Interview with Michael Giacchino
Sure man, not to mention Hollywood, had boldly gone before in turning a TV show’s five-year mission into an ongoing cinematic voyage- the first 27 years of which involved its original “classic” cast before the com was handed over to a new generation. But just when that film future seemed to have grown a bit stale, a hotshot named J.J. Abrams leaped into the captain’s chair to reboot the franchise in a way that was as audacious as it was winningly nostalgic with 2009s “Star Trek.” Taking the beloved crewmates back to their beginnings with a surfeit of style and lens flares, Abrams won over most of the “show’s” particularly finicky, and fanatical following with warp energy and attitude to burn.
If Abrams was an ersatz Kirk, then his frequent composing wingman Michael Giacchino (“Alias,” “Lost,” “Mission Impossible 3”) could well be called the filmmaker’s Scotty. For one wouldn’t think to look for cold, Vulcan logic in this musician’s talent for brash, red-blooded melody, demonstrating the kind of emotion, thematic energy and white-knuckle action that brought a spirit to “Trek’s” musical universe that was at once old-school, and of the visual razzle-dazzle moment. But best of all, a guy who’d won an Oscar for lifting a cartoon geezer on a bunch of balloons rousingly captured “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of human nobility battling to be at its best within the vastness of outer space.
Now a particularly dark cloud hangs over the crew in the form of an is-he or isn’t-he villain with a grudge that threatens to bring Kirk and crew to his basely super-intelligent level in “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” Eric Bana’s badass Nero in the last picture is positively emo when compared to the cold-as-space determination of Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison, whose terrorist act in England sends the Enterprise on the galactic warpath after him. This is an action-centric “Trek” that’s really personal this time, allowing Giacchino’s even more ambitious score too have fun with the big effects set pieces, while playing a mano-a-mano rivalry between Kirk, Spock and Harrison that happens to get waged with crashing starships. The sky is indeed the limit on what Giacchino captures here, from alien jungle-drumming a la “John Carter” to evil electronic tonalities, gripping military suspense and choruses that signal gallant, game-changing sacrifices. With an ability to conjure motifs that’s rightfully brought Giacchino comparisons to John Williams, the composer brings back the memorable themes from his first “Star Trek” as he introduces musical ideas that are rarely heard, or new to the “Trek” scoring universe, namely a piano whose Glass-ian rhythms are particularly striking in full-on orchestral context.
With all his exceptional score’s secrets soon to be revealed, Michael Giacchino talks about his continuing, creative quests into the sci-fi worlds that “Star Trek” represents like no other saga. Or perhaps, there is another.
How do you think your approach has changed for a “darker” movie this time out?
I think for me this film was sort of speaking about bigger ideas – real world ideas like terrorism, drone attacks and things like that. And because of that, this “Star Trek” had a much darker feel to it. It wasn’t the type of film that you felt like, ‘Oh, we can just go and have a fun adventure and that’ll be the end of it.” It was a film that you had to keep reminding yourself of what it was ultimately all about, especially since we also had a villain who was a really, really smart guy. To be honest, Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the greatest actors I’ve seen come around in a long time, and it was a fun challenge to get inside the head of the character he created. His John Harrison is calculating, menacing and as cold as a snake. He just kind of just sits there. You know what he’s feeling without him having to saying anything, which is pretty amazing.
Were you a fan of Benedict’s work on the “Sherlock” television series?
Absolutely. I was obsessed with it. I loved it. The BBC has put out a certain amount of “Sherlock” episodes, then they move on and you have to wait. It’s one of those series that I wished went right into one season after another after another.
As opposed to previous “Star Trek” villains who’ve been more forthright with their emotional outbursts, Harrison is a very cool calculated customer. How did you want to play that, but also to reflect the fiery emotions that are going on within him that he’s not going to show?
The first piece of music I wrote was called “Ode to Harrison,” which was. before I really started scoring the film. It was a piece of music I couldn’t get out of my head once I saw “Into Darkness.” I wanted to understand the villain, you know? Because for me, a lot of times on a film like this, it all starts with the villain. If he’s real and emotionally interesting enough then the rest of the score can come from there. So I sat down and wrote a theme where my goal was to communicate this really weird, chilling feeling inside of me when I, and the audience, would think about this guy. It was a theme that was never going to be complicated, or really complex. To me, John’s music was almost always a straight line, because he knows what the end game is. And he’s going to reach it by going from Point A to Point C. So this wasn’t going to be your average “villain” theme. It wasn’t going to be filled with big low brass and have a lot of chord changes that were all over the place. This music needed to be simple, which is what I went after.
What do you think it is about the orchestration of John’s theme that makes him stand out?
