IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Composer Michael Giacchino talks 'Cars 2' and more

Wednesday, 29 June 2011 08:48 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Composer Michael Giacchino talks 'Cars 2' and more

You may not know him by name … but you definitely know his music. Academy Award winning film composer Michael Giacchino has written some of the most recognizable themes in film and on television in the last decade including Lost, Mission: Impossible III, The Incredibles, Star Trek, Cloverfield, Ratatouille, and Up, which earned him his Oscar. He’s also composed the scores for two of the biggest hits of the summer, director J.J. AbramsSuper 8, and the Pixar sequel Cars 2, which opened last weekend and earned over $66 million in its debut.

I recently had a chance to sit down and speak with composer Michael Giacchino about his work on Cars 2, his impressive career, the craft of composing, collaborating with directors, and a few of his upcoming projects. Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, coming on to a sequel like this and stepping in for Oscar winning composer Randy Newman who wrote the music for the first film, were you nervous at all about scoring the movie or did you feel like you had a lot of freedom on the project because the film is so much different in tone and story than the first one?

Michael Giacchino: I think I did have the advantage of knowing that the film was not going to be like the first one. It was going to be very different because it was going to be so new and they were going to all these different places doing things they hadn't done in the first film. Randy set up the most beautiful musical landscape for the first film. He did such an amazing job. I'm a huge fan of Randy Newman. He's like, to me, one of the best storytellers working today. Not just musical, he's just a great storyteller, his songs are incredible, and his music is wonderful. I felt like “Wow, I don't want to lose what he did for Radiator Springs as far as a feeling. That was always important to both John and I.  When you're in Radiator Springs, it should feel like home, like you've been there before. So certainly the instrumentation and the orchestration I wanted to feel of that world so that was nice to be able to go and do that. But then once they're off in Finn's world, Finn McMissile's world is a totally different thing. It needed to be, it needed to be its own crazy, energetic thing. And then that's how the surf music came out of that.

Much of the film plays like a ‘60s British spy-thriller but instead of using music inspired by classic James Bond themes you chose to use American surf music as your starting point, could you talk about why you decided to score the film in that way?

Giacchino: Well right, because it’s very much a spy movie and it of course refers back to the 60's but I did notice some of the beach music stuff. It was literally as simple as when I saw the film it reminded me of when I was a kid and I used to listen to Dick Dale music. I loved Dick Dale, and my dad had a great record collection of all kinds of music. A couple of the albums were surf albums and Dick Dale had a bunch of music on those. I would put (those records) on a tape and listen to him when I went around the neighborhood. I'd feel like I was in the middle of some massive conspiracy like there were people chasing me. You know as a kid you’re playing, you're imagining all these things and the second I saw the film it just reminded me of that.

That's really interesting. So you actually took your inspiration for the music in the film from how another type of music affected you as a child, rather than taking inspiration from the obvious spy films of that era, is that correct?

Giacchino: It wasn't like, “Oh we need to do spy music!” The second I saw the film it just reminded me of what it was like, the feeling I got from the film reminded me of the same feeling I got doing that as a kid. Riding around the neighborhood on a bike, listening to that kind of music. I turned to John (Lasseter) and I was like, “John, we have to do this kind of thing, what do you think of this?” I said, “I don't even know what to call it? Is there such a thing as British surf guitar? I don't know, but I think that would be Finn McMissile's thing, British surf guitar.” John was just like, “Let's do it!” He got really excited about it and from then on it was just what we did, and we just moved forward. It seemed to work really well because I figured if Finn McMissile was going to be listening to music in the ‘60s in his heyday, that's what he would have playing.

I know that you also did the music for Speed Racer, was there anything that you wanted to do in that film musically, especially in the race scenes, that you couldn’t do for whatever reason but were able to repurpose for the race scenes in Cars 2?

Giacchino: It became its own thing because this was more of a rhythm based score than Speed Racer was, which had drums and stuff in it, but it wasn't so much a rhythm based score. It was more of orchestral action with a drum set where as this felt more rhythm based. We had the organ player and the bass guy. It was really dependent on these amazing players that we hadn't got to work with. We had three guitars, electric bass, organ and a piano all surrounded by an orchestra, which was really fun but they were the center. I didn't even think about Speed Racer till kind of afterwards. I was like, oh yeah there's a lot of racing in that too. I didn't because it felt like such a different movie to me that it was far enough apart where I didn't put the two together.

