In celebration of his 50th birthday, on Friday, October 20th, the Royal Albert Hall is hosting a one-off event, with a concert featuring music and film clips from his most famous works. Michael took some time out from his busy schedule to sit down with Starburst to discuss his career thus far.
STARBURST: It’s day one, you’re sat at your desk, you have a blank screen and a new film commission. What do you do first?
Michael Giacchino: I don’t start at a blank screen. I start with the movie, the knowledge of the story, and in the environment of where I am going to be taken. I am lucky that I often work with directors who have become my friends, so I often know their ideas in advance, and I often think that these ideas marinate and by the time I get the picture to write, I have already been living in this world.
How did you get started as a composer?
I went to film school and was planning on being a director/writer. My first job was in marketing and I ended up at Disney in their marketing department. While working, I started studying composition at Juilliard and then at UCLA when I moved to California. It was the early days of Disney’s Interactive division and I was moved into that department as a producer. I was able to write the music for some of the video games. From there I moved to the same position at Dreamworks where I was asked to write the temp music for a meeting my boss was having with Steven Spielberg for the video game of The Lost World. Steven happened to like it, hired me to write for that game and then for his Medal Of Honor games. I was just doing the best job that I could and fortunately, someone who would end up being a very important part of my career contacted me because he liked my video game music. That person was J.J. Abrams who played Medal Of Honor. I got an email from him introducing himself and saying that he was developing a new TV show called Alias and was wondering if I would be interested in meeting and talking about the possibility of doing the music. I actually thought it was one of my friends playing a prank, but it wasn’t. We met, and immediately hit it off. I worked on Alias, and then LOST. During that time, J.J. got his first feature directing job, Mission Impossible 3, and I worked with him on that, and so on.
Do you have themes and musical snippets all saved somewhere just for a moment when they might come in handy for a project?
No - I don’t really compile unused music for future use. I prefer to have the music be born out of the project.
As such a prolific composer, do you instantly know when you’ve hit upon a great theme or piece of music, and is it then a case of matching to right project?
I always write the music after I see the film, not before.
You’ve picked up the composer baton on several recent projects such as Rogue One, Star Trek and Jurassic Park. Is it more daunting or exciting to be presented with the opportunity to incorporate some well-known, and well-loved themes into a new score?
I have been so fortunate because I have worked on so many of the films and TV shows that captured my imagination as a kid. I’ve been able to work with two of the most iconic television themes in history, Star Trek, and Mission Impossible.
For Star Trek, J.J. and I agreed that we wouldn’t use Alexander Courage’s theme until the end credits of the first film, because this film was not about Star Trek as we know it. The crew needed to earn that iconic theme first, and it becomes a bonus at the end for the fans. It worked so well for the first film, we did the same in the second. But getting that main theme right in the first film, Enterprising Young Men, was quite a challenge. I was so caught up in it being a movie about space. It wasn’t until Damon Lindelof, a writer on the film said, just think of it as a story between two friends, it’s not a space film, it’s about two very different men who meet and develop a lifelong friendship. That advice really helped.
For Mission Impossible…I was so nervous. I actually had lunch with Lalo Schifrin when I got the job, who, by the way, wrote the absolute greatest theme ever, to talk about the project. I asked him should I do this, should I do that, do you have any advice? And he just looked up from his salad and said, “just have fun with it.” That made it a whole lot easier!
I always want to pay at least a little homage to the original work. Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams are giants and have created monumental scores for films like Apes and Star Wars. I feel it is really important to always honour that while creating something entirely new, something that works with the film we are making right now.
In recent years, you’ve moved from action films, to Pixar, and back again very quickly. How easy do you find it to get into the right mindset for each film?
Every film has its own story, its own emotions. It doesn’t matter what the genre, the process is the same. Pixar films have characters and storylines very similar to live action. I watch through a film and see what emotional reaction I have, then try to support the story telling with my music.
How is it being the first composer to follow the legendary John Williams on Star Wars?
I was incredibly honoured and humbled.
You only had four weeks to complete the Rogue One score – did you have to adapt your way of working given the short time period, or was it a case of “just getting on with it”?
