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Returning Lion King Composer Hans Zimmer Was Warned: Don't Mess This Up

The Oscar winner tells Rotten Tomatoes what brought him back to the Pride Lands, what's changed about his most famous score, and the pressure not to screw up a classic.

by | July 19, 2019 | Comments

Hans Zimmer is one of just a handful of working movie music composers who can genuinely be called a household name. And no wonder: German-born Zimmer created the memorable scores for movies like GladiatorThe Dark Knight, and – “Bwoaaaah!” – Inception. Perhaps most famously, he composed the music for Disney’s The Lion King, which was the first animated feature he had worked on (he would go on to compose scores for The Prince of EgyptMadagascar, and more). Working closely with Lebo M., the South African artist whose voice many will know from the The Lion King‘s iconic opening chant, Zimmer created music for the Disney classic that terrified us as wildebeest stampeded through a canyon and moved us as a young lion stared at his own reflection and discovered a king staring back at him. It also nabbed him his first, and so far only, Academy Award. Zimmer recently returned to the story of Simba, Mufasa, Nala, and the rest of the Pride Lands’ characters for Jon Favreau’s new take on The Lion King. Here Zimmer reveals what drew him back to the story, why he hesitated at first, and what’s changed in the 25 years since the animated film’s release.

Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Someone I saw this movie with turned to me at the beginning and said, “If I don’t cry during the stampede, it will mean Hans hasn’t done his job.” When I saw her at the end, she was bawling. So, I wanted to know how did you approach that particular scene the second time around?

Hans Zimmer: Cautiously. If you think that was a dangerous comment, my oldest daughter who I’d written the original movie’s [music] for in the first place 25 years ago, she was still saying to me, “Dad, you better not make a mess of this one.” All the themes that I wrote all those years ago – I didn’t know how to do animation [at the time] – so all the themes are slightly too epic and slightly too big, and they needed that little bit more space and that little bit more breath to really resonate. I mean, especially the stampede and its aftermath, I can’t even put into words, you know, the benefit from having more space. More breathing room. More chance to battle. More chance to focus on the protagonist. More chance to focusing on the story.

Lion King
(Photo by ©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Rotten Tomatoes: You said that your daughter said, “Don’t make of a mess of it.” Did you yourself have any personal hesitation about coming back to a project that you haven’t worked on for a very long time and that was so beloved – and was kind of perfect already?

Zimmer: Well, “kind of perfect,” I never think about things like that. But “loved,” yes. I had a very short conversation with Jon [Favreau], which basically went him saying, “Come down, let me show you something.” And that was 100 percent committing. I went down. He put me in a black room, showed me [footage of the film’s opening]. It completely and utterly surprised me and moved me, even though I sort of knew what to expect. And we look at it differently than we looked at it 25 years ago. I mean, we truly do. I’ve spent now quite a bit of time working with Sir David Attenborough. So partly, I was looking at it from the sense of where’s the world heading? It felt like I was on a slightly different mission. It was, even if the story is the same, the world has changed, so the meaning of the story has changed.

Rotten Tomatoes: In terms of what was practically involved with producing the score, how did you approach it differently from the first time?

Zimmer: In the last 30 years… Usually, I never leave a dark windowless room, but eventually I did, and eventually I got onto a stage, and eventually I – despite stage fright – I started playing things live. And I did Lion King at the Coachella festival, and performing it, and watching the reaction of an audience and performing it, it was like these amazing musicians that I now have access to, made me realize that this isn’t a normal film score. We can do this as a performance. In a normal film score, the orchestra or the players never know why they are playing the notes, because they don’t know the story. Everybody knew the story [this time]. So I managed to get a commitment that was just extraordinary, and the performance, and I made it all about the performance. I think for a movie that relies that much on technology, there’s a sense of improvisation and a sense of performance in this movie, far more than the original one. And a sense of humanity in the story. Everything is slightly paradox, but I think that’s what gives it its great strength.

Hans Zimmer
(Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection)

Rotten Tomatoes: And so you performed everything on the score live with an orchestra?

Zimmer: Yeah. I mean, I said to Jon and everybody at Disney, “Can I do this? Can I try this experiment?” You know, I had 102 people in the room. “We’re just going to rehearse. We’re just really going to get it under our fingers, and then we’re just going to go and do the whole movie for a couple of days. And don’t worry about wrong notes. Next time around, we’ll probably figure it out.” It truly was exciting. And that’s what I was trying to do, is get the authenticity of really hearing the musicians.

Rotten Tomatoes: When you originally wrote the music for the stampede scene, the track “To Die For” in the original and new score, were you drawing from compositions or scores that you had heard before? What inspired the musical moment there?

Zimmer: Not really. I mean, I’ll tell you what I did draw from. It’s just my childhood memories of listening to Mozart. It’s like I was always slightly worried about this idea that as a German, you’re sort of pillaging the culture of Africa. So one of the things I did on the first one, and I’ve before with Lebo M., it’s like I kept saying, “I’m a German, so I’m going to write with a German accent, just the way we’re speaking now. And let me go and take this into Africa and give it to Africa, and let them just respond with their culture, and see what happens where the two cultures collide, if another new thing can come out of it.” So I think that’s really part of the strength of the score.

The Lion King
(Photo by © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Rotten Tomatoes: What was it like to work with Lebo M. again on the score? Had you worked together much in the intervening years?

Zimmer: Yes. We had worked on a couple of movies nobody went to see (, and we did touring together. Africa’s always been important to this world, and at the same time, it’s like it needs more respect. It needs more love. And Lebo’s been touring with me, so we have been doing Lion King, bits and pieces of it live. Yes, we’ve been comrades in arms for a long time, you know? And he’s been sort of the guardian of the musical. Because he’s really great at casting this thing. That sort of stuff. He’s been looking after our legacy in a much more profound way than I have.

So, your daughter: Has she seen the film? Did she say whether you screwed it up?

Zimmer: No, but there is something which has puzzled everybody at Disney. They let me have a lot of tickets for the London premiere, and I sent them all back, and I said, “I only want two tickets, because I want it to be a father-daughter date.  I hope she’s still going to be speaking to me afterwards.” Simple as that. But it’s just going to be the two of us.

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The Lion King is in theaters July 19. 

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