There are folks in Hollywood who hitch their wagons to the right horses, and then there's Michael Giacchino.
A former video game composer who could have continued to enjoy a successful career in that medium, Giacchino changed his trajectory in 2001 when another young up-and-comer, J.J. Abrams, not only enlisted him to compose the music for more than 100 episodes of the hit show 'Alias,' but some 40 or so episodes of 'Fringe' and the complete 'Lost.' Nine years, countless films and an Oscar later, he is a marquee name among the collaborators on 'Let Me In,' writer-director Matt Reeves' remake of the critically-acclaimed Swedish film 'Let the Right One In.'
Giacchino, of course, isn't merely a beneficiary of good timing, or lucky partnerships; his versatility and inventiveness has been demonstrated in everything from 'Mission: Impossible III' to 'Speed Racer' to 'Star Trek.' Cinematical sat down with the composer in Austin at Fantastic Fest, where he was attending a premiere screening of 'Let Me In.'
In addition to talking about taking chances, creating something memorable and moving, and finding the right balance between bombast and subtlety, Giacchino reflected on his influences, his impulses, and his interests as he continues to define himself as one of the industry's finest composers of film and television music.
The score for 'Let Me In' seems like it was tricky because it was really melancholy and introspective, and those are things you have to sort of get just right. What were the challenges of composing the music for the film'?
It was a really tough kind of balancing act for me. I was always trying to say, "let's take music out!" and Matt [Reeves] was like, "no, put it in!" So there was always this kind of back and forth that we had together. But when Matt first called me and said "I'm doing this horror film," I had never seen the original. I'm not really into horror movies, I don't like blood and guts and all that stuff -- where horror has kind of gone these days -- but I love Matt. In my mind I was thinking it's not a film that I would normally want to do. But there was something in my mind also telling me that Matt's doing it, so it's probably going to be interesting, and there will be something emotional about it, which I always gravitate to. So I went and I saw it and it was nothing like I thought it was going to be, and what struck me was how emotional it actually was. Like I said, I had never seen the original, and I still haven't seen it, but I figured once this is out and over, then I'm going to watch it. But it was tricky finding the right balance of, well, should this be scary? Or should this be sentimental? Or should it be emotional? Or should it be this? It was a weird balance because you're dealing with a dynamic that is quite questionable as far as what everyone's intentions are in the film.
Do you think at all about the conventions of the genre you're working in when you start composing, or do you ignore that and just work from the script?
Well, usually, prior to seeing it, my mind will be swimming in the genre that it is. But generally what ends up happening is once I see something, I basically just write what I feel. If I watch a scene or a film and in parts of it, I'm feeling incredibly sad, that's what I write. If I feel horrified or scared, that's what I write. So I generally go in the direction of whatever it is that I'm actually feeling, so that the music in a way is my way of showing you how I felt when I watched it. And for the most part, I'm able to do that fairly successfully in line with what the director wants. There are times, of course, when I'm like, "I feel sad," but they're like, "no – I'm totally scared!" And we work that out and try to find the balance of what that means.
Do you have a particular composer or era of horror score composition that you enjoy or gravitate to? 'Goblin,' for example, is heavily rock-influenced, while Morricone's stuff in the '70s was really beautiful, which made it really creepy.
I think Jerry Goldsmith did a good job at that too, and 'Poltergeist,' I just love that score so much. I think he did such an amazing job of making it beautiful and frightening, and I think you've got to have both, because I'm not a big fan of films where it's just all scary all of the time. I think you need both; for a story to work you've got to have some downs for the characters, and a lot of horror films these days are just all shock and blood and craziness, and the music reflects that. It just keeps going. Again, in 'Poltergeist,' you have Carol Ann's theme, which is awesome -- and that's what you remember from that film! I mean, scary stuff is all well and good, but it's not stuff that you generally remember. But that thing that touches you emotionally is the thing that really [sticks with you].
Do you tend to write in any particular tradition? Like do you come up with Wagnerian themes for each character?
Yeah. I tend to apply themes to almost every character or situation. When I was a kid, I used to love listening to soundtracks, and I could identify themes of characters and/or things, and then in my mind I could almost relive the film. And then when I would listen to classical music or something like that, I would just make up my own movie in my head and apply characters to the themes and motifs that I was listening to. I think that's why I do it now, because of when I was a kid listening to things, and now it's, I don't want to say habit, but it's just what feels right to me. So in here you have Owen and Abby's theme and you have a theme for the policeman, and I loved working them in all together. In my mind, I think the perfect soundtrack is one you can listen to and relive the story in your head and follow the whole curve of the story line.
'Lost' is a show where you were able to really evoke themes and emotions with really small pieces of music, or just a few notes. Do you feel like the sophistication of audiences now makes it easier for you to create the same tone with shorter or simpler music?
