Composer Michael Giacchino Talks ‘IF,’ Balancing Music With His Directing Career and ‘The Batman 2’

The Oscar-winning composer tells TheWrap about how he picks scoring projects now that he’s focused on directing

michael-giacchino
Michael Giacchino (Getty Images)

Prolific Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino isn’t slowing down. He’s just being picky.

The man behind the music for “Lost,” “Up,” “Star Trek,” “Spider-Man” and countless other beloved films and shows is finally moving into directing (a long-held passion of his), which means when he agrees to score a new movie, he really has to click with it. That’s what happened with “IF,” John Krasinski’s latest directorial effort. It’s an emotional story of inner joy that follows a young girl befriending various imaginary friends (or IFs), with Ryan Reynolds guiding her along.

Giacchino was first connected to Krasinski through mutual friend J.J. Abrams, who told his “Star Trek” composer that Krasinski wanted his number. Giacchino said he took the call because he admired Krasinski’s work on “A Quiet Place” and was curious to hear about this new idea.

“He was so enthusiastic. He was so much in love with the idea of moviemaking, and the thing that really sold me on working with John was the fact that he is out there making original films,” Giacchino told TheWrap.

And yes, he acknowledges he’s worked on plenty of IP, but he wants to be part of pushing through original films as well.

“I love ‘Star Trek,’ I would probably never say no to ‘Star Trek.’ I love ‘Star Wars,’ I love playing with the IPs, I love all these things that I have been a part of, and all the Marvel stuff, everything DC, I love them. But I also feel like there needs to be a balance of pushing the new out into the world as well,” he said. “So if we can do both, and if I can be a part of doing both, I’m definitely going to do that. So that was, for me, the big selling point, not to mention the fact that I just fell in love with the film because it was so sweet and the subject matter was just right.”

Giacchino is readying his next directorial effort, a remake of the horror movie “Them!,” after making his debut with the Marvel Disney+ short “Werewolf by Night.” Work is continuing on the screenplay, and Giacchino noted that he’s still getting used to the slower timetable of directing a movie vs. composing a score, but he’s eager to get back in the director’s chair ASAP.

Read on for our full chat with Giacchino about how he intends to balance directing and composing (including if he’s returning for “The Batman II”), how he approached the score for “IF” and his new hula album (you read that right):

How are you doing? I feel like you score absolutely everything. Are you tired? Are you finding a good balance with the directing?

It’s good, it’s good. I mean, the last couple of years have been a weird transition for me after finishing “Werewolf by Night” and doing a couple scores while I’m trying to get the next film started, so it’s this whole learning curve of like, “Alright, how do I balance both of these things?” It’s really about just being very picky about the films I choose to write music for, because that takes up time. I want to be able to do that, but I need to get these other things moving forward too. So it’s a bit of an interesting time, but fun for sure.

What is your threshold now for scoring a film? Because I know you’ve always wanted to direct movies and you’re now finally fulfilling that dream. But you’re also this incredible composer, and I know you love music. What gets you to a “yes?”

If the subject matter seems interesting to me, I always at least want to meet the director and see what their thoughts are and where they’re at with the film. On this one, it was funny because J.J. Abrams called me and said, “Hey, Krasinski is trying to get your phone number. Do I give it to him?” I was like, “Why?” and he goes, “I don’t know, I think maybe for a movie he’s working on” and I was like, “Sure, why not? It can’t hurt to talk.” So he and I got on a Zoom together and he explained everything he wanted to do, and he was going to let me see the film as it was in its rough cut form and just see what I thought.

He was so enthusiastic. He was so much in love with the idea of moviemaking, and the thing that really sold me on working with John was the fact that he is out there making original films. He is putting together movies that have original stories to them. I was a huge fan of “A Quiet Place,” and then when he told me about this movie, I was like, “You know what, yes, I want to be a part of the team that is supporting new ideas and putting new films out into the world for people.” I love the things I get to work on. I love “Star Trek,” I would probably never say no to “Star Trek.” I love “Star Wars,” I love playing with the IPs, I love all these things that I have been a part of, and all the Marvel stuff, everything DC, I love them. But I also feel like there needs to be a balance of pushing the new out into the world as well. So if we can do both, and if I can be a part of doing both, I’m definitely going to do that. So that was for me the big selling point, not to mention the fact that I just fell in love with the film because it was so sweet and the subject matter was just right.

John is incredible with emotion. I think that’s what knocked me out with “A Quiet Place.” Like yes, it was terrifying. But it also made me cry.

