Hans Zimmer on Scoring “Interstellar”

We were privileged to talk at length with Hams Zimmer about how he approached composing music for the sci-fi blockbuster “Interstellar,” and to Roger Sayer, who played all of the pipe organ you hear in what is certainly the decade’s first great space opera.

“I love how polarizing this whole project has been. People either hate what we did or they love it. There’s nothing in the middle, which is great.”

So says renowned film composer Hans Zimmer about the score to Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster sci-fi epic about a farmer and former astronaut who journeys out of our galaxy to find habitable planets beyond the ecologically devastated earth. Zimmer’s music avoided both the traditional big-orchestra Hollywood sound and more contemporary electronic tropes in favor of a haunting, and largely acoustic keyboard-driven score―including a huge amount of pipe organ recorded in London’s Temple Church. The score also caused some controversy, as some film-goers felt it was mixed too loudly relative to the dialogue. There can be no question of its beauty and individuality, though. We were privileged to talk at length with Mr. Zimmer about how he approached the film, and to Roger Sayer, who played all of the organ you hear in what is certainly the decade’s first great space opera.

SF: I’d like to start by diving straight into the loudness issue some viewers experienced. Personally I didn’t hear it or have a problem understanding any dialogue, but I know people who insist they did. How loud is this score, in your opinion?

HZ: Well, we knew we were pushing the envelope. We wanted to be extreme, but it’s not like we didn’t check it back. I mean, every Friday for six weeks, we’d go to a different theater in the morning, at some ungodly hour, and listen to our playback. We blew up a few speakers on the way. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? [Laughs.]

We tried to be both the quietest movie and the loudest movie. And we tried to do it in a way that it was interesting. But I think part of it is just that people are not used to this. Imagine if a 17th-century person tried to have a conversation with you in the middle of New York City right now. They just wouldn’t be used to the difference in ambient sound. Culturally, our sound world keeps changing. That’s quite an interesting phenomenon.

Another part of it is, as a little kid, my mom used to take me to the opera―my first musical experiences were largely opera. I never understood a word, but I was always ended up crying or otherwise being swept along by the emotional experience. Musicians know this. There are so many great songs where we’re still not entirely sure what the lyrics are, but they get under our skin. Another thing to remember is that Chris Nolan isn’t just the director, he’s the writer. He’s very aware of words, and he does treat a film like a song―sometimes the words are more important, sometimes the music is.

The plot arc of Interstellar has been compared to Kubrick’s 2001. Did its score influence you, either positively or as something to distance yourself from?

You’re thinking exactly what I was thinking. I was completely daunted for a while by Kubrick and 2001 and his use of classical music. Then one day Chris and I were having this conversation, which went something like, “When 2001 came out, the most familiar piece to people probably was Strauss’ The Blue Danube. Everybody knew that one. Maybe a smaller percentage knew about Also Spracht Zarathustra. But then, did anybody know the other music?” You know, all those eastern European composers? Penderecki? Probably not. It was just interesting music.

So Chris and I just decided, number one, the job is to invent. Number two, just try to write as well as you possibly can. Number three, don’t get scared. Don’t get daunted by the precedent of what Stanley Kubrick had done.

How did the idea to make pipe organ so central to the score occur?

So, we wanted to start on the opposite end of the spectrum from where we’ve been for the last ten years. Ever since we started doing the Batman movies, we defined a certain style for us. That was very much driven by action drums, kinetic ostinatos in the strings, et cetera. So we went, if we throw everything out from our vocabulary before, where does that lead us?

Then one day Chris, in the middle of a paragraph, goes, “Have you ever thought of a pipe organ?” As soon as he said it, I just saw the shape. Those big organ pipes look like the afterburners on rocket ship. So visually, that seemed to fit right into the image that I was trying to create. For me, it’s vital that the score involves some sort of metaphor for the story. The other part of that metaphor is that a pipe organ can’t make a sound without breath. In that regard, it’s incredibly human.

Another thing is that we wanted to celebrate scientists in the film as opposed to them being the nerdy sidekicks―a bit like having the keyboard player at the center of the stage as opposed to back behind the guitarist or singer! And by the 17th century, the pipe organ was the most complex machine people had created. It kept that distinction until the telephone exchange was invented―and you can’t tell me Bob Moog didn’t see a telephone exchange at some point before thinking of the modular synth.

What other sonic elements found their way into the score? Any synthesizers?

Well, we’d been avoiding woodwinds in the scores for the last ten years, so we just went, “Time to unleash the woodwinds.” I wanted to keep the electronics to a minimum, but there were certain things I just had to get [U-he soft synth] Zebra out to do. The only other synthesizer I really used was the Jonte Knifonium, which is from this fantastic Finnish designer. It’s a completely vacuum tube-based synth. They’re pretty rare, and incredible creations.

