Greetings! ScoreKeeper here going mano e mano yet again with film composer Michael Giacchino. I had just posted an interview with him a couple of months ago regarding MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) but when he contacted me asking if I wanted to get an advanced copy of his score for JOHN CARTER (2012) and post clips online for Ain't It Cool readers I think my exact response was, I'll spare you the "Are you freakin' kidding me!!!" and just try to keep my cool by saying, "Sure, I'll do it."
Anytime I listen to a score on its own before seeing the film I take that experience for what it is. I can't say if it's a good film score or not without seeing the film but I can express my reaction to the music I'm hearing. From the first track to the last, Giacchino's music for JOHN CARTER is unlike anything he's composed to date. It's definitely an epic cutting-edge sci-fi score with a hint of vintage Golden Age nostalgia thrown in for balance. It's most striking feature is the overt layering of emotion and narrative material that's woven throughout every track. The music is dense, powerful, emotional, and extremely exciting. I have been enjoying listening to it these past several weeks.
Hopefully by now you've had the chance to check out the clips I posted online. If not, you should check them out after this interview. This is a good one. I've interviewed Michael several times now so I feel relaxed and cordial with him. The days of me impersonating Chris on the Chris Farley Show ("Remember when you scored THE INCREDIBLES?.....That was AWWWWWE-SOME!") are waning which should benefit everybody who reads this site.
I can't wait to see this film. Enjoy the interview!
ScoreKeeper: I want to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to take an early listen to your score for JOHN CARTER; however, I've got a bone to pick with you. You're making my job very difficult!
Michael Giacchino: How so? Why? (Laughs)
SK: It's no secret I'm an admirer of your work but there comes a point in time if I do nothing but write about how much I like your work it starts to look like I'm your own personal shill.
MG: I tell you what. I’ll really screw up STAR TREK 2. How’s that?
SK: Sure, do that. I’ll thrash it and then I can go back to complimenting your work again.
MG: It could go south at any moment. You never know.
SK: (Laughs) Well, it didn't with this score. I believe I approach every score clean and fresh regardless of my prior associations and expectations for the composer. I haven't seen the film yet but as I listen to your score for JOHN CARTER…I haven't even found the words for it yet. It's different. It's quite epic. I expected good things but I'm even finding myself whispering "Wow," under my breath many times throughout the music.
MG: I’m glad you liked it. When Andrew Stanton and I were talking about it he told me, "It just needs to feel like an old fashioned movie score." What I said to him was, "This is basically a love story that's set in the midst of this civil war and we should never forget that. We can be as clever as we want trying to make everything sound like it’s using Martian instruments and all that, but that’s not going to tell us the story.” Ultimately we just came down on, "You know what? Let’s just tell the emotional story and go with that and however that manifests itself we will trust it and see what happens.”
SK: I can hear that. There doesn’t seem to be, like you said, an immense Martian cultural element to it, but it’s there. There's a unique aural quality to it. There are multiple layers to it. I was really impressed with the layers of this love story that's interwoven amongst all this incredible action music.
You know what? This is going to seem weird, but do you know what the first score that came to my mind was when I heard this? I think it's most apparent in the last track “John Carter of Mars.” It reminds me a lot of “The Lonely Man” theme from THE INCREDIBLE HULK television show.
MG: Oh? Interesting. That’s interesting! I absolutely love that theme!
SK: I do too.
MG: Whenever I hear that theme, it creates an emotional response in my body somehow. As a kid when I would watch that that theme is what held the whole show together for me. At the end you always felt, "Oh my god, this is sad what this guy is going through. It's sad to be Hulk."
I feel like so many of these heroic movies these days, especially the superhero movies, forget that side of being a superhero you know? And everything is leaning towards, “Yes, we are all ass-kickers!” I’m like, “Nope. Where’s the fun in that really if you’re not hurting or you’re not sad about something?” For me, I can’t get into that, but I can still look at a television show from the 70s where I get that emotional response such as THE INCREDIBLE HULK. You’re right, I love that stuff.
SK: The notes on the page are completely different but there's a similar visceral reaction I have when listening to your score for JOHN CARTER. It makes me think of "The Lonely Man" them from THE INCREDIBLE HULK.
I don't know the books at all. I have friends who do and I've talked with them about it so I have some foundation for this story. Did you read any of the books?
