Any time Hans Zimmer begins a project, he panics: no matter how many iconic movie scores he has composed, the Oscar-winner fears he'll be unable to come up with even a single new harmony. But as soon as Zimmer began reading the script for director Guy Richie's second Sherlock Holmes film, he knew exactly what he had to do. It was, if you'll forgive the expression, elementary.
"I went to about page five of the script and it said, 'The Gypsy fortuneteller.' I lifted up the phone, phoned Guy and said, 'Road trip!'" Zimmer told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "Only one thing we can do -- we have to do a road trip."
That meant packing their bags and heading east to Slovakia, where the disenfranchised and poverty-stricken Roma population congregated after been hounded out of various Western European cities. If Zimmer's task was to score a film involving the Roma, he felt it only appropriate to reflect their culture in the music.
"I went there to find musicians we can work with," Zimmer said. "Not out of a sense of authenticity, partly because of inspiration, and partly because every time I heard a recording from these people, it just sounded different, it sounded like stuff I couldn't do in Hollywood or London. I thought it would be really good to have two cultures collide, and to have the culture, my culture of the symphony orchestra, collide with the wildness of the Roma playing."
In the end, Zimmer discovered more than he bargained for. Because he set up the trip through former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and the nonprofit National Democratic Institute, he saw a side of the Roma that few foreigners ever do. An ethnic group that arose on the Indian subcontinent and migrated north, the Roma have been discriminated against throughout the continent for centuries, victims of racism, abuse, genocide and expulsion. They are virtually unrepresented in government, and therefore enjoy very few of the benefits other Europeans take for granted. "If you're a Roma kid and you want to go to school, because your settlement is so far from your school, you have to take the bus, but because there is only unemployment, you can't afford to get the bus," he explained. "So it's this vicious circle where you can't afford to get an education because you can't afford the bus fare. The housing is beyond anything I've ever seen."
"One of the first things that happened, going there, is they were so happy we came. Not because we were the people from Hollywood or anything like that, but we were just somebody who cared enough to get in a car and go there," he said. "Because the segregation between the Roma communities and the neighboring villages is so strong that no one will ever go."
Still, there was a trust gap to be bridged. Even a simple request to snap their photos required delicate reassurance. "People had gone there before and said, 'We'll take your photograph, but we'll send them back to you,'" Zimmer said. "And what we realized is there is virtually a whole nation that has no photos of their children, that there's no real record of seeing your child from being a baby [to] growing up, because they don't have cameras, they don't have any of the money to have any of this stuff." Eventually, Zimmer and his colleagues got permission to take the photos, and sent digital collections of the pictures back to the Romani community centers on brand-new laptop computers.
When it came to music, though, communication was not an issue. "The old cliche that I never quite believed in, that music is the universal language, you just sit down and you start playing and nobody has to say a word and you do that for four or five hours, it works! It really works! And so all my cynicism sort of fell away."
In the end, Zimmer got two Romani bands on the score for the film, giving it the unique sound he had envisioned. More importantly, he was able to create opportunity for a group that he thought sorely deserved it.
"I am a foreigner that managed to come to Hollywood with no education, no qualifications, and I managed to do something," Zimmer said, "and part of my role is to remind people that it's ok to dream, it's ok to have hopes -- and they can work out."