Greetings! Agent ScoreKeeper here checking in at rendezvous point Echo ready for debriefing. A couple of weeks ago at approximately eleven-hundred hours, I was able to view a top secret macro-film codenamed MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL (2011). It's one of the more sensational action films I've observed in several decades and one of my favorite movies of 2011. Other agents may try to view this film utilizing more compact projection methods but I learned through diligence in the field that the only way to properly experience it is by employing an Image MAXimum presentation system or IMAX for short. The 70mm footage saturating the near-entirety of the picture is not an amateurish ruse hacked together by some rookie agency. It's an elevation…literally!
I returned to the scene a few days later and kept the film under tight surveillance. This time I was successful in analyzing one of its richer assets – the score. I was surprised that an action score piqued my interest so astutely. Generally speaking, action music is defunct becoming one of the duller and more derivative genres of the last couple decades. This score was different. I knew then that I wasn't up against some tenderfoot fresh from behind the desk. This guy knew what he was doing.
My next mission was to track down the agent responsible for this music, Michael Giacchino, a.k.a. "The Giacch-Rabbit," and interrogate him regarding his coordinated actions with creative accomplice Brad "Givemtha" Bird, a noted director whose mastery of film has captivated much of the western world. Foreign intelligence reports placed his last known whereabouts somewhere along the west coast of the United States; however, a mole deep within the state government of Iowa swore he was seen at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville. The later report has since proven to be erroneous.
After several-days journey on donkey-back through the Mojave desert, I was able to swap my last remaining rations of flaxseed oil to procure a number relaying my cell signal by satellite to a secret phone line deep into the target's underground studio.
What you are about to read is a top-secret transcript of our conversation. It is meant for your eyes only. This web page will self-destruct in five seconds…
ScoreKeeper: Hey Michael, how are you doing?
Michael Giacchino: I’m good. How are you doing?
SK: I’m doing very well. I want to thank you for taking the time out to talk with me.
MG: Oh absolutely. How’s life at Ain’t It Cool?
SK: Things are going rather well. We just finished Butt-Numb-A-Thon XIII this past weekend, the 24-hour festival…
MG: Right. (Laughs)
SK: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 4 was the final film of the festival. They bussed us over to the IMAX theater downtown.
MG: Excellent! So how many times have you seen it now?
SK: I’ve seen it twice. I watched it for the second time on the IMAX screen last night just a few days after I first saw it. I loved it so much I wanted to bring my wife. We even got a babysitter! We don't get a babysitter too terribly often so you know you've done well if we get the babysitter involved.
MG: That’s awesome! Yeah, I think Brad (Bird) did such an amazing job with it. It’s such a fun movie. You don’t get to see that kind of a movie much anymore.
SK: No you don't and I think the heart of its success is Brad. You can tell this film is made by a great storyteller.
MG: Exactly. It’s nice because it’s not cynical. It’s just a great old-fashioned popcorn adventure.
SK: I want to start off today asking you about your collaborative relationship with Brad. You've worked with great directors before and done amazing work for all of them but now that I've seen what is now your third film with Brad, I'm convinced there is something special between the two of you. What factors would you attribute to Brad that allows you to work so great together?
MG: I think one of the things that he does is allows you to breathe. He gives you room to breathe. He gives the audience room to breathe in between what you might call "big set pieces" and during that time he gives you the opportunity to learn more about the characters. Brad is a very character-driven storyteller. He’s very interested in what motivates characters and what gets them to do certain things. He always wants them to be interesting, yet he also wants you to have a good time. Part of going to the movies is going because you want to forget everything else and just go and have a great time. That’s one of the great things about him is that he’s really into the idea of, “You go to the movies, you buy popcorn, you sit there and you munch it and you smile the whole way through,” you know?
