The greatest action sequence ever filmed according to Hans Zimmer? It’s in an episode of Frozen Planet II, a six-part documentary series that explores the wildlife found in the world’s coldest regions that he composed the soundtrack ‘Take Me Back Home’ for.
The musical legend tells us about his work for this new BBC documentary, what he considers iconic soundtracks, why his pieces aren't on the list and how he has “only just started” though he recently turned 65.
He wrote the soundtrack of Frozen Planet II for “all of us”.
“We are now at a point in the history of the planet where drama plays out constantly and consistently in nature. When we started working on the show four-and-a-half years ago, we were already seeing a shift in climate change and scientists were already telling us to pay attention to these things. As a composer, it was very important to write the music for this show for all of us—the planet and the creatures on the planet.”
The voice of Sir David Attenborough, who narrates the series, is the “lead instrument”.
“Sir David Attenborough’s voice is the lead instrument—it is the most musical instrument in the orchestra. What he has to say is of vast importance and I had to be absolutely sure that I support his message without getting in the way. In addition, having worked with BBC Wildlife for quite a few years, I’ve noticed that what happens every time is that the images get jaw-droppingly better. I realised I have to get better because their work is so extraordinary and brilliant. Part of what is so great about doing this show is the consistent challenge in the journey: you think you know what you’re going to see, but then it surprises you and shows you things right in your neighbourhood that you didn't know existed.”
Nature projects are “just a little bit more important”.
“I have never come across anybody—and I've worked with all sorts of people—who didn't give their all for these projects. You make a phone call and people will come. Camila Cabello [whom he collaborated with for the series’ soundtrack ‘Take Me Back Home’] has a busy schedule but she was working round the clock, like late at night and on weekends. That’s what you want. These projects unify all of us in the sense that they are just a little bit more important than your regular TV series or film.”
To him, the greatest action sequence ever filmed is in an episode of the series featuring baby iguanas and snakes.
“It’s always about evoking emotion and tension, and when making a documentary, none of us know in the beginning what the story is going to be. There is no script. Accidents happen. There is an episode with the little iguanas and the snakes that I think is the greatest action sequence ever filmed. I remember talking to the filmmakers: they didn't know that these snakes existed before that and thought they were just going to get some footage of baby iguanas going into the ocean. It turned out to be this extraordinary thing. You cannot be prepared for what will be presented to you and sometimes you just hang on for your dear life.”
Gladiator was released more than 20 years ago but he still wants to "fix something".
“I can think of iconic soundtracks, but I can only speak about this by never ever including my own. I just can't do that. It’s been 20 years or so since we did Gladiator and I still want to fix something. I was involved in the remake of The Lion King partly because there were some notes that were wrong in the first one. To me, iconic soundtracks can stand on their own two feet and support a story in a great way. Lawrence of Arabia had an iconic soundtrack. Anything by Ennio Morricone is an iconic soundtrack. He was just that good.”
Growing up “with a piano and no TV” allowed him to cultivate his musical talent even though he had no formal training.
“It’s the truth. My best friend was music. It doesn't even matter why I didn't have formal training because as my career progressed, I constantly had formal training: I’d ask a cellist, ‘I have this line in my head. What’s the best way to write it? How would you do it?’ I'm surrounded by people who have had formal training and I found out it can get—not redundant—but in the way of things. This is especially so when you want to find your voice and your own way of doing things. I never got a job because I did or didn't have formal training.”
The soundtrack of his life would comprise a medley of genres, including dance music.
“I don’t listen to music much because I can’t listen to music when I'm writing and I’m writing most of the time. It’s very difficult to switch off—there's a built-in radio station in my head that never stops. The soundtrack of my life would be noisy, crazy and very experimental. It would probably be electronic-psychedelic-country-western-blues with classical overtones all together. And let’s not forget some really good dance music.”
Yes, he has favourite composers.
“It changes. It goes from Bach, Beethoven and Mozart to Ryuichi Sakamoto and Ennio Morricone. It changes constantly because they’re all brilliant and when I hear a little something, I go, ‘Oh, I forgot all about this. I love this piece.’ And in that moment it becomes my favourite piece of all.”
He may be 65 but it is “only the beginning” for him.
“Somebody asked me a while back, ‘You’re nearly 65 now. When are you going to slow down?’ I said, ‘Hang on. I only just started. This is only the beginning.’ I have all this stuff I want to write. I feel I haven’t written my favourite score yet. The reason I'm still doing what I'm doing is because I haven't done it yet. The ambition and hope is always there. I’ll give you an example: even after we’d finished Dune, I wrote another hour of music afterwards just because I had all these ideas left that needed an outlet.”
During one of his live shows, he showed the audience a video of a Ukranian pianist playing ‘Time’ (an Inception soundtrack) even when the air raid sirens were blaring because he wanted them to “be aware of the luxury of courage”.
“My daughter showed me the video. I projected it on the screen and when it stopped I said, ‘I just want you to remember what you saw and realise how different the circumstances are for you to hear this piece here.’ I wanted to make them very aware of the luxury of having the courage to play while the air raids were ringing and bombs were dropping. I was in either Berlin or Hamburg, which isn't that far from where this was happening. I eventually learnt the pianist’s name, Alex, and we started corresponding because he found out I played his video at the concert. This brings me back to Frozen Planet and the work we've been doing with Sir David Attenborough, which is beautiful, entertaining and at the same time, terrifying in the sense that we could lose all of this. We could be that pianist with the air raids going off any second now.”
The next generation will create “magic” if given a chance.
“The people I’ve been working with are 24, 25 and there are a lot of women—there is a lot of diversity. These are people I found by accident, like on TikTok or YouTube. For instance, the guitarist in my band is a man called Guthrie Govan whom I consider maybe the best guitarist in the world. I wrote to him on Facebook and, after a few months, he replied saying ‘I know you're just a 14-year-old superfan. You’re not Hans Zimmer.’ I had to make him believe it was me. What do I think of the talents of the younger generation? If they’re given a chance, they will create magic. They will have a voice and will do extraordinary things. One of the things I’m so incredibly grateful to the BBC for is that they’re willing to take this chance with me to help further the cause and careers of these young people.”
Frozen Planet II premiered last month and screens every Sunday at 8pm on StarHub channel 407, Singtel channel 203 and BBC Player. This article was first published in the October 2022 issue of Esquire Singapore.