Once you’d decided on pipe organ, did you begin writing with a sampled or software version?

Yes. Because of the way Chris and I work, I just write in a sequencer―Steinberg Cubase. So I was trying to hunt down a great pipe organ sample collection, and I came across this plug-in called Hauptwerk. Man, it’s really incredible. So I was writing with its Salisbury Cathedral organ [sample set], which isn’t a bad place to start. First, I had to spend quite a bit of time learning the instrument. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be like? It’s not supposed to just come out of the box and there it is.

One of the things I could do with the Hauptwerkorgan is, I could use MIDI CC 11 for putting all sort of super-duper expressions into every line. Which then became a bit of a problem once we went off to record the real organ, because it can’t do that.

Not via the expression pedals a pipe organ has for each manual?

To some extent, but it’s not like you can go from pp to ff within a note and back again. You can’t go to silence or come from silence, which is what I wanted to do. What I did at the end of the day, after we’d recorded all the organ parts―the writing is pretty intricate, so on a big cue we might have 12 or more different ones―was to took put the audio tracks back in the sequencer and superimpose expression maps onto them.

Speaking of which, how did you record the organ at Temple Church?

Abbey Road Mobile set up a remote studio in one of the side rooms of the church. It wasn’t just the organ; we had the orchestra in there as well. So we had an enormous amount of microphones placed all throughout that church. But I think the main mics really were a few Neumanns, about 20 feet away. More were about 40 feet away from the main pipes.

It was great being able to really use the space. Because an organ doesn’t exist outside its acoustic space, so you have to find the right space. The great thing about Temple Church is, it’s in the center of London but it’s completely isolated. There are just the law courts all around it, and it’s basically a pedestrian zone, so there’s no traffic noise.

Why is Cubase your tool of choice for composing before taking things to the orchestra?

I think the best software program is the one that you know, the one you feel comfortable with. At the same time, I have to give Steinberg props for constantly trying to innovate. I’ve got to be careful here, but there aren’t that many companies who you can rely on to update all the time and democratically listen to their users. With some features, you go, “Well, I’d never use that,” but then you go, “oh, wait a minute . . .” It leads you to new creative possibilities. But you have to invest the time to learn it―or any program. Few people understand that a computer these days is a legitimate musical instrument that you have to study and get good at, just like practicing your scales on the piano.

Throughout the film, I was struck by cues that started off sounding like some sort of synth, but as they evolved were clearly the pipe organ.

There’s a lot of morphing going on between different things. And sometimes I would use a choir as well. I’d just go and―I was trying to confuse a little bit. I was trying to not just be a purist about using the organ. There are also the woodwinds. Sometimes you get a clarinet playing something very soft, which is then taken over by the pipes on the organ.

In cutting the movie, Chris Nolan was also very mindful that if a note finished, we wouldn’t cut off the reverb or fade it down. He’d let the shot hang there long enough for you to hear the end of the decay.

I heard those. One exception is this scene where Cooper is on the spaceship watching a video from his family. When the video ends, the cue that had been swelling cuts abruptly to silence. It was jarring, but very effective to convey that moment of his loneliness.

Yes, that cutoff was actually quite important. You think it’s a piece of score, but it’s actually a piece of source music. Chris was describing the scene to me, all the frames I had to hit . . . and in the end that hit every frame. We play with silence a lot in this film, obviously. Sometimes, these days a score is just wall-to-wall. So it’s weird that we got that controversy about the loudness on this score, which isn’t wall to wall. There are large chunks of this movie where people just talk without music in the background.

The organ is also offset by a lot of scrape and drone sounds, which seem meant to be as unsettling as being in outer space. What was your source?

There’s a wonderful inventor and musician here in Los Angeles called Chas Smith. He creates these amazing musical sculptures out of titanium and other metal. He’s forever up at the Boeing factory getting scraps of weird, unpronounceable metals, and he builds these musical instruments out of them. They’re either scraped or scratched or bowed, or whatever other unspeakable things he does to them. [Laughs.] I first met him when we were doing Man of Steel.

In the ’70s or ’80s, everybody was forever saying that synthesizers are trying to imitate and maybe replace real instruments. Well, what we were trying to do with Interstellar is imitate synthesizers with acoustic instruments. We’d play things to the orchestra and say, “Here’s an overtly electronic sound. How would you go and do that? There must be something about your instrument that no one ever let you do or that only you know. Let’s hear it!” I remember Richard Harvey, who was conducting the woodwinds, saying, “They’ve spent their whole lives not sounding like this.” That felt like a triumph.

