12 YEARS A SLAVE
Hans Zimmer on the Score
For the score of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer
attuned himself to the natural world that surrounds Solomon Northup in the bayous and fields of
Louisiana. "This is a world full of nature, full of cicadas and water, and a complete contrast to the city
where Solomon always lived. The sounds of the film reflect the world he is thrown into," Zimmer
elucidates. "Sound is so important throughout, and I worked very much in sync with the sound
Steve McQueen always had an intuition that Zimmer was the right man for the project.
Although the composer has become best known for his many popular, award-winning scores for action
and animated blockbusters, Zimmer made his first breakthrough with Chris Menges' apartheid film A
WORLD APART, and went on to score the Oscar-winning DRIVING MISS DAISY, RAIN MAN
and THELMA AND LOUISE, and is equally attuned to strong drama.
The two began with long conversations. "We talked for hours before a finger was put on the
piano," says McQueen. "It was quite a relief because I could talk about ideas with him, and from those
ideas, emerged the music. Hans created something that is both simple and beautifully complex. I love
that his score has modesty to it but is also big, emotional and sensitive. His music perfumes the film."
As he began thinking about the music, Zimmer focused as much on Northup's inner
experiences as on the period. "I felt it was most important to keep the timelessness of the story alive,
yet to never sentimentalize it," he says. "Often, my work is based on some radical sound, on inventing
new electronics and things like this; but on this movie, I thought it was important to use more
traditional instruments. The whole thing is based on strings, woodwinds and a bit of percussion here
and there. It's not tied to any one particular culture -- a more humanistic score is what I was after."
Zimmer created a theme for Solomon that, like the character, keeps evolving throughout the
film. "The theme runs all the way through the movie, and everything that happens in one way or the
other is felt, seen, perceived by Solomon and his theme," he says. "It takes on different colors and
different moods, just as he does. And, like the story, the score has a cyclical nature."
Most of all, Zimmer wanted to stay in tune with the film's intimate humanity. "What I think
Steve and all the actors managed to do in 12 YEARS A SLAVE is to figure out a way of telling a vast
story in a humble way," he concludes. "I use 'humble' as the greatest compliment I can give, because
the humility of this film is what makes it so personal. The quieter the story gets, the more you lean in
to be part of it."
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