Director Richard Donner tells a great story about hearing composer John Williams score to Superman: The Movie for the first time. He says that when he first heard the opening few bars he felt like he could hear the words “Sup-er-Man” in the music. Do you feel like those first few moments of a piece are the most important because they set the mood and the tone for the entire film?

Giacchino: Oh yeah definitely! It needs to. You need to kind of say, “Here's what I am, here's who I am.” Whether it's the few opening bars of Super 8 or it's the opening bars of Cars 2, you know the theme and it’s been stated. Here's what you're going to get in this film, and we're going take you there eventually. You may get it bit by bit, little by little, or it just might be right in your face right away, but that's even in the Star Trek theme. They started the film off with just that simple melody on the French horn and it just grows and grows until we get into the opening of the film. But that is important to me, I love doing that and I love working with directors who actually allow that, who want that kind of a thing. I won't work with people who have no interest in that kind of melodic score. You could argue a lot of what I did for Lost was not melodic, but it was. A lot of it was, it's that mixture. When you listen to Close Encounters there's a lot of textural music, but there's also very strong melodies alongside of it. That's what I love to do, try and figure out a strong melody that you can then do anything with. You can start having fun with it. It's always fun when you hear a theme and go, “Oh it's from that movie, I love that movie! I remember that and it reminds me of watching that movie.” As a kid that is what was so special about listening to Superman. You could relive the film by just listening to the score. Star Wars too. You relive that experience and that was your only choice really, because there were no DVD's, no VHS, no nothing. I loved that. When I was a kid, I would even take a tape recorder into the movie theaters and record the movies. At nighttime when I go to bed I would listen to those movies. I would listen to Raiders of the Lost Ark a thousand times. I think I was ten, eleven years old.

Did you know at that young of an age that you wanted to be a film composer?

Giacchino: No, but I had been making movies since I was nine. I had tons of stop motion films. That's how I spent my childhood. Making movies, super 8 movies, everything. I knew I always wanted to make movies in some capacity and be a part of what I loved. I loved what music did for movies and it was just a natural evolution over the years that that's the direction I took. But filmmaking to me is such a fun thing. I loved doing it, and I still love doing it.

You mentioned working with different directors and you have collaborated a lot with J.J. Abrams, and of course worked on several different Pixar films. What is it about those collaborations that are really special to you and make you want to continue working with them on future projects?

Giacchino: Because these are people literally only making something because they are so excited to see how it comes out. They're not making it because, “Hey we can make a million dollars!” It's not about that, it's about this spark of an idea in which elicits to the exact same response you had when you were ten years old and said wouldn't it be cool if we did this? Wouldn't it be awesome if we swung from a rope and went over the thing and did that? That would be so great! Let's try and do it! J.J. and John Lasseter are both like that. They're these great, fun storytellers just doing it because it would be fun and that's how I feel about what I do. Let me get in there and go, “Oh my god it'd be so much fun if we did this surf thing for this movie. Wouldn't that be great? Let's do it!” Then everyone gets excited and we do it. It's not like a chore or thought out methodical thing you have to do. It's all sparked by creative impulse, where you just feed off each other. That's like a great way to work. That's why I do this. If it ever got to the point where it's like, “Oh you must do a spy score like this, do that,” and there's no excitement and no interest behind it, I don't ever want to work like that. I'd rather not work. I'd rather find something else to do.

Finally, you are doing the scores for the upcoming films John Carter and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, so what can you tell us about the tone and the mood that your music will set for those films?

Giacchino: You know what, it is hard to say. But from what I've seen from both films, they look huge, really huge. I've seen a lot of Mission Impossible, which looks amazing and it's Brad Bird so you know you're going to get Brad Bird doing Mission Impossible, which is really exciting. But I haven't really touched on either yet. I just finished Super 8, and Cars and am going to take a slight break here, but soon enough I'll be working on Mission Impossible then John Carter. I usually won't work on a movie until I see the whole film. Once I can see the whole thing, I can get an idea and start making a game plan for what I want to do. But right now its just kind of a swirling imagery in my head of what I might do, I have no idea yet. But they are two projects that I'm very excited to do. I love (John Carter director) Andrew Stanton. He's such a great storyteller, the same with Brad Bird. They're both just good people too. They were the kids I would have played with if they lived in my neighborhood.

Cars 2 is currently in theaters everywhere!

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