When you hear Michael Giacchino’s name, you think of all of his terrific movie music — the Oscar-winning Up, Coco, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and the rebooted Star Trek film franchise. You might even know that he started his compositional career working with Steven Spielberg on — wait for it — video games!
But you probably don’t think of him as a filmmaker or director, and yet that is precisely Giacchino’s background, his first love. That’s how he ended up directing — and composing the music for — the Marvel movie Werewolf by Night, which will be screened with a live performance of his score by the Minnesota Orchestra on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
Giacchino studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and, as his mother, Josephine, says, “He went to Julliard in his spare time.” The concept of Julliard as a side gig is amazing, but the Giacchino family seems to take everything in their South Jersey stride without a lot of fuss or fanfare. Talking with Giacchino is no different. He’s approachable, friendly, funny, warm and down to earth.
Making Werewolf by Night was a return to childhood for Giacchino. He was the geeky kid with his movie nerd buddies, watching Creature Double Feature on TV by night, and by day making Super 8 movies all over his hometown, proud of their special effects — which included dueling with real swords, throwing real knives, taping firecrackers to each other for the effect of being shot and clambering on suburban rooftops.
Werewolf by Night was one of his favorite comic books, especially because it was an outlier in the Marvel Universe. He loved the character, his flaws, persecutions and tribulations, feeling it was the stuff of a good film. It was an easy choice.
Giacchino also wrote the music for Werewolf by Night, although he’s most assuredly right at home in the director’s chair, bringing his effusive and contagious love of films and filmmaking to cast, crew and audience.
Listen to his interview above, or read below, in advance of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Oct. 4 performance of Werewolf by Night.
What are the challenges of directing and being responsible for a crew, as compared with the relatively isolated job of scoring a film?
“Growing up wanting to be a director and wanting to make movies, it absolutely informed how I wrote music for films. I always approached it from the mind of a filmmaker, and it was all about storytelling. Over the years, I've met a lot of people that write music for films, and some of them really are just interested in the music and others are also interested in the story. And for me, if you're not interested in the story, just go write concert music. That's fine, because we need that, too. But a lot of people look at this career and say, ‘Oh, it's like a good job. I could write music for a living.’ But I really feel like to do this correctly, you have to love movies.
“You have to love telling stories, and you have to love sharing this excitement of an unfolding parable in front of you with an audience, with a bunch of people, with millions of people, hopefully. For me, so much of what I do today is really rooted in my childhood love of movies, and it all comes out of that. It's not a music-first thing for me, which seems to surprise people.”
Well, you win an Oscar for film composing and people begin to guess.
“Well, that's the funny thing. They think, ‘Oh, wait, you can actually can do something different, too?’ And that's the other thing about this town is, like, the second you do one thing fairly well, then that's all you're allowed to do for the rest of your life. And trying to break that mold or break that paradigm that is sort of instilled in this entire industry is very difficult.”
Now that you're behind the camera and you’re running the show, how did it feel? How was it different for you than what you could do when you're composing?
“When I'm writing music for a film, I'm home in my office. I work 9 to 5. I'm pretty much in control of my whole world. But when I’m directing, I’m at the mercy of God knows what. Anything could go wrong. The schedule doesn't work, whether it’s happening or you go over time; there's all kinds of things that could go terribly wrong while you're directing. But I loved it. When I first got on set for Werewolf by Night, I honestly felt more at home there than I ever have writing music for movies, because I felt like I was getting back to the roots of what I wanted to do when I was growing up.
“My whole life I grew up making movies as a kid, that's all I ever did. I never really wrote music while I was growing up. I took piano lessons and I loved music, I listened to film scores and I was incredibly nerdy about all of that. But at the same time, I was also incredibly nerdy about blowing up miniatures and filming them and doing stop-motion films or using my friends to make these crazy science-fiction sort of Twilight Zone-ish-type things.
“My real love was all of that. And I ended up in this sort of path where it became a specialized thing as opposed to when I was a kid, when I could do everything, and I really missed that. I missed this idea that I didn't have to do just one thing. I can do all of this. I want to try all of it! So that was a great joy on the set. I could say, ‘Hey, I want to try that crane,’ and they would let me move the crane. Or, ‘I want to move the dolly,’ and they'd be like, ‘Great! Move the dolly.’ I was, like, I want to do all of it, because I have such respect and love for everyone that works on a film set. It's an incredibly hard job. And when everyone is in sync and when it's all working together, it's one of the most fun experiences you could ever have. I just love it.”
In your brother Anthony’s documentary, Director by Night, you talk about loving horror films and how they're an allegory of humanity, of the things we go through as human beings. Could you talk a little bit about that?
