A trip to the studio with Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino for 'Let Me In'
Michael Giacchino takes his job very seriously.
If I were to make a short list of my favorite movie-related moments in 2010, there's a good chance my afternoon at the home studio of composer Michael Giacchino would top that list. After all, he's one of the most canny pop-culture artists working today, and his scores have been a major factor in my love of films like "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" and "Star Trek" as well as shows like "Lost" and "Alias." He is probably the first great Hollywood composer to emerge from the video game industry, and in his way, he's the Tarantino of film scores, a canny magpie whose knowledge of the history of film and film music shows up in the most unusual ways in his work.
There are certain people on films you get used to never speaking with, composers and cinematographers and editors, people who are key creative collaborators but whose work goes largely unnoticed by the general filmgoer and largely uncelebrated by the press. Part of that is access. When I visit a film set, one of the people I'm most interested in talking to is the cinematographer, but they're typically so busy that they don't have time to talk to reporters. With composers, what they do is typically a private process up to the moment of recording, and then it's such a quick process that they don't bring the press in. I can count the number of scoring sessions I've been to on one hand, even though it's always magic when you're there.
After I moderated the Comic-Con panel for "Let Me In," writer/director Matt Reeves asked Overture Films to invite me to watch Giacchino during some of the scoring sessions for the movie, and I eagerly accepted. For nearly four hours, I sat and tried to play fly-on-the-wall as both a boys vocal choir and a mid-sized orchestra recorded their parts of the score, and as Giacchino, his orchestrator Andrea Datzman, and Matt Reeves all worked together to finesse each moment.
What I didn't expect was that I would end up at Giacchino's house in the San Fernando Valley, where he has an upstairs studio that allows him to work with musicians in remote locations, communicating with them via Skype. It's a gorgeous house, with an amazing backyard, and the entire place was still decorated for the party Giacchino threw for his "Lost" orchestra, with props and decorations from the series all over the place. I contemplated ways to smuggle out an oversized crate of Dharma Polar Bear Fish Biscuits as I was walked up to the studio.
I'm not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn't the casual, comfortable environment where I found Giacchino, Datzman, and Reeves hard at work. The first part of the day was with the orchestra, and as I arrived, they were basically running through tracks they had just recorded, looking for ways to boost the track, to add a flourish, or to build something differently. Over the course of about an hour, they ran through four or five cues, and the orchestra performed perfectly each time. It was impressive to see how one choice could completely alter the experience of a track, and Datzman and Giacchino would frequently rework a beat or a full cue on the fly, adjusting slightly but with maximum result. Datzman's only been working with Giacchino since "Mission Impossible III," as best as I can tell, but the rapport they demonstrated during the time I was watching was impressive. I know Giacchino also uses Tim Simonec as an orchestrator, and on some of the same projects as Datzman, so I'm not sure how that collaboration works with another voice in the mix, but I would imagine it's just as fertile.
Looking around Giacchino's studio, there are all the same sorts of trappings you'd find in the home of almost any film nerd of my age group. Sure, in this case, many of the films represented are films that Giacchino actually worked on, but there was a particular emphasis on Muppets, "Star Wars," and Indiana Jones that seemed to be pure fan-driven. It's little wonder Giacchino has been tapped to write new music for "Star Tours" when it gets retooled by Disney in the near-future. He showed me one item that a friend at ILM had given him, a "Return Of The Sith" memento I found deeply impressive, as well as an original score book from the recording sessions for "Raider of the Lost Ark" that had handwritten notes on it. When I asked him what draws him to work, and why he chooses a particular project, he was very frank with his answer. "These days, it really comes down to working with my friends. They make movies that interest me, thank god, so I'm able to just work with them, and they keep bringing me these great films." When your friends include everyone at Pixar, Brad Bird, JJ Abrams, Matt Reeves, and more, then yeah… that seems like a good plan.
What I find impressive about his work is the way he can bring wit and sass to a simple musical cue, and when he's working from existing themes on something like "Speed Racer" or "Land Of The Lost," he can find some amazing ways to take those themes and tease new life out of them. I told him that one of my favorite cues of his from last year was in "Land Of The Lost," where the Sleestaks are having sex, and Giacchino scored the moment with a porno banjo arrangement of the show's memorable theme song. Datzman started laughing when I said that, adding, "See, Michael? Banjos are always a good thing."
It's obvious that Giacchino loves his work, and working with your friends lends itself to the easy, jovial atmosphere I experienced in the room that day. Between wearing matching Darth Vader masks and a sort of running back-and-forth commentary between Giacchino and Reeves about one of the boys choir soloists and his uncanny voice and the naming of various cues on the soundtrack, what was most apparent was how much Giacchino appreciates the value of a good joke to blow off steam. After all, his work frequently comes at the end of the creative process, when the pressure is really on for certain films, and composers are famously given rough treatment at studio hands, with decisions frequently made by people who don't really understand the process. Laughter is a good antidote to all that pressure, and Giacchino's quick wit was on constant display as he worked.
When we talked about the cue titles he gives to tracks on each of his different scores, he acknowledged that many of them were puns or gags or wry comments on the action. "I remember one time, I was reading one message board on the IMDb, and this one commenter was very, very upset with me because of the track titles. 'Michael Giacchino does not take this job seriously,' she said." That seemed to entertain him all over again, and as they switched over from orchestra to boys choir, we took a food break so we could continue talking.
Any worries anyone has about how seriously Giacchino takes his work should be put at ease, because he constantly pushes himself to nail the emotional content and the subtext of what he's doing, and the way he approached "Let Me In" is a good example. He's not really a horror composer, and he didn't treat "Let Me In" as a horror film. He worked instead to create a feeling of dissociation, an unease that just throbs through the entire film, and the boys choir was the final piece of that puzzle. They didn't have a huge one… under a dozen voices total… but it was just enough for them to really make a difference to the score.
The last hour I was there was spent with Giacchino largely working on a few very specific moments in the film, and in creating this particular effect where the voices all swell towards the same note before suddenly going discordant in the last moment, creating this creepy grating sensation. They tried it a few times before they nailed it, but when they did, it caused a big reaction in the room. Datzman, Reeves, and Giacchino were excited by what they heard, and as they refined the idea, they were delighted. It was on that giddy note of invention that I took my leave, and they were working to wrap up the session at that point, well aware of how much all those remote set-ups were costing. The speed and efficiency of their work together was impressive, not least because of how strong the choices were that they made in the heat of the moment.
The final score for "Let Me In" is a menacing, brooding thing, big and atonal at times, and with just enough of a dependence on that boys choir. When they played the opening night here at Fantastic Fest, they had a very special surprise for everyone in attendance:
Whatever Giacchino does, I'm interested. He has proven repeatedly that he's as sharp as modern film composers can get, and constantly pushing himself to try new things, and you should definitely check out his latest.
"Let Me In" opens in theaters everywhere today.
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