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Inside the Music

A Q&A with Michael Giacchino, Composer Extraordinaire

A candid image of Michael Giacchino wearing a yellow jacket and glasses, looking down and smiling.

You may not know how to say his name, but you have heard his music. Michael Giacchino (juh-KEY-no) is the composer behind many of the most beloved films and television shows of this generation. His credits include UpCocoThe Incredibles, RatatouilleJojo RabbitRogue One: A Star Wars Story and Lost. But Giacchino takes particular pride in Werewolf by Night, the 2022 feature that marked his directorial debut. On Wednesday, October 4, the Orchestra will present the first live-in-concert performance of Giacchino's score as the film plays above the stage. To honor the occasion, we asked Giacchino about his life in music and film, and the process of composing a score.


Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs on the outskirts of Philadelphia, what were some of your earliest or most formative musical and cinematic memories?

Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes entranced and scared the heck out of me. Max Steiner’s King Kong ruled my love of stop motion. John Williams’ Star Wars sealed the deal for my love of film scores, but I think Raiders [of the Lost Ark] really took me over the top. I was 13 when it opened the summer of 1981 and must have seen it about a dozen times. I even snuck a tape recorder into the theater so I could replay it every night as I drifted to sleep.

I bought the soundtrack on vinyl and later purchased a second LP that contained not only the score, but the dialogue and sound effects as well. That album was instrumental in teaching me how those three things—music, dialogue, sound effects—can and should live together in one space on the screen. At that time, mixing for film was at its height in terms of clarity and storytelling. If you go back to Raiders and take a listen, you can hear every Ben Burtt effect, you can hear all of John’s music—it works together beautifully. I had this incredible education just because of this listening experience, and everything I did going forward was compared and held up against those mixes from back then.

Something we hear a lot from audiences who attend our Movies & Music series is: “Wow, I forgot that there are actual composers and orchestras behind these soundtracks!” In your mind, what is the role of music in a film?

I see my job as a musical storyteller working closely with my director—and when I talk with the directors about the film we don’t talk about music, we talk about story. My goal is to create the musical landscape that best serves the story being told and to relay the emotion of the characters. For example, someone could be running, but are they scared? Are they happy? Are they determined? All of these things must be understood in order for the music to be effective.

Funny story: when Brad Bird hired me to compose for my first feature, The Incredibles, he said, “Now listen, your music can ruin my film.” And I thought, “I sure hope not.” “What I mean,” he said, “is that if you and I aren’t working together on this hand in hand, your music could take the audience to a place we don’t want them to go.”

I think that is the best advice I could have gotten—you don’t work in a vacuum as a film composer. You are part of a larger team working on the most collaborative art form there is.

Of course, when you score a film or video game that is part of the Marvel or Jurassic Park franchises, there is a lot of musical history already established. Is there a difference in your approach when you compose for an already established TV or film series versus one that’s new?

Not really. Because you are creating something new for that particular film, it doesn’t matter that it was part of a franchise—the director and the composer have to approach their project as something new. Of course, you may pay homage and work with famous themes, but the score really has to be about the film that you are making, not the film that was already made.

For example, when I did the first Star Trek, J.J. Abrams and I agreed that we wouldn’t use Alexander Courage’s theme until the end credits of the film, because this film was not about Star Trek as we knew it. The crew in our story needed to earn that iconic theme first. We were starting from scratch, and so it becomes a bonus at the end for the fans.

However, this new theme became one of the most difficult pieces I ever had to write. I grew up watching the old series. I was so excited about being attached to the project. I thought: now I have the opportunity to write some great space music! I started composing a year ahead of the film’s release, but I was having trouble composing music that satisfied me. My original cues were written in the style of a "space opera," and they just didn’t feel right for the type of movie that we wanted to do. Finally, I had a conversation with Damon Lindelof, one of the film’s producers. Damon said, "Let’s forget about Star Trek. The Star Trek movie we want to do is not a space movie—it is the story of how two people meet and become best friends. It’s a movie about friendship." Suddenly it was clear to me. The next theme I wrote, Enterprising Young Men, ended up in the film, and it finally felt true to all of us.

