“I never thought I would be scoring a nature program,” confesses celebrated composer Hans Zimmer. “Except look, it’s really simple. When somebody starts the sentence with BBC, Sir David Attenborough, Planet Earth… they don’t even have to finish the sentence before you go, ‘I’m in.’ “
What’s more, scoring Planet Earth II — which premieres in the U.S. on Saturday (Feb. 18) simulcasting across BBC America, AMC and SundanceTV — enabled Zimmer to evoke his favorite creative process when embracing a new project.
“It was very important to me to go back to the fundamentals of how I like working, which is sort of a band structure,” he tells Billboard. It’s an approach that’s recently found Zimmer not only embarking on the greatest nature walk of his life, but also hitting the road for his first tour and gearing up to take the stage at Coachella in April.
“Having grown up in Europe, I’m a huge fan of [Attenborough’s] lifelong work,” testifies the German-born Zimmer, one of Hollywood’s most prolific composers, who’s scored more than 150 films in three decades. “It’s so easy to use the word ‘legend,’ these days, but this man really is a legend. So I thought, this will be great. I can have a little band and I’ll treat his voice as if he’s the lead singer in the band.”
“And I had [co-composers] Jasha Klebe and Jacob Shea as the band members, and really was very collaborative with the filmmakers,” Zimmer continues. “What they shot, and how they shot it, jumps off the screen, pulls you by the throat and you can’t help but be inspired.”
From the frozen tundra to the dry forests of the equator, the Attenborough-narrated view of the planet from the perspective of the animals provides an intimate, and at times harrowing, view of our planet. A scene where a hatchling marine iguana is being hunted by a mass of snakes as the music swells — we won’t ruin the ending — is one Zimmer returns to.
“There isn’t a director on earth who isn’t going, ‘I wish I had shot an incredible car chase like that,’” he says. “It’s the greatest action scene ever put on film. What makes the series so strong is it is full of drama, love, empathy, surprises. It’s full of magic in a way we weren’t able to do 10 years ago. The whole technology involved in it — and, honestly, the reckless bravery of these filmmakers who put themselves into impossible situations to shoot impossible footage that we would never otherwise be able to see.”
The series, which again drew raves when season 2 opened in the U.K. last fall, has been lauded for opening the eyes of a younger demographic than is traditionally drawn to nature programming. “One of the things I got pretty excited about after it came out in Europe was the Telegraph and the Times were writing that more young people were watching Planet Earth than The X Factor or the Kardashians,” Zimmer recalls. “I thought, We’ve got something right.”
In embracing projects that “really mean something,” Zimmer has found himself expanding his musical palette. “I’ll work in anything where somebody wants to tell a great story. We have gotten to another golden age of television. The three things I was involved with last year – The Crown, which is very longform writing, Planet Earth and [Oscar-nominated film] Hidden Figures – are all things a few years ago nobody would’ve made. And they’re not only getting made, but are successful. That, to me, is fantastic.”
And he’s expanding his experiences. Fresh from a successful European tour, during which he chipped away at his own dogged stage fright, Zimmer is taking on a few U.S. dates this spring. “The tour was really something. Being a paranoid artist, I have terrible stage fright, I thought, What if nobody comes? But they came the first night and then they kept coming.”
Among other friends and collaborators, Zimmer says The Smiths’ Johnny Marr really pushed him to get out of his comfort zone. “He said, ‘You can’t let fear dictate your life,’” Zimmer says. “And the other thing he said was, ‘You have to get out of your dark windowless room.’ He was right about the fear not dictating my life part — but, the first night standing up there on stage, I look out and where am I? I’m in a huge, dark, windowless room. So he did fail a bit about that, but other than that he was absolutely right. This is a great moment in my life where I get to do this.”
The stage will be quite different this April in Indio. While Zimmer’s mum on some details, the Coachella audience can expect a full orchestral and visual spectacle, with material focused even more heavily on his Christopher Nolan opus than he’s done on previous tour dates.
“I think I’m doing a 90% Christopher Nolan segment,” he says. “I’ll be bringing my band – and my band is an orchestra of 76 people. It will be definitely something different, and why not? That was the whole point. Because secretly, if you listen to some of my stuff, the secret is, it’s all rock’n’roll. Inception or Batman — that’s where I come from… Film composers can rock. John Williams can rock. Ennio Morricone can rock. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. And yes, I’m terrified of it, and that’s part of the appeal of doing it.”
Visuals will again be in the hands of Mark Brickman, the Pink Floyd lighting designer whom Zimmer enlisted to set the mood for his tour.
“I consider him a member of the band. He loves blowing things up and floating pigs over places. Sometimes I have to stop him from blowing things up, but it’s always right on the edge. I told him a few years ago I’m not showing any images from the films, so reinterpret those images with light. He has as much freedom as any of the musicians on stage and he has vast experience, vast knowledge and vast recklessness. It’s a dangerous and good combination.”
Given that Zimmer has already had a few guest musicians join him on stage, might there be an on-site collaboration with other acts headed to the desert next month? Radiohead, whose guitarist Jonny Greenwood is a composer currently at work scoring his third Paul Thomas Anderson film, comes to mind.
“I haven’t thought that far because of course as usual I’m behind on the movie I’m working on [Nolan’s Dunkirk]. But Radiohead, think about it – there’s another very good film composer who is playing there,” he says. “This is not an idea I have floated around, but you never know. A lot of my collaborations come at the last moment because I think that’s what we musicians are quite good at. Like the work I’ve done with Pharrell. It comes from friendship and a pure place of us wanting to make music together.”
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