Michael Giacchino recently celebrated his 50th birthday with a few thousand of his closest friends: to herald the momentous occasion, the Cinematic Sinfonia Orchestra performed an evening of the composer’s most-loved scores at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Giacchino, who got his start scoring video games, then moved to TV and now films, is three-quarters of the way to coveted EGOT status: He won an Emmy for his score for Lost, three Grammys for his work on Ratatouille and Up, and an Oscar for best original score for Up.
His score for War for the Planet of the Apes once again has him in Oscar contention. He spoke with Billboard about the power of saying no, his worst move in the recording studio and returning to The Incredibles. His newest film, Pixar’s Coco, opens Nov. 22.
You celebrated your 50th birthday at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Did your life flash before your eyes — or ears?
It was very strange. My sister produces all my concerts, but in terms of this one, I think it was more important because she was so insightful in getting a lot of things I did as a kid. Even at the beginning of the concert, as people were coming in, there were all these old drawings that I did from my old sketchbooks when I was from 7 to 12 years old of Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Star Wars stuff. You’re looking at these drawings that I was doing as a kid, and yet here we are tonight celebrating all the work I’ve done on those same things later in life. It was like a This is Your Life type of thing. My favorite thing was that all those directors came out as well: J.J. [Abrams] and Matt [Reeves] and Andrew Stanton. I would not be up on that stage if it wasn’t for them and the work we’ve been able to do together.
You conducted Mission Impossible at the end of Lalo Schifrin’s 85th birthday party concert in October. Which composer has mentored you or has given you the best advice?
I never had that. All of these guys were inspirational to me and teachers, but teachers from afar. I’ve always looked at guys who I’ve admired, like John Williams and Lalo Schifrin and Max Steiner, and looked at the choices they made and always try to take a cue from that. When you’re starting out in this business, it’s very easy to want to say yes to everything that’s offered to you. I think that one of the things I’d learned from being so attentive to the careers of the people I’ve admired is the fact that they would say “no” a lot. Early on, I took that as a cue to only work on things that I knew I would be passionate about. There were times where that cost me jobs, it cost me money, but it didn’t matter, because being happy was way more important to me than not.
We’re heading into awards season and your score for War for the Planet of the Apes is already showing up on short lists.
As a kid, I loved Planet of the Apes, so to be able to be working on it is just such a great joy. I think that [Twentieth Century Fox] could not have found a better director to bring those movies to life, because Matt [Reeves] is so emotional in how he approaches the story he wants to tell. I feel like if those movies didn’t have a real emotional core, they would just be another action movie with CGI.
There’s also so much emotion in that score. What kind of responsibility did you feel knowing that this was the last of the Planet of the Apes films?
You know, I try not to think about those things. I go into something purely looking for, “what is the emotional resonance that happens when I watch a film?” My whole job is to try and figure out how to make me feel. t’s like tapping into your empathy in a huge way — even with the bad guys. If you can’t, it’s a badly-written bad guy. You take on the emotions of these characters, and then I have to find a way to translate that into music. I’m constantly doing that, with all of these movies. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rat who’s trying to cook, or if it’s James Kirk or whatever.
Are you going to miss the characters from Planet of the Apes?
Oh, god yes! [laughs] I will totally miss them. Matt and I, when we were recording that final scene for the film, where Caesar is finally realizing he brought everyone to this new place, both had tears in our eyes. We both knew we were saying goodbye to this character that we had loved. You invest a lot of yourself into these characters; you’re not just making a science fiction movie about apes that can talk.
Who’s your favorite character you’ve written music for?
I loved writing Lost. It was like a never-ending opera, in a way. You were able to write a scene for a character that then developed over the six seasons. There was never any guidance as to what I should or shouldn’t do, and I felt like of all the things I’ve done, it’s the most “me.” Having said that, television is really hard, because you’re gonna have to do it one [episode] after another, but as I look back that was such a special experience because you’re with people for an extended period of time. You really do become a family, both with the cast and crew and the people that make the film.
