Michael Giacchino — whose music has energized “Up,” “Star Trek,” TV’s “Lost” and other projects for various media — says he’s a storyteller first and a musician second.
“As a film composer, your job is not to write music,” he says, “your job is to tell a story. I went to film school, and I have a fascination with the process, so it’s very important to me that everything works together. It’s not about what I’m doing; it’s about what this piece of art needs to help propel it to the next level.”
Ask any of his collaborators and you’ll get a similar story. They like working with the 43-year-old Edgewater Park, N.J., native so much that they’ll involve him early on, even at the story level before shooting.
“He understands character and structure,” says director J.J. Abrams. “So while it’s wonderful to work with him as a composer, I give him the scripts in advance and get his comments and notes and show him cuts and scenes and rough cuts of the whole piece, just to get his reaction.”
It was Abrams who took this little-known videogame composer (“Medal of Honor”) and, by offering him the ABC spy series “Alias” in 2001, boosted his profile into the mainstream. Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” with its exuberant, retro-’60s spy vibe, made him a bankable movie composer.
“If the music isn’t right, it can really ruin all of the other work that’s been done,” notes “Incredibles” writer-director Brad Bird from Prague, where he is shooting “Mission: Impossible IV” (which Giacchino will score next year). “If it’s great, it takes it and multiplies it by five.”
For Bird, that’s happened twice, first on “The Incredibles” and then on “Ratatouille,” whose wistful Gallic charm earned Giacchino his first Oscar nomination.
“Michael is more like an actor in the sense that he takes on a different character with every movie,” says Bird. “He’s very much of the mindset that each movie should have its own sound.”
Despite his Oscar-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning pedigree, Giacchino is notable for his attitude about what he’ll accept, regardless of the medium or the size of the budget. In the past year, he’s done a PBS documentary (“Earth Days”), a Pixar short (“Day & Night”), an animated holiday special (“Prep and Landing”) and a TV pilot (“Undercovers”) — all while scoring the entire final season of “Lost.”
“I gravitate towards things that get me excited,” he says, “something I can feel creative about. That could either be the story or the person that’s making it. It’s very hard for me to write something when I don’t feel anything. J.J. could call me up and say, ‘I’m directing a paper towel commercial’ and I would say yes, because it’s going to be an awesome paper towel commercial.”
“Feeling creative” was the reason for his surprising acceptance speech for “Up” at the Oscars in March in which he encouraged young people to pursue their artistic muses — just as his parents, both teachers, had encouraged him when he wanted to make 8mm movies at the age of 9.
“The thing that you love is going to be the thing that you do the best,” he says. Walking up to the stage that night at the Kodak Theater, he remembers thinking, “This life journey, culminating in this event, just validated my parents’ approach.”
He graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York and, hoping not only to make movies but score them too, started taking music classes at Juilliard. His day job involved movie publicity, first for Universal and then for Disney, and he wound up in L.A., working on vidgames for Disney and then DreamWorks Interactive.
It was his game music, initially a Steven Spielberg-approved orchestral score for the PlayStation “Lost World: Jurassic Park” game in 1997 and, two years later, the first “Medal of Honor” game, also for DreamWorks, that attracted Abrams and led to a meeting on the set of the “Alias” pilot. As Steve Schnur, worldwide exec for music at Electronic Arts (which acquired DreamWorks Interactive and continues the “Medal of Honor” series), puts it: “Thank God J.J. Abrams plays videogames.”
Giacchino is pretty much booked through 2012. Just out is his vampire movie “Let Me In” for “Cloverfield” director Matt Reeves; it features the Seattle Boys Choir. Next he tackles the comedy “Monte Carlo” for his “Family Stone” director Thomas Bezucha and the Seth Rogen-produced drama “I’m With Cancer.”
He’s already begun work on “Cars 2” for Pixar founder John Lasseter; he will finish in the spring. Abrams’ “Super 8,” “Mission: Impossible IV” and the sci-fi epic “John Carter of Mars” (directed by another Pixar vet, Andrew Stanton) will follow.
In the meantime, he is adapting John Williams’ themes for the refreshed “Star Tours” ride at Disneyland and has a commission for an original piece for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for next fall.
“That’s my problem,” Giacchino concedes. “If someone throws something fun at me, I’ll go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do this.’?”
Giacchino’s highlight reel, in his own words
Medal of Honor (vidgame, 1999):
“I remember sitting with (creator) Steven Spielberg and playing the main theme for him for the first time. He just turned to me and said, ‘You wrote the truth.’ He was on board with what I wanted to do.”
Alias (TV series, 2001):
“I will never forget that email from J.J., when he said, ‘My name is J.J. Abrams, I wrote ‘Armageddon’ and I’m starting this new series with ABC, would you be interested in meeting with me? Love your music.’ … I thought one of my friends was messing with me.”
The Incredibles (film, 2004):
“If ever there was a movie made for me, this was it. This (score) was my love letter to all the guys who wrote the music that I loved growing up – my way of thanking them.”
The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (TV movie, 2005):
“As big an influence as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ were, the Muppets were an equal inspiration. The Muppets taught me almost everything about humor, timing and music. I have this intense emotional connection to the Muppets.”
Mission: Impossible III (film, 2006):
“Having lunch with (original series composer) Lalo Schifrin was like asking someone if I could marry their daughter. I so wanted him to be proud of what that score was going to be. He was like a hero to me.”
Ratatouille (film, 2007):
“I loved writing the song (‘Le Festin’). I remember them putting a list of pop singers in front of me, (and) I was so frustrated. I thought we were going to be forced to use someone. I went on the internet, Googled “French vocalist,” found Camille and loved her voice instantly.”
Cloverfield (film, 2008):
“My disappointment in finding out there was to be no score. I was so upset because I love monster movies. I grew up on them. I went to J.J. and said, ‘You’ve got to have end credits, right? Let me write the score that would have been in the film and we can use it as an end-credits suite.'”
Star Trek (film, 2009):
“Terrifying on many levels. I was dealing with something that I loved as a kid, and I was so afraid of how I was supposed to portray that so that everybody would like it. I was having such a hard time, and Damon (Lindelof) said something that I never forgot: ‘You’re not writing (music for) a film about space ships, you’re writing about two guys who meet and become the best of friends.’ A crystallizing moment.”
Up (film, 2009):
“Seeing the ‘Married Life’ sequence for the first time. I just cried. Here you have this film, which is very funny and colorful with lots of adventure, but at its heart it’s telling you, ‘Don’t forget, this is what we’re all going to go through in our life.’ Ou
t of that feeling came the whole score.”
Academy Awards (music director, 2009):
“Conducting that live piece at the beginning of the show, when Hugh Jackman was singing with Anne Hathaway, I remember thinking: ‘How did I get myself into this mess?’ Bill Ross did the arrangement, and he’s a fantastic conductor; I’m like the clumsy guy. But the second I looked up and saw my players, I felt totally confident because I knew they wouldn’t let me down.”