Hans Zimmer On Scoring 'Planet Earth' — Plus, His Hero And His Greatest Fear

"I write every day, even if it’s a piece of complete garbage," the famed composer said.
Hans Zimmer scored the new version of "Planet Earth" alongside collaborator Jacob Shea.
Hans Zimmer scored the new version of "Planet Earth" alongside collaborator Jacob Shea.
Jim Dyson via Getty Images

Not a day goes by that Hans Zimmer doesn’t write music. The prolific composer, who’s scored countless films ranging from “The Lion King” to “Dunkirk,” rarely, if ever, takes a break.

One of his latest musical creations is for the new BBC America special called Planet Earth: A Celebration.” Alongside his frequent collaborator Jacob Shea, Zimmer composed a new score for the program, and did so amid the coronavirus pandemic with a socially distant U.K. orchestra featuring British rapper Dave on the grand piano.

The nature documentary, which re-airs on Saturday as part of Wonderstruck, highlights eight sequences from the Emmy-winning “Planet Earth II” and “Blue Planet II.” It also features new narration by Sir David Attenborough appearing alongside clips of racer snakes and bottlenose dolphins and rare footage of the Himalayan snow leopard.

HuffPost recently caught up with Zimmer and Shea to talk about the special and also spoke with Zimmer about his career and what makes him tick.

Can you talk about your approach in arranging and rearranging the scores for the new “Planet Earth”?

Jacob Shea: There are a lot of themes that are just wholesale and brought over from the previous two series. It was really an opportunity to relook at things, and we had this wonderful opportunity to record with the BBC Orchestra.

Hans Zimmer: In this time of isolation and in this time of COVID, what makes music such a wonderful thing is all of us playing together, playing together in the same room, playing together on the same stage. The word “play” is important, and the word “together” is really important, and somehow these things aren’t quite possible at the moment. To still prove that we can make music, we can give you an experience. And at the same time, we are showing you something, which is really vital to understand at the moment, which is we are just part of some ecological system that at this very moment, at times, this virus, which after all is part of that ecological system, has basically stopped us in our tracks. So as beautiful as this thing is, you should think of it as daunting as well.

Zimmer and Shea recorded the new music with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
Zimmer and Shea recorded the new music with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
BBC America

With music being such a big part of the series, what do you hope the audience takes away as they’re watching?

Shea: Hans mentioned connection today, and I thought that is really the underpinning of all the effort is to make you realize that all these creatures we’re sharing the planet with are our neighbors. And if we are able to make that leap and have a window into viewing their existence and to connect with that in a very fundamental way.

Zimmer: We’ve all done space movies. We seem to know more about space than the tadpoles behind your house. I love the mystery, I know that we live on this tiny dot in the middle of a universe, which is in the middle of another universe. And we should really be in awe of it and we should really figure out what our place is with it. And I think that is probably what David Attenborough and the whole team has successfully done ― figure out how we integrate as opposed to how we are set apart.

Did you face any challenges throughout the process?

Zimmer: Every composer will tell you it’s been fun. It’s been great. It’s been wonderful, but it’s a little bit like having an operation. You don’t quite remember the pain and everything once you’re done. There are always moments or days, or weeks or whatever, where you’re just sitting there and you haven’t had any sleep or you haven’t seen anybody. And you don’t want to talk to your friends because you’re knocking your head against the wall, trying to come up with something that is worthy of the work that was done before you, that is worthy of what the filmmakers have made you and the messages David Attenborough has given you.

A scene from "Planet Earth: A Celebration," for which Zimmer and Shea wrote the score.
A scene from "Planet Earth: A Celebration," for which Zimmer and Shea wrote the score.
BBC America

Hans, you’ve scored for so many films. What keeps you motivated to keep going, continue iterating and challenge yourself?

Zimmer: It’s like somebody will come along and they have an idea and they talk to you about the idea and you go, “No, I am absolutely not interested. I’m completely burned out. I need a holiday.” And then they show you one thing, or a shot, or they show you a picture, and suddenly you’re flooded with music and thoughts and ideas and it becomes an irresistible proposition that you have to go on this journey, this adventure, and you have to go and figure it out. And after, you say, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, I can’t do it.” Then you go, “But I have an idea.” And as soon as you say, “I have an idea,” you’re caught and you have to do it. And then two weeks in, while in complete and utter misery of the blank page that idea keeps you alive somehow. God, it beats working for a living.

Zimmer has worked on music for such films as "Thelma & Louise," "As Good As It Gets," "Batman Begins" and "Inception," among many others.
Zimmer has worked on music for such films as "Thelma & Louise," "As Good As It Gets," "Batman Begins" and "Inception," among many others.
Zoe Zimmer

Hans, is there still a piece of music you’ve written that you return to and actually want to listen to?

Zimmer: No. But I’ve been asked was it difficult to go back to this material, and I just have to laugh because the reason I wanted to do the remake of “The Lion King” was so infantile, so stupid and so juvenile. In the original “Lion King” there’s a chord that I can’t stand. Nobody else cared. But I just wanted to fix it. I didn’t care about anything else. I just wanted to fix this one thing.

We talked a little bit about the inspiration. We just lost one of the greatest composers, Ennio Morricone. Hans, can you talk about what he meant to you?

Zimmer: My hero, my hero. The reason I got into film music. The first movie I saw, the first soundtrack I saw was “Once Upon a Time in the West.” And I met Ennio a few times. I mean, we actually became, I wouldn’t say friends because he was always the teacher and I was always the pupil. ... He had enormous discipline and knowledge. We’re all beginners when it comes to writing the amount of music that we do. And then at the same time, there’s an interesting lesson there as well, because not all the hundreds of movies he worked on were masterpiece movies, but the music was always good. And I think that’s a very important message for any composer, whatever you’re working on. Whether it’s a nature program, a drama one or some gangster [film]. Write great music. And because we have the secret language, nobody can stop us from writing great music. The only people that will stop us are ourselves.

What’s the biggest misconception about the music you create or how it’s created? What do you think that people don’t know about what you, what you both do?

Shea: When we’re writing the stuff, we’re performing a facsimile of a real orchestra, kind of one line at a time. I was a terrible pianist as a child and I still am terrible, but I’ve become a lot better at keyboards because composing for the film has forced me to reckon with all the 88 keys on a daily basis. So much of performance is working every day.

Zimmer: The working every day ― I’m glad that you mentioned that, Jacob, because I think that is part of it.

Last night I had to get to sleep early because I had to get up early. But no, I got up in the middle of the night and went downstairs. There was just a little change in this tune I was writing that I knew I had to do. And then the kids come out and say, “God, can you please be quiet? I’m trying to go to sleep. I need to go to school.”

People don’t understand that, for instance, running a marathon means you have to run every day. And if you don’t run for a few months, I bet you can’t run a marathon. And the same with music. You stay in training all the time, you have to write every day. I write every day, even if it’s a piece of complete garbage. You have to write something every day to just keep that muscle going. Because the greatest fear I always had was I don’t know where the music comes from. So what if somebody turns off the music? What if that suddenly disappeared? Because I am truly unemployable in any other way because I don’t want to do anything else.

“Planet Earth: A Celebration” is airing on BBC America, AMC, IFC and SundanceTV. It can also be streamed now for free on BBCAmerica.com.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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