MG: I never read the books and honestly I didn’t even really know they existed before I talked to Andrew about it. Now Andrew grew up with the books and he loved them. So he was really my first introduction to them. Now of course, I lived in Tarzana, California where Edgar Rice Burroughs lived and so I know Tarzan and I had those books. I grew up watching those old movies on TV so I knew that side of him, but I didn’t realize this whole series OF MARS books even existed until I talked to Andrew. Andrew suggested I read them but I told him, "I'll tell you what, I'm not going to read the books because ultimately I'm sure your vision might be somewhat different from mine and I only want to think about what you're trying to do when I'm writing music." Once it's all said and done and the movie is in theaters, I will sit down and read the books.
SK: That makes sense. I'm not surprised to hear that.
MG: Even sometimes when you’re reading a script of a film before you see it you start generating all of these ideas in your head which by the time you see the film it doesn’t represent what you were thinking at all. It’s a whole different idea someone is presenting to you based on that script. There’s an interpretation that I usually try to wait for just to see so that I can stay in line with what’s going on. I’ve been burned by that in the past, trying to do things too early.
SK: That brings up the elephant in the room that I think everybody is thinking about. There are some die hard fans of these books and whenever you're dealing with a fan base like this there's an immense challenge facing the filmmaker. Also, it doesn't appear like Disney is planning on making this a niche film so you're going to be making a film that appeals to die hard fans as well as brand new people like me who don't know anything about it. Give us an inside scoop as to how this film caters to both fans and newbies.
MG: Well you know what, I went through a very similar situation on STAR TREK (2009) where you are clearly dealing with something that has a hardcore fan base that is very intense about their love of that franchise and I can completely understand why. There’s so many great things about it and I was one of those people that was really a fan of the old series, so even for me going into STAR TREK it was an incredibly difficult task because I was so saddled with what I thought STAR TREK should be. It was an incredibly difficult process to release myself of that and just say, “You need to forget what you think it should be and only work on what you think it is right now.” So having learned that lesson in a very difficult way on STAR TREK, because I wrote so many different themes for that film and I have never done that before… usually I have a very focused idea of what I want, but for STAR TREK I went through like twenty different versions of the theme and I wasn’t happy with any of them, because I was working too early based on what I thought STAR TREK was, not based on what I thought I was going to see with what JJ was making, you know?
So when it came to JOHN CARTER, I felt like, “You know what? I know there’s a hardcore fan base and I know there’s a lot of people that love those books, but ultimately this isn’t the book. This is a film that’s being made. This is an interpretation of those books and I’m just going to focus on that and I’m not going to worry about what everyone has grown up with or what everyone believes it should be. I’m just going to worry about what I think it is once Andrew is done crafting the film.” That helped me in a huge way where I wish I had had that sort of foresight working on STAR TREK, but you know it was a lesson to be learned doing that and here I was able to take what I learned from that and just say, “You know what? I’m just going to wait and see what he’s making and let that be my experience.” The music in JOHN CARTER is just my experience of working with him and watching the film and it’s a true representation of how I felt when I was watching what he did.
SK: So in that regard did you not go through the same process of composing multiple themes like you did with STAR TREK?
MG: No. I was back to what I normally do where I can see what’s in front of me and react to that as opposed to reacting to some emotional baggage that I had, because I’ve lived with this idea or this sort of intellectual property for many years. I was able to look at it in a very clear state of mind. Now I’m sure had I grown up reading those books maybe I would have had a little bit of that trouble, but I think it would have been easier for me to say, “Remember what happened on STAR TREK? Let it go and just start new, it’s okay to do that sometimes.”
SK: Even though you had these struggles with STAR TREK, did the result feel like something you set out to do? What do you think when you listen to it today?
MG: You know there are things in it that I feel really good about and there are things in it I think, “You know, I can probably do better now that I’ve had the experience with it." In many ways I’m really looking forward to getting back to it to see what evolves out of that process. I think like anything you look at it after you’re done and think, “I could have done this part better or that part better,” but overall I feel like it really represents the tone of the film and ultimately that’s what you hope for. You create something that supports the tone of the film you’re working on. STAR TREK ultimately was only about two guys who lead and become friends, that’s what it comes down to. That was in a conversation I had with Damon Lindelof. When I was struggling to work this out Damon said to me, “Listen, this is just a film about two friends. Forget about space. Forget about spaceships. Forget about The Enterprise and captains and all of this. It’s just two guys who meet and they become the best of friends under very difficult circumstances.” So once I was able to think of it in those terms I thought, “Oh, I got it. Bam!” I felt so silly, because that’s kind of how I approach all of my projects, but for some reason STAR TREK created a lot of obstacles for me and I think a lot of people working on the film too, because they loved the franchise themselves.
SK: I like the STAR TREK analogy, but in some ways there are major differences with JOHN CARTER. STAR TREK has been realized on screen countless different ways and JOHN CARTER never has. This is the first time fans of the book will ever get to see it realized in a visual form. Does that add an extra challenge?
