Interview with composer Michael Giacchino

MG by Deborah Coleman/Pixar

Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar

Summer’s hottest composer shares his love of Los Angeles musicians, balancing work and family, and how he maintained his sanity scoring three summer blockbusters back to back (to back)

From film and TV to video games, composer Michael Giacchino’s colorful and energetic music can be heard nearly everywhere. This is especially true this summer; in just a few short weeks, he scored three of the summer’s widest box-office releases — “Jurassic World,” “Inside Out” and “Tomorrowland” — without so much as a break. But hard work doesn’t seem to faze the prolific composer, whose obsession with music and movies began early. At 10, Giacchino would sneak tape recorders into movie theaters so he could listen to them each night as he fell asleep, and it wasn’t long before he started making stop-motion animation with homemade soundtracks in his parents’ basement.

He studied film at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and music at Juilliard. He then moved to Los Angeles, launching his career at Universal and later Disney. In 1997 he composed some temp music for a PlayStation video game based on Steven Spielberg’s box-office hit, “Jurassic Park: The Lost World.” Spielberg loved the music so much he asked to meet Giacchino, and excitedly inquired whether it would be recorded with a live orchestra rather than synthesized — to which Giacchino replied a resounding “Yes!”… despite not having yet discussed that bit with the producer. All ended up working out, and after its release, television producer J.J. Abrams was so taken with Giacchino’s video game work that he tapped him for ABC dramas “Alias” and “Lost.” His film-scoring career took flight in 2004 when director Brad Bird tapped him for Pixar’s highly successful “The Incredibles,” establishing him as one of the most sought-after composers in Hollywood.

A longtime fan of the Los Angeles musicians he’d obsessively listened to on movie soundtracks during his formative years, Giacchino — himself a member of the musicians union — has since become one of the leading advocates for AFM Local 47 musicians. After he discovered that the studios had been screening films for everyone who worked on the project except the orchestra, he began co-hosting orchestra screenings to thank the musicians for their contributions. Giacchino generously took time out of a well-earned vacation to share his process for creating the scores to three of this summer’s biggest films, balancing work with family life, and what it’s like to work in Los Angeles with whom he calls “the best musicians in the world.”

Interview by Linda A. Rapka

Scoring the music to the biggest grossing opening weekend box office film of all time isn’t a bad way to start the summer. Not only did you just complete “Jurassic World,” but also “Inside Out” and “Tomorrowland” without so much as a break in between. How did you survive?

The good news is that the directors for these projects are all friends. Brad Bird, Colin Trevorrow and Pete Docter all know each other, and everyone is very respectful of people’s lives — both their work life and its demands, and their personal time. So when the release dates were first given, they all asked, “How are we going to do this so Michael can survive?” We meticulously laid out the calendars and had everything set, it was looking pretty good, and then, as does happen in the industry, the “Tomorrowland “release was pushed back and I realized, “Oh great, this is going to be right on top of “Inside Out.” So I called [“Inside Out” director] Pete Docter and said, “Pete, let’s score your movie now instead of later.” We were lucky, because “Inside Out” was in animation at that point and the picture was pretty much locked. So we were able to swap the schedules. But it’s always a chess game. Of course I prefer that it is set up so I can focus on one movie at a time. We did the best we could, and thankfully everyone was very supportive.

Each of these films has a very different tone and emotion behind it. What was your process in getting yourself into each distinct mindset in such a brief window of time?

I actually always work pretty fast and am fairly organized with my work habits. When it comes to writing, I work alone. I don’t divide the score up between assistants or just write a melody line that is later fleshed out by an orchestrator as can unfortunately happen in these days of crazy schedules and digital workflow. I’d rather write then manage other people. That’s the part of this job that I really love; creating something. Having said that my days remain very structured — I get to work about 9 a.m. and work without distraction until 5 o’clock when it’s time to stop and I get to see my kids.

Each of these films are so different, so that was extremely helpful. “Tomorrowland” evokes the early optimism of the 1960s, “Inside Out” takes place inside the mind so that could be something else all together, and “Jurassic World” is, well, “Jurassic World”! For each of these, I created a 10- to 18-minute suite after I screened the film. The suite was an expression of all the feelings I had when I watched the film. The next step was to play it for the director to see if what I was sensing the story to be about emotionally was the same story that they wanted to tell.

I’m sure it helped that you already have an established relationship with two of the directors, Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “Mission: Impossible”) and Pete Docter (“Up,” earning them both Oscars). How closely do you typically work with the director?

Not only are we colleagues, we are friends. So most of the time, I have been talking to them about their script years before a composer would normally see a cut of the film. I guess that is an advantage because the story has been percolating in my subconscious. When it is time to get to work, there are ideas that have been marinating for a while. As I mentioned, I usually write the suite and see if we are all on the same page. Then I go back and score the whole film, and they come and sit with me and we watch it together. It’s a very fluid relationship. We work together, making changes, tweaking things here and there… even up to the day of the session.

Giacchino with friend and collaborator, writer/director Brad Bird, during scoring sessions for Disney sci-fi thriller “Tomorrowland.” They have worked together on several celebrated Pixar animated features, including “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” Photo by Maria Giacchino

Giacchino with friend and collaborator, writer/director Brad Bird, during scoring sessions for Disney sci-fi thriller “Tomorrowland.” They have worked together on several celebrated Pixar animated features, including “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” Photo by Maria Giacchino

For “Jurassic World,” how challenging was it to pay homage to one of the most famous composers and film scores, John Williams’ “Jurassic Park,” while still making the music new and your own?

