how to make a movie

How to Compose a Killer Film Score, by Michael Giacchino

Each one of composer Michael Giacchino’s movie scores took a lifetime to write. Be it the forties French jazz of Ratatouille, the hyperactive pulsation of Speed Racer, the retro-futuristic adventure ballads of Star Trek, or the unexpected melancholia of Up, Giacchino’s orchestral sounds aren’t just logical responses to a picture. They’re the culmination of the composer’s vast pop culture memory, and when Giacchino starts banging out the notes that will eventually comprise the score to a movie like The Incredibles, he’s tapping into his affection for film and letting it pour. Vulture talked to Giacchino about the instincts, inspirations, and instrumentals that helped him discover the sounds of his feature film work. How did he know that arrangement at that moment would work that well? Here’s a look back at Giacchino’s finest big-screen moments and the composing lessons they each illustrate. (Oh and one small-screen lesson from Lost because … well, Lost.)

1. Up’s “Married Life”
Lesson: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Giacchino won an Oscar for his work on Pixar’s Up, thanks in no small part to the film’s four-minute opening sequence, depicting the marriage of Carl Fredericksen and his wife Ellie. It was an expectedly delicate process for the composer. “What you have to do is spend time celebrating this couple’s life together,” he says. “But by doing so, you’re setting people up to be completely sad when the inevitable happens. So it was about building an idea and theme that kept coming back in different ways.” The key was repeating the melody over and over, each time altering its orchestration and key to echo the mood. As the two age, the music slows down, ending with Ellie’s funeral and a long bit of piano playing.

On Up and in most of his projects, Giacchino has the distinct advantage of composing chronologically. His work on Up began with “Married Life” and exploded into the carnival of sounds that frequent the later scenes. Like Lost, nothing in the beginning was planned to make a return by the end. “Take it feeling by feeling. It’s a very emotional process for me. Whatever I put down, I want it to be a reflection of whatever I felt at that moment,” Giacchino says.

2. Super 8’s “Letting Go”
Lesson: Do the Opposite of What You’re “Supposed” to Do

“I remember, J.J. and I both were sitting on the scoring stage saying, ‘Can you believe we’re here with Steven Spielberg?!’” Working on an Amblin film, in the footsteps of Spielberg composer John Williams, was a dream come true for Giacchino. Yet he was committed to scoring the movie with his own voice.

Take “Letting Go,” the emotional finale of the film, which plays when the alien makes it to his ship and beckons the young hero’s locket that contains a picture of his late mother. Whereas Williams in the eighties may have gone big and bold with symphonic orchestra, Giacchino opted for the opposite effect. “For me, when [the locket] starts to float away, it’s about getting as quiet as possible,” he says. “If you’re dealing with someone who is going through a hard time, you’re not going to sit there and yell at them and ask them how they’re doing and be loud. You’re going to be as quiet as possible and talk to them and figure out how to help. That’s how I think music should be.”

Giacchino calls Williams a colleague and collaborator — they teamed up for the revamped version of Star Tours — but he’s still an admirer. Which is why he wouldn’t take on Abrams’s Episode VII. “I don’t want to do Star Wars! I don’t want to hear my music; I want to hear John Williams’s music. He’s the guy who should be doing it.”

3. Star Trek’s “That New Car Smell”
Lesson: Know When to Strike Out on Your Own

More than any of his previous thematic tinkering, rebooting the sounds of Star Trek strained Giacchino. “It was a tough thing to get to, because in the beginning, I was trying to appease what I thought Star Trek music should be,” he says. “Everything I was writing sounded spacey — what you would expect from a film like that.” After hitting wall after wall, writer Damon Lindelof eventually provided him with sage advice: “Why don’t you forget we’re making a Star Trek movie and write a score to a film that’s about two guys who meet and become the best of friends?”

Giacchino created a relationship-driven score by mirroring Spock’s place in the universe with the Chinese ehru, a type of fiddle heard in “That New Car Smell.” “I wanted something from the East that was playing with a Western sound,” he says. “The idea of Spock being of another place, another planet. And he has elements human in him, but he’s born out of another culture. So it was taking that instrument and putting it in a Westernized orchestra, to represent his place in that crew.”

4. John Carter’s “The Fight for Helium”
Lesson: People Still Want Melody. Give It to Them.

A sucker for the golden era of film scores, Giacchino aimed for the shamelessly grand scores of greats like Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) with his adventurous John Carter score. With “The Flight for Helium,” Giacchino taps a melody worthy of a pulp fiction hero, a tactic that has slipped by the wayside in modern Hollywood.

“[Golden age composers] weren’t afraid to come up with a melody and play it,” he says. “Play it, play it again, and play it again. You’re introducing an idea to an audience that they can hold on to. Most movies now are built out of energy: Get me from this point to that point; thematics are old-fashioned; they sound cheesy. I don’t believe that. You can give people something that lives on beyond the movie itself.”

5. The Incredibles ’“100 Mile Dash”
Lesson: Don’t Be Afraid to Crib

“The idea for that was to get the feel of an era of filmmaking that doesn’t exist anymore,” Giacchino says of his lightning-speed chase music. “A time when it was okay to do a jazz orchestra: Henry Mancini, John Barry, any number of people would do it brilliantly during the sixties, seventies. Then slowly, it fell out of fashion.” The composer knew exactly what director Brad Bird was looking for when “old James Bond films” entered the conversation. There had to be French horns, big, bold, superheroic instruments. To dress the fundamental sounds in a “big jazz gown,” Giacchino turned to the work of Flintstones and Johnny Quest composer Hoyt Curtin, a personal hero. “[The Incredibles] was almost like a thank-you note to them for everything they did that I sat in my parents’ basement and listened to over and over again.”

6. Lost’s “There’s No Place Like Home”
Lesson: Be Quick

“I always thought of Lost as a psychotic opera,” Giacchino says. “Because there were so many characters, it was important for me to track them with themes.” By the end of season one, Giacchino had individual motifs for nearly every character who graced the screen. In later seasons, factions emerged that called for their own cues. Season four’s “There’s No Place Like Home” started as a sound for the Oceanic Six and wiggled its way into subsequent seasons’ emotional moments. The tune is representative of Giacchino’s methodology: Watch the episode, play the music that makes sense.

“[Lost taught me] how to be quick, be fast, don’t overthink things, go with your gut, and get it done as efficiently and properly as [I] can,” he says. Giacchino didn’t discuss musical ideas with J.J. Abrams or anyone on the show — there wasn’t time. For “There’s No Place Like Home” and its repeated use, it was hitting the notes, orchestrating, then sending off for recording. “I could do anything I wanted. I had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do. There was no time.”

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