ScoreKeeper Chats With Composer Michael Giacchino About LAND OF THE LOST, UP, and STAR TREK!
Published at: Nov. 12, 2009, 11:02 p.m. CST by scorekeeper
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here on a routine expedition to publish my latest interview before I plunge a thousand feet below in my tiny raft.
I'm sure a lot of folks keep a mental list of the top five people they'd most want to have lunch with. Earlier this year on a beautiful day in Austin, Texas, I was able to place a check next to a name on mine. I received an invite to join composer Michael Giacchino for lunch to partake in a casual one-on-one interview with this skilled craftsman of film music. He was in Austin for an early screening of LAND OF THE LOST (2009) with barely enough time to catch his breath after completing it.
Michael represented for me the quintessential interview. I greatly admire his work and I know very little about him. Never had my mind raced with so many questions. The fact that he was just coming off one of his busiest periods ever filled the coffers with seemingly limitless questions I knew I would never have the time to ask.
I remember back in April while driving in Hollywood, I was heading south off the 101 on Highland Avenue about to cross Franklin Avenue when I saw two enormous advertising banners each covering the entire face of two adjacent buildings. One was for STAR TREK (2009) and the other was for UP (2009). I thought to myself how insanely cool it must have been for Michael to drive down that very same road and see not one, but two major studio films he scored so brazenly exhibited in that ubiquitous Hollywood manner.
In addition to these two films, Michael also composed the music for LAND OF THE LOST (2009), EARTH DAYS (2009), the Pixar animated short film PARTLY CLOUDY (2009), themes for the television series FRINGE (2009) as well as maintaining his scoring duties on LOST (2004-2009). He also served as Musical Director for the 81st Annual Academy Awards.
Of all the composers I've interviewed for Ain't It Cool News, my interview Michael Giacchino ranks among my very favorite. He's a kid in a candy store going nuts over his deeply rooted passion for movies and it shows in his personality, the words he speaks, and of course, his music. He's a professor well-versed in the holiest traditions of the geek arts and isn't bashful in letting his passion for them precede him.
To say it was a pleasure talking with him is a gross underestimation.
Now prepare for the greatest earthquake ever known!
Score coordinator Andrea Datzman and composer Michael Giacchino
ScoreKeeper: Thank you Michael for meeting with me today. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to chat with you. I think it's especially cool that you traveled all the way from Los Angeles to Austin for an early screening of LAND OF THE LOST.
Michael Giacchino: Yeah, I’m here to help support the film and be here for Brad (Silberling), and Sid and Marty (Krofft). I’m also here because I’m just a huge fan of Ain't It Cool. I have read about all the times that these types of events have happened…especially with STAR TREK. I was like, "I should have gone to that!" It looked like so much fun!
When Brad told me he was going to Austin, I said, "I'm going! I don't care. I'm going. Just count me in and bring me along. I'm going!" So really, I'm here as a fan of the site and just wanting to see what goes on and meet people. I think everyone is here for the same reason…because they love movies. That's why I'm doing it. I love movies!
SK: LAND OF THE LOST capped what appeared to be a fairly strenuous run for you.
MG: It feels like I just did LAND OF THE LOST yesterday and yet here I am doing this. The amazing thing is they are all so different.
SK: …STAR TREK, UP, LAND OF THE LOST, episodes of LOST…Do you find there are creative obstacles for you compartmentalizing all of these simultaneous projects requiring your attention?
MG: Not at all because I’m really careful and specific about the jobs that I choose to do. I choose them because they are different. I knew that these three films would be backed up against each other. When I looked at STAR TREK, when I looked at UP and when I looked at LAND OF THE LOST, I knew that I wanted to do something very different for each of them.
LOST was already its own thing anyway so it wasn't hard to have them all. The schedule was tough. It was the timing and just the force of movie making that was so hard. Stamina was hard for me but creatively it was never a problem because the films are inspiring to me in different ways.
Director Brad Silberling and composer Michael Giacchino
SK: What was it about LAND OF THE LOST that told you this was a project you had to work on?
MG: Will Ferrell, dinosaurs…I’m in! [Laughs] That’s the easy answer. Then there is the other side of the coin which is Sid and Marty Krofft. I grew up watching all of their shows. I'm a huge fan of LAND OF THE LOST (1974), SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS (1973)…the list goes on. Me and my brother grew up on that stuff and I shared it with my kids as they were growing up. When I got the chance to do this I was like, "Absolutely! Are you kidding me!? Work with Sid and Marty?!?" It was a no-brainer.
SK: How did Sid and Marty fit into the production of the film? Were they a collaborative force behind the scenes?
