An interview with Michael Giacchino

[Our thanks to film critic, music expert and GhibliWorld.com contributor Marco Bellano for conducting an extensive interview with award winning soundtrack composer Michael Giacchino.]

While staying at the V International Film Music Conference "Ciudad de Úbeda", it was quite surprising to find Michael Giacchino walking in the crowd just like a simple film music fan, as the many others that gathered in the little Andalusian city. Always accompanied by his attendant and trusted orchestrator Andrea Datzman, Giacchino has an easy-going appearance, and seems younger than he really is (he was born in 1967 in Riverside, New Jersey). However, when he gets on the podium and conducts a symphonic orchestra, the powerful and authoritative sound that emerges from his simple and clear gesture definitely unveils the true nature of his artistic personality: he is a composer with vast and solid competences, that manages to spontaneously join a true affection for cinema with a distinguished talent in creating musical atmospheres and textures.

Read the entire interview below the break.

Maestro Giacchino, you became a film composer after your studies in film direction and production. How did your education influence your approach to music?

My studies at the New York School of Visual Arts (before starting my formation as a composer) have surely been important for my career. To tell the truth, before to become fully aware of my inclination to music, I wanted to be a director: when I was a student, I used to shot short films in stop-motion animation (but, as a matter of fact, for every film I used to be engaged the most of the time in writing the musical score). In many ways, today I have not betrayed my early plans: in fact, I believe that a film composer is essentially a storyteller. A film score tells a story along with the moving images. Sometimes the music can make a dull moment in a film become interesting. However, even if the music has a great power in this sense, it is necessary to constantly remember that the film comes first: that is the most important thing in cinema, not the music. On this topic, I remember the work I did on Ratatouille with Brad Bird. While I was seeing the film with the director, as soon as there was a scene that, in my opinion, required music, I said: I will write something for this, it needs something more. However, the most delicate part of the operation was to decide where music was not required at all. In various occasions, I had to discuss with Brad about this topic: sometimes he absolutely wanted a musical score for a certain scene that, in my opinion, was already perfectly working. So, in cases like that I simply did not write anything! The music must know when to make a step back: when its absence gives to a film a maximum of communicative impact.

What are the main differences between writing music for animated films and writing for "live" films?

In animated films, the composers used to indulge in a specific, traditional style... It was normal to comment upon an action in a continuous way, by following with the music the "trajectories" of the characters. It was equally common to deal with simplified and schematic emotions. To tell the truth, I believe that, nowadays, clichés are still around, but they are not as overused as once they were. For what concerns me, I do not write in a different way when I work on an animated film. Animation is just a technique to tell stories: it is true that this technique often tells "fantasy" stories, but this is not an artistic limitation at all. I absolutely do not believe in all that prejudices about animation being "for children". I cannot understand why a guy in tights that can fly and is indestructible can be the protagonist of a story "for grown-ups", while a little mouse that discovers about his talent and his true role in the world can not!

I agree. And, again about animated cinema: perhaps this is the field where you display with the greatest evidence your taste for melody.

Someone thought that my preference for melodic themes derives from my Italian roots. To tell the truth, I cannot call myself an Italian, even if my mother is from the Abruzzi. I can only say that my melodic vein must be born from my passion for the great film themes. John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, but also Max Steiner... I received many influences, and it is not easy to tell which one was the most important. In my music, the themes are surely important: they must evolve with the story of a film. In Ratatouille, two different themes tell about the two sides of Remy's personality: the creative side and the... "thief" side, that is connected to his nature of a mouse. Ratatouille was a really interesting film: Brad Bird wanted me to express with the music the taste of food, while the film would have tried to do such a thing via images. Perhaps our joined efforts are particularly evident in the scene where Remy tries to make his brother Émile aware of the various combinations between tastes: the music accompanies stylized shapes that appear on a dark background, trying to translate the tastes in sound and color. Also in the most recent Pixar film, Up, I cared for the narrative function of the main themes. For instance, in that film there is a group of three themes: one for Russell, on for a huge bird and one for a talking dog. These themes can be used separately, but it is also possible to play the three of them simultaneously: so, they can be used in various expressive combinations. The music, through the themes and their elaboration, should be like the engine of a story. If a film were a book, the music should be something that makes the pages turn.

Does your music sometimes influence the development of a film - perhaps making a director modify a sequence because of a cue you composed?

It does not happen so frequently, but something like that may occur, especially in animated cinema. However, it is more likely and more natural to me to directly give suggestions to the director. I did such a thing during the production of Up: I felt an immediate connection with director Pete Docter, just like it was in the case of my first encounter with Brad Bird. We all like the same kind of films, we had similar experiences in the childhood, we are all fans of Johnny Quest... Anyway: while we were working on Up, I felt that a sequence had a kind of narrative "slope" in it. So, I suggested a little scene to keep up the rhythm of the film: a typical "kid moment" for Russell, where he shows his exuberance and infantile ingenuity. They liked my idea, and it was actually included in the film.

Now, talking about your most famous creation, it is necessary to mention your work on the TV series Lost.

I was involved in Lost thanks to J. J. Abrams: I already worked with him for Alias. Besides our professional relationship, I have a special friendship with J. J., I really owe him a lot. When I was contacted for Lost, the production firstly asked for a "jungle-y" kind of sound, something stereotypically joined with far away islands, tropical forests and so on. Luckily, they changed their mind, and J. J. allowed me to do everything I felt fitting for the show. I had an orchestra with 37 players, which is not bad for a TV production. So, I started developing the sound I wanted for Lost. I immediately decided to not use the horns: their sound is too familiar, and too much redolent of a "classical" repertoire. Instead, I kept the trombones: they can become really aggressive, "angry" instruments! Then, I excluded also the woodwinds, while I gave great space to the percussion section. In the recording of the score for the first episode of Lost, you can hear also the sound of ten pieces from the (real) crashed airplane that appears in the show.