John’s music was mostly about this weird synth sound, which is a combination of a pipe organ, prepared piano and a very strange synth path. That’s combined with the strings, which are the driving force behind his character. Every once in a while the woodwinds and the brass come in.
The last time a piano was used in a Star Trek soundtrack was in Cliff Eidelman’s music for “The Undiscovered Country.” What inspired you to use that instrument here?
I know, and that was intentionally. We really wanted to do something unusual, and when you see the film, you’ll understand the kind of “why and how” of the piano. The idea was to set up a musical place that was completely about these characters. When people heard it, their reaction was “Wow! That doesn’t sound like ‘Star Trek’ music.” And I said “Good!”
How did you want to play the big personal stakes and potential sacrifices in the film?
The trick is that there are always two ways to go about those scenes. That’s always the trick. You can be big, and you can play them as small as possible. There was a lot of back and forth and discussion on how we should do certain aspects of the film, which goes to the piano. It was something we didn’t do in the first movie, but J. J. and I just loved the simplicity of it here, because sometimes that’s all you need. As beautiful as a string section is, it can kind of push you away in the wrong moment. So sometimes being simple is better. And in this film we found a few spots where that made sense for us to do that.
While the score is dark, it’s still a lot of fun to listen to. This certainly isn’t psychological heaviness on the angst-filled level of “The Dark Knight.”
The reality is you have these great characters that interact with each other in such personal ways and there’s a lot of fun just in those relationships. When Bones is on screen, he is who he is. He’s not going to be an incredibly “downer” person who’s going to bring the scene to some depressing level. So the balance of the whole movie is really the darkness of John’s character and what he’s trying to achieve, as contrasted with the Enterprise of Kirk, Spock and the whole gang. They do bring a bit of personality there that helps you keep things light when you need to.
You definitely have a ship to rival The Narada for “Into Darkness.”
We’ve always called this one “The Black Ship.” There’s a theme associated with that as well. But it wasn’t so much about size of it as it was the craft’s intent. Why is it even in existence? That’s the question our characters are trying to answer along with trying to figure out who the heck Harrison is. There’s a lot of questions throughout the story which the characters are constantly trying to catch up to. The first movie’s Narada was just about “Oh shit, this is a massive ship and I can’t deal with it!” This one’s more about, “Yeah, it’s a big ship, but it’s more about what is it trying to do?” This film is about the undercurrent of what was happening, as opposed to what you are seeing happening.
“Into Darkness” starts off with a chase between Kirk, Spock and some angry alien natives, where you use jungle drums. The music’s a bit like the tribal nature of “John Carter” in that way.
I suppose there’s a bit of primitiveness in there that’s always fun to do. For a scene like that, what’s better than pulling out some cool percussion stuff. That opening prologue on the red planet is a fun one and I think it’s meant to be an opening to a much bigger story. It’s not anything you necessarily come back to later on. So in that way, it was like writing a “cold open.”
How did you want to play the military aspect of The Federation, who shows there muscle in this film.
It’s interesting as The Federation is mainly out there to explore and bring people together. But occasionally, it finds itself in this bind where it actually has to use military force. It’s not The Federation’s first choice, but it does happen. I think there’s strength to some of the music where you feel that. When you’re talking about the military, it’s always been appropriate to use snare drums and big brass. We don’t shy away from that. It’s in the score because that’s what works, but those are for isolated moments. And it’s darker here because we’re thinking about the consequences of that military action as well.
Tell us about how you wanted to use the choir.
We used a lot more choir in the first film then we did on this one. My first intention on “Into Darkness” was to use no choir at all, because I felt that maybe we even overdid it on “Star Trek.” It was all part of keeping “Into Darkness” simple. But as I got into the score, I found a couple places where it would be nice to have voices. you know what it would actually be nice to have traditional choir. One piece called ”The Kronos Wartet” has choir in that’s the actual language these characters are singing from their home world.”
How important was it for you to use your themes from the first “Star Trek” for “Into Darkness?”
It was very important for me. The ultimate examples are in John Williams’ scores for “Star Wars” and “Superman.” Hearing those themes again was like seeing your old friends, which always made sense to me, Themes need to accompany the appropriate moments as you continue telling different stories with the same characters. Both J. J. and I felt right from the get go that we were going to bring back those particular themes, mainly the “Enterprise” and “Kirk” ones. But we also wanted to use them in different ways, and expand on them this time. So it was fun to play around with them as well.
Do you think your music also captures the spirit of the original TV scores from “Classic Trek?”