MG: They were around for everything. They had comments and would give their suggestions. They were really great to work with. I think for them, after all of these years, to see something like this come to life in this big of a way…that was a huge deal for them, you know? They were the greatest.
I have been so lucky to work with people that I can actually call my friends – and not just friends in a "work" way, but friends that I can say, "Yeah, I can hang out with that person or call that person and not have anything to do with work we are doing together." I've been really lucky throughout my career to be able to do that. This was no exception.
Sid and Marty Krofft with composer Michael Giacchino
SK: Scoring LAND OF THE LOST seemed like such a vast playground for a composer. You were able to incorporate some really creative and unorthodox ingredients including a Theremin, conch shells, and some really crazy percussion. This had to be fun!
MG: It was great! We really went into the well with some weird percussion on this. Emil Richards – who is a legendary percussionist – has a warehouse in Los Angeles full of percussion instruments. He'd show me, "That's the thing I used on PLANET OF THE APES (1968). There's the bongo I hit on the opening to MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966)." He will go on and tell you these stories which are all incredible!
I found this giant coat sign in the middle of all of these things and asked him, "What is that?" He's like, "Oh, I found it in the trash and just thought it would sound cool." I told him, "Well, hit it!" He hits it and it makes this great sound.
He’s got a million things that you don’t even know what they are. We went through them and pulled out a lot of stuff.
The conch shells…that was the French horn player, Rick Todd. He has a collection of them and has always wanted to use them on something so we had six French horn players on conch shells. They were all lined up from small shells to big shells and they just made this crazy spooky sound.
Conch shells performed by the horn section
It was fun to reach back into the 70s where experimental film music was okay. Jerry Goldsmith did it amazingly! It was fun to tie the two worlds of the 70s LAND OF THE LOST in with some of the things that Jerry would do.
When I first talked to Brad about it, I was like, “We should take this very seriously. Let’s raise the stakes for the characters in the same way you would watch ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). Everything around them is deadly serious. I didn’t want the music to be funny.
I have a real thing about funny music. I hate it! I can’t stand funny music. When funny music is playing over something that’s supposed to be funny, it affects me in such an adverse way. So I was really happy that Brad was like, “No, no, no, we are going to take this seriously. This is the route we are going to take.” I was like, “Great!”
There is a Theremin – which is actually George Doering on his guitar. George also played all of the banjo stuff along with Carl Verheyen…
SK: Oh! It's not a real Theremin?
MG: There’s no real Theremin. It’s a guitar actually, which was really cool because there’s this sound in the score and you think, "Oh, that's a Theremin," but it's almost an updated Theremin in a way. That's just such a weird kind of thing.
George Doering on guitar
SK: Did you work that out with him ahead of time or just there in the studio?
MG: No, just in the studio. I would run into his booth and go, “Okay, we need some sort of Theremin sound!” and he would fiddle around with this and that and I'd say, "Perfect! Let's go." I love that part about that kind of improv where you go in and talk to the guy and they're so good at what they do you just work out a sound and, "Bam! That's it."
It's the same with the conch shells, “How are we going to do this?” We would have this falloff at the end and so it’s working out all of those little details with them in person that’s so great. That’s why I love working with orchestras as opposed to samples and things like that which seem to have permeated most of television and have started to take over film scoring.
SK: When I first heard your score for LAND OF THE LOST, I was especially pleased that the first sound I heard was a banjo. You couldn't do a LAND OF THE LOST score without a banjo.
MG: You have got to have a banjo in it! It was funny because I was talking to Sid and Marty about that and I asked, “Guys, why the banjo?" They said, “You know what? DELIVERANCE (1972) had just come out and we just thought the banjo sounded cool. Let's try it." They recorded their song and I don't think it would have been as iconic as it was without it.
SK: If you go back and watch the original show, listening with our ears today, there are all of these seemingly inappropriate elements to the music. For example, there's a funky wah-wah electric guitar all throughout the score which is very strange for a survival show featuring dinosaurs. You latched on to this yourself as there is an electric guitar present in your score as well.
MG: Exactly. It was a matter of taking certain elements of the show and updating but not abandoning them. It's funny because a friend of mine and I were playing with this old synthesizer and I came along this one patch that sounded like [makes musical sound]. I remember that sound when they were in the pylon! I later played that for Marty and he said, "That's the sound!" It was like a time machine in a way. When you played that sound, suddenly it was, "Bam!" and it took me back to when I was eight years old watching the show religiously. It was a fun score to write because I was able to go into this playground of nonsense and yet somehow keep things serious with it.