At the start of recording the score for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, you played John Williams’ iconic Star Wars theme and were like, “crap, what have I done?” Why would you do that to yourself?
I only had four-and-a-half weeks to write the score, so there was no time to really think about the enormity of what I was taking on. I’m glad I didn’t, because I just dove in. I thought, “Oh, first day of scoring! Let’s just play the original Star Wars theme just to warm everyone up and get our mic levels. Wouldn’t it be fun?” We did it, and the second I heard it, I was like, “Aww man, why did I say yes to this? This was the worst idea ever.” Because this music is so good. Then I was intimidated, at that moment. But you know, you have to let go of that and move on, and we ended up having a great week recording. I really loved working on that movie.
You replaced fellow Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat on Rogue One. Is it hard to come in under those circumstances?
It is, because you feel badly. You don’t ever want to see that happen to somebody, especially somebody as good as Alexandre. He’s an amazing composer, I love what he does. It all happened so fast. I’d never even had an intention of working on that film, I was just excited to see it when it came out. The truth is, you don’t like that happening to anyone. It’s never fun to read about that or see it when that happens to your friends.
On Nov. 22, Pixar’s new animated feature, CoCo opens. What was it like working on a movie based the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead?
It was wonderful because I was able to work with Camilo Lara and with Germaine Franco, who both have a wonderfully extensive knowledge about Mexican music. I had a certain amount of knowledge about Mexican music, but working on this film opened my mind up to show me how vast a creative landscape Mexican music covers. It’s pretty incredible. I left that project feeling like I learned so much, and was able to ask questions and learn and incorporate that into the score.
Next year comes Incredibles 2. How excited are you to revisit these characters that launched your movie career in 2004?
I’m both excited and terrified, because that was my first movie, and I spent that entire film thinking I was gonna get fired. I was like, “why are they hiring me for this? I’ve only done TV and video games, I can’t believe they want me for this.” I loved it so much. Once it was over, I thought, ‘great, we did it! We pulled it off. We never have to do that again.’ And then, when [director] Brad [Bird] came back to me and was like, “hey, we’re gonna make another one!” I’m like, “No, let’s not! We did it right, let’s let it go! Why would we do that to ourselves?” [Laughs] I want it to be good — and I know it will be. I’m excited to get back into it, but there’s that trepidation of looking back at the thing you did that you hoped could just be that one moment in time.
What has been your favorite score of this year?
It’s not a movie, but I did finally see Hamilton this year. I will say that is the thing I have seen in the past five, 10 years that has completely blown me away, to the point where I left the theater thinking, “Oh my god, what am I doing with my life?” That is art in the purest sense of the word. I have no idea how Lin-[Manuel Miranda] and the guys who worked on it did it. That was something I thought was just so groundbreaking and beautiful and had so much to say. It’s not a movie, but it’s certainly something that involves music that spun my head around.
Fans of your work have learned to make sure they check out your cue titles since you seem to take great delight in coming up with puns and catchy ones. For example, War For the Planet of the Apes includes “Exodus Wounds,” “Don’t Luca Now,” and “Koba Dependent.” Are you just amusing yourself?
Yeah, we’re trying. It’s a game that me and my music editors play with each other while we’re working on these things. Whoever has the best one wins, and we’re always trying to come up with the best one. It’s just a fun way for us to pass time while we’re working on all of this. The work is the work, and sometimes it can get tedious dealing with picture changes and spotting notes and everything. You do something fun to help pass the time, and that’s what we’ve done starting with Alias. Some people hate that we do it!
It’s like a little treat to those of us who pay attention to such things.
It makes me very happy to hear you say that, because I’ve had the opposite reaction, too. On certain message boards, people are like, “I can’t believe he does this! Does he not take his job seriously? He’s ruining my soundtracks!” And I’m like, “really? I’m ruining your soundtracks by naming them these things?” We do it because we have fun doing it and I imagine we’ll keep doing it.