When it comes to Hollywood composers, they don’t come much bigger than Michael Giacchino. Winning an Oscar for the music he scored to Pixar’s Up, Giacchino has become one of the most successful – and popular – composers over the course of the last twenty years. Beginning his career in the publicity department at Universal and then later, Disney, Giacchino worked administrative roles to make ends meet whilst studying at university. Eventually, Giacchino made his way to the production and composition department at Disney, where he started to score the music for video games. Whilst there, he quickly caught the attention of a famous Hollywood director. After a call from a certain Steven Spielberg, Giacchino’s career exploded and for the New Jersey born composer, it was nothing short of a dream come true. Later working with Brad Bird of Pixar and Lost creator J. J. Abrams, Giacchino progressed from backroom assistant to compositional superstardom at breakneck speed. Scoring Hollywood blockbusters The Incredibles, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, to name a mere few, he is now one of the most sought after composers in the world.
Ahead of his 50th birthday this October – an event to be celebrated with a tribute evening at The Royal Albert Hall in London – my chat with Giacchino opens with talk of the forthcoming birthday celebrations. He tells me that the event is being organised by his sister Maria Giacchino - who is also his concert producer and publicist - and amazingly, she has managed to keep most of the event details a secret so it’s a true birthday surprise come October. “I’m not fully in the loop because my sister, who is organising the concert, is keeping the details away from me,” Giacchino tells me, laughing. “I know it will be a sort of retrospective of a lot of the things I’ve done over the years and it will also include some of the stuff we’ve never played live before. It will dig deep into the archives and we’ll find some fun things to do.”
It’s not the first time Giacchino has worked with The Albert Hall, having performed two of the soundtracks he is responsible for – Ratatouille and Star Trek – there previously. “It was a lot of fun. We had a great time doing that,” Giacchino says, fondly. “From what I understand, there are going to be some fun guests there. A good friend of mine, Adam Savage (who was on the show Mythbusters) is going to host for us. He’s a great guy. I think that’s pretty much all I know,” he tells me, amused at how much of the birthday celebrations his sister has successfully managed to keep from him. “I’m sure I’ll be conducting a portion of the concert as well,” he adds. “I think I’ll just be sitting and watching some of it as well,” he says, laughing some more.
Widely regarded as one of the most gregarious and affable composers in Hollywood, Giacchino is remarkably unassuming and modest for an Oscar winning composer who has scored music to some of the most successful films in recent times. He started making stop-motion animation films on his brother’s pool table when he was just ten years old, yet it was the music he made to accompany these films that gave him the greatest joy. Sneaking a tape recorder into movie theatres, Giacchino would record the scores to films so he could listen to them repeatedly.
“My dad had a great record collection and I always listened to a lot of different ensemble stuff – big band, jazz, orchestral and marching band things. And then on top of that was all the soundtracks that I would get my hands on – these were so much fun to listen to. At that time, you couldn’t just re-watch the movie once it left the theatre – it was gone. The only option was to buy the soundtrack or what I would do is sneak in a tape recorder and record the actual sound and I’d listen to that tape endlessly.”
“I always was fascinated by, and loved the way in which, music worked with a story. It was fun to just sort of dissect that as a kid and just soak it all in. I definitely feel like all of those hours that I spent – hundreds and hundreds of hours – listening to those things, really does inform what I do today.” Giacchino tells me there isn’t one particular type of music that he likes. Having a huge record collection and eclectic tastes helped him when it came to writing music for the diverse genre of films he’s scored over the years.
“There’s pretty much no kind of music that I don’t like. I love and appreciate all kinds of styles of music. That’s what’s really fun about working with film – you can go all over the place with it. You get to work on stuff like Ratatouille with 30’s jazz, or The Incredibles and you can do more 1960’s orchestral jazz or Star Trek which is a pretty straightforward sort of modern orchestration. It just takes you everywhere, and it’s a lot of fun to meet those challenges as they come up.”
It’s clear that Giacchino relishes his job and all the challenges that come with it. One of the biggest he faced was the composition of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Growing up as a fan of the famous John Williams compositions, not only did Giacchino need to create something that stood up alongside Williams’ formidable legacy, he had to also do that in a mere matter of weeks – much shorter than the timescale composers typically have. Yet Giacchino wasn’t in the least bit phased with the task at hand.
“I find it always helps when you have a deadline. Of course, I would’ve liked a slightly longer deadline on that one, but circumstances being as they were, it was fine. Any time that I would start to get a little worried about the time schedule, I would just look up at the screen and go: ‘Hey, look! There are Stormtroopers up there!’”, he says, laughing. I tell him I’m envious of how cool that must be. “[Laughs] I actually had a great time working on it and I love the people that I got to work with on that film. I think there was something to be said about having to just make choices and move on. I was no stranger to that, having worked in television for many years and in video games, having to make those choices and just live with them. If you’re given too much time or if you think too much about something, you’re not actually making it better a lot of the time – you’re just making it different. A lot of the times, your first choice is your best choice.”
