Exclusive Interview with Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

Zimmer and Howard Talk About 'The Dark Knight'

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. © Warner Bros Pictures

Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer (The Lion King) and 7-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard worked together on the score to the mega blockbuster Batman Begins starring Christian Bale and directed by Christopher Nolan, and are back together again for one of 2008’s most anticipated movies, The Dark Knight. The list of film scores Zimmer and Howard have worked on separately over the years is incredibly impressive, with their music featured in such films as Michael Clayton, Charlie Wilson’s War, Blood Diamond, Rain Main, Gladiator, The Sixth Sense, and The Fugitive.

Their combined catalogue of film scores numbers in the hundreds and they’re constantly kept busy as two of the most sought after composers in the industry today.

In support of the July 18th release of The Dark Knight, Howard and Zimmer teamed up to discuss their work on writer/director Nolan’s second Batman movie.

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard Interview

You’re so used to working on your own when you’re involved with a film. How easy is it to work as a team?

James Newton Howard: “Well, it’s easier in some ways and more complex in other ways, and ultimately it’s great to be working with a good friend.”

Hans Zimmer: “Have you ever walked down a dark alley really late at night in a bad neighborhood? It’s much better to have a friend with you.”

What happens when you have a disagreement on the music?

Hans Zimmer: “It’s not like that. We come to things by sneaking up on them and discussing it, if you know what I mean.

And every moment, in a funny way, is a mystery until we talk our way through it. Sometimes there’s some three-handed piano playing going on and you know and somebody going, ‘No, no, no, the other note.’”

James Newton Howard: “It’s really just a conversation between Chris [Nolan] and the editor Bill Price…not Bill Price.”

Hans Zimmer: [Laughing] “Wrong guy, wrong movie.”

James Newton Howard: “What’s his name again?”

Hans Zimmer: “Lee Smith.”

James Newton Howard: “Lee Smith. Sorry.”

Hans Zimmer: “It’s very confusing in that cutting room because there’s Lee Smith and John Lee.”

James Newton Howard: [Laughing] “And Bill Price is the engineer on an Elton John album that I recorded.”

Hans Zimmer: “He was the dubbing engineer on The Last Emperor.”

James Newton Howard: “Was he? Anyway, we have these great conversations where…”

Hans Zimmer: “…it goes like that. Is that clear?”

That’s clear. You two go back and forth and have great conversations – and there’s a lot of people involved. So how does the score of The Dark Knight differ from Batman Begins? Does this second Batman movie have the same type of music and capture the same tones or is it totally a stand-alone project where you don’t even consider what you did for Batman Begins?

Hans Zimmer: “No, we do consider what we did in Batman Begins. You know, let me say that this film will sound a little more corrosive and a little less polished and a little darker and a little more thoughtful, and a little more epic in a way. Plus, we have interesting characters in the mix so I think it’s very different.

I think it’s actually a very different score.”

James Newton Howard: “Yeah. I mean, it was the great thing about doing a sequel to a successful movie is you want to reprise a certain amount of the thematic material because it’s sort of thrilling to hear it again , and you introduce certain characters that way. But also we took the opportunity to go out on a limb as much as possible and really try and do something in a big summer blockbuster movie that hadn’t really been done before musically, particularly in the case of the music for The Joker.”

Can you explain what you mean by that?

James Newton Howard: “Well I think Hans needs to talk about that because that was really Hans’s baby, and it’s just a very bold musical idea.”

Hans Zimmer: “I just thought how provocative can you be with something like this, you know, and get away with it.

We have no idea if we’re going to get away with it, that’s the other thing. I think that the fearlessness within the character of The Joker and the recklessness, I felt the music had to reflect that - and the single-mindedness. So that in a funny way was where the team idea went out of the window because it really had to be written as one. Because if you think about Batman, you know he is really two people. He is Bruce Wayne by day and that other guy by night so that actually legitimately evens out. The script has a lot of things going on. But I felt that The Joker was a singular idea and I think that’s what makes him very strong. And it’s not very pretty.”

James Newton Howard: “It’s quite disturbing, actually.”

When you’re writing music for a character like The Joker and the music is disturbing to reflect the character’s attitude, do you actually go into a darker place in your own head? Does it affect you at all mood-wise?

Hans Zimmer: [Laughing] “Oh I don’t know if I went into a darker place… I think that’s where I usually am. You have to ask my friend James about that.”

James Newton Howard: “I would say that you know one of the abilities that a composer has, must have, and I think that Hans certainly has to an extraordinary extent is being able tap into in a subconscious way, really, a whole range of feelings and emotions. Our dark part, our shadow selves, is a part of ourselves that is very important to any artist. And it’s a question of not being dominated by that self but certainly being able to tap into it and when you get a sense of it, knowing how to sort of follow it to its conclusion as it were.”

Hans Zimmer: [Laughing] “If you want to come over and have an argument about anarchy I can give you a great one.”

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When you’re writing scores for movies like The Dark Knight and you’ve got characters that are dark, or when you’ve got a wide variety of characters and you to capture the right tone, what happens when you don’t personally connect with a character, when you don’t really see what’s moving them? How easy is it for you to then write the music?

Hans Zimmer: “It’s much trickier. I just finished Frost/Nixon and trust me, it’s not easy to identify with Richard Nixon at the best of times.

But within each human being there’s an element you know that you can sort of embrace. I think you just find your corner in their psyche that you can just go and play in for a little while.”

James Newton Howard: “That’s right. And at a certain point if you really despise a character or you really don’t like the movie the only choice you have is to become so invested in your own work that the music becomes a cause unto itself, and that’s what gets you through the project.”

Hans Zimmer: [Laughing] “I’ve written some really good music for some really bad movies.”

You’ve both worked with so many outstanding directors. How is working with Christopher Nolan? What sets him apart and how collaborative is he?

James Newton Howard: “Well for me what sets him apart is he obviously has a unique vision as a filmmaker. His tenaciousness and his commitment and his passion to the movie is about as strong as…”

Hans Zimmer: “Second to none.”

James Newton Howard: “Yeah, second to none. And for those of us who are working in post-production, to have a director who has not run out of steam by the time he’s cutting and finishing his movie is a great thing.”

Hans Zimmer: “You have to remember he and his brother are the writers on this movie, so it’s really nice working with somebody whose vision and voice goes all the way through this thing.”