Director Christopher Nolan turned to a familiar collaborator for the music of “Inception,” this weekend’s box office leader: It was Hans Zimmer, who brought the taut, dooming minimalist string arrangements that marked the sound of Nolan’s two Batman films to this new dream-thief epic. But Zimmer looked beyond Nolan’s coolly precise and complex cinematic visions when he actually got down to work.
For Zimmer, the soul of the film can be directly traced to famed French balladeer Édith Piaf. The multidimensional dream-within-a-dream action heist film is an elaborate puzzle, with a main character, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) haunted by a past where dreams were made real and reality turned into nightmare. But, speaking the day after a special performance at the Hollywood premiere of the film, Zimmer said the role of the score was to amplify a less-discussed aspect of Nolan’s tense film: romance.
“I’m nearly resentful of the way people are describing this music as being smart and intellectual,” Zimmer said. “What I was writing was nostalgia and sadness. This character carries this sadness all the time that he cannot express. He’s been telling us about it all along, but no one knows how to listen. I think the job that Johnny and I had to do was write the heart of this thing.”
At that premiere performance, Zimmer was joined on stage by Johnny Marr, the guitarist from The Smiths, who brought his own affinity for dark emotion to the “Inception” score. Marr, playing notes written by Zimmer, spent four 12-hour days contributing to the score. Utilizing a 12-string guitar, Marr’s repetitive, simple and expatiated melancholic tones are woven into Zimmer’s orchestral flourishes, yet they ultimately become attached to DiCaprio’s character. Once past the trailer on the official “Inception” website, it’s Marr’s spooked accents that one first hears.
“I kept coming up with this phrase ‘churned-up,’ ” Marr said, describing the sound he wanted to capture. “You’ve got this character who all the way through the film has this underlying turmoil. It’s not necessarily upset, but he plays that so well. That’s a big part of the story. There’s all this attention being given to the environment, the concept and the heist, but underneath is a story about a person who is in utter torment.”
Nolan’s script, Zimmer said, offered clues as to how the musicians should dig beneath the surface of the characters. The charged symphonic brass of Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” was targeted for use by Nolan yet almost dropped from the film when Marion Cotillard, who starred as Piaf in 2007 film “La Vie en rose,” was cast as Cobb’s wife, Mal. Zimmer, however, said he talked Nolan into keeping the song in the film, arguing that audiences would not be distracted by the connection. Pieces of Piaf’s interpretation of the song were stretched, manipulated and woven into Zimmer’s score.
“The version we had listened to sounded like it had been recorded in the ‘40s in this smokey Parisian cabaret,” said Zimmer of the Piaf song. “There was romantic danger. Once we found the recording, we found it was a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, and had actually been recorded in the ‘60s. That was actually disappointing. We spent a lot of time to get it back to the way it was the first time we heard it.”
With nearly two hours of music at its almost 150-minute run time, a significant portion of Zimmer’s score is a tense mix of bellowing, foghorn-inspired brass notes and a striking string section, much of it stitched together with murky electronic atmospheres or heavily layered schizophrenic rhythms. As the film unravels, and becomes an exploration of the unconscious, there are moments when Piaf’s vocals are used amidst a rush of violins.
“You realize that the elements that we’ve extracted from the Piaf song are the way you get from one dream level to the next,” Zimmer said, offering an explanation that may only make sense to those who have seen the film.
Yet the French chanteuse was only one part of Zimmer’s attempts to get at the emotional core of “Inception.” The other piece was Marr. Zimmer insists there would have been no guitar in the “Inception” score if Nolan had nixed the idea of using Marr.
“I was writing this tune, and I kept hearing this sound,” Zimmer said. “It took me three of four days before I realized, ‘This is Johnny Marr. It’s singularly him.’ If it not’s him, it was not going to be in the movie.
“Instrumentalists aren’t interchangeable,” Zimmer continued. “I’m thinking about Jacqueline du Pre playing Elgar Celleo Concerto. There are many great performances, but her performance it that performance. I said to Chris, ‘What about Johnny Marr?’ I was going to ditch it if it wasn’t going to be Johnny.”
Though Marr would not be writing original material for “Inception,” he said he didn’t hesitate at Zimmer’s invitation. The technical aspect of finding a certain sound and feel was challenge enough, said Marr. He played with Zimmer’s demos, adding distortion to the more action-centric guitar parts.
“One of the things I really enjoy is guitar sounds,” Marr said. “You take things for granted when you’re younger, but as I’ve gotten older that’s what I’ve identified as what I really enjoying doing — matching the right thing with the right emotion. The guitar parts that Hans wrote are beautiful, but they’re not pretty.”
In an unconventional summer blockbuster with an ambiguous ending, and a film that isn’t easy to summarize without spoiling, Zimmer said he would stop himself from “over-intellectualizing” when describing the role of “Inception’s” music.
“It’s about adding a sense of loss and mystery, and a sense of emotional belonging in a time that no longer exists,” he said. Yet don’t think it’s a wistful score, as plenty of the film’s sounds are more ominous than not. “The good ol’ days,” added Zimmer, “are never as good as you think.”
RECENT AND RELATED
MINISTRY OF GOSSIP: The ‘Inception’ premiere in Hollywood
Top photo: Hans Zimmer, left, and guitarist Johnny Marr, right, at the after party for the Hollywood premiere of “Inception.” (Peter “Oso” Snell / Warner Bros.) Second, Zimmer (handout art); third, ascene from “Inception” (Warner Bros.), Fourth, Christopher Nolan and Zimmer at a “Batman Begins” event in 2005. (WireImage). Fifth, Edith Piaf (Los Angeles Times archives). Bottom, Christopher Nolan at the Hero Complex Film Festival (Los Angeles Times).
Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.