MG: And that’s a big part of who he is as a filmmaker. I think that those personality traits really shine through. When I get to work with him he gives me a lot of freedom to do what I want to do, but he’s also at the same time very particular about the storytelling. That’s something that we talk about endlessly when we are talking about the film, because even a long scene – like that one where they go down and they meet the assassin and they try and trick her into thinking they are the other guys – it’s a very long and played out scene. We went through it frame by frame figuring out, "Okay, so right now they think it's going to work. They are headed in and they think it's going to work. It's going to work…It's going to work…Wait a second! Maybe it won't work but just maybe it won't work. Maybe it might be tougher than they thought." So you're constantly drawing an emotional roadmap through the scene. Brad is very much into doing that. It's one of the things I love most about film scoring, figuring out that emotional roadmap. I really enjoy doing that with Brad.
SK: When you are playing music for him and you are actually deciding upon the notes of the score, what kind of direction does he give you? Is it more cinematic or is he actually directing you musically? What kind of conversations do you have?
MG: He never directs musically. He always directs with storytelling. His whole way of communicating is through storytelling and it’s all about, “What is the character feeling at this moment?” If he feels at a certain point in a scene he needs a shift, he’s not going to say, “I just need the music to suddenly be tense,” he’s going to say, “Well here’s what happens. At this moment he notices that she is noticing something about him and that is making him nervous.”
So he’s giving you reasons why it needs to shift. He’s walking you through the reasons why those changes are happening and that’s a big difference. Not all directors are able to have the freedom to discuss it in that sense and from day one with Brad it’s always just been about he storytelling. We never really talk about the kind of music it should be outside of maybe...The times that I remember discussing music were maybe on THE INCREDIBLES (2004) where he would discuss, “a big brassy feel like the old Henry Mancini or a John Berry kind of a thing.” He might reference that just as an overall generalization but the specifics are never about music. It’s always about the emotion that’s needed and the reasons why those emotions are triggered at any given moment.
SK: Your arrangement of the main theme which is used during the opening credit sequence of the film (track 2, "Light the Fuse"), is probably my favorite modern arrangement of Lalo Schifrin's iconic theme that I've heard.
MG: (Laughs) Awesome! Thank you!
SK: I've heard so many horrendous abominations of that theme that makes me want to cringe. What you've done is nice. It's so modern and forward-thinking, yet it's completely loyal to the original. Instead of duplicating the characteristic 5/4 rhythmic pattern you give it more of a 6/8 – 2/4 feel which is very cool because it's directly related to 5/4 but with a different feel altogether.
MG: Yeah, it’s a weird thing. Traditionally in that tune the strings are used in a very specific way. You have the low strings doing the obvious “Bom, Bom, Bom-Bom,” and then you have the upper strings following along with the woodwinds playing the melody.
With all of those things I was just thinking to myself, “What can we do that’s a little different even just with the strings here,” because the strings have a potential to give you a lot of energy in which they hadn’t been really used before on that theme. One of the things I wanted to do was not necessarily have the strings play any of the melody, just give us the energy behind the melody. That’s why they are just going “Bop-pa-pa, Bop-pa-pa…”
It's funny because the first time I demoed the idea for Brad he just jumped all over it. He was like, “Yes! That’s it! That’s it! That’s what I want!” (Laughs) He’s a huge traditionalist like I am and we both have such respect and love for everything that came before us and yet he still wanted, “What can we do differently with that?” He wasn’t sure what that would be.
One thing he always says is, “However you want to do that, I don’t care. That’s up to you. However you want to accomplish that, that’s up to you.” That goes back to the idea of the freedom that he gives me to experiment and try things without fear. His excitement is very infectious. It goes back and forth.
It all just comes down to the fact that we both love movies so much. We love what they can do and the stories you can tell and the emotions that you can trigger in people when you hopefully do it correctly. It’s just a lot of fun and that’s at the bottom of all of this, just that it’s fun for us.
SK: One of the things that surprised me about the arrangement of main theme is that it's fairly laid back. It has energy, but it's laid back in an unusual way.
