Michael Giacchino on Super 8, John Carter and Mission: Impossible
In less than ten years, Michael Giacchino went from being an obscure composer for video games like Medal of Honor to one of the most famous film composers the world over, having written the iconic themes to such movies as The Incredibles, Speed Racer, Star Trek, Up (for which Giacchino won his first Oscar) and Super 8, which premieres on DVD and Blu-Ray today. The self-described nerd was such a cool individual I never wanted to stop the interview. We had a great time talking about his score for Super 8, his history of directing his own films, his perilous journey out of video game composing and into the world of features and TV, his favorite scores and what his new themes for John Carter and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol are going to sound like. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
CraveOnline: I was looking up your Twitter account, and you describe yourself as “a nerd composer who sometimes composes for nerds.”
Michael Giacchino: Yes, actually it turns out I’m a nerd composer who “always” composes for nerds. [Laughs] But I didn’t want to be that presumptuous.
You don’t want to limit yourself. Eventually you’re going to get a stuffed shirt out there. What do you nerd out about?
Me? To give you an example, I’ve become friends with Harrison Ellenshaw. I’m not sure if you know who Harrison Ellenshaw is?
Not offhand, no…
He’s a wonderful painter. He’s matte painter. He did a lot of matte paintings for the early Star Wars movies. And is father, Peter Ellenshaw, was kind of the most famous matte painter of his day before Harrison. So, visual effects and special effects and movie effects, all of that stuff, I’m a huge nerd about. I love, love the process of filmmaking and what goes into it, and all the different crafts that are involved, because it’s just such an artistic jumble of people that everywhere you look there’s some different, amazing talent that you’re witness to. So for me, the whole filmmaking. I’ve always been a film nerd. I love all that stuff. Visual effects and miniatures and stop motion and all of the crazy stuff. That’s what I did growing up. So I have an affinity for all the projects I seem to work on. They’re the types of films I would have loved to have gone to see as a kid. Between Super 8 and Star Trek and all the Pixar stuff. I mean, that’s what I want to see! Take me there. So in that sense, I feel like I never grew up, in away. Never left that whole ten-year-old mentality. Certainly working with the people that I work with on a regular basis, they have a very similar approach. So it’s nice. We all get along, we all have a great time doing it.
I saw on the Blu-Ray, there’s a great special feature on you composing the score and it showed some of your own old Super 8 movies.
Do you have a lot of those?
I do. I have a ton of those. I started making movies when I was probably nine years old. My dad gave me his Regular 8 camera and I made them all the way through. I went to film school, and I even still make them today, with my son. We’re still making stuff together. So it’s always been stuff that I loved doing, whether as a kid or even now, just on the side, as a fun hobby in between film scores.
Have you thought about turning that into more than a hobby? Getting behind the camera?
Oh, I don’t know. Maybe some day if it ever made sense. If something came up that I felt like, yes, I have to do that, that would be… If it worked out, that would be great, but I’m not going crazy trying to find a job directing.
Not too many people make that transition.
Yeah, I mean I love writing music and I love doing what I do, being involved in a lot more ways than most composers are involved in the production of these films. Which is fun for me, to be involved in at a very early stage and be there as it’s being developed, being written and shot. I love hanging out on the set with them, and watching how it’s going, so I feel like I have a pretty great job as it is. But who knows? If something came up, that would be fun. You never know. I’ll never say never.
You’ve worked with J.J. Abrams a lot. Starting on ‘Alias?’
What was your first meeting like? Did he request you, were you auditioning for a gig?
My first meeting happened because I’d been working on a lot of video games at the time. I’d done a series of video games called Medal of Honor, and I did this one for The Lost World. Steven Spielberg was directing that movie at the time so we made the video game version of that. And I had gone through several video games, thinking, god, how can I get into TV? Because I go on these interviews and nobody would hire me because they said I was “a video game composer,” and video game composers don’t know how to write film music or TV music.
Which was really ridiculous, but that’s how a lot of this town is. You are quick to be pigeonholed, and shoved into that hole. I remember feeling down about how I couldn’t make headway in that area, and I got an e-mail out of the blue from some guy named J.J. Abrams, saying that, “Hey, I wrote Regarding Henry, and I did this and that and Armageddon, and I’m about to direct my first show for ABC. Would you be interesting in coming and talking to me about it?” And he said, “I love your music.” I said, what? How does he know my music? It turns out that he and his friends all played the video games that I worked on, and he really liked it. He had a good friend who was a producer and writer at the time, on Alias, named Jesse Alexander who loved the Medal of Honor series and gave J.J. all the soundtracks. And that was it. He called me literally out of the blue. I had never done a TV show before, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. I met with him and found that we were so similar it was like finding a lost brother. We both had the same sensibilities: the same artistic sense, the same kind of dramatic sense, we both loved the same movies, we both made movies growing up, all of that. So we had a lot to talk about outside of just what we could do on this project. I’ve been with him ever since.
You haven’t done a video game in a while. Was your last one ‘Fracture?’
Even that I think I just worked on the main theme, and then Chris [Tilton] and Chad [Seiter] did most of that one. I think the last one that I really did was the last Medal of Honor, Medal of Honor Airborne. I think that was probably the last full one that I did.