Composer Michael Giacchino and scoring mixer Dan Wallin
SK: How many minutes of music did you compose?
MG: I think like there’s like 75 minutes of music or something like that. The movie is about ninety minutes long.
SK: …and a CD is coming out, right?
MG: Yeah. It will pretty much have the entire score on it, I believe.
SK: I was moderately disappointed with the amount of music on the STAR TREK soundtrack.
MG: Yeah, I know. I hope that they actually release the entire score at some point. I was like, "Wow! There's a lot of stuff we did that's not on there." There's the deck fight and the jump and all of these different pieces…but someday, I hope!
SK: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the other projects you've done this year. I think UP is one of the best scores that I've heard you do. Can you tell me about that experience? You mentioned earlier how that was one of your favorite films that you have done.
MG: It’s really one of my favorite movies that I’ve ever been a part of. It’s a movie that you don’t just walk away having had a lot of fun with but you actually walk away emotionally affected. You walk away with something that is reflective that you can look back on and take another look at your own life.
In that sense, it's a really special movie, yet it also has talking dogs and dogs flying airplanes and crazy birds and a man flying in a house. You wouldn't think if you put all of those things together that you would get as emotional of a story that you do.
But Pete Doctor creates characters. He's not just making a movie. He's telling a story about real people and that was the thing that was most fascinating to me while I was working on the film. I really felt that these were real people.
There's nobody better when it comes to creating characters that you treat as real people than Pixar. Sometimes people say, “Writing for animation must be so different from writing for live action,” and I’m like, “Not if you do it right!” There’s absolutely no difference at all. I feel like Carl Fredrickson is as real a character as Captain Kirk or as real a character as any in THE FAMILY STONE (2005). To me, they are all real people. JJ does it right. Brad Bird does it right.
A rat (Remy from RATATOUILLE) is as real a person as any live action film you'll see. Superman isn't real. So why is he treated more real than a rat that can cook? That I don't get. That never made sense to me. Why does he get to compete for something like Best Picture and yet animation gets shoved into a category?
SK: I agree.
MG: Sorry about the rant. [Laughs]
SK: It’s all right. It's a good rant. I think I’ve been more aware of this since having kids myself. Animation is treated largely as "kid's programming" or hacked together and thrown at children regardless of its quality. It's frustrating for sure.
It's funny…as I am introducing my own two sons to film and television, I almost forbid them to watch the Disney Channel or some of the other mainstream outlets producing children's programming. I go back and introduce them to the things I grew up on. They're favorite shows are THE ELECTRIC COMPANY and SPEED RACER. I've also introduced my oldest to the original LAND OF THE LOST series and he's hooked!
MG: Absolutely! I think you are smart to do that. Do those things first and then let them watch the other things because they will have a frame of reference for what is good and what’s not good.
SK: Last year I saw about forty minutes of UP in a very raw and incomplete state. The life montage between Ellie and Carl – even though it was in a 2D storyboard form – was very heartbreaking. I remember thinking, "I can't wait to hear what Michael is going to do with this scene."
MG: I was probably thinking the same thing! [Laughs] “What am I going to do with this?”
SK: From a narrative perspective, it's such a bizarre thing to have a montage so early in the overall story where our two main characters practically live their entire lives together in a span of four or five minutes. You witness their whole lives together and it ends so tragically. Where do you go from there? What a hell of an obstacle to throw into the beginning of your film.
MG: Pete and I talked about the character of Ellie. She really is only technically in the first third of the movie but we wanted to do something that would keep her in the movie throughout. One of the things we talked about was, "How do we keep her alive in this movie? Okay. We need Ellie's theme! We need a theme in this film that is going to start off when they are young kids. It will be very simple and then grow with a kind of elegance as she gets older into a bold statement when Carl decides, 'I'm going to change my life. I'm going to go and live this dream.'"
It was a theme that needed to start off almost as nothing and turn into something so huge and then come back to something very small again. That was our way of keeping the character of Ellie involved in the story. It’s really her spirit that keeps Carl going. He is attaching all of his love and all of his worth on the fact that this house is all that he has left of her, when it’s not the truth. The house is irrelevant. It’s about relationships and how you then take what you knew or what you got from your marriage with Ellie and how do you take that and then move on with that idea. It was an incredible emotional hurtle to jump because we really wanted it to work so perfectly.
Pete did such a great job, and Bob as well, with the story.
SK: With a movie like LAND OF THE LOST, the potential for error isn't as pronounced. With a film like UP, however, you're riding a very narrow line between success and failure or being effective or not effective. It's a much more delicate balance.
