I worked for Hans Zimmer for about 8 years, 5 of which were in a studio at Remote Control, his facility in Santa Monica. Since leaving Remote, many people have said to me, usually in a conspiratorial tone of voice, things like this: Hans doesn’t really write his own music. The studios only give him work because he’s famous. He’s not a real musician. He just gets his clients drunk and all the work is done by guys in the back room. And so forth.

The underlying implication is that this underhanded semi-musician has Hollywood in his thrall due to Svengali like powers and maybe, someday, they’ll wake up and hire a “real” composer – like whoever is whispering to me.

No other composer seems to stir up this kind of ire – I never hear people say, “Yeah, that John Williams only writes 12-line sketches and it’s up to his orchestrators to make it into real music!”

Well, I hate to break it to you, but Hans gets what he gets because…he deserves it.

Here is why:

1) HANS IS A VISIONARY.

In films there is a process called “spotting” in which the composer and director decide what kind of music is needed where. Hans is the best spotter I’ve ever observed. He has an extraordinary sense of what will work. But long before spotting, he will spend weeks writing a suite which is the source of the musical themes of the film. Oddly, this isn’t really about music – it’s about the essence of what the story and the characters are. Film composer great Elmer Bernstein (Magnificent Seven, To Kill A Mockingbird) once said to me, “The dirty little secret is that we’re not musicians – we’re dramatists.” Hans is an outstanding dramatist.

But he also fearlessly pushes himself, challenging the limits of what is acceptable in our medium. In Batman: Dark Knight, long before we had footage of the film, Hans asked Heitor Pereira (guitar), Martin Tillman (cello), and me (violin and tenor violin) to separately record some variations on a set of instructions involving 2 notes, C and D. This involved a fair amount of interpretation! For those who are familiar with classical music, it was John Cage meets Phil Glass. We each spent a week making hundreds of snippets. Then we had to listen to each other’s work and re-interpret that. The end result was a toolbox of sounds that provided Hans with the attitude of his score.

Later, he asked me to double every ostinato (repeating phrase) pattern the violins and violas played. There were a LOT. And a great studio orchestra had already played them all! I spent a week on what I considered an eccentric fool’s errand, providing score mixer, Alan Meyerson, with single, double, and triple pass versions of huge swaths of the score. Months later, I joked with him about how “useful” my efforts had been. Alan told me that, actually, they had turned out to be a crucial element of the score, that he often pulled out the orchestra and went to my performances when something needed to be edgy or raw.

The video below shows something from Man of Steel. Hans assembled a room full of great trap set drummers to play the same groove at the same time, each with tiny variations. Is it a stunt? Maybe. But does it deliver a sound you’ve never quite heard before? Definitely.

Read also:  The 5 best ways to get and keep a job as a Hollywood Composer Assistant (or anything else)

2) HANS WORKS VERY, VERY HARD.

When working on a project – which is most of the time – Hans usually arrives at the studio at 11 am and then works until 3 or 4 in the morning. 7 days a week. For months. As the deadline approaches, everything else fades away. Harry Gregson-Williams once told me you could tell how far into a project Hans was by the length of his beard – at some point, he stops shaving.

His late-night hours provide welcome relief from badgering studios and the noise of running a business. They proved to be a challenge to my metabolism when I was getting up at 6 a.m. to go to yoga. Which leads me to a the title of another post, “Never Keep Different Hours Than Your Boss.” But I digress.

Hans is not as fast as his one-time assistant, Harry, or his current go-to arranger, Lorne Balfe, both of whom work at superhuman speed. Hans once suggested that I worked too fast. I was puzzled at the time, but what I think he was really saying was that I needed to pay better attention to the little details that, cumulatively, make all the difference.

3) HANS IS THE BEST FILM MUSIC PRODUCER IN THE BUSINESS.

