Exclusive: Composer Michael Giacchino Talks Cars 2, The Incredibles, Lost, Inspirations

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to participate in a roundtable with Cars 2 composer Michael Giacchino. The Academy Award winner has earned much praise throughout the last decade for his work on Alias, Lost, Star Trek, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and of course Up, the film for which he won the Oscar. This year, the incredibly busy Giacchino has composed the music for Fringe, Super 8, and still managed to find time to return to Pixar to score Cars 2. Check out my exclusive questions for Michael Giacchino, where he discusses his inspirations, his past work, and his time on the upcoming Cars 2.

Michael Giacchino. Photographed by Brett Butterstein. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved

In the past, you have kind of mentioned how you like to create themes for many of the main characters. Can you talk about your process of creating a theme for a character? Like Finn McMissile or Mater.

Well, for Finn I can tell you that it was more a, kind of a reaching back to my paths when I was a kid. I remember listening to that surf rock music when I would ride my bike around the neighborhood. My dad had this old album. I don’t even remember what it was but it was like surf music and I used to listen to that thing, and I made a cassette tape and put it in, what was, my Walkman back then. I used to drive around the neighborhood on my bike just imagining all sorts of things happening, that I was involved in something much bigger than literally just riding a bike down the street. And I remember when I first saw Cars 2, I saw it, oh my God, it just reminded me of that feeling. Especially the opening scene with Finn McMissile on the oil barrack. It really reminded me of that feeling – that energetic, just complete like, “I’m involved in something huge” sort of feeling that you have as a kid when you’re pretending or when you’re playing. So with that, I just thought that, “Oh, that would be so much fun to do that for Finn McMissile,” because that’s clearly what this guy’s world is. He lives in that world that I always wanted to be in when I was a kid. So, it really started there with that feeling. And that’s how I came up with him.

And then it’s a matter of just sitting down at the piano and trying to figure out something that you can remember the next day. You know, for me, I like a theme that you can kind of hum back or that you can remember or when you hear it you go, “Oh, that’s from Cars,” or whatever. That’s the kind of stuff I’d listen to growing up – all those great John Williams soundtracks, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Hermann – they all do these great scenes that you can remember. So, for me, that’s what I like to try and do for the films that I work on.

On a movie like Cars 2, obviously you collaborate with John Lasseter (the director) – you collaborate with him on the score. Who else do you have to work with in order to come up with this. Do you work with anybody else over there (Pixar)?

Pretty much just John. You know the director is king and any musical decisions basically are between me and the director. It’s not to say that Steve Schaffer (the editor) also has a lot of great ideas and his input is also very valuable. I tend to work closely with the editor as well as the director because they’re the ones who’re cutting the film and things are changing, and you’re always keeping up with each other about what’s going on. But as far as the main creative decisions that are being made – that’s generally, those are things that I discuss with John.

Lasseter and Giacchino in scoring session. Photographed by Deborah Coleman. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

You’ve obviously worked for longer running series as well as movies. How does your approach change for working on something like Lost, which by the way I love, and scoring a movie like Cars 2?

Thanks. Yeah, I miss Lost. It was a lot of fun. You know what? Every time I sit down to write something, whether it’s with a movie or whether it’s with a video game or a television show, it’s always about just doing what’s right for the story. You know, in that sense they’re all the same – you’re doing the same thing. I mean, Lost obviously is spread out over six years of storytelling and there’s 51 or 52 hours of music that was written for that show, over all those episodes. So that’s a lot of music. So you’re really, for something like that you’re writing a continuing kind of saga or some sort of opera, it feels like.

But at the center of it, you’re just really sitting down and trying to write something that emotionally supports the story in a way that the audience can follow the characters and stay in touch with them emotionally. I mean, that’s the big challenge of a composer because you’re there to support the correct emotion that the scene needs. And if the scene is working, if the show is working, hopefully it’s all there. It’s just about kind of enhancing it with some music.

You’ve come back fairly often to score Pixar films. That’s not a complaint at all because it’s always great stuff, but what keeps drawing you back to working with Pixar?

I have so many friends there that are kind of like my family and sometimes it’s – I feel like most of my friends are up north. I live in Los Angeles and they’re, of course, up north. But I just have a lot of great friends there and making things with your friends is about the best you can hope for in life. For me, when I was growing up, I had a set of friends, that we would make movies together and we would be in plays together – we did everything together and it was about kind of being creative as a group and I think that’s why I was attracted to filmmaking so much because it was about being creative as a group. It’s not one person can just do this. You need a team of people and to find a team of people that you love working with, that you can call your friends and also your family – I mean, that’s a pretty special thing. So, for them, I would happily always go back.

(L-R) Denise Ream, John Lasseter, Emily Mortimer, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Giacchino. Photographed by Deborah Coleman. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

While scoring a film, do you often find that there’s one type of scene that is often harder to score than others? For example, a death scene or a romantic scene or an action scene. Is that true?

They all have their challenges individually. I find that if the film story is working well, you know, sadder scenes or romantic scenes, those are very kind of fun, not easy but they come a little easier. The action stuff can get very complicated because in an action scene, you’re not just writing music that is just chugging away behind them. You need to also kind of hit every little story point that happens. Complicated action scenes always have very specific story points which then advance the entire story later on as you go forward. So you want to make sure you’re hitting all those properly in the right way because if you just blow through, you can easily just blow through with action music, something like that. So, it’s about kind of pinning down, what are those moments you want to catch to make sure that nobody, that the audience gets as much of a thrill out of the storytelling as you can give them.

If, for example on 100 Mile Dash (from The Incredibles), if you just had music blowing through and Dash suddenly gets on the water and goes, you don’t have that great moment of joy, that pause almost when he looks down and realizes that he’s running, and then “BAM!,” he goes and then the music kicks in. It’s those kinds of things that you want to keep watching because if you just blow through, it’s not as fun for the audience.

A huge thanks to the great Michael Giacchino for sitting down to talk about his work. For more from the interview, head on over to Pixar Talk!

You can hear Michael Giacchino’s score on the Cars 2 Soundtrack, which hits retail stores on June 14.

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