MG: Yeah, you don’t need to be massive and oppressive to give a sense of urgency and energy. A lot of approaches these days is, “Just make it as modern and hip and energetic and oppressive as you possibly can and that will just keep the audience busy.” You don’t need to do that. I think the audience is much smarter than that. A lot of these films play as if you are just playing it to a stupid audience and I don’t believe that the audience is stupid, I believe they are much smarter than most of us making these movies. It's like the old adage, "You are what you eat." If we feed an audience garbage, well then that's what they going to keep seeing. You know how many of the films out there are…(sighs)…You could label them as "garbage" and that's what we are feeding the system. I'd rather not be a part of that (Laughs). I’d rather feed somebody something that’s hopefully better for them and get them interested in the music and in the storytelling. We don’t always succeed, but we try. We try to recognize that people are paying good money for this. We should give them something that's worthwhile. We don't always do it right. We don't always get it right but when you do it feels really good.
SK: So many scores that accompany a sequel or rely on previously composed music seem to arbitrarily inject that material at opportune moments in the film without actually embracing the essence of the music itself. With MI4 I'm hearing so much of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE theme without actually hearing the theme.
MG: Right! (Laughs)
SK: Even though you quote the theme from time to time, I’m really hearing it throughout the whole score.
MG: Yeah, it is. It’s really woven. It’s kind of the backbone of the score and why shouldn’t it be? It is a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie and that theme is arguably one of the greatest themes ever written! When you go to a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie you want to hear that. You want to see that. That’s what you want to feel. At least for me I know what I would want. You’re not actually making it for everyone else, you are making it for you. You want to ultimately do something for you that is at the same time fun and worthwhile for someone to go watch.
SK: Other than the melody, what other characteristics of Schifrin's music were you pulling into your score?
MG: Lalo is an amazing jazz writer. You know you can't write a straight-up jazz score for a film like this but you can certainly hint at it here and there. It's the choice of colors you use. The choice of chords during certain key points. After (Ethan) gets his mission on the phone and walks away…if you listen to those chords at the end of that sequence those are straight-up jazz chords which is something that they would have done in those days that now everyone seems to run away from.
This is a movie where the end credits was just the score. How often does that happen? There was no song. In Brad's mind, he’s not interested in looking at this film ten years later feeling, "Wow! That song is dated." He wants to do something that will hold up to the test of time. If you are doing true orchestral film scoring it will last, whereas, if you are trying to just sell a record and stick a song on the end of something, that doesn’t really last. You can look at it and see it for what it is…an attempt to sell something to somebody.
SK: I want to know what went through your mind the very first time you saw the Burj Dubai sequence.
MG: (Laughs) What went through my mind was, “I can not believe that Tom Cruise actually hung from that building and did all of those stunts!" Especially the one where he swings out over the building. Are you kidding me!!???
The first time I saw a lot of that footage I was on the set of SUPER 8 (2011) visiting JJ (Abrams). JJ pulled out his iPad and said, "You've got to see this!" He showed me a bunch of the dailies from the shooting over there and I remember watching it on his iPad and I already started to feel a sense of vertigo and fear and concern for what they were doing over there. I kept thinking, "Are they nuts?!! What are they doing?"
It's an amazing sequence. I've been talking with Tom (Cruise) about this and I asked him, "Were you afraid? What's that like? Why do you do that?" His response was something like, "Look, if the audience sees it’s me doing this, the entertainment value goes up and the concern for the character goes up." Everybody realizes nowadays you can pretty much replace heads or do whatever you want. Nothing is necessarily real. But when you are watching something that you know in your gut is real, you are much more invested in the storytelling. I think that’s a pretty amazing approach to take. He really cares that much about the storytelling. That’s Tom.
SK: I think he’s absolutely right. It's a historical cinematic moment. Maybe audiences won't immediately digest it that way but eventually that scene will go down as one of the great action sequences in cinematic history. I kept telling my wife that Tom Cruise really performed those stunts at the top of that building. She won't believe me. I've got to go online and prove it to her (Laughs).