“As a kid watching monster movies, my brother and I, we would watch Creature Double Feature out of Philadelphia every single Saturday. That was our church; that's the way we worshiped, by watching these old movies from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. And it was filled with all kinds of things, whether it was King Kong or Vincent Price movies, or whether it was The Mummy, all of those classic horror films. And the one thing I remember in watching them was that I always felt so bad for the monster, because in almost every case this monster was here accidentally or was created accidentally, or landed here from another planet, at no fault of its own. And they're just being themselves, and the rest of the world is like, ‘Oh, there's a thing that's different. Let's kill it.’ And it was always so sad to me. I always felt bad for Frankenstein's monster.
“And I never forgot the idea of the ‘other’ being treated in a terrible way. It made me feel bad. So when we went to go make Werewolf by Night, I wanted to make sure that this was a story about somebody who had a problem they can't handle and they need help. They don't need persecution, they need understanding and empathy. They don't need violence against them.
“And that's something that you could look at across the board in our society, which is just one of the biggest problems that we have, is this lack of understanding for anything that is different from you or what you know. And there tends to be a reactionary thing that happens where people just lash out and want to destroy whatever isn't something that they feel is right. So for me it was important to lean into that because I couldn't get away from it. Every time I think of those movies, that's what I think about, my sadness for these creatures.”
While watching Werewolf by Night, I was very interested in the actors, like Gael García Bernal and the fabulous villain, Harriet Sansom Harris.
“Harriet is the greatest; she was amazing. You don't know how it's going to be on set with certain people. You're hoping it's all going to work out and everyone's going to get along. And I have to say, we got so lucky with everyone. Harriet, Laura [Donnelly] and Gael set a tone that was both professional but also fun and also incredibly flexible. Harriet, for example, would come in, say her line, and she’d kill it right off the bat. And then you'd say, ‘Oh, but what if at the end you actually held it for a moment before you say that last word?’ And she goes, ‘I know exactly what you're talking about; yes, let's do it again.’ She was just so game to jump in and be a part of the creative process.
“And I love when there's a sense that the person you're working with is as excited about what you're doing as you are, that just makes all the difference in the world. It didn't feel like anyone was there because it was a job. This was a weird Marvel project, right? This was the weirdest Marvel project on the planet. And I think that because it was so weird and so different, everyone just wanted to be a part of it. And I was so lucky to have so many great people involved.
“But, yeah, the cast! Gael is sort of like the Buster Keaton of our times. He can do the smallest look and give you everything you need. He can be hilarious without almost doing anything. He's just a brilliant actor. And Laura Donnelly, how do you get better than her? What I was amazed at was that you could change a whole page of dialogue with her and she would remember it instantly. You didn't have to worry about it. She was so impressive and so amazing. They were all such a huge lift to the entire project. I was lucky to have them.”
I was noticing when you were directing Gael you giving him directions according to how the music would play out in the scene. Not many directors do that. What came first in this project, the music or the filming?
“It was sort of a concurrent thing. I would be working on the story with Heather Quinn, who was the writer. We had so much fun building this story together, and while we were doing that, I would write down themes and things that would indicate the tone of the scene. It's one thing when you read it on paper because everyone has a different interpretation in their head of how a scene is going to play out and what it's meant to say. But I'm the one that has to have the final word on that.
“So what I would do is write the music and I could play it for the actors, and it would instantly put them in the right mood. They would know the tone, they would understand it, and there were no questions about it. And if there was a question about it, we could discuss it. The music tells you everything that you need emotionally from a scene. And so it was just a great way to get everyone on the same page very quickly, as opposed to going in there and saying, ‘Just trust me,’ which is hard.”
Is there a moment in the score that you really want the audience members to listen for?
“I want them to just be engrossed in the experience the way that I was as a kid. Watching a movie, you're just lost in this story, and the fun thing is that you're sort of getting a tutorial on how movies are made, in a way. When you get to go to see a symphony perform a score, take a moment and actually look down from the movie screen and look at those people playing the instruments. You don't get to do that unless you have practiced for years and years to get good at what you do. That is not an easy job to do on that stage.
“It is so hard and I'm always so incredibly thankful to the players because without them, a score is literally just little black dots on a piece of paper. If I were to just show that to somebody, 99.9% of the people would not know what the heck that is. But until a player plays it and brings it out, suddenly they're spreading emotion all over the place with their performance.
“And I always tell audiences, just take a beat while you're watching. Yes. Enjoy the show, boo the villains, cheer the heroes, but also watch that orchestra. Because honestly, that night, they’re the biggest heroes of the experience and they're guiding you through this emotional journey that you're experiencing. So that's it for me, simply take a moment to look at them, see what they do, and appreciate the fact that they just spent 20 years of their life to get that good so they could do this for you. To me, that’s really cool.”
Find out more about the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance and screening of Werewolf by Night on its official website.
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