MG: It does. It certainly does, but it also I think more gives you freedom in a way. It gives you more freedom to do and go where you want to go and go where you feel you need to go. If I felt a certain way…I didn’t feel hogtied to not go there you know? I never had the feeling of, “Well they never did this or they never did that and maybe I shouldn’t or maybe I should look at why they didn’t.” There was none of that, I was able to just sit down with a clear slate. It’s like sitting down and somebody asking you, “Here, could you paint me what you think John Carter’s environment looks like on Mars?” I was able to sit there and interpret that on my own, which is a really freeing thing, so I actually liked the experience quite a bit.
SK: Because there are so many CGI elements creating the visuals, how much were you able to go on? How much were they able to give you in order to inspire you?
MG: Well there was quite a bit there. I think that one of the smart things that Andrew decided to do was to shoot as much as he could on real locations and build the set or actually be outside in an area where it’s going to represent what he wanted Mars to be. What they then would do is add onto that already real landscape. They would add on different monuments or different architectural details that would then turn it more into the Martian world. So the fact that he was shooting in real environments was a huge help to both the film itself and to me just watching it. You really felt like they were in a real place.
If you remember in STAR WARS when R2-D2 and C3PO are walking down that canyon, they’re really in a canyon! There’s something about that that just keeps you as an audience member focused in on the story and the characters as opposed to if you are constantly shooting against green screen where you’re a bit removed from the environment. There’s something there that separates you. I love that approach that Andrew has and JJ has a very similar approach. So does Brad Bird. They want to try and do as much real environments as they can and it only helps the story telling.
SK: You worked on six feature films last year (SUPER 8, CARS 2, MONTE CARLO, 50/50, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, JOHN CARTER). I can't even begin to fathom that kind of work load. How the hell did you do all that?
MG: (Laughs) Yeah, it was a really tough year.
SK: Tell me about your schedule. I remember seeing on Twitter how you'd talk about jumping from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE to JOHN CARTER and then something else entirely all in a day's work. And let it be said that most of these scores, including JOHN CARTER are pretty complex and well crafted. They do not sound like scores that have been hacked together in a matter of weeks.
MG: You know what? I’m a very scheduled person. I can look at projects and I can sit down and I can get up at 8:00 and I can write from 8:00 to 5:00 and be done for the day. Once I start writing, I don’t stop. I don’t have a problem with writer’s block or things like that, because the things that I choose to work on are things that inspire me and I only work with people who I really love working with. I think that that just fuels the fire and I can sit down and do it.
It wouldn’t have been my plan or my wish to have everything backed up against each other the way that they were, but because I was working with JJ on SUPER 8 that was a very special film. I was working with John Lasseter on CARS. I loved doing that. I loved working with Andrew. All of these things you’re forced just to make it work. I don’t have a studio with a million people working on it for me writing music. When I take on something I take it on because I’m going to write it. It’s going to be me doing it and so I don’t take it lightly.
But at the same time, these were people that I would have worked with no matter what. They just all happened to have schedules colliding, but it worked out. It was one after the other and there were times between SUPER 8 and CARS I was kind of bouncing back and forth on that one. By the time I got to JOHN CARTER though I was able to mostly focus just on that, which was nice. There was a little back and forth between that and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE in the beginning, but thank god Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton are great friends, so they were able to work out their schedules for me so that I could actually focus on each one.
SK: What was the most challenging aspect of scoring JOHN CARTER?
MG: Well probably going back there was this fear…I did say that it was freeing and wonderful to be able to just have nothing, no baggage, but at the same time that’s also what makes it somewhat difficult, because I kept thinking, “God, I know Andrew has been thinking about this for over 20 years. What is it in his head that he’s been hearing? Am I going to be able to give him what he has been hoping for all of this time?” That was probably the most difficult thing, just that worry of wanting to get it right for him and wanting him to respond to it in a way that he connected emotionally to it. I think that was a big thing for me that I was always monitoring and always worried about. The other thing, again, was simplly the schedule, the back and forth between MISSION and making sure that each person had their time with me and that neither ever felt like, “Where’s Michael? He’s not around, he’s working on this other film…” I do my best to make sure that when I’m working on something like that they get the attention that they need and they know that I’m working my ass off for them. Those two were the most difficult things, but I certainly went into it with an idea of when I watched it thinking, “Oh my god, I know what I want to do with this!” I just hoped that it was what Andrew would want me to do with it. Luckily it turned out. He was very, very happy and I had a great time working with him.
SK: One of the things I admire most about you is the fact you're known for being a hard core family man.