We’re not talking about technical music skills. Hans is a so-so pianist and guitarist and his knowledge of academic theory is, by intention, limited. (I was once chastised while working on The Simpsons Movie for saying “lydian flat 7” instead of “the cartoon scale.”) He doesn’t read standard notation very well, either. But no one reads piano roll better than he does. [The piano roll is a page of a music computer program that displays the notes graphically.] Which gets to the heart of the matter: Hans knows what he needs to know to make it sound great.

Sometimes, that is the right musicians. Sometimes it is the right sample library. Sometimes it is the right room, or engineer, or recording technique, or mixing technique. All that counts is the end result. And it always sounds spectacular.

4) HANS WORKS WITH GREAT PEOPLE.

Take a look at the composers who have worked for Hans: John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Heitor Pereira, Henry Jackman, Steve Jablonsky, Lorne Balfe, Trevor Morris, Ramin Djawadi, Jeff Rona, Mark Mancina, Atli Örvarsson, Geoff Zanelli, Blake Neeley, Stephen Hilton, Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenborg and on and on. And Alan Meyerson, his mixer. And Bob Badami and Ken Karman, his music editors. (Bob’s credits alone dwarf about everybody in the business). His great percussionists, Satnam Ramgotra and Ryeland Allison. Sound designers, Howard Scarr and Mel Wesson. Not to mention Steve Kofsky, his business partner. And all the tech whizzes he’s had over the years: Mark Wherry, Sam Estes, Pete Snell, Tom Broderick. Even his personal assistants – Andrew Zack, and later, Czar Russell – are remarkable.

Of course, the really amazing talents are the ones he works for: Chris Nolan, Gore Verbinski, Jim Brooks, Ron Howard, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Jerry Bruckheimer. But he would never get the chance to work for them if he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

Read also:  Hans Zimmer's Journey to the Line: Asymmetry and The Forbidden Cue

5) HANS IS A CHARMER.

The first time Jeffrey Katzenberg heard Hans’ love theme for Megamind he said, “It sounds like 1968 on the French Riviera.” It was not a compliment. And it wasn’t wrong. Actually, what Hans realized – and Jeffrey hadn’t – was that the heart of the love story in the movie was right out of A Man and A Woman and La Nouvelle Vague. Rather than point this out, Hans said, “Let me work on it some more.” Over the next two weeks he played revision after revision for Jeffrey, each time making small changes to the arrangement or structure, but keeping the same basic tune. A couple of weeks later, after Jeffrey tore apart the music for a different scene that we’d worked pretty hard on, he said, “Well, at least we have a great love theme!” The rest of us looked at each other. When did that happen!

Hans is acutely aware of the presentational aspect of our business. His capacious control room, rather than being the strictly functional wood and bland fabric of a typical studio, is a lurid red velvet – a 19th century Turkish bordello as Hans describes it. With a wall of rare analog modular synthesizers in the back. At dinner, he serves his guests fine wine, and gives others cleverly appropriate (more so than lavish) gifts. As one of his clients said to me, “Hans makes you feel like a great chef is inviting you into his kitchen.”

Not all of us can afford HZ-level dog and pony shows. But most of us can use what we do have better.

6) HANS DELIVERS.

Hans often gets hired for massive projects. The reason he uses an army of people is that he needs them to keep up with the demands of the directors and the studios. Halfway through Rango, Gore Verbinski suddenly changed direction, threw almost everything out, and we started over. Without a team to carry out the new directions, we’d have been dead.

Look at what happened to Howard Shore on King Kong, Marc Shaiman on Team America, Maurice Jarre on River Wild, Gabriel Yared on Troy, or the great Bernard Herrmann on Torn Curtain. In each case they were fired because the studio or director lost faith that they could shift direction quickly enough once their original approach was rejected. In 150+ films this has never happened to Hans.

BTW, he is also very aware of what the power structure is – who really makes decisions. I was fired – or more accurately not hired after a trial period – from a film because I jumped through hoops for the director who brought me in while not spending enough time figuring out what the producer – the actual power – wanted. Rather than being sympathetic, Hans told me I had failed in a fundamental task: determining who was my boss. He was right, and I haven’t made that mistake again.