What was the most challenging scene for you to write to?

I need to tell you how the whole project started, because that informs everything that happened afterwards. A couple of years ago, Chris said, “If I were to write one page, and not tell you the context, would you write whatever [music] comes to you?” So a couple of weeks later I get this a beautiful typewritten letter―not done on a computer. It was just this very personal story between a father and child, and Chris wrote about a son because I have a son who wants to be a scientist. he came down to the studio, and I played it to him. And it’s this tiny, very fragile, personal piece about myself and my son, really. And I get to the end of it and I sort of look at him and I say, “Hey, what do you think?” And he goes, “Well, I suppose I’d better make the movie now.”

He then starts describing this huge canvas of science and space and quantum mechanics and relativity theory and all this stuff. I finally break in and say, “Chris, but I’ve just written this tiny, personal piece, and you’re describing the vastness of everything.” And he goes, “Yeah, but I now know where the heart of the story is.”

Which is Cooper and his daughter. Was this the simple four-note melody based around A, B, and E that we hear early in their scenes and that then forms the basis for grander cues later on?

That’s the one. And then the first thing you hear, when it cuts to black and the end titles start, it’s literally that first-day demo. It’s just me playing in the privacy of my own neurosis, in my studio.

How did Roger Sayer wind up playing all the organ for the film?

Through [composer and conductor] Richard Harvey, really. We knew Temple Church because Ron Howard had shot [scenes in] The Da Vinci Code there, and Richard knew that the Harrison pipe organ had been restored the year before, so it was in perfect condition. So, who were we going to get to play this thing? You have to have the person who knows it play it, because each organ is different. I’d never met Roger nor heard him play, but I was hoping that a man who I imagined just played hymns on Sundays could be persuaded to get into this adventure.

We get there, meet Roger, and he says, “I had a look at the music.” You know that great British understatement that happens when you present somebody with unbelievable technical difficulties? They have a way of going, “Well, let’s just have a go.” He climbed up to the organ loft and just started to unleash the thing. I’ve never asked him, but I have a feeling Roger might have a bit of the heart of a prog rocker in him!

You knew he was the guy right then?

So I said to him, “I wrote [the score] using Hauptwerk and the Salisbury Cathedral organ model,” and he goes, “Oh yeah, I have that at home. I’m very familiar with it.” It was actually then that I instantly knew we were going to be all right. Number one, I wasn’t talking to a Luddite. Number two, it was reassuring to just play him my demos in the headphones and hear him go, “I know exactly what stops you’re using. I don’t have the same pipes, but here it is.” Because of course each pipe organ is different.

You can’t just pull up the same patch . . .

Right. It’s not mass produced. In fact, I think that’s the sort of thing that goes through this whole movie. Everything was handmade. We hardly used any CG [computer graphics]. There are a lot of miniature shots, we didn’t use green screen or blue screen. We’d just project the image, and let the actors inhabit that world,which was great for them. They didn’t have to imagine what was behind them or what planet they were on. That was the sort of ethos of everything we were doing. That’s why using valve synthesizers seemed to be perfect. Using things which were custom-built by Chas Smith were perfect. The Temple Church organ was a one-off. Everything was a one-off.

Another thing I loved about the organ was that there was a time when people invested an enormous amount of effort and ingenuity in building these devices, which were strictly there to make beautiful music. What a concept, right? Somebody dedicating their life to serving artists, serving art, serving composers.

The money to do so would have had to come from the Church, or a Medici-like patron.

Absolutely. Welcome to the Church of Hollywood. Our times have changed dramatically, whereby you don’t get the Church or royal houses to go and commission art anymore. Everybody loves to go on about how Hollywood is repeating itself, how it’s just some factory. But I’m really happy that this factory is one of the few places―to me the last place on earth―that commissions orchestral music and live musicians on a daily basis. I mean, there are so many productions being done. And nobody bats an eyelid when you say I want to go and write something for a symphony orchestra―or a pipe organ.

Do you see any area of musical instruments today that might follow the ethos of the pipe organ?

I think it’s happening more and more. I mean, if you look at the whole Eurorack and modular scene, all these little companies, all these people being ingenious and spending their time building incredible modules. I don’t know if it’s true, but I think there’s more innovation and more people building modular systems than ever before.

At the same time, I have all these beautiful modular systems I basically picked up for nothing in the ’80 and early ’90s. Because everybody was going, forget about all that stuff. It’s all going to be digital. But it’s like the difference between a violin and a trumpet. They’re autonomous instruments in their own right. So that sort of ’80s thinking that we were going to exclude everything in favor of the DX7 seemed crazy to me.