MG: I’ll tell you, my brother directed all of the behind-the-scenes footage on the making of the film and my brother was up on that building with him when they did it. He showed me all the footage. You can't help but watch it. There are no words to describe the feeling when you realize, "Wow! He really did that!" It is pretty amazing.
SK: I can't wait to dive into that material on the Blu-ray when it comes out. I won't be able to get enough. My heart thumps in my chest every time I think about that scene. When is the last time that has happened to me?
MG: We had a screening with the orchestra the other day so they could all see the finished film and it was amazing to watch it with an audience – and these are people who worked on it and who had seen a bunch of the scenes – but in the end they all walked out of the theater breathless like they were tired, but in a really good way.
SK: Totally. A fun yet challenging aspect to this score has to be the various ethnic locations used throughout the film. In modern films we seem to be shying away from using what may be viewed as stereotypical music to express other cultures. I certainly wouldn't say you were bashful at all about doing this. The Russian music couldn't have been more Russian with the use of the male choir and your harmonic choices. I love how you fully embraced the folk music of these various cultures especially in the Indian music where you compose an elaborate variation of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE theme cloaked in a quasi-Bollywood dance number. What a real musical treat!
MG: (Laughs) Yeah, that was fun and you know Brad’s feeling was, “Look, we're going to Russia, let’s make them feel like they are in Russia. We are going to Dubai. I want the audience to feel like they're in Dubai." As a matter-of-fact, the Dubai scene was one of the first scenes we scored. When we watched it later we realized we could actually do this better. So the music that's in there now is actually different from the original way we scored it. About a month after scoring the Dubai scenes we tackled Russia and India and I had made them feel so much like Russia and India that Brad felt that we should go back and make Dubai feel more like Dubai. I'm glad we did because it feels so much better than the way it was before.
SK: Understanding that all films are different and have different requirements we still tend to shy away from having overt ethnic musical references so prominent in the score. Does this film prove that notion wrong?
MG: I hope so. I mean it’s not your fault that Russian music sounds like that. It actually does! Russian composers have been writing that way for years and the folk music that comes out of these different areas, I don’t see why it’s a bad thing to highlight them and play with the idioms and make it a part of the fabric of the storytelling. I think in many respects it’s honoring that part of the world in a big way and I love that. Everywhere you go in the world it’s different. Everyone has their own take on a certain style of music and for me it’s fun to play with that. It's fun to highlight that and give it its due. I’m a huge fan of all kinds of music and I feel like the film would have suffered if we stuck to one type of musical idea for everywhere they went. Whereas now hopefully you are swept up into the idea that you're actually in Russia. It gets you more excited. I don’t think it’s a problem and I know some people might, but for me and Brad I know we had a lot of fun with it.
SK: This film required that unique brand of bravado storytelling and I think going there ethnically with the music really helps support that. The music set up each new exotic location in a bold way.
MG: Yeah. Brad wanted that more than anything. This was a globetrotting film and he just wanted you to feel that in a big way.
SK: What about the Russian choir? Were you able to do that in LA or did you have to go to Russia?
MG: Yeah, we did that with some amazing singers here in LA. We had a men’s choir who came in and sang it all with us. One of the singers in the choir was a Russian guy who helped us with all of the different syllables that we were using. It’s all just made up words but they sound “Russian” and he was there helping us find Russian syllables that work really well together. If you're Russian and you listen to the music you'd be asking yourself, "What the hell are they singing?" But if you're not it just sounds like Russian music.
SK: When I first saw the film I wasn't even sure you had actually composed all those specialized ethnic pieces. I was happy to learn that you had.
MG: I’m always interested in trying different styles. I approach composing very much the same way an actor would approach acting. You're taking on a role and in some films you may take on several roles. I took each one on as a role that an actor would play.
SK: When you watch the film, what one scene makes you say to yourself, “Oh hell yeah, I nailed that one.”
MG: (Laughs) You know what, it’s so hard. I don’t know. When I look at these things I generally just see everything I did wrong or I felt I did wrong. I just hope that the others who are there judging it don’t feel the same way that I do. I usually leave that up for other people to figure out or interpret. But you know, I am proud of the score and I think I’m even more proud of the fact that Brad took on this film. It's his first live-action film and to see what he did…You would think that the guy had directed a hundred live action films before.