I had been planning a vacation following Dr. Strange, after having finished Book Of Henry, Zootopia and Star Trek Beyond. But this was STAR WARS! And that original trilogy is one of the main reasons I am in the business that I am in today. As a kid, I was inspired not only by the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, but by John Williams and his fantastic score. I knew back then that I was going to work in film, and here was my chance to be a part of the Star Wars universe. I had to make it work, time crunch or not. I basically sat down and went to work as I normally do, creating themes for characters. Looking back, I think my adrenaline shot up so quickly, all I was thinking of was getting it done, and getting it done at a level that I would be happy with if I, as a fan, saw it in a theatre. I talked to my brother about it, and he said, “Come on, you’ve been writing this since you were 10 years old.” The magnitude of it didn’t really hit me until the first day of the recording sessions. We were at Fox, and we used the original Star Wars main title as a warm-up, to have some fun and test our mics. When those musicians started playing that music, I thought, “This is absolutely insane that I get to be doing this.” And then I got really scared. But everyone at Lucasfilm was so supportive, and we really ended up having a lot of fun during the sessions.
How was it joining the Marvel Universe with Doctor Strange and did you feel this was specifically the film for you to get involved with?
It was a combination of things. Or course, first and foremost, I have always been intrigued by the Marvel Universe. I used to go down to the local 7-11 convenience store to buy my comics - many of the Marvel Comics. Second, I remembered Dr. Strange from when I was young, and I liked that he was an unusual, not often seen, character from the Marvel World. I was completely fascinated by the supernatural world the character lived in. I also loved writing for Benedict Cumberbatch during Star Trek Into Darkness, so that was the perfect storm that I couldn’t pass up.
How involved are you in a project generally, as in do you visit the set or studios often to get a feel for the tone and atmosphere?
If I have the time, I really enjoy visiting the set, but that’s more about my love of the filmmaking process than going there to be inspired for tone or atmosphere. But it is always mind boggling when you are on set to acknowledge the sheer number of people that it takes to make these films. Since I work with many of the same directors over and over, I often have been speaking to them about their script a lot earlier than the usual time a composer would come in on the project. So, these ideas begin marinating in my brain and by the time I see the first cut, I have a good sense of what the story is that the director wants to tell. Then I watch the movie, and see what emotions come up for me, and explore what is happening in these characters minds. I then usually sit down and write a 10-minute suite that will encompass the various themes that were evoked for me. I share it with the director, we sit down and discuss and come to a common ground about where the film should go musically.
You have a penchant for puns in your score titles, “Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind” being one of our favourites. Do these just occur to you during composition?
Yeah, it’s become somewhat of a thing, and it is a group effort. It actually started when I was working on Alias with my music editor, Stephen Davis. We would have these little contests about who could come up with the best title for the cue. He won most of the time, because he is really great at it. When I started working on other films with different music editors, they wanted to keep it up. It became a little contest between all of us, and it’s something we continue to this day. Some people love them, and some consider it the lowest of humour.
For the Albert Hall event, how do you go about deciding which pieces to include, and in what order? There will be fan’s favourites, but also some of the best piece are hidden away in the score.
My sister and producer Maria (Giacchino) is shepherding the whole project so that I might have some surprises. But I know that she is trying to have a pretty complete retrospective of my work so far. Obviously due to time constraints we can’t have everything and we have created a couple of premiere pieces specifically for the show. I am going to share some of the conducting duties with my good friend Ludwig Wicki. In terms of getting those pieces that are hidden in the score—over the last few years, I have been creating full suites that touch on all the important elements of every film, so hopefully you will get to hear and recognize some of those as well.
How exciting is it to have your music played at such an iconic venue, with some pieces performed in front of a live audience for the first time?
We played the Royal Albert Hall in May of 2014, doing two shows of Star Trek and two shows of Star Trek Into Darkness live to picture. It was insane. We had many representatives of the production team in the audience because they were in town filming The Force Awakens. Being in that hall was a surreal experience, you walk through the corridors and see all the legends that have played there. The building is stunning, the ambience and seating is wonderful. There really isn’t any place like it. To be having my 50th Birthday there is a little unbelievable. The last retrospective of my music was back in 2012, and there have been a few more films since then.
Do you have anything special planned you can tell us about or are you keeping things secret until the night?
Some things are secret of course, I do want the element of surprise. A number of my filmmaking friends are joining me, I think the audience will enjoy that. Adam Savage, a good friend and former host of Myth Busters as our MC.
Thank you for your time and we’re looking forward to the concert.
Thank you. I am looking forward to being back in London, one of my favourite places!
Michael Giacchino at 50 - a special concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall - takes place on October 20th. Tickets are available here.