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Legendary film composer Hans Zimmer on career and why "Dunkirk" is personal

The first time most movie-goers heard the music of Hans Zimmer was in the 1988 movie "Rain Man." The composer went on to write the scores of more than 100 films. He has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won for "The Lion King."

Zimmer has also won four Grammys and two Golden Globe awards.

"Dunkirk" has been hailed as a visual masterpiece. But what you hear – the film's sweeping musical score – is the latest genius from the legendary composer, reports CBS News' Mark Strassmann.

"I wrote by going to the beach, picking up the sand, seeing the misery on that beach. You have to get a movie under your fingers. It's as simple as that," Zimmer said. 

Hans Zimmer CBS News

To score "Dunkirk," the German-American Zimmer found inspiration in his own past.

"I approached it at first, of course, as somebody who wouldn't be here if my parents had not escaped the Germans," Zimmer said. His Jewish mother escaped the Germans in 1939.

The 59-year-old Zimmer has scored nearly 150 movies.

"Every job starts the same way. I either see a director or I get a phone call and somebody says, 'I want to tell you a story,'" Zimmer said.  

His story began in Frankfurt, Germany. As a kid, he had two weeks of piano lessons. That's it.  In his 20s, he played synthesizer in the new wave band, The Buggles, and their 1979 hit, "Video Killed the Radio Star."

It was the first music video ever played on MTV.

"For me it was really the impetus to go, 'Hey I like this idea of combining visuals and music. This is really – this is really where I want to go,'" Zimmer said.

His Hollywood catalogue includes hits like "Gladiator," 14 years of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series and the "Dark Knight" Batman trilogy.

He has had 10 Oscar nominations – winning in 1995 for Disney's "The Lion King." All that success, and yet every new project makes him anxious.

Hans Zimmer

"The first two, three weeks are just complete agony of, 'oh my God, I don't know how to do this anymore. Maybe now I should phone the director and tell him he should hire someone else.' All the neuroses and self-doubt and the fear – it's all there," Zimmer said.

On the piano, Zimmer showed us how he created the music for the movie "Interstellar."

Zimmer became a rock star again this summer. He's currently on a 46-date world tour with a full orchestra and choir. He also played at this year's Coachella festival.

"And I didn't know what to expect from the audience and the audience didn't know what to expect from us," Zimmer said. "To see so many grown men cry, I mean we touched them, we moved them. We did give them that experience. I've been hiding behind the screen. I have never looked them in the eye. It's making me a better composer. It really is."

Remember that the next time you're at a big movie and the closing credits say, "Music by Hans Zimmer."

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