Oscar influences: Michael Giacchino was a crazed 9-year-old 'Star Wars' geek
When Michael Giacchino was in elementary school, all his friends were following the rock bands of the moment, notably Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Beatles. But Giacchino admits that he was "pretty adverse" to rock 'n' roll. "I hate to admit it," he told me the other day, "but I was listening to a lot of stuff that my parents had. I loved Benny Goodman, Louie Prima, 'West Side Story' and 'The Jungle Book.' To me, Benny Goodman is a genius. His clarinet solos aren't random. They're so melodic that you can actually sing back the solo, note for note. You can keep that solo right inside you."
When people talk about their favorite film composers these days, Giacchino's name is usually near the top of everyone's list. Discovered scoring video games by J.J. Abrams, he's emerged as one of the most versatile composers of our time, not only working on most of Abrams' TV projects, including "Alias" and "Lost," but a variety of feature films, such as Abrams' "Star Trek" and Pixar's "Ratatouille" and "Up," the latter of which has earned Giacchino his second Oscar nomination for best score.
I've been doing an informal series on Oscar nominees and the influences that shaped their work, so I recently checked in with Giacchino to hear about the music and composers who made a big impression on him. Like most people of his generation, the 42-year-old composer was indelibly influenced by one movie: "Star Wars."
"I was 9 when I saw it, and this little red light went off in my head that said, 'That's what I want to do!' " he recalls. "I remember everything about it. My family was on vacation in Cape Cod and my older brother had gone to see the film first and he came home and said to my sister and me, 'You've gotta see this film!' He really couldn't even describe the experience -- he kept fumbling around, trying to figure out how to explain it. But we went and it was just a totally exhilarating, emotional experience. I loved everything about it, especially the triumph of good over evil, and how the characters were always finding ways to take care of each other during all their adventures."
I asked Giacchino if he noticed the music, or was simply swept up in the story. "Oh, I definitely noticed the music," he says. "I made my dad buy me the soundtrack album, because in those days, the only way to relive the experience of the film was to get the soundtrack. I'd sneak tape recorders into movie theaters, record the sounds of the movies and then listen to them at night on a little speaker I'd rigged up in bed by my pillow. I was always into the story that a film told, and sometimes the soundtrack album would take everything out of order. So I made my own tapes, so I could always be sure to hear the story in the right sequence."
There were plenty of other films that left a big imprint on the young Giacchino's imagination, in particular "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Planet of the Apes" and "2001," which he sheepishly admits that he first saw on TV, not on the big screen. Being a composer, he even remembers that Stanley Kubrick, after hiring the great Alex North to do the music, threw out all of North's music at the last minute and ended up using Kubrick's original temp track of classical music.
Giacchino isn't a snob in the least. In fact, he happily admits that many of his biggest influences, in terms of scores, came from the musical themes he heard on such favorite TV shows as "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "F Troop," "Hogan's Heroes" and "The Beverly Hillbillies." "I suspect that much of my subliminal musical education came from TV shows," he says. "In those days, the music had to be live, recorded with an orchestra, and there were lots of talented people working in the medium. 'Twilight Zone' was a massive inspiration for me. Bernard Herrmann did the music on a lot of episodes, and it's the most gorgeous music you'll ever hear."
Giacchino and "Up" director Pete Docter shared a love for an unlikely TV program. What was it? Keep reading:
Working on "Up" with director Pete Docter, Giacchino found a kindred spirit. When the two men first began to collaborate, Docter stressed how he was interested in capturing a nostalgic feel for the film, since the lead character was someone who'd never really been able to let go of his past. Unlike a filmmaker, who often goes back and screens old movies for inspiration, Giacchino simply used his own musical memories as he went about capturing the spirit of the film.
"I just try to listen to the story and then watch the film without any music and let it remind me of feelings and emotions. When I first saw the marriage scene in the film, I immediately began to cry, so I knew I had to transfer the emotions that I was feeling into the music itself."
One of Giacchino's other big inspirations is Jim Henson and "The Muppet Show." "They were everything to me," he says. "I have all their music on my iPod. In fact, one night when Pete and I were first starting to work together, we were driving down to Disneyland and Pete was talking about an obscure comic bit between Kermit and Fozzie, where Fozzie is trying to tell a joke and Kermit keeps blowing his cue, and amazingly, I had it cued up because I'd just been listening to it on the way to my scoring session."
Giacchino laughs. "So 'The Muppets' were this big bonding experience for Pete and me. Our producer, Jonas Rivera, couldn't believe how we were going on and on about them. He kept laughing and saying, 'Oh my God, now these guys are gonna' get married.' "
If there is one other composer whom Giacchino puts on a pedestal, it's John Williams, the composer on "Star Wars" and many of Giacchino's other favorite films. He admires Williams not just for his work but for the way he handled his career. "He really has carved a path for a lot of us," says Giacchino. "He always seemed to only do the movies that he was passionate about or the movies where he had something unique to offer. And he always managed to work with people that he was inspired by, which is something I've tried to follow myself. It's why I treasure my relationships with filmmakers like Pete and J.J., because they are people who love their work and always try to do something special."
Photo: Michael Giacchino. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.