Whilst many would have no doubt crumbled trying to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Williams, Giacchino seemingly did the impossible: create a homage to Williams whilst also putting his own creative stamp on the legacy. I ask Giacchino about the difficulty of keeping the spirit of the original scores but also moving it forward and making it your own.
“Well, that’s always the trick really on these things because you don’t want to just rehash what was done before. If I’m working on these things I want to be able to remember what came before, but then take it somewhere new within the same spirit of what was done. I also don’t want to go in there and just completely change up the way the sonic soundscape was for those films. I like big, orchestral [sounds] and I like the idioms that John Williams would write in it.”
“It was fun to sort of look back into history in the same way he did when he did the original Star Wars and say: ‘Ah, Korngold and Holst and all these guys…Stravinsky.’ He would take the ideas that these guys had laid out long before us and sort of turn them into something new, but [still] in that flavour. I think there’s a lot of fun reaching back into musical history and doing the same thing when you’re working on something like Star Wars or Jurassic World. It’s a really fun thing to do. And then when you can hint at something that John created for those films, that’s always fun too – especially for audiences – and, as a person that grew up with those films, for me too.”
Giacchino’s big break came when he moved from the publicity department to production and composition at Disney. Taking a job in Disney’s video game division, Dreamwork’s Interactive, he was asked one day to compose some music to accompany a demo reel. Overnight, he wrote the music. The next morning, he handed it in and later received a phone call from none other than Steven Spielberg – something he couldn’t quite believe. Going on to score the music for the video game The Lost World, it became one of the first video games to feature a live orchestra.
“There have been many teachers along the way, pointing me in the right direction, and many bosses or supervisors who, when I was in jobs working in publicity and things, helped me not to forget what I really wanted to do, which was music. But certainly, that day with Steven Spielberg when he suggested that we use a live orchestra for the video game, that was definitely a turning point. And after that, he was so supportive all the way, always recommending me to people. He was so sweet and so nice. He certainly had a massive impact on where I was going and how I got there. He was a great supporter and always a great guy to work for.”
After this, Giacchino was contacted by J J Abrahms who asked him to score two new TV shows he was making for ABC, Alias and Lost. Following the success of both, in 2004 Giacchino received a call from Brad Bird at Pixar and was asked to score The Incredibles. He tells me more about how felt when he got the call.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke at first! [laughs]. It came through a friend. I had a couple of friends that worked up there and I think the first thing that I worked on for Pixar was a short called One Man Band. That was just literally right before The Incredibles happened. I think I signed the contract for One Man Band right before The Incredibles. Those were the first two things I did with them.”
“I’d been working with Disney for quite a while doing Alias and a TV show called Lost and I think some of that music got into the hands of the director of The Incredibles, Brad Bird, who really liked it. He asked to meet with me and we met, got along and it just sort of progressed from there. Things since then have been a little nuts!”
Giacchino has just finished work on War For The Planet Of The Apes and is finishing the new Spiderman movie. After this, he is back with Pixar to write the music for The Incredibles 2. I ask him how it feels to be back at Pixar.
“It’s always fun working with them. Those guys are the best, and everyone up there is incredibly talented, and smart, and patient. They want to make not just a movie, but a great movie. They work really hard and are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It’s always a great pleasure to work with those guys.”
Giacchino tells me more about the process of composition. I wonder if it differs for non-animated and animated films, but for Giacchino, if he can apply human emotion to a character, it doesn’t make a difference to the way he writes the music.
“It’s interesting because live-action films are, to me, no different than animated films. Captain Kirk is not real, and Remy, the rat that cooks – he’s not real. Batman – whoever it is on screen, it’s always something that’s fictional – it’s not real. You’re always looking into this window, into somebody’s story window.”
“I just treat them all the same – I treat them all as characters whether they’re human or rats or whatever – it doesn’t matter. You have to look at their characters and just treat them as humans – it starts there. If I can connect with them on a human level, then I can understand the emotions that are going on within the body of the story and then communicate that through music. It’s really about locking into those emotions and understanding ‘what are these characters feeling?’ and sort of taking that on so I can then write something that emotes the same idea.”
Giacchino’s process of composition hasn’t changed much since he was young. “I don’t think that much has changed at all in the way that I work. I like to think that I continue to learn things as I do it, and each film I finish I look at and go: ‘Ah, well, I’ll do it better next time.’ I’m never 100% satisfied with what I do. But that’s just part of art, right? It’s never really done [laughs] – it’s ripped from your hands!”
Composition is a process that begins for Giacchino soon into a film’s initiation. “For me, it’s usually very early on because the people that I generally work with are people that I know. I’ll go and watch them film, I’ll be on set – and not for anything other than just being with my friends and hanging out and seeing what they’re working on. I’m usually involved fairly early and I get to see very early cuts of the film. Sometimes I’ll see a version of the film that is just all storyboards.”
“Occasionally, I won’t see the film until it’s edited and then I can start working on it. Most of the time I’m there early on, seeing what’s happening and seeing versions of the film – watching it as it comes together.” I ask Giacchino if it makes a significant difference if he comes to a project later, as has happened on some of the projects he’s worked on.
