When it comes to film composers, Michael Giacchino is a household name. With one Oscar under his belt (Up), a multitude of iconic themes in the heads of audiences (Star Trek, The Incredibles, Lost), and a wonderfully diverse filmography that swings from the bombast of Rogue One to the playfulness of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Giacchino is undoubtedly one of the most exciting composers working today. And while Giacchino’s oeuvre spans two decades, he may have turned in one of his best scores ever with this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes.
Infusing the unsettling instrumentation of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic original Apes score with a more melodic and somber emotional undertone, Giacchino’s work on War for the Planet of the Apes runs the gamut from moving to terrifying. The composer improves on the stellar work he and director Matt Reeves did on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and brings Caesar’s story arc to a thrilling, heartbreaking, and inevitable conclusion.
With Giacchino undoubtedly in the awards race for his outstanding work on War for the Planet of the Apes, I recently got the chance to speak with the composer at length about how the score developed, his process, the most challenging aspect of the film, and crafting emotional music. But Apes isn’t the only great score Giacchino composed this year, so we also discussed his incredibly different but equally terrific score for Pixar’s Coco and working on a music-centric film that also has original songs, as well as his delightful work on Spider-Man: Homecoming and his experience with Marvel Studios. Additionally, we briefly discussed Giacchino’s impending work on Incredibles 2 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
I could have droned on for hours peppering Giacchino with plenty more questions, but as-is this conversation hopefully provides some insight into his process, how he approaches film composing, and how he juggles so many projects. And I must say, having interviewed Giacchino twice now he’s not only one of the most talented composers in the business, but also one of the nicest and most gracious.
Check out the full interview below.
Your score for War for the Planet of the Apes is absolutely one of my favorites of the year.
MICHAEL GIACCHINO: Oh, thanks.
So, congrats on that. It’s so good.
GIACCHINO: Thank you. I loved that movie. I love that franchise, and I love working with Matt Reeves. It was nothing but fun.
It’s fantastic, and I know on the press tour for Dawn, Matt was already talking about the ideas for the next movie that would become War so I was curious, when did you guys first start talking about the music and what were those initial conversations like?
GIACCHINO: Well Matt and I talk a lot because we’re really good friends. So we’re always talking about like you know, some stupid, geeky thing that we love, and we’re talking about the films we’re working on. I’m trying to remember, it was a couple years before it came out that we talked. We don’t really talk music so much, we just talk feelings and emotions and what the characters are going through. It’s mostly story. We always just talk story, and music never really enters into the picture. I’ll just kind of do that on my own and then present something to him where I thought, “Okay, here’s what we’ve been talking about” or “Here’s what I felt when I saw the movie.” By the time it’s ready for me to write music to it, I’ve already been thinking about it for a couple of years and it’s ready to go. So it’s weird when you’re working on things with your friends cause it’s just sort of … it’s always around. It’s not like you just get hired onto a film, you come in on the last eight weeks, you have to kind of figure it out. Most of the things that I work on are with people that I actually have relationships with outside of work.
Well I know that Matt had teased at that time kind of an Exodus, Moses-like story. Was that the story idea you guys were talking about and that you built a foundation on?
GIACCHINO: Yeah, definitely. Yep. He had a lot of ideas for that film and it was really all centered around that idea of turning Caesar into a much more mythic sort of character, a more historical character, if you will. So all those ideas were flying around really early on, before we got anywhere near the scoring stage.
Since you had that foundation, did you start writing the music early while you were talking about the ideas, or when you got a script? Or do you just wait until filming is finished and then you kind of dig into it?
GIACCHINO: Yeah. I use that time to kind of let it sit in the back of my head and do whatever it has to do. Go about my life in a normal way. You know, I didn’t write anything early. I just waited until I saw the movie, the first assembly of the movie, for the first time, which I think the version I saw was almost three hours long, you know. So I do see an early cut of it prior to it really being shaped. It was all being … I really just sat down and wrote out all of the thematics for it, the new ideas, real shortly after seeing the film, within days actually.
Oh, wow. Well, the score for Dawn has this kind of foreboding, almost menacing quality to it because of the Koba of it all, and then War feels almost epic and kind of more Western-tinged in way. I know this wasn’t your first sequel, but what did you decided you wanted to do differently this time around, given another go at another Apes movie?
GIACCHINO: Well, the good news was it was so different tonally, in so many ways, especially for the main character of Caesar. You had a character who was, prior to this event, a more optimistic someone who wanted to make things work out. Someone who wants both sides to be able to live together, who is constantly pushing for that at the same time he was protecting his people. But always with the hope that they’d be able to live together in peace. And of course that all was shattered in the second one we did, the third in the franchise. When the Colonel comes in and of course takes out his family. Now you’re forced into a situation where anger takes over everything, and Caesar is dealing with this anger and this obsession with getting back at the Colonel, it’s almost as if too much had happened to him and he just finally broke and he became the simplest of emotions, which is just anger. And besides, behind the anger is always sadness. And I mean, you can see that in the score too because much of the score presents the sadness while Caesar is upfront presenting anger, but the truth is behind all that anger was a lot of sadness that’s really what caused it. And it takes awhile for him to get the root of that anger and accept that sadness, and that empathy and to kind of allow it to surface again. But that was his whole journey in this film, which is very different journey than it was in Dawn.
Yeah, it’s a wildly emotional film. I don’t think people expect to think “Oh, that Apes blockbuster is gonna be one of the most moving films of the year,” but it really is.
GIACCHINO: No, I think you’re right. I think you’re right and I feel like it’s, for me anyway, it’s one of the most emotional films I’ve worked on, and I’ve worked on a lot of those kinds of movies. Between Up and even tons of episodes of LOST got very emotional.
GIACCHINO: But, this was an exploration into character that I feel like I haven’t done yet, and Matt is so good at that. It was just a pleasure to do.
That is kind of a throughline through your work of just kind of making people cry their eyes out. Do you have a sense of when you’re writing that kind of music? Does it move you?
GIACCHINO: It always moves me. It has to, or else the music isn’t going to feel right. It won’t be truthful. So if it feels that way to you, that means it felt that way to me. And I’m just sort of passing that on to you, the viewer. It always starts with me exploring, “How did this film make me feel? How did the story make me feel?” And I have to stay with that, I can’t just approach something and go, “What kind of movie is this? A sad movie? Okay, I’m going to write sad music.” It doesn’t work that way; it’s always me exploring what really is going on in this story and what are the true emotions. In very many ways, like an actor, you have to take on the emotions of the film in order to give a truthful performance of what the story is telling you.