Yeah, I think it does help that people are a little more savvy. I think it's also a constraint you have in television; a scene on TV might play out at a certain length, and if it were in a movie it might be double that length because you have the luxury of telling [a story] over two hours as opposed to 40 minutes. So there's a little bit of that involved, and I also look at music as a way of communicating. If you were with somebody that something terrible just happened to -- if you were with your buddy and something awful just happened to them, would you sit there and just scream at them, "Oh my God! That's terrible!" You wouldn't do that. You would be very quiet and very kind of reassuring, and the simpler you are, the better it's going to make them feel. I think music does the same thing -- the simpler it is, the more people will want to listen and people will want to feel comfortable with you. And that's something I try to do -- well, you don't always do that -- but with emotional themes, it's just like the simpler the better, and people will just be drawn in and forget the music and be sucked in by the characters and the story. That's the hope, anyway.
I'm sure that with any composer there are certain similarities between their scores, no matter what sorts of films they work on. But do you have to be strategic to make sure you not only do different sorts of things, but are able in the future to do more of them?
Yeah, absolutely. You have to be very picky and very choosy and you say no a lot -- and that's okay. Because I only want to work on things with people I like and on stories that I like. I never want to do something that doesn't interest me. I never want to work on something that I don't like just because it's a paycheck. You know, I look at John Williams' career, and I'm always just so amazed at how he jumps from this kind of film to that kind of film, and he was always picky and choosy -- and again, there's a guy that just could have done any kind of every film under the sun if he had wanted to. So I just kind of used him as a model for how I would approach this; if I were ever lucky enough to do a few films a year, I would try and be really picky. It's why I work with Brad Bird on a regular basis, and J.J. [Abrams], and some of these guys. Because I really trust them and I like them, and what's better than just making things with your friends?
At what point do you have to follow your instincts as a composer, even when they may clash with the expectations of your collaborators?
The reason I like working with Brad Bird and J.J. is because they offer me a lot of freedom to do what I think. There's a lot of creativity in that as opposed to someone who's just telling you something. Or the Pixar guys are very much into, look, you're a part of this creation as well so what is your contribution? They want that. I don't like working with people that don't want that, that just say, "Make it sound like this." I will never do that. But even outside my group, [there are similar] things I look for, like when the Wachowski brothers called and said, "Would you work on 'Speed Racer' with us?" I'm a massive 'Speed Racer' fan, and I loved working on that film and I loved working with those guys. They were people I'd never worked with before, and I recognized them as someone who would want to do something different and unique, and they were the greatest people to work with. When I'm going outside of my comfort zone, I'm always looking for people like that who will allow some kind of fun and creativity, or a project that is like, "Oh my God -- I loved that as a kid!"
When you see a filmmaker like J.J. doing a pet project like 'Super 8' or Christopher Nolan when he does 'Inception,' do you feel like their freedom and originality emboldens you to take more risks or be more creative?
Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes film directors, the more money they get, the worse quality of work they do, and I think that constraints are a good thing. I think that's why in many ways 'Lost' was successful, because there was no way of stepping out of that box. You were in that box and you had to make it work with what you had. I think J.J. likes to put himself in a box like that, where he tries to make a world that he can fit in something that makes him be creative. I like working with people who get to a point where they say, now here's the story that I want to tell, and let's do it in a different way.
Are there folks who are working now that you feel are doing good work, or are impressing you?
Musically? You know, it's hard, because I don't get to see as much stuff as I used to, and I don't get to listen to as much stuff as I used to. This is going to sound silly, but I always liked what Julian Nott did on the 'Wallace & Gromit' shorts -- I loved his stuff. Chris Tilton, who used to work for me, I think he's doing some really interesting stuff on 'Fringe;' he's taken that over and he's doing some great stuff. And I like working with guys who actually care about live musicians. That's my big thing, because a lot of those guys out there now don't know what the hell they're doing; they wouldn't know a C from a D if they looked at a piano. And they certainly wouldn't know what a violin can do as opposed to a viola, and that to me is frustrating -- that the music is being turned into something that you just pull from a box. I don't like that. I really want guys to come up that are actually musical, and care about live players and what they actually bring to the table.
Given all of the different types of scores you've done, are there any kinds of scores or pieces of music that you feel like you haven't been able to compose or create yet?
You know, I used to have a whole list of those, and now I feel like, okay, I did 'Star Trek,' I did 'The Incredibles,' and now I'm thinking, what's left? I love monster movies, and I did 'Cloverfield,' but that was more a suite for the end of the film, and I think that's one of the things I would love to do -- a giant monster movie. Everything in 'Cloverfield' was emotional, but it didn't have a score, and I love that kind of stuff. But I would also like to try something small and simple and emotional; 'Lost' at times was that, but it was also much bigger, and I would love to do a story about a couple of people with something wrong in their lives and see what happens there. Because I've never done that kind of thing -- a very small type of score like that.