Someone counted all the different themes that you used in Lost until this moment: they are sixty-five. How do you deal with a musical material of this vastness?

Sixty-five? I had no idea! Surely, Lost is like an opera: every character has a theme, and someone has even more than one. However, even with this basic intention, I always try to vary and change the musical materials, in order to keep the audience reactive: in a show like that music should not be too strictly linked to specific characters or situation, to avoid to make the narration predictable. What is essential for me is that the music for Lost should keep a distinct "sound" that makes it immediately recognizable. This intention of mine is perhaps linked to an experience that I had many times in my childhood... My parents used to send me to bed while they were watching TV in the lounge, so I was able to listen to the audio of the shows they were watching from my room. I often tried to guess what was the series that was being aired using only the music as a reference. I slowly became aware of the fact that the shows with the most recognizable "sound" were also the best shows. So, I wanted Lost to be like the series I... listened to when I was a child.

Your collaboration with J. J. Abrams continued also for the big screen: the latest result of your combined efforts in this field is the recent Star Trek. How did you deal with the long musical tradition of the Star Trek saga, when you wrote the score for this film?

When I realized that I was going to work on Star Trek, I felt an immense responsibility on my shoulders. I knew about the saga, and I knew especially the first two films, with their scores by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. Moreover, I have always been a great fan of Star Wars and of the music by John Williams. So I thought: now I have the opportunity to write some great "space" music, in the tradition of these historic composers! However, at the same time, I wondered if I would have been able to be up to such a task. As a matter of fact, the first theme I wrote for the film was not well received. However, after a conversation with Damon Lindelof (producer of Star Trek and writer of Lost), I got the right perspective on this assignment. Damon said to me: look, this Star Trek is not a "space" movie, it is basically the story of a friendship between two men. So, I changed my mind and I wrote something different from Star Trek and Star Wars. The music finally worked well. However, I am afraid I disappointed someone of the long-time fans of Star Trek, that perhaps were expecting something more familiar to them...

Besides the great productions, you have also been working on smaller projects, like short films for Pixar and for Disney. It has been suggestive to experience a faithful reconstruction of the sound of the classic cartoons from the 1940s in How To Hook Up Your Home Theater, that marked the return of the character of Goofy on the big screen. How did you manage to achieve such a result?

It was really interesting to work on that short film, as I had the possibility to go into the Disney archives and to study the sheet music by artists like Oliver Wallace or Frank Churchill. Moreover, as it happened back in the golden era of cartoons, I mixed various funny-sounding objects (whistles, hammers...) with the orchestral ensemble, to produce expressive noises, synchronized with the action on screen. Everything was done with great care, and I also had a lot of fun. I think that it is very likely that I will work on more shorts in the future.

Can you describe some of the "technical" details of your work (from the sketches to orchestration...)?

When I start a work, I firstly see the film. Then I go to the keyboard and, while seeing again the film, I start composing. I do not use pencil and paper anymore, but only digital devices: The Incredibles was the last film for which I worked in a "traditional" way. I compose and orchestrate at the same time: so, the sketches I send to my orchestrators are already almost complete. I do not have many collaborators, but a little team that I completely trust, and that can always understand my intentions very well. I must mention my sound engineer Dan Wallin and my orchestrator Jack Hayes: the first one is 81, the latter is 90, but they are more capable and energetic than many young people! As for the recording process, I prefer to have the whole orchestra playing at the same time: the separate recording of the different sections does not bring the same sensation of "presence". For the same reason, I avoid to use pre-recorded synthetic sounds: in Speed Racer, that features electric instruments, everything was played with the orchestra during the recording sessions.

2009 has been a year full of work for you: Star Trek, Up, Lost, Fringe... What are your next projects?

When I was a composer for videogames, I used to say to myself: I would be really great to make three films in a year! Now I did that (Star Trek, Up, Land of the Lost), and I say to myself... nevermore. I really worked too much, but I have a secret: I write fast. As for the future, it is likely that I will be involved in Brad Bird's first "live" film, 1906, about the S. Francisco earthquake. Then, I would like to record some pieces I was never able to include in CDs, like the music I wrote for Cloverfield. Or the Lost Symphony, that features various Suites, each one based on a different group of themes (there is, for example, a Suite for Locke). Or also my symphony Camden 2000, that was only once played by the Haddonfield Symphony during a charity concert in benefit of the association Heart of Camden, that works to improve the life conditions in the most degraded urban areas of that city of New Jersey. It is a work in three movements, that tells in music the story of Camden. However, I do not know when all these pieces will be recorded, I hope to find a producer that is interested in them.

And will the CD of Up be released, someday?

Unfortunately, it will not. The Walt Disney Company decided that, from now on, all the music from its films will be exclusively sold via digital download. I am personally sorry for that (I understand the point of view of collectors and film music fans), and this opinion is shared with many other people at Pixar. Also because of that, Pixar will try to enrich its digital downloads with special features that are not usually included in CDs, like documentaries, behind-the-scenes and so on.

One last question: can you reveal us how will Lost end?

Are you sure you really want to know about that right now?

Actually, no.

Good, you are very smart people!
(... And, to tell the truth, I still do not know it myself!)

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