circle of Life.” Zimmer will also supervise music on the live action DreamWorks projects as well.
If he sounds as if he’s stretched pretty thin, he is, with work nights often ending as late as 4 a.m. Still, those who have worked with him attribute Zimmer’s workload to his insatiable appetite to do new things.
“He’s incredibly versatile. There are other composers in town who are extremely talented, but their interests tend to be focused at one specific expertise as opposed to Hans, whose interests are spread over many, many areas,” Katzenberg says.
Although involved in diverse areas, composing musical scores remains at the heart of Zimmer and Rifkin’s Media Ventures, with the company’s Santa Monica studio the home of five composers in residence who work on projects ranging from the music for the television show “Chicago Hope” to a host of feature films. One recent morning at the company’s studios found composers in one room working music for the upcoming Walt Disney film “The Rock,” while in another room working on the Warner Bros. tornado thriller “Twister.”
Speaking in an accent that sounds like a mix of German and British, Zimmer says Hollywood over the last few years has come to appreciate more the contribution musical scores make, rather than treating them as background music or something to listen to when there’s a break in the action. Some films now contain as much as 90 minutes of music. Zimmer believes that music can help tell the story, sometimes moving the story along when words and pictures won’t.
Zimmer’s most lauded score is “The Lion King,” in particular his arrangement of “Circle of Life” that opens the movie and the music accompanying the dramatic wildebeest stampede that kills the lion Mufasa.
In a subtle transition during the stampede, Zimmer moves from a tense, thrill ride-style sound as Mufasa tries to rescue his son, Simba, to the requiem Mass sounds of a chorus that comes a few seconds before Mufasa’s death. Zimmer said he wrote the music that way because he believes that at that point in the film, the audience is already thinking ahead, bracing for the tragedy to come.
Zimmer, grew up near Frankfurt, where he decided he wanted to compose music for films after watching Sergio Leone western “Once Upon a Time in the West,” which featured the haunting sounds created by one of his favorite composers, Ennio Morricone.
He and Rifkin, a New York native, met through a guitar teacher while the two were living in England in the 1970s. The two started what would become a 20-year collaboration.
After seeing Zimmer’s work on an obscure film, Levinson asked him to score “Rain Man.” With money from Rifkin’s father, the two set up shop using the name Media Ventures because it sounded legitimate enough to persuade a bank to give them a loan.
“Rain Man” gave Zimmer overnight credibility, and led to projects ranging from “Driving Miss Daisy” to last year’s “Crimson Tide.”
More important, Zimmer says, “ ‘Rain Man’ paid off my bank overdraft. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t in debt.”
That isn’t much of a problem anymore. Soundtracks have become a highly lucrative business, with the composer getting royalty rates that can range from 6.5% to as high as 12% of the cut. Part of the lucrative nature is that the composer often serves as writer, producer and artist, and gets paid as each.
“You get to pass Go three times,” Zimmer says.
‘Rent’: The DreamWorks music division has quietly nabbed the worldwide soundtrack rights to the late Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” the contemporary musical version of “La Boheme” that won the Pulitzer prize for drama earlier this week.
DreamWorks partner David Geffen is said to have personally negotiated to get the soundtrack deal.