After five installments, IGN’s Path to Dune concludes this week with our exclusive interview with Dune composer Hans Zimmer who elaborates on what a good sci-fi film score should do, capturing the right sound for director Denis Villeneuve’s film, and the work he’s already begun on Dune, Part Two.
In a recent Zoom chat with IGN, Zimmer explained the essential function any sci-fi film score must accomplish: “What science fiction scores do is they create an enormous amount of freedom for the composer to go and invent a world and to be sonically free, and to use colors that maybe haven’t existed before. Because literally, you are being asked to create a world. Between the way it looks and the way it sounds, you’re creating the world.”
Zimmer said the greatest sci-fi scores to him were, in no particular order, Blade Runner, Alien, Star Wars, and Forbidden Planet, and he also shared his admiration for the score for Gattaca. His love for John Williams’ Star Wars score wasn’t without some observations from his younger self, though.
“I remember as a kid, and this is absolutely not a criticism, it was just a childlike observation going to see Star Wars, and as those letters, those words keep floating over your head and, a galaxy far away, and you hear trumpets, and cellos, and conventional instruments, and I was going, ‘Shouldn’t those instruments be strange, and foreign, and shouldn’t they be from another galaxy as well?’ So my convention was that the one thing I wanted to keep pure [in Dune] was the human voice. Actually, I didn’t keep it pure, that is complete rubbish. I did unspeakable things to it. But to me, it felt very much that we had an opportunity to go and build a world, invent a world, and to be consistent and committed to that sort of idea. We were sort of going to go where maybe nobody had gone before.”
Zimmer said he worked very closely with the sound design team to make sure the score and the film’s overall sound complemented each other. Zimmer cited two musicians, in particular, he collaborated closely with in creating the Dune score, musician/sculptor/welder Chas Smith and Guthrie Govan, who he called “one of a handful of the greatest [living] guitarists.”
The challenge with all his collaborators, Zimmer said, was “we kept hearing things in our heads, which were impossible to describe and impossible to make.” He added the creation of the score was “just people working at the very edge of the, at the precipice of what is possible.”
Zimmer synthesized all the percussion in the score, and brought in anachronistic elements, such as bagpipes, that seemed at odds with a sci-fi score but worked for Dune. (Bagpipes are played at one during a ceremony at House Atreides, reflecting the fusion of feudalism and futurism inherent in the world of Dune.)
A lifelong fan of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel, Zimmer dug deep into his understanding of the book and what and who the story was really about in order to determine the elements that would define his score: “What there was in my head [from reading the book] was the idea which, to me, that brought back to me, that really Dune is a very cleverly disguised novel, whereby, you think that the hero is Paul Atreides when really the women are the strong characters in the novel. So the thing I always, even as a teenager, the thing I always heard was female voices. And Denis sort of steered me to our spirituality of those voices, not religious, but that there is a spirituality to the elements of this.”
With the Fremen, the Atreides family, and the Bene Gesserit, Zimmer sought “out a way of secretly connecting them and in that sort of more spiritual sort of way. So it was very important for me, for instance, to even when Lady Jessica is not on the screen, that somehow the music would still have a female voice in there somewhere even buried, that she was always with herself.”
Ultimately, though, it was Dune itself — the desert planet Arrakis — that dictated what Hans Zimmer’s Dune soundtrack would sound like: “It’s the wind that, not so much roars, that just whistles across the desert, that sings across the desert, the desert wind, which sort of is a huge inspiration and a huge way of just going, ‘Oh, hang on a second, everybody has to live within that environment … Everybody’s going to be affected by the sound of the actual planet itself.’”
Zimmer admits, though, that Dune’s score is not all about spirituality and nature. “At the same time, of course, it’s a pretty uncompromising score and it barks at you, and then it bites you. It’s not one of those dogs that just bark.” One aspect of the score that both bites and barks is the bombastic music for the villainous House Harkonnen, which the Frankfurt-born composer said “is basically just my deepest, darkest, blackest heart, and go from there. And all it takes is a German and a fuzzbox to do that one.”
While a sequel to Dune — which is billed as Part One and only tells roughly the first half of Herbert’s novel — is not a given, that hasn’t stopped Zimmer from already working on it.
“I’ve written an hour and a half of new music. I see Denis very much as a friend and right now I see Denis, and he might deny this, but my friend Denis is very much in need of inspiration because he’s writing Part Two. So rather than sending him bottles of alcohol, which probably would work, I keep sending him pieces of music that might inspire him, and it might lead him into certain directions. So I’ve written another hour and a half of music, which looks forward rather than looks back if you see what I mean. And they’re just experiments, and they’re just little tone poems, little things to see if it resonates in any way with where the story’s going, because Denis and I have a profound love for this story and for this book. I was so crazy that, as a teenager reading the book, I didn’t watch the David Lynch movie, because I had made my own movie in my head and I never saw the television series or any of that, and I never heard the music. But when Denis started talking to me about it, he started describing the movie that I had made in my head so that became a very easy collaboration.”
For more on the upcoming sci-fi epic, check out our Dune review as well as our previous Path to Dune exclusives breaking down the Gom Jabbar scene, House Atreides, the Fremen, House Harkonnen, and designing the villains’ makeup and costumes.
Dune opens in the US on October 22, October 21 in the UK, and in Australia on December 2.