SK: Not everybody is like that. Family is often sacrificed in ones pursuit of their goals. My one wish in life is that my family always remains priority number one. You're one of the busiest composers in Hollywood yet you talk about spending time with your family constantly. Sometimes that is so difficult. How do you handle all that work and then still keep that time with your family?
MG: Well it’s never easy, that’s first. It’s not an easy thing. When you choose to live your life that way it’s not an easy thing at all; however, some of the things I have done help with this. I don’t have a studio that I go to everyday. I work at home. I have a room upstairs. So even if the kids are here and they are running around, I’m home. Then what happens is, around 5:00 I’m done. I go down. I play with them. I do whatever I need to do with them. My wife and I can watch TWILIGHT ZONE with my older son at night and when he goes to bed, if I feel like it, I might go upstairs and just finish a cue. I might spend maybe another half an hour doing that, but I always try to make sure that that time between like 5:00 and 10:00, I’m with them and it’s just one of those things that ever since my son was born, he’s 14 now, that I always did. I made sure that that time was blocked out. I also find that it helps me, because it gives you a little bit of time away from what you’re doing. I found that even when I’m playing with the kids or doing whatever like making dinner I can think about those things that I had been working on and maybe find a different approach or a different way once I go back and sit down. Sometimes stepping away is the best thing you can do for your work process. It allows your brain a bit of break and you start thinking about things in a different way and you’re like, “Ah, I just solved this problem” or “I just figured out a better way to do that.” So I think in doing so it benefits the kids and the family, the fact that I’m doing it, but it also does benefit me in some way to get a little bit of separation from the work during the day.
Like I said, it’s never easy, but I certainly couldn’t keep working all day even if I wanted to. I’m a person that has to have my own time and that goes back to when I was a kid in school. I would sit there and stare at the clock till 2:45 and then the second 2:45 came on I’m like, “Great, work’s over. I’m going to go home and I’m going to make movies. That’s what I’m going to do.” So I knew that that time between 3:00 and 6:00 was my only time to get the things done that I wanted to do and now it’s just kind of morphed into this new model for me where I do my work and then I have my time with my kids. It’s the same as it was when I was a kid, it’s just a slightly different paradigm.
SK: There’s an interesting unwritten rule in this business that if you're not spending 100% of your time on your work, you're not trying hard enough. I've never believed that and it appears you do as well.
MG: Yeah, it’s crazy. I think that’s a very unhealthy backwards way of thinking. I believe in the old adage of, “Don’t work hard, work smart.” If you’re working smart, you can work hard when you need to work hard, but then you also give yourself a break to live your life. I mean that’s the other thing, we’re all just here to experience this thing, this life that we’ve been given and if you don’t take the time to do that you’re just cheating yourself.
SK: That’s great advice for young composers and I’m glad we ventured there a little bit. My family means everything to me. I think it's a great lesson.
MG: You’ve got to do it. There’s always going to be times when you’re under the gun and you will sometimes have to work through dinner or through something and that will happen every once in a while, that’s inevitable, but if you just keep it a general rule to try and keep yourself scheduled and keep the two separate, I think you’ll just be a happier person in general. At least for me that’s how it works.
SK: So now that JOHN CARTER is behind you and it's just a waiting game until it's release. What goes through your mind when you've scored a highly anticipated film like this and there's really nothing you can do about it at this point. Are you nervous at all?
MG: No you can’t. You can’t do anything about it and you just have to trust that you always did what you felt was right and it’s not just as a composer, but even as a filmmaker in general if we think of ourselves as this team of filmmakers. It’s a group art form and that’s what I really love about it. It combines all of the best of all of the disciplines and throws them all in the same room and everyone makes something very cool.
You’re right, there’s nothing you can do about it at this point, you’re just hoping. Hoping that whatever it was you worked on for the past how many months or years people like it or people are able to take it within the spirit that you hoped they would take it in. I think the biggest lesson to learn is also realize you have no control over it if they don’t. There’s nothing you can do about it and it’s like anything else. If you walk into an art museum, you look at a painting and you either like it or you don’t like it and that’s okay. If people don’t like it, that’s fine, I get it. If they can express that intelligently why they don’t like it, I’m all for that. I love hearing people’s opinions about my work or other movies that I watch. I love talking to people about movies and getting opinions and mixing it all up and it’s always best when you can have an intelligent discussion about that, but there are so many times as you know when people don’t take that intelligent path to express why they do not like something. They would just rather smash it, bash it, destroy it, make fun of it, and move on. To me that’s like the lowest common denominator and those are the things you just can’t take seriously you know?
