A look through Hans Zimmer’s discography reveals a truly staggering body of work; The Lion King, Gladiator, The Dark Knight trilogy and countless other films have been blessed with his gift of musical storytelling. Now a 30 year veteran of the industry the film composer is still at the top of his game, and we were lucky enough to chat with him ahead of the home entertainment release of the brilliant 12 Years A Slave.

So vast and varied is Zimmer’s catalogue and so excited where we to speak with him that the 15 minutes we were granted felt like 5. Here he speaks about working with Steve McQueen, the challenges when coming up with superhero scores and a special edition re-release of his work on The Lion King. Have a read below.

How soon after the first meeting with a director do you start having ideas for what you might do with the music?

Well if you take for instance The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it was a little bit unusual. The whole thing there was that I had an idea and I went to the studio. So before I had the film I had an idea which is a nice way to come to things as opposed to somebody offers you a movie, you’re very excited about it, and then as soon as you take it you sit there and be like “what am I gonna do?”.

And the idea was simple. I thought Peter Parker is young, just leaving college, and I wanted the voice for his emotion and inner turmoil, which is not necessarily about horns and strings. I think the way he would express himself is a bit rock and roll. I wanted to do this with Pharrell Williams, who is a friend of mine, and then Johnny [Marr] joined a and it started branching out. It was truly an enjoyable thing having all these musicians get into a room and do it together, which is pretty much in the spirit of that character.

12 Years A Slave is a very powerful film with a lot of powerful moments. When you were working with Steve McQueen, how did you go about deciding which segments needed a musical accompaniment?

The movie itself is a complicated subject and at first I said “Steve, I’m not sure if I’m the man for you here, I’m not good enough”. He basically said “Stop it Hans, you’re the guy full stop”. He’s incredibly supportive. The other thing which is great about Steve is he puts up with me having to talk through the idea endlessly, which is how I find my way into it.

As for which scenes do or don’t need music, between Joe Walker (the editor), Steve and myself, we just knew. It’s a learned language. Steve hasn’t done that many movies but he certainly knows his visual arts. So there was never any question in our minds which scenes needed music. The music serves a very particular purpose which is to invite you in, even to the horror of the situation because I still want you to step into that door somehow. The music is doing two things; it’s reminding us of the live of the character. Steve kept saying this is a story about love, and that was very much the atmosphere in which he worked which was fantastic. Secondly, it was just to give subtext to some of these scenes.

The music in 12 Years A Slave is divided into two distinct categories. There is the source music, for instance Solomon playing the violin which is period. In fact, everything in the music is period apart from the score. The score actually had the opportunity to be timeless, so I tried to become the bridge to the present day. I thought one of the reasons to make the movie is it should provoke a conversation that nobody was willing to have. Sometimes in music you can influence things and invite people in.

I’m a big superhero fan so I love all those big epic scores that you mentioned. I listen to them a lot, and I’ve always been curious to know; when you find that heroic theme, what does that moment feel like? Do you just innately know?

Well, they’re always a struggle. The hardest one in a funny way was Batman, because I didn’t want to give him a straight, heroic theme. I had something and then everybody sort of liked it. I kept taking notes away because I kept thinking if I could figure out something which is so iconic and geometric…I was thinking about it like architecture actually. I was driving everybody crazy because we couldn’t really move forward until I got over my obsession of getting rid of notes. I felt that it should be simple and a bold statement.

Superman was quite the opposite. I wanted to start with the boy because the structure of that movie is the opposite to the first Richard Donner movie which is allowed to start with the big fanfare. We were really starting with the birth of a child. I wanted to find something where somebody who has extraordinary powers makes it his mission to fight for humanity. In a funny way I felt the most heroic thing to write was to write something very human.

Is there any disadvantage to working with people you’ve worked with before?

Of course there is. The thing you need to watch out for is to not repeat yourself, because both sides have certain expectations of each other. We’re always trying to throw all our ideas, everything we have into a movie, and then start the next one with a completely clean slate and sort of re-learn how to make a movie and invent. If you think about the music I’ve done with Ridley, Thelma & Louise is nothing like Gladiator which is nothing like Black Hawk Down or Hannibal. You want to work with directors who offer you legitimate, autonomous movies where you can go and do something completely new. What was interesting for me is between Pirates and the Batman movies I suddenly got into sequels where I had to use some of the language of the previous movies and carry it forward. But I still try to see each one as an autonomous movie.

Is there another score you’ve worked on that didn’t get a sequel which you would like to return to and build on?

Weirdly Hannibal, because it was a lot of fun. I thought that the language could stretch into something else. I didn’t do the sequel but there was more to be had, there were a lot of ideas still lying around that never made it.

Regarding all the music you compose which doesn’t make it into the film; do you keep it and can we expect to hear it someday?

You mean the six hours of Thin Red Line? [Laughs] Funny you should mention it, because I realised that I never released the full score for The Lion King. As we speak, my engineer is in the studio mixing the score because we’re doing a 20 year anniversary this year. We’re releasing not only the score but my demos as well. They’re not pretty, but I think sometimes there might be an archaeological interest and I’ll let you look into my process a bit. And you get to hear my really rotten playing!

12 Years A Slave is out on DVD now.