When Hans Zimmer stepped up to the podium during a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival in 1999 to discuss his score of “The Last Days,” a Holocaust documentary produced by the Shoah Foundation, he was asked why he chose to work on the movie.
And that’s when Zimmer revealed a family secret on German national television: The Zimmers are Jewish.
“As soon as I said it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve outed my mother,’ ” Zimmer recalled in a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t wait for this press conference to finish, and I got to the phone, and I phoned her in Munich.”
Filled with anxiety and guilt, Zimmer relayed to his mother what he had done, then listened as she paused for a moment, and then told him, “I’m very proud of you.”
“I think that was the only time she said, ‘I’m very proud of you,’ ” Zimmer joked.
Regarded as one of the world’s most accomplished film composers, Zimmer, 56, has written music for more than 100 movies and has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, nine Grammys and 11 Golden Globes. He won an Oscar in 1995 for best musical score for “The Lion King,” and his music can be heard in such classics as “The Prince of Egypt,” “Gladiator,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight” and this year’s best picture-winner, “12 Years a Slave.”
On July 16, the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO) will honor Zimmer with a lifetime achievement award at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. Zubin Mehta will conduct, as members of the orchestra perform some of Zimmer’s most memorable works.
Zimmer has certainly come a long way since his days living in Frankfurt and London, when he felt ambivalent, even uncomfortable, about being Jewish. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in post-World War II Germany only made his identity harder for him to grapple with. Zimmer’s father died when he was a young boy, and his mother rarely discussed her Jewish roots. He knows she escaped Germany in 1939 and survived the war in England, but her silence about the family religion led him to feel that it was, in a way, their secret.
“Quite honestly, I think my parents were always wary of me telling the neighbors,” Zimmer said. “There was always still that cloud, and I felt it.”
Today, living in Los Angeles with his wife and four children, Zimmer said he is thrilled to help the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in any way he can and hopes one day to travel to Israel to work on a film score (he doesn’t take vacations). Nowadays, he openly calls the Jews “my people.”
In fact, Zimmer said one reason he was excited to accept AFIPO’s award was that he had hoped the event might be held in Israel, which would have given him an excuse to travel to the country his mother used to visit every year.
“Instead, they are all turning up for dinner at my house, pretty much,” Zimmer said, laughing. “I get to travel so much for these movies — sooner or later I’ll get there.”
Zimmer’s work has also brought him to some of the world’s top artistic landmarks — he got exclusive middle-of-the-night access to the Louvre in Paris for “The Da Vinci Code” and got the same treatment for Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture in Florence, Italy.
Speaking from his Viennese Renaissance-style Santa Monica recording studio, Zimmer said he was just coming out of a meeting. “Deadlines are a good thing,” he said, though he would not divulge what his next project is. Zimmer was, however, happy to discuss some of the more intimate aspects of working with so many stellar writers and directors.
“You are very vulnerable when you play a piece of music to somebody for the first time,” he confessed. “I’m hiding behind the inefficiency of words. I’m hiding behind my lack of speaking English properly,” Zimmer said in an accent that mixes his German, British and American roots.
“The true me, I can only be caught in my music. It’s the only time I let you see into me.”
Although it’s tough to choose a favorite from Zimmer’s vast filmography, millions of moviegoers would recognize Zimmer’s trademark mixture of classical orchestras and electronic music, most notably in his work with writer/director Christopher Nolan on “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” trilogy.
“I didn’t know we were making a trilogy,” Zimmer said of the latter series. “I don’t think Chris knew we were making a trilogy. We were just making ‘Batman Begins’ — it turned into nine years of our lives.”
“Inception,” meanwhile, revealed something that bothers Zimmer about Hollywood — a propensity to imitate effects audiences respond positively to, specifically the ominous-sounding “braaam” sound effect that popped up in one thriller after another following the release of “Inception” in 2010.
“Hopefully, going forward, I won’t sound anything like those movies again,” Zimmer said. “If other people still find it interesting to go and work in that style, let them. I think an audience will get bored with it.”
What Zimmer loves about Nolan and some of his other favorite directors (including Ron Howard, Steve McQueen and James L. Brooks) is their experimentation and their willingness to let Zimmer push the envelope, allowing him to be original with the music, which helps add a new layer to the story they want to tell.
“They are all fearless. They never stop searching; they never stop looking for the next idea,” Zimmer said. “They are all trying to illuminate the human condition.”
An attempt to get Zimmer to discuss his collaboration with Nolan on “Interstellar”— the sci-fi thriller starring Matthew McConaughey that is due out in November — went nowhere, with the composer apologetically saying he’s not allowed to utter a word. All Zimmer would say about Nolan is, “he encourages, probably, my most reckless behavior.”
Zimmer’s goal with his score, he said, is not necessarily to find the musical way of telling the film’s story — he has his own story to tell.
Take “The Lion King,” which Zimmer says he initially took on in order to impress his daughter, who was 6 at the time. He wanted “to show off as a dad and take her to the premiere” of what, on first glance, he thought was really just a film about “fuzzy animals.” As his work progressed, though, he realized he could see himself in Simba — both had lost their fathers when they were young.
“Really, the story is about a son losing his father,” Zimmer said. “And it was the first time I actually dealt with it.”
As majestic and perfectly fitting as so many of Zimmer’s scores sound, the creative process that gets him to the final product is anything but clean. When a filmmaker approaches Zimmer about a project, the composer does not want to read a script and create music from that — he wants to be told what the story is about. From there, it’s all uphill.
“To be really honest, it’s just a lot of sitting around and bashing your head against the wall, and despair, and not knowing where it comes from and going through that whole process of, ‘Oh my God the notes will never [come],’ and then suddenly — they appear.”