SK: That's interesting. To be honest, there have been a few scores that you've done that I haven't cared for as much. I think THAT would make a great interview! I should call you up one day and just talk with you about the scores you've composed that I don't like. (Laughs
MG: Yeah! Absolutely! I’d be happy to, because I can probably give you very specific reasons why I chose to do things I did, because there are reasons why certain things are done and most people are never privy to what the behind the scenes discussions or the reasons are. Yeah, that’d be a fun interview to do!
SK: I’ll remember that. Start looking forward to it!
MG: Look there’s stuff that I did that I don’t like either, (Laughs) so it’s all good.
SK: I haven’t seen JOHN CARTER yet, so I’m a little blindfolded. Is there anything that you’re dying to talk about?
MG: That’s a good question. Let me think about it…You know what, I don’t know…When you listen to the soundtrack do you get a sense of a story of what’s happening?
SK: I’ve listened to it all the way through several times and I do feel like there's an immense amount of narrative in the music. I can only guess as to what the specifics are but I talked about it earlier when I noted all the layers contained within the music. There's so much narrative material buried in there. I can certainly hear a story.
MG: Ultimately that’s what is most important to me, whether you see the film or not, if you listen to something and you can imagine a story. I always loved it when I would listen to film scores as a kid, I would get film scores that I never even saw the film to, but I would listen to them and just imagine a story behind it and if they were able to evoke some sort of story in my mind then I was always attached to it, but if it was just music that just went in and out I wouldn’t listen to it that much.
I always loved the scores that told me a story. I try to do that as much as I can and I think that this film allowed me to do it in a way which a lot of the films I’ve worked on didn’t. It’s weird, because it’s almost like going back to the stuff that I did for MEDAL OF HONOR in a way where I was able to write very cinematically big more complex scores and they weren’t even to films, but it was to a story and an idea of a story or an emotion and I felt like this was a film that allowed me to do that in a way which I hadn’t been able to do since I was back in those video game days.
SK: It’s nice, because the music doesn't have that ubiquitous "copy-and-paste" sequenced sound that I hear all the time in film music. It's very organic and sounds "hand composed." That's a stupid way of putting it, but yeah, it's unique even for you. It sounds like an epic sci-fi journey.
MG: That’s great. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I was hoping for. (Laughs) So we’ve got one person that thinks that, that’s good.
SK: There is one more lingering question I've always wanted to ask you. A long time ago, I happened upon IMDB – I know they're not always correct – but I saw your name on IMDB attached to CAPTAIN AMERICA (2011).
MG: Yeah, I don’t know how that happened. You know I did talk to them at one point about it, but it never really went anywhere, because my schedule would never have allowed me to do it, because I was working on other things at the time. But I did go have a meeting about it. I did talk to them about it and CAPTAIN AMERICA I’ve always been a huge fan of, so you know when that opportunity came up I was like, “Well I’ve got to go at least talk to them, because I’m such a huge CAPTAIN AMERICA fan.” So I did go discuss it with them and I had hoped at one point that I could do it, but it was never ever settled that that would be the case. But you know things just come out. There was something recently where I saw my name was on there and I was like “What? I’m doing that? I didn’t even know I was doing that.” It just happens. I’m a huge Marvel fan. I’m a huge fan of that…I’m a huge Joe Johnston fan and I love his work, so I’m not embarrassed to say that I was hoping that I could do it, but it just wouldn’t have worked. Schedule-wise it wasn’t possible.
SK: I have to geek-out with you a little bit here. The other day I posted my top ten favorite scores of 2011 article and a friend of mine texted me and said, "Congratulations! Brad Bird just tweeted your top ten list." I thought, "That's strange…I don't remember seeing his tweet come up in my retweet column. I double-checked and there wasn't anything there. Then I went to Brad's twitter account and realized, "Ohhhh, he didn't retweet my list. He tweeted my list!"
MG: (Laughs) Yeah, he did. He tweeted it.
SK: Forgive me, it's stupid but I have to totally geek-out. It's funny how a flat-out tweet is so much better than a retweet. I thought it was pretty damn cool though.
MG: I geek-out about a lot of things on Twitter all of the time. It’s fun!
SK: Awesome! Well Michael, I've taken up too much of your time already. I very much appreciate it and look forward to the next time we can chat.
MG: Awesome man, I’ll talk to you soon.
SK: Take care. Bye-bye.
MG: Thanks. Bye.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News I'd like to thank Michael for not only giving me his time for another great interview but for making the audio files for JOHN CARTER available for me and you to hear far ahead of the soundtrack or film release.
JOHN CARTER will be released in theaters on March 9, 2012. The soundtrack will be available on March 6, 2012. It's quite good.
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