On the other hand, I look at a lot of the gear forums, and it just drives me crazy, because there are all these amazing tools and instruments out there, and they’re so much more affordable than they were in the ’70s and ’80s. When I bought my first Minimoog, it was literally a choice between the Minimoog or a car. I picked the right thing. Now, these things are so advanced, and wonderful, and complicated, and almost nobody reads the manual. It drives me crazy.

Even as the tools have gotten better and more affordable, it has become harder than ever to make a living as a musician. Any thoughts on this problem?

Well, the whole idea that music is something you give away or download for free is just ridiculous to me. Somehow, people don’t understand that music has an intrinsic value, that the seconds of a musician’s life are ticking away just like everybody else’s. And he or she is creating something that he should be paid for and be able to sustain a decent life with. The people who really should be supporting music―the record companies―can’t do it any more. So the only place left really that supports any sort of grand-scale experimentation is Hollywood.

On that note, what would you say to someone who looks at your career and aspires to make a living as a musician the way you do?

All I do is, first thing I think about in the morning is music, last thing I think about at night is music. The part in between? Making music.

I actually did this experiment a few years ago. I said, “Okay, we’re going to close the studio down from the 20th of December until the second of January. Everybody go on holiday.” Christmas day, I was at home and hit speed dial, and instantly the phone was answered in the studio, and everybody there was going, “Yeah, but we just had this idea, and we just wanted to try this thing out” and blah, blah, blah. It just made me laugh. Because their greatest Christmas gift was to just go and make music. We do this because we love this. And to me, it’s a life really well lived.

Piloting the Interstellar Organ

Roger Sayer is musical director and organist at Temple Church in London, where Interstellar’s score was recorded. That may sound like an improbable path to being the primary musician on the score of a major science fiction film, but as Hans Zimmer told us, he was absolutely the right man for the job. 

Describe the process of interpreting Hans’ cues for the Temple Church pipe organ.

I didn’t really see any music until the week before it was all to be recorded. He was very specific on the score and the sounds that he wanted, which he had obviously selected from [pipe organ plug-in] Hauptwerk. When he arrived, he played some of his sampled music. He would play a section from the score and say, “Right, what can you do?” and I would come up with something similar.

How much of your own sensibility as a classical organist were you able to bring to the score?

[Hans] was very good at allowing creativity. Obviously within a framework, because rhythmically, the music had to be put together with the other instruments, so I was playing to a click. So the freedom of expression was really with sound, but also within the beat―allowing a bit more ebb and flow than you can get from a computer. I mean, there seemed to be little point in playing it live if they weren’t going to put the human emotion into it, and that’s exactly what he wanted

Tell us about the organ itself.

We have 3,828 pipes. It was built for a Scottish estate in 1927. But once the Temple organ here got destroyed in the war, the organist at the time found this organ in the Scottish residence and brought it here. With 382 stops, we have a lot of choice. Some of the pipes are as short as that of a pencil, while some are 32 feet in length. The bass is one of the most exciting aspects of this organ. We have not just one 32-foot rank of pipes, but three, which obviously gives it a lot of welly. Other pipes are very quiet and just purr and shake the building gently. Of course, you get to hear a lot of that in the film―this sort of shuddering that doesn’t get very loud.

How do you feel about the unusual role the pipe organ plays in Interstellar?

I think it’s such a breath of fresh air. It gets away from this idea that the organ is something that just plays hymns and leads the congregation. Of course it does do that, but as you and I know, the organ, particularly when it’s in a building with fine acoustics, can capture almost every emotion possible. To put it bluntly, it’s an orchestra in a box. It has all colors you need from an orchestra. And it’s the sort of instrument that people have the wrong idea about. Here, we’re showing that it can live and breathe in the 21st century. It can tell a story; you don’t need words.

Cameron Carpenter has a similar mission, but plays a digital touring organ for consistency and reliability. Virgil Fox once did as well. Can digital instruments help popularize the organ again?

I’d be more inclined to say they can popularize the repertoire. If you’re in a place where you can’t perform good repertoire simply because the organ just isn’t good enough―and organ repertoire is huge, second only to piano and song―then you’ve got no choice. So there’s a very good reason for doing what he’s doing. But I think there’s a danger people start to accept that as what the organ is. It’s not. The organ is the pipes. You can play more musically, because it’s living and breathing with air.

The point is taken up by Hans. Why did he come all the way from L.A. to London, when he could have made it all digital himself? Because he wanted a human being playing an instrument that actually breathed. Interstellar is a wonderful thing to have been a part of, and I’m proud to have been associated with it.