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Scoring Superman: An Interview with Hans Zimmer

Scoring Superman: An Interview with Hans Zimmer

By Tim Beedle Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

A super hero known for his strength and power of flight deserves a strong, soaring soundtrack, and if you’ve heard the snippets of Hans Zimmer’s score for Man of Steel in the recent trailers, you know that he’s delivered a suite of music that has every chance of proving to be as iconic as the Man of Steel himself.

Today marks the release of the Man of Steel soundtrack, which is available in two different forms—a standard two-disc version and a deluxe, limited edition which features six additional songs as well as an embossed steel case.

The deluxe edition CD also provides fans with the ability to download the entire soundtrack in DTS Headphone: X, a brand new technology which reproduces a cinematic, mult-speaker surround sound experience using a regular set of headphones. The Man of Steel soundtrack is the first album to be recorded using this technology, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting debut than a score designed to be super-human.

To celebrate the soundtrack’s release, and to gain a better understanding of what goes into composing music for a blockbuster like Man of Steel, we spoke with Academy Award, Grammy and Golden Globe-winning composer Hans Zimmer about scoring the film, the groundbreaking DTS Headphone: X mix and whether Superman is a music fan.

Superman is the second iconic DC Comics super hero you’ve scored. What are some things you incorporated into this score that wouldn’t have worked or been appropriate for Batman?

Well, obviously the Dark Knight is very internal and brooding. He’s very, well, dark. It’s a very serious psychological exploration. One of the great things about Superman is that he appeals to the best and most hopeful in all of us. So while The Dark Knight is a fairly hopeless score, what I really tried to do with Man of Steel is reflect that sense of hope.

The other thing I always loved about Superman is where on Earth he grew up—the Midwest, with its endless, open fields and hardworking people. So I thought, let’s celebrate this for a change. In The Dark Knight, I was not celebrating humanity. But this is really the opposite. In a funny way, by using a character with super powers, I was able to figure out how to best celebrate humanity.

Your score for Man of Steel really soars in places, which I think is what you would expect in a Superman score, but one thing that I didn’t expect in a Superman soundtrack is how percussive it is. It’s a very different approach, but it sounds amazing. How did this evolve?

I play around with ideas until I finally get somewhere. I wanted to figure out how to get the energy and the commitment and the sort of super power you get from an extraordinary drummer. But one of the things which I think sounds really cheesy in music is to just have a drummer and a score. It’s the difference between having a solo violin—which imposes itself into a scene—and having a string section, which is thirty-two emotionally charged, incredibly agile and energetic people playing together. It’s a different sound. So I thought, what happens if I make an orchestra out of twelve drummers, but pick all of my favorites? Select them based on their strengths and style. Put them in a room and mic them in a way whereby you the audience are suddenly in the center of it. I didn’t think anybody had really done that.

It was all designed to give the listener the maximum impact and energy. If I can’t get super-human strength out of one human being, with twelve, I might get a little closer to that.

One obvious challenge in scoring Man of Steel is that the John Williams score for the earlier Christopher Reeve Superman films is so well known. Was scoring a film in the shadow of that a challenge?

John Williams is the master. He’s the greatest film composer we’ve got at the moment. And the Superman theme was, of course, one of his most iconic tunes from one of his most fertile periods. I grew up with it.

There are lots of movies I’m really glad I didn’t score and that John did. I’m so glad because I was then able to enjoy his music, and I was able to enjoy his score for the Superman movies long before I thought of becoming a film composer. So yes, he casts a long shadow, and at first I was reluctant to do it.

But at the same time, once I sat down with Zack and he started laying out his take on the story, I realized we were telling quite a different story than the one that was told before. So the first thing I did was I got rid of the trumpets. By eliminating certain things which make John’s score so great—certain parts of the sonic palette—I had to go and rethink it, and that was very liberating. But it took me a while.

You debuted one of the songs from the score—“DNA”—in full a few weeks ago. Can you tell us a bit about that piece?

Well, obviously Superman’s DNA is different from human DNA. At the same time, one of the things which always interested me in the mythology of Superman is whether DNA will win out over free will. I think Superman’s main ambition, if you get right down to it, is that he wants to discover his humanity. And so, I created this DNA chord which goes all the way through the movie, and things in the score are either being informed by this chord or they fight with it. I think that’s the interesting thing. How do we become the best humans we can possibly be? Because I think that takes real super powers.

You can listen to “DNA” in full here:

After working on both Superman and Batman films, do you have a favorite of the two characters?

No, they’re very, very different characters, and in a way, I see everything I do as a sort of an adventure. The Dark Knight was an incredible adventure, and I do think we brought it to an interesting close.

The Superman adventure, because it’s not out yet, I don’t know how people feel about it yet. So it still feels to me like a work-in-progress. They’re all my babies, and I can’t love one more than the other. But I can worry about all of them with equal amount of care.

So, do you think they have music on Krypton? And do you think Superman is a music fan?

Krypton is a fairly civilized society, therefore of course they would have music because it’s such a big a part of any civilization.

As for whether Superman’s a music fan, according to Henry [Cavill], yes. Henry was saying he had Zimmer scores on his iPod, so yes, Superman’s a music fan!

One of the things that really irks me about soundtrack albums is that they’re in stereo, and so you take away about a third of my world. So we’ve been working with DTS to actually do a version that you can hear in proper surround through your headphones.

Yes, I’ve heard it. It’s amazing! How did that come together?

The way it works is they actually measured my ears and my room, so it’s like you’re suddenly hearing through my ears.

It seems so fitting that the Man of Steel soundtrack is the first album to use the new technology.

Well, you only get to do a Superman movie once in your lifetime, so you might as well throw everything in it that you know and try to push it forward.

After all, this is what I grew up with. Being a foreigner myself, well, first of all I can relate to being a foreigner in America, which I think is part of the story. And of course, secondly, so much of what I knew about America came from comic books.

I wouldn’t have guessed that!

Where do you think we get our stuff from? It was Tom Sawyer and comics books!

Look for Man of Steel (The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) on Amazon, iTunes or at a store near you today, and don't miss Man of Steel in theaters everywhere on Friday!