SK: Yeah. There are "action directors" out there that can't direct their way out of a paper bag. Here comes Brad Bird and he constructs one of the more exciting, propelling, and architecturally sound action films I've seen in a long while. It's so well shot and edited. I can follow everything and I know where all the major components of the scene are without compromising the integrity of the energy. There are so many other films where I'm like, "What the hell is going on?" You're following shaky-cam and frenetic editing and that's not going to cut it.
MG: Exactly, and there’s no design to it, like I could name a bunch of movies, but I wont.
SK: Right. I probably could too.
MG: …Where you are watching and you have no idea what the hell you were just watching, you can’t even zero in on a main character in any way, because the inherent design of the scene is off. You can over design something to the point where you don’t even know what you are looking at anymore. I think Brad is always very careful about making sure the audience is with him every step of the way. He’s not one of these guys that’s like, “Hey, look what I can do. I can do this and that.” Next thing you know you’re like, “Wait, what happened to the story? I can’t follow any of this.” Brad respects the audience in a way which I think a lot of other directors don’t.
SK: Color me impressed. I don’t know if he’s going to stay in action. He’s probably going to mix up his storytelling choices and be one of those directors who tries to make every possible type of movie you can think of.
MG: (Laughs) I’m sure knowing Brad he will probably try all sorts of kinds of movies. I’m sure he’s got small ones, big ones, action ones, emotional dramas…I too am just waiting to see what he does next. That’s how it always is with him. After I finish a film with him I’m like, “Man, I cannot wait to see what you do next.” He’s just like that awesome uncle that comes over and tells you the craziest stories that you can’t wait to hear.
SK: Let’s get him to do a horror film. I would love to see him direct a horror film. That’d be badass!
MG: I know. It would be great.
SK: Well what else do you have going on these days? I know you just finished up JOHN CARTER (2012). What do you have coming up after that?
MG: Just finished JOHN CARTER and really the next thing I have is STAR TREK which is still a year off.
SK: Really? So you’re not doing anything for a while? That’s cool.
MG: Nope. The last couple of years I have been so busy and it's been so intense that I have this space I need to hold onto it while I can.
SK: Well I want to close our conversation by saying I have not yet had the chance to speak with you since you won your Oscar. I wanted to give you a mega-heartfelt congratulations!
MG: Thank you so much. Yeah, that was a crazy thing. And again, talk about storytelling, the guys up at Pixar…I’m very lucky and I’m very happy to work with the people that I work with. I feel like the people I get to work with feel the same way about storytelling that I do and they are all doing it because they love to do it. None of the people I work with are doing it because it’s their next gig or their job. Everyone I work with are people who actually absolutely love the art of filmmaking and to me that’s what it’s all about. I would never want to work with somebody who was looking at it like “This is my job.” It’s not a job, it’s a passion. Anything can be a job, but if you take your passion and make it your job I think you get better results.
SK: It’s definitely the brass ring everybody strives for, but it’s hard to obtain. You should feel blessed to have that.
MG: I do absolutely every day. Even JJ and I will be on the set talking together some times and inevitably every single time we are together in that situation he just looks at me and he goes, “Can you believe they let us do this?” (Laughs) I’m like, “No, I still cannot believe they let us do this." After all of this time I’m still waiting for them to go, "Alright guys, you’re fired. Get out of here,” because in our minds I think we are still those ten year old kids just making movies and having fun.
SK: Well Michael, that pretty much wraps up everything. I appreciate your time as always and look forward to the next time we get to chat.
MG: Great. Thanks so much.
SK: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
MG: You too. Merry Christmas and have a great New Year.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News, I'd like to extend a hearty thank you to Michael for taking the time to talk with me. I always enjoy our conversations together and look forward to the next time we can chat about movies, music, and all things geek-worthy…
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