So, is Hans my favorite film composer? No. He’s not even Hans’ favorite film composer! (I’m guessing that would be Nina Rota or Ennio Morricone, but you’d have to ask him.) And he can be dismissive, condescending, arrogant, exploitative, and just plain mean. Like me. And, I suspect, you.

But he is exceptionally smart, gifted, accomplished, and hard-working. And here is the hard truth: outside of a few rare exceptions, the people who are successful in the film business are successful because they deserve to be. They have earned it. Yes, they have been lucky. But everybody gets lucky eventually. The question is what do you do when good fortune arrives. If you want to be as successful as the people you admire, you need to be as smart, resourceful, and determined as they are. As Hans is.

You’ll find composer Michael A. Levine on Facebook and IMDb. His website is MichaelLevineMusic.com

Posted by Michael A. Levine

Composer and Songwriter for TV, Film, Games & Concert Music. Credits include Cold Case, Star Wars Detours and the Hunger Games: Catching Fire OST with Lorde’s cover version of “Everybody Wants to Rule The World”.

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138 Comments on "Why Hans Zimmer Got The Job You Wanted (And You Didn’t)"

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cEvin
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I worked with John Debney on a score for End of Days that we had ended up doing some work at Remote control with Alan Meyerson. I had been given the nickname “Scaremeister” by John, and Hans had heard it, and asked to hear the music to which he responded. “Thats not scary!” I had a wonderful experience working on that film, and wish they’d call me again.. !! 🙂

1loner
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Thin Red Line is a wonderful soundtrack. An astute article that I would imagine could also apply to Danny Elfman. Even the great Alfred Newman used orchestrators when needed.

Mark
Guest
So you guys listen to great musicians but still come up with lines like; Darren Baker November 16, 2013 at 2:22 am · Reply → Nor are Horner, Badalamenti, Glass, Elfman, Shore, Armstrong, Isham, Goldenthal, Patrick Doyle, Trevor Jones, etc… etc… Who are all better. Stephen Stephen November 22, 2013 at 5:54 pm · Reply → It hurts my soul that anyone actually thinks Glass is better than Hans. Just hurts my soul. I don’t get it. Since when this is a competition? Are they cars? BMW vs Audi? It’s irrelevant when people say “X artist is better than X”.… Read more »
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Mr. On
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Ginger Baker, Ringo, Charlie Watts, and Dino Danelli.
Would have loved to have heard those guys do S/ too!

joens
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He got the job because he can supply unlimited revisions on a limited budget. He does this by using other people to do as many drafts as the studio wants. In this way, the studio can be the control freak they always wanted to be.

Micke Johansson
Guest

Zimmer is good, but i like John Williams music much more.

Fox
Guest

It’s completely different

Fox
Guest

Thanks a lot Michael for your great informations!
So, could you tell us how could us work for him ?Some one to contact ?
Thx

Fox

Albin mathew
Guest

wow

Roger Adams
Guest
I was a musical colleague of Hans in a band in the 1970s (pre-Buggles). We played together for a couple of years, rehearsed a lot, toured a lot and recorded a lot. His ideas always surpassed his (and the band’s) not inconsiderable abilities as players. No he’s not a trained orchestral musician but his scores work extremely well. They give me goosebumps. He has always loved cinema. He has learned how to use technology to achieve what he wants. He knows how to “network”. He deserves his success. I’m guessing that a lot of the “sour grapes” commentators I just… Read more »
Timber
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I enjoyed this article and it gives me hope that I can become something similar. I continue to stay dedicated to my work and put in the time to see it through to the end. Film music is my life, I just need the opportunity to prove myself. If he can make it, why not me?