Exactly. He feels deeply the things that he’s working on, and I related to him in that way. Because as a composer, that’s how I have to work. I have to embody whatever these emotions are that are going on in order to kind of give you an honest version of what that music reflects.

What were your early conversations like? What were those nascent ideas?

You know, we talked about story most of the time. There weren’t many music conversations right up front. It was more about story and feelings, and how did we want to feel and what are the core emotional markers of the film that we need to pay attention to? Then I went and watched the movie and, in a day or two, I wrote a suite that felt like the movie to me. I just gave that to him and said, “Look, I don’t know if this is what you’re thinking, but this is what I’m feeling. Tell me if I’m on track with what you’re feeling,” because the most important thing is that he and I are together; that the director and composer are on the same page. Otherwise, the movie can be ruined by music. He immediately jumped on board and was like, “Yes, this is my movie, this is exactly what I was hoping for.” And from that, it was just right to the races and I just started writing.

It was a really interesting experience because I don’t think he had ever been at the orchestra sessions before for his previous films. The schedules were so crazy. To stand in front of an orchestra is an incredibly emotional experience. When you’re standing on that scoring stage, that’s the moment of no return. That’s the moment where you feel like, “Wow, I am just about at the top of the mountain and this journey is almost over,” and that’s a very emotional feeling. It hits you right in the chest and you can’t help but get teary eyed. So I think we had a really great time together working on this. There was a lot of joy put into bringing this idea together and bringing it to the screen.

Sonically, what was the main thing you hit upon for your approach to this score?

It was about creating a timelessness in what the music was saying and entering into sort of a magical place, a place where anything can happen. I find that a lot of times when I listen to more serene, classical music, it always makes me feel like I’m in this place where anything could happen. I wanted to try and capture that feeling for this film. It’s an emotional movie, but it’s also a very funny movie. It’s got a lot of humor to balance the heart. So it was finding a melody that I could use in a few ways.

I don’t want to say it came easy, because nothing ever is easy when you’re making it, but I just connected to the movie very quickly. So hopefully, you’ll hear something that feels somewhat timeless and somewhat catchy. I’m always looking for that thing in a movie, how can I help tell this story in the best way possible?

I have a toddler and he’s obsessed with “Up,” he’s obsessed with “Zootopia,” he’s obsessed with “The Incredibles.” I know I am far from the first person to tell you that, so what I’m curious about is as someone who grew up loving movies, has it registered in your brain yet that you’re soundtracking the childhood of millions of kids? What John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith was to you, you now are to them.

Well, yes. It took a while to understand that. I will say just in the last five years, maybe it started coming clear to me as I would meet people who would go, “I grew up listening to ‘Medal of Honor’ or ‘The Lost World’ video game,” and I’m like, huh? And they’re like, “That’s my childhood.” And then of course you get into “Up,” “Alias,” “Lost,” all these things. Even “Star Trek,” which was a little later and people grew up with that.

But where it really hit me was when I was at Disneyland one time with the kids and walking down Main Street, and we’re just doing whatever and all of a sudden I hear “Up” being played at Disneyland. That makes you go, “Oh, OK, I guess this is now something that’s going to last and be around for a while, if we don’t destroy ourselves as humans.” But yeah, that was the thing that sort of really hit the nail on the head going, “OK, something happened and I didn’t even realize it, that now I am one of those people that I so looked up to, for better or worse.” I’m there and it’s interesting. And it does make the work all worth it, because it’s so hard, it can be frustrating and it’s not easy to make movies by any stretch. But there’s a great reward in knowing that people feel that way and that the thing that you’re doing and the thing that you’re working so hard on actually is appreciated.

So you are also a very talented director. When are you directing again? Is “THEM!” coming together?

It’s coming together. We’re in the process of writing it at the moment, so that’s moving forward nicely. These things are giant boulders that slowly get pushed up hills. Everyone loves to announce a movie that’s gonna get made, and then it disappears for a couple of years. It just takes time, and it’s such a different time schedule than composing where it’d be one film after the other boom, boom, boom. This is now like one film for a long time. But it’s moving ahead really nicely, we just keep pushing it, keep pushing it, but I love it. In the meantime, I can kind of hopscotch back and forth and figure out, “OK, well, I have time to do this score,” or “I have time to do that score.” It’s always finding the ones that are interesting and feel like they’re going to be fun to be a part of, and more importantly, that I get to work with interesting and kind people if I can do that.