This definitely was an exciting and challenging project. I know John very well and he’s been wonderfully supportive to me over the years. In addition to loving both classical and jazz music as a kid (thanks to my dad’s awesome record collection), I also loved going to the movies. Being exposed to the work of John and Steven Spielberg, I know for a fact, was a HUGE influence on me. I would listen to his music incessantly because it was the only way I could re-live the movies I loved after they left the theaters. So in many ways, both John and Steven were unknowingly mentoring me starting as far back as “Close Encounters.” I studied the way the music sat within the film, how it worked with the story, and how it dealt with emotion. As a result, I knew those scores so well and understood what those films were trying to say. When it came to working on “Jurassic World,” I think I had an organic feeling for what the score should sound like. Colin and I both love “Jurassic Park” and while we wanted to pay homage to that film, we also wanted to create something new. The first thing we discussed was where we were going to put John’s theme. We wanted it there both for ourselves, as fans, and for all “Jurassic Park” fans everywhere. We felt that the use of John’s original theme was really in the reveal of a promise that was made in the first movie, when Hammond was saying: “We’re going to build a dinosaur park,” and that’s what’s wonderful about this one — it begins by delivering on that original promise.

Once that was decided, Colin said, “I want our own theme as well. I want this movie to have not just a soul — I want this movie to have soul. I want there to be moments when we feel like we’re actually in a church.” It was definitely important that we brought something original to the film, by building on what came before.

Do you have any favorite pieces of your own scores?

I have gotten in the habit of creating end credits that can also serve as the basis of an orchestral piece, something that takes us through the whole film. These are sometimes based on those original suites I talked about. They always define the picture, and hopefully encapsulate the spirit of the film.

Each of these scores features very large Los Angeles orchestras — “Jurassic World” had a whopping 110 players. What makes it important for you to use live orchestras?

There is nothing that offers the breadth and richness and emotional punch of music than an orchestra with living breathing musicians. I want kids who are sitting in the theater or listening to the soundtrack to know what that sounds like. To feel what that sounds like. It’s what I was lucky enough to have growing up and artistically I think it’s so important that we pay that forward.

Where do you think the future of film music is headed?

I think it is an exciting time in music in general and I am really open to listening to anything. We have so many creative avenues open to us. I am not one to think that purely organic music is the only way to go. I love to hear what people do with the blend of the live and the synthetic, but I do take exception to synths REPLACING the sound of an orchestra. That’s something I hope we can steer clear of.

You not only compose for film, but also television, video games, and even theme park rides. How is the process different for each medium? Which do you enjoy most?

You know, they are actually very similar because in the end, writing for all of them requires an understanding of the story. Whether it is a theme park ride or a video game, my job is to work hand in hand with the team to make this story come alive.

Director Pete Docter and Giacchino in the booth at the scoring session for “Inside Out,” Pixar’s latest animated feature which enjoyed the biggest opening for an original movie, drawing an impressive $132 wordwide. The two famously worked together on Pixar’s “Up,” which won Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. Photo by Maria Giacchino

Director Pete Docter and Giacchino in the booth at the scoring session for “Inside Out,” Pixar’s latest animated feature which enjoyed the biggest opening for an original movie, drawing an impressive $132 wordwide. The two famously worked together on Pixar’s “Up,” which won Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. Photo by Maria Giacchino

For the majority of your projects, you score here in Los Angeles with AFM Local 47. What is it about working here that you enjoy most?

First — Los Angeles is my home. I love being able to work in the same town in which I live and love. I am always amazed on that first day of scoring when the musicians arrive, and they open up their music, never having seen it before and just make it happen like they’ve been practicing for weeks. I also love the incredible history that surrounds our sound stages. When I am recording on the same stage that “Jaws,” “Vertigo,” “The Muppet Movie” or “Lawrence of Arabia” was scored… it really is something holy and is incredibly striking that the legacy of this wonderful industry is there in spirit with us. Los Angeles and Hollywood share a rich history as an artistic metropolis — making things for the world to enjoy and see and be inspired by.
What’s your take on the current state of the recording industry here in L.A.?

There was a time when everything used to flow from Hollywood out to the world — but now great entertainment can happen from ANYWHERE — even in your own basement. I think that’s an incredible testament to how Hollywood has inspired the world. Some people bemoan the fact that it’s not the same anymore — and resist change, fighting it tooth and nail. But let’s face it, NO business can perpetually stay the same. All businesses need to adapt and evolve as things around them change. Do I wish there was more work for the incredible world class musicians we have in L.A.? Of course. These people are my family. No one wants to see their family hurting. But it’s not going to happen by staying with the old way of doing things. It’s going to happen with smart and thoughtful changes that allow for work to organically return to town.

Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

I don’t have anything specific that I can talk about, but I do work with a number of directors who aren’t short on ideas, so I am sure you will be hearing about upcoming projects real soon.


Fun facts you didn’t know about Michael Giacchino:

• For his famous “Lost” score he used parts of a plane fuselage as percussion.

• He created the music to the brand new Space Mountain rides at Disneyland Anaheim, Paris and Hong Kong, and the Star Tours travel log videos at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

• He has a penchant for referencing his own past works in song titles: “World’s Worst Beach Party” (“Lost”), “World’s Worst Last 4 Minutes to Live” (“Mission: Impossible 3”), “Galaxy’s Worst Sushi Bar” (“Star Trek”), “World’s Worst Field Trip” (“Super 8”).

• In his 2009 stint conducting the Academy Awards Orchestra, arranging a 1930s Big Band treatment of “Lawrence of Arabia” and a bossa nova “Moon River.”

• He composed the fanfare for the 100th anniversary logo for Paramount Pictures.

• His Oscar win for “Up” was the first-ever win for Pixar in the category of Best Original Score.

• In Italian, “Giacchino” means “little jacket.”


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