"Hans was the first person I approached for the project in the very, very, very early days, when I'd just said, 'Yes, I'm doing Dune,'" says Denis Villeneuve of enlisting prolific composer Hans Zimmer for his adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi opus. "The book is very, very close to his heart -- it is one of his favorite books -- and he looked me in the eyes and he said very seriously, 'Is it a good idea that we try to do that, our oldest dream?'"
"Ask him this," the director instructs, "Now that the movie is finished, do you think it was a good idea to tackle one of his oldest dreams?"
At the time, Villeneuve had no way of knowing how far back that dream went for Zimmer. The German-born composer read Dune for the first time at age 14 and envisioned it as a movie straightaway. He was so keen on the adaptation that lived in his head that he purposely avoided David Lynch's film when it was released in 1984, and the 2000 miniseries that aired on Sci Fi (known as Syfy since 2009). So, when Villeneuve approached him and asked if he had ever heard of the novel, "I did one of those sort of excited puppy things," Zimmer tells A.frame, "and I think I scared him a little. But the advantage of working with Denis is he is a friend and I admire his filmmaking, so I felt very safe to share this dream with him."
I think I scared him a little. But the advantage of working with Denis is he is a friend and I admire his filmmaking,
Zimmer has been composing music for the big screen since the '80s and has composed scores for over 150 films over the course of his storied career, including the Academy Award-winning Original Score for The Lion King. 11 other times, he has been nominated in the Best Original Score category, including for his scores for Gladiator, Inception, and Dunkirk. But when he agreed to craft the music for Dune, he put all of his past successes out of his mind.
"I'm 64 years old now and I read it when I was 14," he says. "Rather than going at it all these years later with the wisdom of having made all these other movies [and] having done all this other work – I didn't do any of that. I just became a 14-year-old again."
For Zimmer, that meant approaching the work with the audacity of his youth. "There's this recklessness that you have when you're that age, and a fearlessness to approach things in an unusual way. I think that's the only way you could win against this movie." It also meant breaking the mold of how he'd gone about composing up to now, going without classic character motifs and themes for something more abstract, and forgoing the very notion of a Western European orchestra for something yet-to-be realized. "Aren't we supposed to be in the future?" he reasons. "Shouldn't we go and invent?"
It's quite fitting that actual science must be employed in crafting music for science fiction. What that looks like in practice, however, is complex – which is precisely what makes Zimmer uniquely suited for it. "I come from computers," Zimmer says. "I got into music right around the time when computers started to become affordable, and I started to pervert the use of computers and turn a very good word processor into a musical instrument, into a synthesizer. That's my background. My background isn't film composing at all. I know some of the science, so I would go to my cellist and I'd say to her, 'I want you to play this line, but I'm going to go and mangle your sound electronically to sound like a Tibetan war horn.' Which, of course, is not at all how a Tibetan war horn sounds -- in fact, I'm not even sure they exist – but my imagination of [what it sounds like]."
The musicians Zimmer enlisted to work alongside him on Dune are just as multifaceted as the maestro himself. He called on collaborator Chas Smith, a musician, sculptor and welder, to build wholly new instruments on which to play his compositions. "His whole house is a resonating chamber, so it's not like he turns up with his instrument. No, you record the house." Pedro Eustache was brought on to play the duduk, "which is a pre-Christian, Armenian instrument," and to capture the sound of wind whistling through the desert through woodwinds. And, when Villeneuve showed Zimmer footage of the royal family arriving on Arrakis and being heralded by bagpipe players, "Of course, I couldn't leave well enough alone, so the sound you actually hear when you see the man playing the bagpipes, it's the extraordinary guitarist Guthrie Galvin imitating bagpipes on his guitar."
You can't actually speak about music in words very well because music is its own language.
"Very often, I would try to describe something to Denis, and it was just like, 'Let's not discuss it. Let's just play it and see if it resonates!'" Zimmer laughs. "You can't actually speak about music in words very well because music is its own language."
Zimmer's efforts on Dune have since been rewarded with a nomination for Best Original Score at the 94th Oscars, among 10 total nominations for the film. Which is itself an answer to Villeneuve's question: In the end, was it a good idea to pursue this particular dream? "Oh, absolutely," Zimmer grins. As for how the film compares to the version that 14-year-old Hans dreamt up all those years ago? "It is exactly the movie it should have been," he says, with one qualification: "Hang on -- we've only done Part One."
Dune: Part Two is scheduled to hit theaters Oct. 20, 2023.