The true story of Soloman Northrup, 12 Years A Slave is set before the Civil War in the US where a free black man from upstate New York is abducted and sold into slavery. For 12 years he faces cruelty by slave owners including one played by Michael Fassbender and tries to maintain his dignity and sense of self throughout.
The film’s award winning composer and music producer Hans Zimmer is best known for his scores for the likes of The Lion King, The Thin Red Line, Gladiator, The Dark Knight and Inception.
David Bedwell was lucky enough to chat with the great man himself about the 12 Years A Slave score and his career to date.
Could you tell us a bit about how you start to score a movie? Do you have a particular working process or is it different from one project to the next?
They all have one thing in common – you need to be friends with the director. Definitely be friends with the director and get on! You have to be in it for the same thing and the vision needs to coincide. They don’t need to tell you what to write but there has to be a sense of aesthetic camaraderie. It's your job to write it.
12 Years is a film that you wished all your lifetime would come along. My first reaction was that I wasn't worthy, but I had that first conversation with Steve (McQueen - director) and he told me to stop it! It is a film about humanity and you know about that! The great thing was that it was a collaborative process. Sometimes you can have a really big project, and the bigger it gets the more people get involved, but this worked really well.
What are the challenges of working on a movie like 12 Years A Slave with such a sensitive subject matter?
Once I got past it being a sensitive subject, I just thought about the one thing I can do. As a composer, you need to find your place in the movie. The visuals are doing everything they can and the dialogue is too. What’s left for me to tell? What can I add to the film in a good way?
For 12 Years, everyone on screen has to be in the period, yet the overall message is that it's about the conversation that needs to happen NOW. So for me, my approach is to be of the now, and bridge the film from that particular period to now. It had to be provocative. I’m not giving myself credit for it but the film has accomplished that. Steve endlessly reminded me that he was writing a story about 'love' and as such it’s a humanistic movie, forever trying to show you the dignity of the man. It was strange as you’re not dealing with fiction. This is a man who truly lived and if you read the book you can hear that. It was certainly an additional burden to deal with that. I think you have to tell a subliminal message through the music.
Considering the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the movie, were you surprised at the lack of Academy Award nomination for the score?
Oh no. Not at all. I told Steve at the Globes - it's really simple. Nothing matters other than the picture. No one remembers score winners. You remember Best Picture – movies like Driving Miss Daisy.. at least I hope you do! The big prize is the one that matters. It's nice as we're all a part of that and we all made the movie.
But when I think about it, I have no idea how you can judge art in a competition. They are all so different, it’s incomparable. For this film, it was a struggle to get off the ground. It started off as a little movie. Over time it was gaining recognition, but people were worried about seeing it. Winning helped to get a mainstream audience. You don't set out to make a movie for three best friends - you do want people to see it! If Steve McQueen says something, you want his voice to be heard as it’s worth hearing, and thankfully it has been.
How important is it to you to take on a variety of projects? 12 Years A Slave takes on a more subtle approach compared to something like the bombastic nature of Inception, for example.
You don't want to get bored. Over the years I have worked very hard at not being pigeon holed. Years ago, I did Driving Miss Daisy and Black Rain in the same month! It’s partly because I’m interested in many different things. They call it "playing" music and for me, the operative word is play. Give me a toy to play with and a canvas and I'll try to find a voice for it. As much as I can, I seek to invent something new and go to uncharted territory.
One of my personal favourites in recent times was Rush - a score that had such a different vibe to much of your work. What was your experience like on that movie?
I LOVED Rush. We were doing it because we loved it. We absolutely loved working in that way. It was very exciting and rock and roll. I like to think the music had the spirit of James Hunt and the precision of Lauda. You have to give credit to the actors and director. When you think of the versatility of what Ron Howard has made before, it’s quite incredible. I was truly working with the A team. So for me, it was an amazing experience and such a great time. Really a lot of fun.
Something that enjoyable must help to keep you motivated. Is that something you struggle with at all after so many years?
It's not that difficult to keep me motivated as my only enemy is time. I have more ideas than time I've got to do them. 99% of them of course are rubbish! You have to put the effort in and go and finish them before you reject them. But no, the ideas are always there and the variety I’m lucky enough to experience keeps me going.
Even though you’re already so busy, would you ever consider stepping into a TV project? More and more people from Hollywood are doing so these days.
Oh yes I would consider TV. If the BBC ever forgave me for going £250 over budget, I'd love to do some long form stuff! The great thing about TV is stretching out and developing an idea. You have the chance to embrace the characters and play with them. Television these days has become much braver and storylines have more arcs and it feels a lot more rhythmic to me.
After everything you have achieved in your career, what personal goals do you have left going forward?
Well for me it's not really about achievement. I think about it like this - I love getting up and going to the studio, working with different musicians and different styles. I truly love it. I have a roller coaster of emotions all day long. To me that's a life well lived. As long as they let me do it I'm really happy! I'm always worried it'll stop, not because of me but because of some other reason. You know how Hollywood goes. Suddenly they think you're irrelevant. My ambition is just to keep going!
12 Years A Slave is out on Blu-ray and DVD now. Portrait by Richard Yaussi.