You’ve worked with some of the best filmmakers in your music career, I assume that gives you some confidence in directing abilities.

It was the best masterclass you could ever have, all those years of not just with the directors, but I would also say with the editors that I got to work with over time. Jeff Ford, who edited “Werewolf by Night,” we’ve done five movies together where I was a composer and he was the editor, so I learned so much from him over the years. And the producers I’ve gotten to work with, all that time when I was hoping to kind of leap into the next phase of what I want to do, I was actually learning so much. Your impatience at the time — you know when you’re in school and you’re like, “Just get me out of this. I don’t want to do school anymore. I want to get to here.” Later on, you always realize, “Oh, that time spent really taught me things that I needed to know.” I feel like going through the amount of movies that I’ve done with the great directors, editors and producers that I have, I have learned an incredible amount, which has put me ahead of so many people in terms of what I know. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be great, but it certainly gives me a leg up in terms of process and understanding of what’s ahead, that is for sure.

I heard there was maybe a longer, feature-length cut of “Werewolf by Night,” is there any truth to that?

There were a couple of extra scenes that I suppose would make it into a semi-feature kind of realm, but I don’t know if we’ll ever see that or not. I feel like the reason those scenes ended up being lost was because the story ended up being a better story without them. Longer versions of movies to me, when they come out, I’m always wary of that. There’s a reason you cut things from a movie. Adding things in doesn’t make it better, and it usually makes it worse. It’s very rare that it makes it better.

Have you had talks with Marvel about doing a feature over there? I know you’re friends with those guys. You’ve worked on a lot of those Marvel movies.

We’re always talking about that stuff. It’s just about like, “OK, what is the right thing at the right time?” And as you know better than anyone, the industry is going through an incredible change right now. So, when we were making “Werewolf” that was at a time where so many things were being made and everything was being tried. Now we’re in a much more conservative timeline in our industry. So I think it’s sort of working itself out right now, trying to figure out what are the next steps? How much can we push? Where can we experiment? All of that is now back to square one.

It’s kind of like, “Get in line and we’ll decide if we want to make this.”

Exactly. Yes. A lot of things need to be figured out first now. But you know, there’s no less enthusiasm for doing something. It’s just waiting for the right time.

How do you balance something like “The Batman II,” which your score for the first film was so incredible and you’ve worked with Matt Reeves for so long. When that production gets pushed and you’re trying to get “THEM!” off the ground, are you able to do both?

You hope for the best. The people that I’m working with are people that I’ve worked with a long time, so people tend to — we all work it out and we’ll figure out our schedules, and everyone is always like, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll deal with it when it comes up. We’ll make it work.” I’ve had multiple studios really go out of their way to help me make sure my schedules are working for them in order to be able to do what I need to do. So that’s really nice to have that kind of relationship with the various studios and the various filmmakers. Without that, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

Well thank God, because I can’t imagine “The Batman” without you.

I’m excited for that. We’ll see.

Speaking of other collaborators, you’re working with Brad Bird on “Ray Gunn.” Have you started work on that yet?

Some. Very little. But yes, there are a couple of ideas I floated by which we’re really excited about and things like that. But the bulk of the work hasn’t really started yet and he’s hard at work. He’s pleased. He’s doing what Brad does, which is make great things. That’s why he’s here on Earth. I’m excited about that one.

I hear there is a hula album in the works. Tell me about that because it sounds very exciting.

[Laughs] I feel like this is an album I’m putting out that was literally just for me that I want to do. Nobody asked for this. I’m a huge fan of Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, all of these guys that were doing this sort of quasi-exotic music in the ’60s. It was a mishmash of a lot of different elements, it’s from all over the world, but it has this sort of tropical vibe to it. I love that music so much and so I did an album that had every theme I’ve ever written, but in that style. Make it feel like one of those old RCA stereo records, and I was just so happy I got the chance to do it. That is coming out from Mutant Records, I think it’s July, but we just released the single that has two tracks from “Lost” on it.

It just literally came out of this dumb thing that I was like, “Oh, it’d be fun to do this. Anyone want to do this?” And they were like, “Yep, let’s do it.” So we did and it was a really exciting thing to do, because it really had nothing to do with anything other than just wanting to have fun. You’ll be hearing more about that in the coming weeks. I guess we’re going to do something at Comic-Con. It’s just another fun way to kind of look at all the work that was done and present it in a different way. We’ll see what happens.

“IF” is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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