“I guess it depends on the project. I don’t love reading scripts before seeing a film because sometimes I imagine a certain movie in my head and then when I see the film that they’re making it’s quite different – so whatever ideas I had may not work. I try to stay away from scripts but I do like seeing different pieces of the film – that doesn’t bother me. As long as it’s to do with their point of view, then I can just lock into the story that they’re trying to tell. It’s always different, and sometimes it’s a nice surprise just to wait and see a version of the film that you’re going to work to, because you can have these immediate reactions.”
“That was really what television was all about – I never saw any versions of those things. They would just show up and I would have to score them. It would be done in three days and then you’d do another one. It was a really good exercise to [learn how to] write quickly.”
In using an orchestra, Giacchino set a new precedent for the composing of television shows. Ironically, this took composers back to how shows were originally composed in the 1960’s. “I think they’re putting more effort into making television feel like film now – the film experience except at home, which is nice. There was a time when you would have to use an orchestra to record any music you needed for television. You went through a period though when it was just a lot of synthesisers because it was cheaper: they were just the flavour of the day. Now it’s nice to see more and more live players being brought in or just fully live orchestras playing for certain shows. I think there’s so much great, creative work being done on television right now and it’s really nice to see.”
Collaborating and composing with an orchestra is at the heart of everything Giacchino does. Unlike many composers, he also still takes a significant role in the orchestration. “Usually the sketches that I provide to my orchestrator, depending on the time we have available and how much I can get into it, I like to have them at least 80% orchestrated. That way, there’s no question that it’s exactly what I want and how I want it to sound – it has the colours that I’m looking for. Those decisions are very important to me because those will sort of indicate how I want something to feel when they’re listening to it. All those choices are very important so I try to do as much as I can.”
“Having said that, you don’t always have as much time as you’d like. It’s important to have a team of people that you really trust when it comes to orchestrating. I’m lucky I have my main orchestrator who I trust implicitly: he knows exactly what I want. If I explain exactly what I want, he’ll understand it.”
“The writing is all done by me. It’s basically just me – [I don’t] have a team of people that help me write anything, it’s just me there writing it. The team happens after that – the orchestration, the copying, the music editing, all of that. I have a great group of people that I’ve been working with for years and they’re all fantastic.”
On his projects, Giacchino works chronologically from beginning to end and will work with directors at various points in the compositional process. “We usually will go through it together. I’ll get a bunch of stuff finished – I like to work in order – start from the beginning and work towards the end because I can help build a better story that way. Maybe I’ll get twenty minutes of music written and they’ll come and look at that. We’ll talk about it and then I can adjust or change it depending on our conversations. But once it’s done then it’s out the door [laughs].”
As well as fan sites dedicated to his music, there are also forums around the world dedicated to unlocking Giacchino’s use of puns throughout his scores. “You know, it’s [laughs] – it’s a weird thing because my music editors and I, we have a little contest each time about who can come up with the best title for the different cues. I remember on Alias, my music editor Steven Davis, was the one who started this thing. He would start naming the cues all these things…as we moved into working on movies, he just continued doing it but it became like a little group joke. We never thought it would become something that fans and people would talk about online – we never even thought about that!”
“It was just more for us to have some fun while we were toiling away on stage or recording all this stuff [laughs]. It was just a little fun side thing for us to do and now it’s become sort of a thing with my music, which is fun. Again, it depends on who gets a hold of the stuff. Sometimes the music editor will get the film and make spotting notes for me and he’ll send them over with his [punned] titles and I’ll be like: ‘Really?! I can do way better than that!’ And then I’ll have to try and improve it. It’s just a sort of back and forth fun thing that we have.”
In a career as illustrious as Giacchino’s, I wonder what the highlights have been for him. “It’s hard to pick something like that, but I tend to think that Lost is probably one of my favourite things that I have done. I love all the films I’ve been a part of, because it’s not just the films themselves, it’s been the people that I’ve worked with. And so many of those people have gone on to become my best friends that I work with on these films. It’s always a lot of fun working on a film because I do work with people over and over again.”
“But Lost – there’s something special about that show. It seems to have touched people in a certain way and I can understand why because I loved watching it. It also allowed me to just do whatever I wanted – they never sort of asked me to be any specific thing other than whatever it was I wanted it to be. There was a great artistic freedom on that show because it wasn’t based on anything else. It was just sort of, ‘Well, what do you think?’ I got to be as emotional, or as weird, or as scary as I wanted to be with it and no one blinked an eye. It was a lot of fun. It was a really, really special project to be a part of.”
As we start to wrap up this most enjoyable of interviews, I tell Giacchino how much I enjoyed his score to Jurassic World. I also ask him if he will be taking time off anytime soon. “I’ll be working on Jurassic World 2 after The Incredibles 2,” he tells me. “I need a break!” he says, laughing. With the success of his music talked about in the same vein as John Williams, it’s clear Giacchino’s work will be in demand well into his next half-century.
Michael Giacchino At 50 takes place at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday 20 October. For more information about the event, and to by tickets, please click here.