Composer Michael Giacchino’s summer crescendo
Everywhere you turn this summer, it seems impossible to miss the music of Hollywood’s hottest composer.
Michael Giacchino wrote the music for “Star Trek,” which is about to surpass “Monsters vs. Aliens” as the year’s biggest-grossing movie to date. He’s also written the music for Disney-Pixar’s animated “Up,” which opened Friday, and for “Land of the Lost,” the Will Ferrell-with-dinosaurs comedy that opens this Friday.
Even if you aren’t headed to the multiplex, chances are you’ve been exposed to Giacchino’s music. He writes the weekly scores for ABC’s “Lost,” supervises the music for Fox’s “Fringe” and was music director for this year’s Academy Awards telecast.
“It’s been an incredibly busy couple of years. I feel like I just went through a tornado -- in the best of ways,” says the 41-year-old composer in his new, still mostly unfurnished office in Sherman Oaks, where stacks of music from recent projects sit in piles on a desk. “I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I really only work on things that I know I’m going to be passionate about, that are going to drive me to be creative.”
Giacchino was creating music for video games (The Lost World, Medal of Honor) when he was discovered by “Star Trek” director J.J. Abrams -- who’s just a bit hot himself -- while he was preparing to launch the ABC spy series “Alias.” Abrams liked Giacchino’s game music and offered him the job of scoring Jennifer Garner’s globe-trotting adventures. “Lost” followed in 2004; then came Abrams’ first feature, “Mission: Impossible III,” in 2006.
“Michael is not only an exceptional composer, he also has an amazing, acute sense of story,” Abrams says. “He is someone who I talk through story with, who I show early scenes to, who I will show a script at a very early stage to. He is as valuable as a producer as he is a musician and composer.”
On “Star Trek” -- the biggest minefield of his three summer films, because of the baggage and fan expectations -- Giacchino started composing a year ago and quickly ran into a creative wall trying to write “space adventure music” to match the classic themes of five TV series and 10 movies.
Only when “Star Trek” co-producer (and “Lost” show-runner) Damon Lindelof suggested that Giacchino reset his thinking to the idea that it was “a story about two guys who become best friends” was the composer freed to come up with themes. For Kirk he offered “a sense of building, and of inevitability,” says Abrams, and for Spock “something sad,” says Giacchino, “with a voice that felt alien, not of our place,” that led to the choice of the Chinese stringed erhu as lead instrument.
“Up” -- which Oscar prognosticators are already predicting will garner Giacchino his second Academy Award nomination (after the 2007 Pixar film, “Ratatouille”) -- demanded a more forthrightly emotional approach. The music has already been hailed by several major critics.
Carl, the film’s 78-year-old protagonist (voiced by Ed Asner), embarks on an unlikely, balloon-driven journey to South America, where he and his wife, Ellie, had always planned to go. Giacchino wrote a nostalgic, wistful and sometimes (depending on the scene) bittersweet waltz for the couple.
“Ellie doesn’t last long in the film, but we needed her spirit to last, so that theme is the existence of Carl and Ellie’s life, be it physically, spiritually, emotionally, all those things that we needed to tell the story,” the composer says. “And it needed to grow into something heroic and brave, because the film is about being brave enough to let go of things.”
That memorable waltz is what moviegoers will be humming as they leave the theater. But there are other themes, including one for 1930s-era adventurer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) heard in a faux newsreel at the start of the film and in a period-style song (with lyrics by Giacchino) during the end credits; and another for stowaway Wilderness Explorer Russell, whose counter-melodies represent funny dog Dug and the rare bird Kevin.
The fantasy-comedy “Land of the Lost” -- like “Trek,” another big-screen adaptation of a TV series -- was another assignment Giacchino couldn’t resist. He and director Brad Silberling are neighbors in the Valley whose children trick-or-treat together every Halloween; when Silberling approached Giacchino about the film, the answer came in three words: “Count me in” -- this despite the fact that it was happening around the same time as “Trek” and “Up.”
“My brother and I watched this show religiously,” says Giacchino. “Sid and Marty Krofft were these mysterious gods who put out all this weird stuff. We seriously loved ‘H.R. Pufnstuf,’ ‘Lidsville,’ ‘Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.’ We’d be like, who thinks of this?” he says with a laugh. Giacchino’s three children, ages 11, 9 and 4, had already seen all the episodes at Dad’s insistence even before the film came up.
Giacchino’s music had to play the action straight. “I hate it when music is trying to be funny, to make up for what’s not on screen. It never works,” he says.
“Michael’s music heightens the situational stakes, the emotional stakes,” adds Silberling. “He brought the perfect musical fabric, a great sense of rhythm and color, to go along with a really crazy, psychedelic film.”
The composer’s affection for the traditions of Hollywood film music is obvious, as every conversation is laced with references to classic scores, from “Kings Row” and “Peter Pan” to “Planet of the Apes” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
It’s that reverence for the past that led Giacchino to seek out two of his regular collaborators: 82-year-old Dan Wallin, the mixing engineer on such classic scores as “Bullitt” and “Out of Africa,” and 90-year-old orchestrator Jack Hayes, who worked with such greats as Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein as far back as the 1950s. “The sound that they created for films is partly what drew me to this job,” he says.
At the end of a pressure-filled two years, however, Giacchino is ready to take some time off. “I need to decompress and rediscover all the other things I loved about making movies,” he says, hinting without specifics that his extracurricular activities in that still-empty office space will deal with filmmaking but not necessarily music. He will, however, compose the sixth and final season of “Lost” starting this fall, he says.
Director Brad Bird, who hired Giacchino for Pixar’s “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” says he understands the composer’s need to step back and recharge -- but he’s going to insist that Giacchino score his next film, the live-action “1906,” set in San Francisco and now in pre-production.
Says Bird: “The feeling with Michael is like being a kid and going over to your best friend’s place to play. He can throw on a cape as well as cowboy boots, or whatever is required, to have fun.”