Moses parts the Red Sea to a thunderous orchestral and choral climax. Young American soldiers assault a Japanese stronghold on Guadalcanal to the dark strains of a huge string ensemble.
In both cases, the music is affecting, even overpowering. One is for “The Prince of Egypt,” DreamWorks’ animated biblical tale of ancient times, opening Friday; the other is “The Thin Red Line,” reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick’s adaptation of the James Jones novel of World War II. The Fox film opens Dec. 23.
Musically speaking, both are the product of the creative imagination of Hans Zimmer, currently one of film’s highest-paid and most sought-after composers. And, unlike the average project, in which he’s on and off in six weeks, he’s been working on these two intensely followed films for years. In both films music plays a central role, both narratively and thematically.
Zimmer, 41, won an Oscar for scoring “The Lion King,” a Grammy for “Crimson Tide,” and has won plaudits over the years for his music for such films as “Rain Man,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Thelma & Louise” and last year’s “As Good as It Gets.” Yet it’s probably safe to say that he has never worked harder, or under more pressure, than during the past 12 months.
On “The Prince of Egypt,” Zimmer not only wrote the underscore but functioned as the film’s musical director, arranging and (together with colleagues at Media Ventures, his Santa Monica studio complex, which is home to several other film and TV composers) producing Stephen Schwartz’s songs into a seamless whole.
But for the past several months, Zimmer has been immersed in “The Thin Red Line,” writing and recording more than six hours of music for Malick’s war epic--about an hour and a half of which survives in the final cut.
“I haven’t been home for I don’t know how long,” he said wearily in his Media Ventures studio recently as he was preparing to record the last of the “Thin Red Line” music on Fox’s Newman Scoring Stage just a week and a half ago. Asked about the origins of the “Prince of Egypt” music, he struggles to remember.
“I said after ‘The Lion King,’ that’s animation enough for me. There were other movies at Disney which I could have had access to, and I kept thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this? I’ve done this.’ But Jeffrey Katzenberg knows exactly how to push my buttons. If he says the impossible to me, I’ll get interested.”
On the ‘Prince’
Team From Start
It was about four years ago, as Katzenberg was founding DreamWorks with partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, that Zimmer and Schwartz were brought in to begin work on the Moses story. “I get this phone call from Jeffrey and he says, ‘We’re going to do a movie about the Bible,’ ” Zimmer recalls. His reponse? “This is a joke, right?”
It was no joke. While at Disney, Katzenberg had valued Zimmer’s African-styled music for “The Lion King” and he wanted the German-born, English-educated composer on board as planning began on “The Prince of Egypt.” He also made Zimmer head of music at DreamWorks.
“I have always looked at Hans as a resource that is far greater than just the unbelievably important, specific contribution of writing a score for a film, in how music will be used, how it will be conceived,” says Katzenberg. “I don’t think we’ve had a screening of a piece of this movie, or discussed a sequence of this movie, even in the very beginning of storyboarding, that Hans wasn’t there as a collaborator and a contributor.”
When some on the team were having doubts about Schwartz’s crucial first song, “Deliver Us,” which voices the Hebrew slaves’ anguish in captivity, Zimmer thought, “Maybe it’s about the presentation, the orchestration, the arrangement.” He phoned Katzenberg and said, “Stop. Don’t make him rewrite it. Let me have a go at this.”
Zimmer created a setting for chorus and orchestra, incorporating Middle Eastern instruments and Israeli singer Ofra Haza, that worked for everyone and which now opens the film.
While virtually everyone on the film was working with religious scholars and advisors (Schwartz even visited Egypt and the Sinai in search of inspiration), Zimmer told Katzenberg, “I’m going to be the one guy on the team that won’t read the Bible until we’re finished, because you have to have one loose cannon who can say, ‘Well, why can’t we get Moses to do this and this?’ ”
His toughest assignment was writing the music for the burning- bush sequence, in which Moses hears the voice of God. After listening to dozens of classical recordings with religious significance, he gave up and decided to write from a purely personal point of view.
From Solomon Islands
“I was trying to find my own way of deculturalizing it and at the same time making it very specific about a spiritual experience that, at that moment, other people could feel,” he says. After that, the music for the parting of the Red Sea--a massive musical statement that includes 16 French horns playing rapidly ascending runs--was easy, Zimmer says.
Zimmer’s “Thin Red Line” experience dates back almost as far. Malick approached him three years ago and “we spent months and months just talking,” Zimmer recalls. Malick even took an office at Media Ventures. “Our idea was that I would, in a way, write the score before he started shooting. I wrote a huge suite for him, maybe 25 themes, before he went off.”
For melodic inspiration, the composer turned to the indigenous music of the Solomon Islands and the simple purity of early 19th-century American hymns.
Yet the past several months have been “immensely difficult,” Zimmer says, as he and Malick have grappled with the idea of creating a cinematic “poem” in which music plays a crucial but unorthodox role. There are no militaristic snare drums, no brass fanfares, no traditional marching-off-to-war themes.
Atmospheric in nature, much of Zimmer’s music for “Thin Red Line"--often in five- or seven-minute passages, quite long for conventional film music--establishes moods that range from hypnotic to elegiac without specific reference to on-screen events enabling Malick to shift around musical cues.
“I’ve done so many action movies that I knew every cliche that I shouldn’t use and every note that would be inappropriate,” Zimmer says.
According to “Thin Red Line” producer Grant Hill, “one of the things that became apparent early on was that the lyricism of the movie was so strong . . . the strength of the images in a sense threw off anything that was too blatant or heavy-handed, whether it be music, dialogue, voice-over. Any attempt to lead the audience in a conventional way felt totally dishonest.”
So Zimmer’s contribution became, in the composer’s words, “one of subtext. Seeing somebody get shot is less powerful than seeing the reaction on somebody else’s face; observing it, experiencing it. I am that human reaction.
“I remember Terry saying, ‘Write a sympathy theme. Write about what you would feel for your fellow man.’ Things like that. Endless experiments.”
The studio orchestra is a conventional symphonic array augmented with additional celli for a warmer overall sound, and by a unique instrument dubbed the Cosmic Beam: a 13-foot-long, 450- pound steel beam strung with wire and played like a guitar by its designer, Francesco Lupica, an old friend of Malick from the ‘70s. Its strange, otherworldly sound is “that thing that gives you awe,” Zimmer notes. Zimmer has already finished scoring Spielberg’s Holocaust documentary “The Last Days” and he’s scheduled to do DreamWorks’ next animated feature “The Road to El Dorado.”
But after the rigors of ancient Egypt and the horrors of war, what would he really like to do next? “Sex comedies! ‘Beavis and Butt-Head!’ Anything like that!”