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Notes On The Joker

The 'Dark Knight' composer gets inside the villain's head -- all to serve the score.

December 03, 2008|Michael Ordona | Ordona is a freelance writer.

"One of the things music does is it makes characters sympathetic. And the last thing I was going to do was have you come away thinking, 'Oh, that poor Richard Nixon!' "

So "Frost/Nixon" composer Hans Zimmer does have a conscience, although such empathetic qualms weren't apparent when he was searching for ruthlessly effective sounds to embody the anarchy of "The Dark Knight's" Joker -- and torturing director Christopher Nolan in the process. Woven around those two projects this year were the threads of two major animated films ("Kung Fu Panda," "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa"), the small Mexican indie "Casi Divas," and the upcoming Charlize Theron drama, "The Burning Plain."

"If you had to eat caviar all day long, you'd be bored of caviar," he explains, in an urbane German accent. "I don't think I would have done as good a job on 'Frost/Nixon' if I hadn't known I had a big, bright and colorful thing like 'Madagascar' coming up."

Sitting in his gorgeous Santa Monica studio, with its warm wood paneling and books everywhere, the seven-time Oscar-nominated composer (and winner for "The Lion King") says he enjoys collaborating, such as with old friend John Powell on "Panda," Black Eyed Peas maestro on the pop-song-filled "Madagascar," and "Batman Begins" partner James Newton Howard on "Dark Knight." The Batman sequel found clearer divisions of labor for the composers than did the earlier film, with Howard creating the rich, melodic strains representing tragic figure Harvey Dent and Zimmer striving to express the focused nihilism of the Joker . . . in one note.

"I tried to do it as a big intellectual conceit, really, and if I was really good I would have pulled it off," he said, conceding that he had to double the number of notes -- to two. "The Joker doesn't change -- there is no character arc, really, because the idea of the anarchy he's invested in is very constant. So let's say you have one note, and the performance of that note has to go from slightly irritated to very worrying to 'Oh, my God, call an ambulance.' That was really the idea, the singularity of a laser beam, never wavering.

"The original sketch was more than two hours of this, these crazy ideas. Chris studied them religiously on a flight to Hong Kong and back to London. Now, that's a really long flight. . . . I think I ruined his psyche forever."

"Why So Serious?," the eight-minute sonic assault that opens the film, fires forth those two notes in many guises, hiding their insistent rhythm in unexpected sounds. It's an aural expression of the Joker's single-minded, destructive drive.

"One of the problems with a normal score, with a tune, you always know when the next thing is going to happen. What's so great about the Joker is he sort of exists in a different tempo from everyone else. If you just have one note, or two notes, you never know when it's going to end, you don't know when the cobra's going to strike."

The studio, Zimmer says, never asked for a change. "They got it. When we talk about these ideas, they sound so preposterous. That's why we have music, because sometimes words can't quite do it."


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