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Gregory Bakay
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Hans Zimmer was a huge inspiration force for me to start music composing and to really love film music. I loved his scores from The Rock, Gladiator, Peacemaker, Lion King, and so on. These scores were really emotional, uplifting and inspiring listening to them. Sadly now days what I feel is that his music style become a ‘brand’, like McDonald’s… he and the Remote Control team uses the exatly same patterns, both in melody, in instrumentation, or in mixing and electronic setup, etc. (e.g.: the Joker’s motif-theme is used exactly the same way in the recent Rush score like it… Read more »
Mark
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All of what you said in the article might be accurate- but none of that means he is a ‘composer’. An unbelievably great sound designer- yes- Schmoozer-yes-
but composer, not really. Why? because a composer should be judged in large part on ‘melodies’. Atmosphere falls in the land of design.

MichaelLevine
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Sidestepping the question of whether Hans has written any great melodies (and I think upon closer examination you might discover that he has) there are two assumptions here that I think bear challenging. One is that great music is always melody driven. This eliminates much of the work of Penderecki, Ligeti, Xenakis, Part, Glass, Gorecki and many others considered 20th century masters. But the other, more subtle assumption is that great film composing is the synonymous with great composing. It’s not. The function of music in film is to help tell the story. Period. If it succeeds at that it… Read more »
Mark
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Michael- I have to disagree with your list of composers- many of those mentioned wrote great melodies- even if they were of the non easily singable sorts. Secondly, I have to question weather the story is helped upon a second listening, b/c for me often the case is that its not- a few times even on the first listening I get driven crazy- and apologies if you worked on Sherlock Holmes, b/c that for me is case in point; using certain music there was completely out of context and destroyed the fabric of the film- thats not the only one… Read more »
Ignatius J. Reilly
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Mediocrity begets mediocrity. Shore, Herrmann, Yared, Jarre, and Shaiman have had scores rejected because they have artistry, balls, and aren’t too big to fail. Art needs failure to grow in ways more than “know who’s in charge and suck that cock like you’re drowning and the balls have oxygen”. Time is a filter that will not be kind to HZ or the sound of film music he created in this era.

Charles Catlow
Guest

Well said Ignatius!

ASMAC
Guest

Hans Zimmer’s trusted conductor Nick Glennie-Smith who’s a great composer in his own right will be the featured guest speaker at the monthly ASMAC (American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers) Luncheon on May 10 at 12pm at Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. 6725 Sunset Blvd. Hosted and moderated by Peter Rotter who does most of the orchestra contracting for Hans.

ASMAC
Guest

Correction, the date is May 14

Victor Randon
Guest

Majestic words.

Steven Wright
Guest

Well a true composer knows how to write music, Hans Doesn’t, he write simple 4 notes, he couldn’t write like Williams if he tried sadly, the article state that

C Jackson
Guest
My question is after all this bashing and clashing,hating and debating. Do know why things are the way they are?? I hope you all do know that the whole concept of Art is not what it used to be. There is an intentional stultification of society and art form. What Mr Zimmer does is working,the movies become successful and that’s good enough for the executive producers. The shape of art has taken on many new sides,embrace it or fall behind. I compose music too,and speak with Lorne Balfe (Hans right hand man) occasionally,humble,pleasant hard working people. Knowing them and what… Read more »
Theo
Guest

Hoooo man ! This is amazing, Han’s seems to be a wonderful person.
How did you manage to work for him ?! What’s the secret ?

Farhan Zameer
Guest

Wow… This is interesting!

Kyle Hottel
Guest

I guess Hans gives the film industry what Apple gives consumers: the perfect pitch. While the rest of us know who the better composers (and computers) are 🙂

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Steven
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You hit the nail on the head here.

Matt
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His work in The Prince of Egypt was the first time I payed attention to the soundtrak, when I was a kid. Very expressive, it’s amazing how music is part of the story.

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eagleon
Guest

Wow. This made me never want to write music for film. Ever. Just the comments here. I thought football debates were dumb, I’ve never seen so much raw immaturity and aimless hatred in my life. Enjoy your careers, fine sirs.

Also, Skrillex is way better than Glass and Zimmer. Even if they worked together, Skrillex could score, like, 50 more films in a day, and they’d all fit the mood, because brostep fits every mood. Even sad cello.