I don’t know if it even does, though I suppose that will be for other people to say. For me, my approach was always more about trying to do what was right for this particular version of “Star Trek.” That was always the balance and the struggle. What do we keep from before? What do we move on and do new stuff with? In the end, we are making a new version of “Star Trek” and a new home for its classic characters. So it felt more important to stay true to that intention rather then to make sure we had all these other themes that had come before. On Twitter, people are always saying to me, “Make sure you have the theme from The Next Generation, or the theme from “The Undiscovered Country,” or whatever. Of course I love all of that music, and it was a huge part of me growing up. But the reality is that we’re trying to make something different here. So it never felt right to use any of that music. Even when we did try to do it, it just never worked. Now having said that, there was one spot in this film where I did put in some a personal favorite cue from the old series. I’ll let fans figure out where it’s hidden in it!
How difficult is it dealing with a whole other level of secrecy and rumors that really have nothing to do with what your job?
It can become a constant thing you are thinking of. You always have to watch out what you’re saying so you don’t mess anything up. But the truth is that once the film is out there, people who want to know everything are going to know everything. Yet I know from J. J.’s point of view that he’s very intent on allowing people to have a sense of discovery when they go to the movie theater, which is disappearing. Everything is out there before it’s out there. I kind of miss the days when I would go to the movies and be surprised, like the first time when I saw “Back To the Future.” I had no clue what that movie was about. Sure I may have heard it was about time travel. But all of the particulars were kept secret so you could discover them when you saw it. I like that. If we can accomplish that even for one person with “Into Darkness,” then I think it’s worth a try.
Do you think they made a whole mountain has been made out of a mole hill over whether it would be you or John Williams who’d score J.J’s first “Star Wars” movie?
I was sitting with J. J. at Bad Robot when they announced this whole “Star Wars” thing. My first reaction was how awesome it was that we were going to get to hear more John Williams music. So It never was an issue for me. John’s doing great. He’s been a wonderful teacher and friend to me over the years, and getting him to do more “Star Wars” music from him is exactly what I want.
What’s your reaction when people say you’re going to be the next John Williams?
Well, we already have a John Williams. So I figure hopefully I can be the next “me.”
You’ll be doing Wachowskis’ “Jupiter Ascending” and Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” next. Are you happiest when you’re given epic science fiction movies to score?
I’m happiest when I’m working on something that has characters that I care about, and stories that are interesting to me. It could be anything. It could be a drama. It could be puppets. It could be science fiction. As long as the director has an idea of what the story is that we’re trying to tell then it’s great. The filmmakers I work with on a regular basis are very strong storytellers, and have very good ideas of what it is they want to do and how to accomplish it. I enjoy working with that level of confidence in people, because it’s always hard when you’re with people who have no idea what they want, and expect you to do it for them. That never works out.
Before you really made it big as a composer, you worked at Disney as a publicist. “Tommorowland” must be a really self-reflexive experience for you.
Yeah, I know. It’s a crazy thing when I think back at how much Disney product I have worked on. It’s pretty insane. I feel like I’ve never left that company!
Some of your first scoring work was for videogames like “Jurassic Park” and “Medal of Honor.” Now we have the whole new generation of systems coming out. How do you think music is going to adapt to them?
I imagine they are going to sound better and better and you’ll be able to do much more interactive music for them. I haven’t played any of the games that I’ve scored, except for the first “Medal of Honor. I kept getting killed on the first level, and I was like “I’m not good at this.” And that was it. Like the movies I score, it was always less about the platform and more about the story. I loved dinosaurs and World War II history, so those projects were wins for me. As far as working on videogames now, I’m not sure. I don’t have any major plans to score one, but you never know.
You’re going to be a guest conductor at the Varese 35th anniversary on May 11th in San Pedro. What does it mean to you to be part of this event?
I’m still kind of shocked and surprised whenever I’m invited to do something like this, because I feel my first reaction when I hear about a concert like “Oh my God! I get to hear Jerry Goldsmith music, or maybe I’ll get to hear something by John Williams! There’s just a huge list of composers whom I love and admire. When I’m told that I’ll be doing something to, it doesn’t seem right. But the same time, I’m extremely proud and happy to do it. It’s wonderful to bring film music to the fans in that way, because there are not enough opportunities to see scores performed like that. So whenever it’s done, I think it’s a good thing.
I imagine J. J.’s going to be pretty busy with “Star Wars” for a couple years to come. Yet the Enterprise will undoubtedly be going on new missions. Do you look forward to hopefully being on board?
Absolutely I’d love to. I’ve had a great time working on both these films, and the cast they’ve put together for this movie is incredible. I’d be happy and honored to do another if that was in the future.
Special thanks to Peter Hackman for transcribing this interview
See Michael Giacchino as a guest conductor at the Golden State Pops’ tribute to Varese Sarabande Records’ 35th anniversary on Saturday, May 11th at 8 PM. Tickets are available HERE
Watch Michael Giacchino conduct “Ode To Harrison” HERE
Visit Michael Giacchino’s website HERE