‘We fight like cats and dogs but in the best, the most productive way’: Christopher Nolan speaks exclusively about his extraordinary partnership with composer Hans Zimmer

18 July 2017, 16:58 | Updated: 24 July 2017, 09:44

"It’s an extraordinary partnership and a wonderful creative collaboration, but we do things and we dive into things fully, and when you do that, passions run high." Christopher Nolan on his partnership with Hans Zimmer.

Saturday Night at the Movies presenter Andrew Collins recently sat down with award-winning director Christopher Nolan to talk about his highly anticipated latest film Dunkirk and his collaborations with world-renowned film composer Hans Zimmer. Here are some of the highlights:


How early on did you and the composer Hans Zimmer sit down to talk about the music for Dunkirk?
Very early on. I showed him a script and I explained to him that I’d written the script according to a musical phenomenon called The Shepherd Tone which I’d first used with David Julyan in the score for The Prestige. It’s a sort of audio illusion whereby you’re going up the scale and by playing the incoming low notes louder than the outgoing high notes. Done correctly, you create this illusion of a continuing rise in pitch that never goes out of range. 

In the screenplay for Dunkirk I wanted to write a script where I did the same thing narratively. So there are three storylines – land, sea and air broadly speaking – braided together, and I tried to braid them together according to the principles of the shepherd tone, to achieve a continuing rise in intensity over the course of the film.

Talking to Hans about it, I explained I was looking for a rhythmic component to that, and a musical analogy for that, to reinforce that and to continually drive the suspense of the story. I had made a recording of a pocket watch I own, that has a particularly insistent ticking, and I gave that to Hans and asked him to start working with that as a template. The script is about half the length of my usual scripts, and that’s because we’re trying not to tell the story through words, we’re trying to create suspense with image, sound and music.

It’s the shortest film you’ve done for a long time, which suggests a purity of construction, and there’s also a purity in the music…
That was the word I used with Hans from the beginning. I know he felt during the process like he had his hands tied behind his back at various points! I kept saying ‘I don’t want any emotion in the music’ because Dunkirk is freighted with emotion. The reason there’s so little dialogue in the film is I didn’t want to sentimentalise or be over-theatrical in the telling of the story. It doesn’t require it. And so similarly with the music, it’s all about suspense, and you want to fight against the usual theatrics in the screenwriting and in the writing of the score as well.

Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ appears in the score. Is that a more literal use of music to create emotion?
It is, and it was a dangerous idea. I called Hans and I said ‘Nimrod’, and to my relief he didn’t think it was a terrible idea. It was a piece of music he knew very well and had quite an obsession with.

If you watch the film carefully, ‘Nimrod’ is present in almost everything, every musical motif throughout the entire film in some form or another. Very heavily disguised, very heavily re-worked and re-contextualised, but there’s a preparation going on for the audience’s ear, to accept the theme when it becomes recognisable.

Hans once told me – and I think he got this from Ridley Scott – that sentimentality is unearned emotion. It was very important with the emotion at the end of this story that it felt earned, narratively and musically, and that ‘Nimrod’ is not arbitrarily put at the end of the film. We really wanted to earn it and feel that we’d earned the right to use it.

Someone who hasn’t seen Dunkirk might be surprised by some of the sounds that are being used in a war film…
It’s all about suspense, it’s all about time, and it’s about humanity, so in a very banal and literal sense, it’s about ticking clocks and heartbeats, and the rustle of gear and breath and movement, and all of these tactile sounds. A lot of this work is done in sound effects, and a lot of it is done in music. We’ve always had an interesting crossover between Richard King my sound designer and what he’s doing with the effects, and what Hans is doing with the music. It’s something we’ve explored on previous films but we’ve never really pushed it as far as we did on this one.

You’ve worked with Hans Zimmer on many of your films and yours is one of the great director/composer partnerships – in the same vein as Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. But while that relationship was fractious, yours feels very harmonious.
I think you’re getting a very rose-tinted picture! We fight like cats and dogs but in the best, the most productive way. We love each other, with everything that comes with that. We fight like brothers at times and we love like brothers. 

It’s an extraordinary partnership and a wonderful creative collaboration, but we do things and dive into things fully. And when you do that, passions run high. Always with great respect for each other and great love for each other, but we do challenge each other, and we do fight about things. But I think in the best way possible.

Is it true that it was Hans’s idea for the young boy to sing the national anthem in The Dark Knight Rises?
Hans is an all-round creative collaborator – I remember on Batman Begins, there’s what I consider to be a great musical moment when the bats first surround Bruce Wayne. And we had a lot of trouble with a big wide shot at the end we were cutting to, trying to achieve the right grandeur, and my editor, Lee Smith, and I kept putting it on the music and saying “how do we do this, how do we hit it?” Finally Hans said “can you just have the bats fill the frame so it goes to black?” We did that and magically Hans’ music was already perfect.

That’s the kind of creative collaboration you’re looking for from the people you work with. It’s not possible for a composer to just be in their musical lane, you need somebody who’s part of the team. In the case of Dunkirk he came to the beach and absorbed and got a face full of sand and saw what we were dealing with, and that was important to his process. 


You can read more about Andrew's interview with Christopher Nolan on his blog.