MichaelLevine
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Actually, Skrillex did “score” a movie: Spring Breakers. The typical scenario when a pop star is paired with an experienced film composer is the star delivers a couple of existing hits plus a track or two s/he didn’t have much other use for and displays little awareness of the narrative. The film gets a p.r. boost, the film composer gets a gig, and the pop star gets to brag that s/he can score movies, too – everybody wins. I suspect this was the case in Spring Breakers, whose experienced composer was Cliff Martinez. This doesn’t mean that pop musicians can’t… Read more »
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[…] to me during my studio time. It reminds me of the quote from Hans Zimmer to his assistant about “working too fast” and missing some of the finer […]

studio 6/49 Audio Design
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Sylvio Pretsch (composer), studio 6/49 Audio Design (Leipzig, Germany): Hans Zimmer is a great film music composer! Why other composers don’t get jobs in this industry: In the film- and film-music-industry it is necessary to have a network of important people of the industry. If you don’t or if you can’t networking, because maybe you don’t have time or possiblities to do that – no chance to get a single job! About 98 % of all composers in the world still have “normal” jobs to be able to pay their fixed costs and to be able to keep their recording… Read more »
Jon-Joseph Nepaul
Guest

If you want to be successful, you have to understand that Music isn’t just about the music! Its about how well you can adapt, and if you can get results. Hans Zimmer understood this from DAY 1

Great Read Michael

giulio
Guest

This happened widely just almost in the last 30 years, not before. So there are not possibilities for all, lucky is involved like in lottery. And is untrue that if someone push can afford, sure the probability increase of maybe 20% ?

Michael Levine
Guest

Thanks, Jon-Joseph. I’m glad this article still seems to be relevant after all this time.

Giulio
Guest

Hans Zimmer by my point of view was great till the 90’s then he become more and more industrial and less friend of music itself. Is just a choice, i won’t say that many film scores he write works well by hearing without see the movie, are too much evocative and arrogant and in a way pathetic (just as action movie are, nothing else). So by my point of view is a fast methodic composer for films, that have good idea sometimes and for sure an interesting style, but the standard he works take away the creativity for sure.

Anonymous
Guest
I think the one thing you forgot to mention about Hans is he has been incredibly lucky in his career. So many people seem to think that these great composers just walked into a studio one day and got a job making music for film because that was what they had always wanted to do and be and there was never a timeline of events that preceded it. So while I agree Hans is a great composer for film, I would point out that “Video killed the Radio Star” and gave life to Hans Zimmer. And for the guys that… Read more »
giulio
Guest

I agree, and this happens in almost every field of art.

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Sheryl Renee
Guest

Thanks for writing this piece. It’s always lovely to see someone get their flowers while they still breathe. It is on my bucket list to work with Hans Zimmer. He is amazing.

Someone else
Guest

In this article you mention 6 positive qualities why Hans has a successful career, and then 5 very negative personal qualities he has, all of which have to do with how he treats other human beings. In my book 6 personal success qualities don’t really outweigh 5 oppressive qualities. But yeah…he writes good music.

Alton Locke
Guest
In the end it is the music that matters and the bald truth is that Hans Zimmer’s scores are repetitive, nondescript and exceedingly dull. Go to his Wikipedia page and play the ‘choice’ samples of his work. It could be anything, from any film he has ever scored (or anyone else has scored in the last 10 years). It’s mere noise. Film music lives or dies by its thematic qualities and in Zimmer’s music there are just no compelling themes. Nothing that makes you go ‘Oh yes, that bit in Gladiator!’ Christ, all you have to do is play the… Read more »
Anonymous
Guest

You don’t have to be sorry to say it. It’s the truth. His career is further proof of just how corrupt Hollywood is. Zimmer looks like a somebody to people that have no idea about music.

Anonymous
Guest

And the most important thing of all: Hans is a JEW!

Anonymous
Guest

Brilliant article! Very relevant!