Q&A: Composer Michael Giacchino

Last summer, we brought you Star Trek in Concert with the Nashville Symphony. This year, we're continuing the saga by bringing you Star Trek: Into Darkness with the Nashville Symphony (Buy Tickets). Besides giving a rebirth to the movie franchise, the new Star Trek movies feature music by American composer Michael Giacchino, who, for the past 20 years, has composed music for multiple blockbuster movies, video games and television series. There's no doubt that you've heard his work before, as he has composed the music for Jurassic WorldThe IncrediblesRatatouille, Up and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. His work is also behind television the series Lost and Alias. Giacchino's work will also be heard in upcoming releases Doctor StrangeThe Lego Batman Movie and Cars 3.

On June 12, you'll be able to hear Giacchino's work for Star Trek: Into Darkness as the Nashville Symphony performs the score live with the movie projected no the big screen. We recently caught up with him to get his views on composing for Star Trek, his approach when writing for a film and how other films he's worked on have helped shape his career.

Nashville Symphony: You’ve composed scores for multiple genres of films including animated, action and science fiction. How was your approach different for scoring a science fiction film such as Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness?
Michael Giacchino: I don’t work any differently for animation than I do for live action. However, because the lead time for animation is much longer than live action (for example, Pixar films are in development for up to five years) I am often introduced to the story much earlier.  But as far as process, it’s the same. Up is narrative story, just like Star Trek, it doesn’t matter that it’s animation. I still approach the project by finding the emotional story arcs in the film. Generally I screen the film and then write a 10-minute suite that expresses what I felt when I watched it, and then compare notes with the director to see if we are on the same page emotionally. You don’t want the music to take the film in a direction that the director doesn’t intend it to go. 
NS: In your scores for the first two movies in the Star Trek reboot, you’ve successfully incorporated themes from previous iterations while also bringing your own individual flavor and sound to the scores. Is it difficult to write music for movies with such a legacy? And how did you keep many of these themes while also making it original?
MG: For Star Trek, [director] J.J. [Abrams] and I agreed that we wouldn’t use Alexander Courage’s theme until the end credits of the film, because this film was not about Star Trek as we knew it. The crew needed to earn that iconic theme first, and so it becomes a bonus at the end for the fans. So we were starting from scratch. 
However, this new theme became one of the most difficult pieces I ever had to write. I grew up watching the old series. I was so excited about being attached to the project. I thought: now I have the opportunity to write some great space music! I started composing a year ahead of the film’s release, but I was having trouble composing music that satisfied me.  My original cues were written in the style of a “space opera,” and they just didn’t feel right for the type of movie that we wanted to do.
Finally, I had a conversation with Damon Lindelof, one of the film’s producers. Damon said, “Let’s forget about Star Trek. The Star Trek movie we want to do is not a space movie. It is basically the story of how two men become best friends. Suddenly it was clear to me. The next theme I wrote, “Enterprising Young Men.” ended up in the film, and it finally felt true to me. 
It’s funny you ask about iconic themes. When I got Mission Impossible…I was so nervous. That theme is one of the greatest ever written. So I arranged a lunch with Lalo Schifrin, the composer, to talk about the project. I asked him, should I do this, should I do that, do you have any advice? And he just looked up from his salad and said, “Just have fun with it.” That made it a whole lot easier! 
Even with Jurassic World, we knew that we wanted to use John Williams theme at some point, but we spent a lot of time deciding exactly where it would fit into the film. You want to pay homage, because these are fantastic pieces of music you inherit, but at the same time, we are making a new film. 
NS: Your job is very different from many other contemporary composers. You’re working with a director at every juncture and writing for specific situations in the film. In knowing that directors will sometimes change scenes and make cuts, how do you balance writing for the film, being true to your compositional style and establishing continuity in the music?
MG: I see my job as a musical storyteller working hand-in-hand with my director. I don’t look at it as I must have my compositional style; I aim to create a musical landscape that best serves the story being told. As far as films changing, that’s all part of the process. I don’t view myself as working in a vacuum as the composer, I view myself as part of the filmmaking team. Filmmaking is the most collaborative art there is, and it’s rewarding to work with so many talented people in front of the camera, behind the camera, in the editing room, etc.
NS: Out of all the projects in your career, what do you think your 10-year-old self would be most excited about having on your résumé?
MG: It’s probably a toss up between Star Trek and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes!
NS: What do you think makes a great movie score?
MG: Anything that serves the story. Doesn’t have to be specifically orchestral, it just has to support the story. 
Experience the movie in HD while the orchestra enhances your movie experience. We'll be hosting a pre-concert birthday party to celebrate Star Trek turning 50! The party will feature a costume contest, birthday cake and a photo booth. Vulcan Ale will also be available for purchase. Buy concert tickets now.
©2009 Paramount Pictures. ™ CBS Studios Inc.

Q&A conducted by Justin B. Bradford, Web and Social Community Manager for the Nashville Symphony. Be sure to follow the Nashville Symphony on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.