Would you go back to video games for the right franchise?
I don’t know. I mean, I can almost guarantee you that I’ve written more World War II music than anyone on Earth. When you add it all up I’ve written more music than anybody in the vein of World War II genre stuff. So I feel like I’ve done that, and a lot of my friends who I used to work with, who make games, don’t necessarily make games anymore. They have gone on to do other things. A lot of the reason I was doing those projects is because I loved the people I was working with, so… I’m not a gamer. I’m terrible at video games. I don’t have the patience to sit there…
I imagine you don’t have the time…
I don’t have the time either, but even if I did I’m not the kind of person that will sit down and just play those things forever. I remember the only Medal of Honor game I ever played was the very first one. I played halfway through the first level and I died, and I was like, “Alright, that’s it. I can’t do this anymore.” It’s just not a passion for me. I can understand why people would love them but what attracted me to those projects was the subject matter. I love history so that was fun for me to go in and write music for something that I had always been interested in, which is World War II and historical events.
I can talk to you about that all day but I’ve got to focus a little bit more on ‘Super 8.’ You said in the special features that the first piece of music you composed was for the looming weirdness in the film…
Yeah… We were talking about, I had had a conversation early on, after I had written a bunch of themes for it, and J.J. and I had gone through this, and Steven [Spielberg] would ask me, “So how many themes do you have?” You know, it’s scary how much Steven knows about film music. He’s so smart about it. He has instant recall on every melody and every composer known to man. It’s unbelievable. I like to think that I know a lot about it, but when I’m talking with him I get nervous because I’m like, wow, this is somebody who knows a lot. So he was asking me how many themes, and I go, well, there’s a theme for this and that… He goes, “What about a monster theme?” And I was like, “Well, I didn’t really write a monster theme.” He’s like, “Really?” “Yeah, I felt like the movie wasn’t necessary about the monster. In my mind, the movie is about the kid and his relationship with his father.” I said, “There will of course be scary music. There will be scary monster-ish music.” But as far as a theme for that monster, the closest we got to that was that weird ‘Dun-nuh-NUH-nuh’ thing, where you’ll hear and go, “Something weird-slash-magical-slash-terrifying is, could happen at any moment.” And that’s how we opened the film, with that. I just went from there.
Obviously besides John Williams, there were a lot of classic sci-fi/fantasy scores in the 1980s. I was a big ‘Last Starfighter’ fan myself. I was wondering what your favorites were.
Well, I love Star Trek 2. Of course Star Wars, I don’t even need to mention that, because that was what ultimately got me into seriously listening to film music, was that album. Close Encounters was a huge one for me. I love that. Back to the Future.
Alan Silvestri’s score is amazing.
Yeah, Alan Silvestri was great. And of course James Horner, back then, growing up, he was amazing. He’s still amazing. Actually, I was listening to The Rocketeer the other day and I was like, “God, that is so good.” It’s just so perfectly great. I was listening to a string of things, but I was also listening to tons of old music. My dad had an extensive record collection which I would go through and listen to, like Lawrence of Arabia, and The Music Man and My Fair Lady and all of these other things as well. I think what always attracted me to the older stuff too was the use of melody and live players. I just fell in love with that at an early age.
What is ‘John Carter’ going to sound like?
Hopefully it sounds like Barsoom (which is Martian for “Mars). Hopefully it sounds like the epic, massive story that it is. That’s really what we want. It’s really a romantic, epic tale. I didn’t to be afraid to do that. This is going to be big, epic, romantic, frightening and also emotional. It was one of those things when you hear of a film being made and you go, “Well, I have to do that.” That was one of those ones. I’m a huge fan of Andrew Stanton, and while I’ve known him for many years we’ve never worked together in that capacity. So it was fun to get to know him even better as a creative collaborator. I just had such a great time working with him, and I’m really proud of what he’s done on his first live-action film. Which actually, the same for Brad Bird. You know, his first live-action film Mission: Impossible [Ghost Protocol]… Youwould never know that these guys had never made a live-action film before by watching these movies. You would think that they had done a hundred of them. It’s really impressive, and I think their years at Pixar have really prepped them for this.
Do you have your own take on the ‘Mission: Impossible’ theme?
Yeah. Lalo Schifrin, for me, is one of my favorite composers as well. I’m lucky enough to say that I’m friends with him, and I’ve met with him, and we’ve talked about the music. We’ve gone over all that. I’m always asking what should or shouldn’t I do? He was like, “Look, just have fun with it. Don’t worry about it. Just have fun with it.” And I’m a big fan of using that theme in the film itself too, because I think it’s so special, and I think it’s probably one of the greatest themes ever written.
It’s so propulsive. It just gets it started. Love it.
So the film is chock full of fun references to it amongst all this other new stuff that I did. So it was a lot of fun to do.
Real fast, I have to ask: Where do you keep your Oscar?
You know, it’s sitting right next to my Kermit doll in my office, on a shelf sitting amongst a bunch of stuffed animals from my childhood. So it’s kind of sitting there, nowhere out in the open, just kind of amongst other fun things.