MG: You know, Brad Bird said something to me early on in my working relationship with him, “Listen, it’s like a train and what you do to my movie can derail it really quickly if we aren’t in sync. We need to be in sync story-wise.” I never forgot that. It’s so true.
That’s always been one of my main pet peeves about film scores – when they deviate from the story and you can tell when a composer is just enthralled with what he’s doing and goes off and writes music without any care for what’s happening on screen. That's when films go awry.
I always remember when Brad brought that up because I felt the same way that, "You can easily derail this story by what you do. What you choose to do musically can tell an audience something that they're not supposed to feel. We always have to be vigilant about what they are supposed to feel every step of the way."
SK: Was UP a greater challenge in that regard?
MG: Yeah, UP was. It’s got an emotional center that is so solid after the first third of the movie with Ellie’s death. You are walking a real fine line. How do you also move forward and also allow people to still enjoy the movie and still make them feel, "it’s okay to laugh?" You also don't want them to forget that loss. It was a really tricky thing to do.
Pete and Bob are very smart people. They took a lot of chances with their storytelling and it’s great. It shows…A lot of times when you have to do a musical sequence like a montage, especially at that length, it’s kind of an untraditional moving along of the story rather than just a typical montage.
SK: There’s no dialogue or sound effects in that sequence. It’s all you.
MG: And that’s it. It was quite complementary, absolutely. It was like five minutes.
SK: That’s quite a long time to not have dialogue.
MG: It’s because you are telling a story visually. Movies are a form of visual storytelling so you have that.
SK: I've read a handful of film reviews for UP and they all seem to compliment the music which is not something that is frequently brought up in general film reviews.
MG: Again, I knew…the first time I heard about this movie, I knew that I had to do it. I had not worked with Pete before, so I was like, “I don’t know how I will make that work,” because I think that Pixar looked at me as Brad's guy. But the story was so compelling and so interesting to me that it was one of those films that I knew if I didn’t get to do, I would be wildly disappointed.
SK: Had you already committed to STAR TREK and LAND OF THE LOST?
MG: STAR TREK was first and then LAND OF THE LOST came second. At that time I didn't know if I was going to do UP or not. I wasn't sure and so I went up and met with them and we ended up getting along great. It all worked out. It was funny because when I got LAND OF THE LOST, I was thinking, "Well if UP comes around, I don't know if I'm gong to be able to do it now because of my schedule." There was just no way that I wouldn't do it.
SK: Are there any future Pixar films that you have your eyes on?
MG: Anything in the future of Pixar is interesting to me because they are so good at what they do. They have a similar philosophy that I have, “Only work on stuff that you are interested in talking about. Don’t work on anything that you wouldn’t want to tell your friends about or repeat the story to.” I love that! So, whenever they call for me, I won't even have to hear it, I’ll just say “Yes!”
SK: Will you be working with Brad Bird again on 1906 (2012)?
MG: Yes! Brad’s working very hard on that script. Yeah, I’ll be working on that with him.
SK: Cool! I don’t know much about it. It's live action right?
MG: Yeah. He’s a unique filmmaker. You can just trust him.
SK: Upon seeing RATATOUILLE (2007) for the first time, I crowned him the best motion picture storyteller working today.
MG: I think so. He’s got all of the tools and all of the inspirations from all the right classic directors and writers.
SK: So your three movies for 2009 are done and behind you. Are you taking a break for a while?
MG: Yeah, I’m looking forward to doing LOST next year, after that I have no plans. I need to put focus back to other things. I would like to make movies with my son…
SK: The next Francis Ford Coppola?
MG: Exactly! [Laughs] What else? I don’t know.
SK: Well Michael, I can't tell you what a pleasure it's been chatting with you these past couple of hours. I respect your work tremendously and will be looking forward to more great music from you.
MG: Well, thank you! It's been awesome for me too. I'll look forward to reading more from you on the site.
Tim Simonec conducts LAND OF THE LOST
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News I'd like to thank Michael Giacchino for taking the time out of his extremely busy schedule to speak with me. Special thanks go to Andrea Datzman for helping coordinate the interview and for Mike McCutchen for his invaluable help transcribing this challenging interview. Finally, I'd like to thank Dan Goldwasser of ScoringSessions.com for the photos.
To view more photos from Giacchino's scoring session for STAR TREK click HERE. For more photos from the LAND OF THE LOST session, click HERE.
Michael's score for LAND OF THE LOST and STAR TREK were both released on CD earlier this year by Varèse Sarabande while his scores for UP and EARTH DAYS were released on iTunes.
Don't forget…Adventure is out there!