A few years ago, director Denis Villeneuve had a query for Hans Zimmer, with whom he had worked on the 2017 film Blade Runner 2049. “He asked if I had ever heard of a book called Dune, and I sort of flipped out and got all carried away, and I think I scared him a bit,” the composer recalls with a laugh.
It turns out that Zimmer — who won the Academy Award for best original score in 1995 for The Lion King and has been nominated 10 other times (and could also be nominated for scoring No Time To Die) — had read the book as a teenager, as had Villeneuve, and had been waiting for this moment for 50 years. So when it came to creating the dark, provocative score for the Warner Bros. movie, based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, Zimmer, 64, returned to his adolescent self.
“Rather than approaching it with the wisdom and maturity that come with age, none of that happened,” says Zimmer. “The book took us back in time. The score is very much written with the recklessness and fearlessness that you have as a teenager.”
A Brave New World
Recorded remotely by Zimmer and his colleagues in California, Australia, Berlin, Vienna, Brooklyn and London due to the pandemic, the score features haunting, often discordant sounds that included rendering instruments unrecognizable by running them through synthesizers and even inventing instruments to musically define the futuristic, dystopian world of Dune. “Isn’t that the job?” asks Zimmer. “John Williams is one of my favorite composers and Star Wars is one of my favorite scores of all time, but I remember when I was watching it for the first time and it says, ‘In a galaxy far, far away,’ and I’m hearing strings and trumpets. I’m going, ‘Why do I hear contemporary music?’” That memory guided his thought process when it came to scoring Dune. “[I thought,] ‘Let’s not just use conventional instruments,’” says Zimmer. “ ‘Let’s create a color palette that is completely custom-built for this movie.’” That experimentation extended to utilizing sculptures made of salvaged metal created by a sculptor/musicians friend of Zimmer’s. “He would build these incredible sculptures in his house, and his house itself is a resonating chamber, so the whole house becomes the instrument,” Zimmer says. “Tell me honestly, who doesn’t want to go play with that?”
Little Closet, Big Voice
Zimmer says that he and Villeneuve completed each other’s sentences as they discussed the musical concepts. From the start, they agreed that even though the movie is about the character Paul Atreides and his father’s struggle to control the planet Arrakis, the women characters quietly carry the power. To give them a voice, a female choir underscores much of the film’s most dramatic moments. The significance of the women “was something that was clear to us from when we read it as teenagers, so I think the score lives and dies on these amazing singers that I had,” says Zimmer. Primarily, he relied on Loire Cotler, whose otherworldly vocals depicted the expansiveness of the desert as she recorded from the closet of her Brooklyn apartment. “There’s this great picture of her sitting cross-legged on the floor of her closet, the microphone dangling in front of her. Her coats are basically hanging down on her head, and she’s supposed to sing about the vastness of this landscape,” recalls Zimmer. “She had the ability to transcend all those limitations.”
Dune Not Disturb
So fierce is the hunger for music from the movie that WaterTower Music has released two companions in addition to the traditional score: the Dune Sketchbook, which includes the initial longer pieces Zimmer composed to work up his themes, and an album of ancillary music. In October, Warner Bros. greenlighted the film’s anticipated sequel, and Zimmer is already off and running. “I have such an idea,” he says with enthusiasm. “I haven’t run it by Denis yet, but of course it’s one of those impossible ideas that will create an enormous amount of work [with] no sleep and no weekends off. I can’t wait.”
Shaken Not Stirred
Zimmer says he never thought he’d score a James Bond film, but when the call came to compose music for No Time To Die, he immediately reached out to frequent collaborator and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. “I said, ‘What’s the one guitar thing that’s perfectly valid to play in a movie that isn’t cheesy and he said “Bond!” and I said, ‘Absolutely, are you going to do it?’ He said yes and I said, ‘Fine, I’ve cracked one part of the code.” Crafting a Bond score is, in large part, paying homage to the John Barry’s classic music and the great musicians from London, many of whom have played on the scores throughout the decades. Zimmer had no desire to break that mold: “Why move too far away from something you love?” he asks. He was, however, able to veer outside the lines for the scenes in Cuba. “I called up the great Arturo Sandoval. How can you argue with having the greatest Cuban trumpet player play in a scene about Cuba?” says Zimmer. “To have Arturo playing, Cubans instantly recognize when a Cuban is playing. We started off pretty traditionally and we honor John Barry’s work because it’s right, and then as the movie progresses, it started moving more in to my language.”
Keeping The Faith
Zimmer has worked with “truly some of the most brilliant directors,” including Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Tony Scott “and, to be really honest,” he says, “my favorite director, Penny Marshall.” He says while each director is different in their own ways, they do share one particular quality: “They excite you and get you onboard,” adding that they’re all extraordinary leaders. “There are so many scripts I’ve read in my life where I think, ‘This is impossible to make,'” continues Zimmer. “I remember saying to [Pirates of the Caribbean director] Gore Verbinksi, ‘Pirates? Worst idea I’ve ever heard,’ because I couldn’t look into Gore’s head. And of course, he was making this brilliant movie. The one other thing that’s really important about [Dune director] Denis, and quite a few other directors as well, they lead with an unbelievable amount of kindness and faith.”