Giacchino's Greatest Hits

Of everything you have worked on—the Minnesota Orchestra itself has played Ratatouille, Up, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Coco live-to-filmyou seem to take a certain pride in Werewolf by Night, your directorial debut. What inspired you to undertake this project?

Wow, I think you have done all of my live to picture projects! That’s fantastic.

I have been making movies since I was a kid and went to film school for college. After about 20 years of composing, I really wanted to go back to that first love. I had made a short called Monster Challenge a few years prior and also had a chance to direct the animated Star Trek short Ephraim and Dot. I was still itching to do something bigger. I was talking to [president of Marvel Studios] Kevin Feige about it at some point and he said, “If you had a chance to direct something what would you want to do?” And I answered: “In the Marvel Universe? Werewolf by Night, hands down.” I knew it as a kid and I still have my comics.

I loved monster movies growing up. To me, they are allegories for people with problems. Every time I would watch King Kong or The Wolf Man, and everyone would be chasing them with torches, trying to kill them, I would always feel so badly for them. I’m thinking: guys, he doesn’t want to be doing this! He doesn’t want to be rampaging! He’s got a problem and he needs help. I wanted to be able to explore that.

Werewolf by Night has been celebrated for its bold stylistic choices. Watching the film, it feels like it is from the middle of the 20th-century. How would you describe the aesthetic experience of watching the film, and what qualities of that experience were you looking to evoke in writing its soundtrack?

I wanted to evoke those Saturday afternoons watching Creature Double Feature with my younger brother in our house in South Jersey. From the very beginning, I wanted it to be in black and white. There was skepticism about this so it was filmed in color, but we had a special monitor that allowed me to see what it was going to look like in case the monochrome plan was approved.

We were doing something totally new and different within the Marvel Universe, and I wanted it to be bold and I didn’t want to worry about connecting it to something else.”

As we were editing, my editor Jeff Ford, who is as much of a nerd for all the old films as I am, always approached it as if it was something that was being done in the 30s—for example, the cigarette burns for reel changes. We did as many practical effects as we could. We built all real sets, so everything you see up there is real. Our visual effects supervisor, Joe Farrell, did an incredible job of taking care of everything else that we needed. But there weren't any blue screens or green screens and there weren't sticks with tennis balls saying, "Hey, that's a monster. Look at that." We had the monster on set for reference. That was really important because I wanted the actors to feel like they were in an actual environment so they could be free to go about the work of creating these characters for us to experience on film, and not be distracted by having to imagine what was around them.

By our third cut, Kevin was convinced that it should be black and white as well. Because of the black and white, I think we were able to push a little further into that "bloody" direction than we might have if we had done it in color—it just looks like part of the fun. (I should note, however, that Disney+ will release it in color this Halloween season, in addition to the black and white version. Should be interesting.)

It’s certainly different to hear a soundtrack played over loudspeakers in a cinema than it is to hear it live in a concert hall. When it comes to Werewolf by Night, what will a concertgoer experience at Orchestra Hall that they might not be able to by watching the movie at home?

First of all, I’m very excited that people will have a chance to see this on a big screen. We only showed this at a handful of festivals before it went to Disney+, so this will be a treat. But more importantly being able to listen to the incredible musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra play live is the main event. These are people who have dedicated years of practice in order to be sitting in those chairs in front of an audience and their work should be appreciated. I always say that the notes are only black dots on paper which don’t come alive until a player sits down and does what they have been training their whole life to do. So enjoy the film for sure, but every once in a while look down and watch the orchestra. Feel free to clap for the heroes and yell at the villains, too. I want everyone to have a blast.

Wishing everyone there, including my friend, conductor Sarah Hicks, a wonderful show!

As Michael suggests, come enjoy the film on October 4 at the not-so-frighteningly late time of 7 p.m.! Partake in a pre-concert $6 happy hour and, after the credits roll, enjoy an onstage reception with musicians.

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