I’ll be honest: I wasn’t too crazy about the scores to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films at first. I probably own more of composer Hans Zimmer’s albums (in CD form) than anyone else I know, and I’ve always admired Zimmer’s ability to weave in soaring themes in the midst of intense action happening on screen. When I first watched Batman Begins I was looking forward to a kickass Batman theme on par with Elfman’s immortal score for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Of course, Zimmer and fellow rock star composer and collaborator James Newton Howard had other plans.
At first, I was disappointed. But I’ve come around.
While the new Batman films, and in particular The Dark Knight, still feature a distinct Batman theme, it’s not very prominent, always lurking around the edges. Nonetheless, What Zimmer and Howard have created with the soundtrack to The Dark Knight is a wonderful, breathtaking piece of movie music, part atmosphere, part melodic brilliance that is the perfect accompaniment to the images and sounds of Nolan’s film. After listening to The Dark Knight soundtrack a few dozen times, I can safely say that rarely has such a perfect fusion of music and cinematic themes taken place.
Santa Monica’s KCRW recently conducted an interview with both Zimmer and Newton Howard in which they spoke about the process of composing the score. The whole interview is worth taking a listen to but I wanted to direct your attention to a few parts that I really appreciated. First of all, the two explain how their collaboration worked, which was fascinating given how accomplished they both are separately very accomplished composers.
For the most part, the score seemed like a collaboration in the truest sense of the word. According to Howard, “After Batman Begins…we were either going to succeed or not speak to each other anymore. We ended up being even better friends than we were. The combination of the two of us has really become the voice of the score. So it’s no longer any kind of a liability…If either Hans did the whole score or I did the whole score it would not be the same.” Zimmer further explained, “On the first one, there wasn’t a piece that wasn’t touched by both of us…The weird thing was, by it being the two of us, it had to be a conversation. It involved Chris Nolan very much…” Simultaneously, some of the musical identities of the film were separate, allowing Howard and Zimmer to split some of the work; while Howard took on Harvey Dent’s theme, Zimmer handled the Joker.
Zimmer described some of his inspiration behind Joker’s “theme,” saying: “I kept churning around…how do you describe anarchy, how do you describe a villian and not do it in a way that’s been done before? One of the things I got very much from the character was a fearlessness, and an evenness in a way. The Joker is the only person you can trust in the movie. The Joker is the only one who will never lie to you because he is consistent about his philosophy…I really wanted to do the whole thing just with one note. I had this idea that rather than what a note is in the context of the notes surrounding it, what could I do emotionally through a performance within one note? How much can I stretch the meaning of a single note and get it down to such minimalism. I failed slightly. I had to use two notes in the end.”
Why didn’t they write a big theme for Batman? “We actually received a lot of grief about that, from a lot of people,” said Howard. “‘Why didn’t you write a big theme for Batman?’ Because it wouldn’t have worked.”
Finally, Zimmer pointed out some of the challenges of working as a film composer in general, saying: “Once you get the job of being the film composer the moment you say yes to the movie and you sit down to write it becomes the antithesis of creativity in a funny way because of the pressure of having the burden of being the last person in line that could make or break this movie. Just the idea of very often having to fit within the framework of something else is not what we imagine to be the best creative playing field, which is freedom and imagination and chaos to a certain degree. But that’s where the relationships come in.”