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At home with composer Michael Giacchino: Playing with toys to write film scores

by Tim Greiving and The Frame Staff | The Frame

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Composer Michael Giacchino attends The World Premiere of Lucasfilm's highly anticipated, first-ever, standalone Star Wars adventure, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" at the Pantages Theatre on December 10, 2016 in Hollywood, California. Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

Two of the top movies at the box office right now have at least one thing in common: composer Michael Giacchino.

He's scored “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.” He’s also scored just about every reboot and remake of his favorite movies from his childhood – from “Star Trek” to “Star Wars,” from “Mission: Impossible” to the Muppets. He's essentially re-scoring his childhood, which, depending on your age, may mean that he's re-scoring your childhood, too.

I visited with Giacchino in his Los Angeles home to find out how it is that he's become the go-to guy for these, so called, "re-imaginings."

“It’s weird to actually be in a situation where you look around, and that’s really all that’s being made around you, are these giant, sort of recreations of our past, in a way, or things we grew up with,” he said, sitting in his studio in the Valley. The walls are lined with cabinets full of toys and nostalgia. It’s kind of like stepping into the composer’s childhood — which is exactly what he does for a living these days.

"Planet of the Apes" held a special place in his heart.

"It was like one of my first obsessions as a kid and, I mean, I was obsessed. I watched the movies on television whenever I could catch them, because I was too young to see them in the theater. And then I would watch that television series, over and over. I had the action figures, which are still up here in my office, over there. I have sketchbooks where I would just draw the apes over and over and over. And I would follow my dad around in the supermarket walking like an ape, you know. And it was one of those things, I just always wanted to be in that world. I loved it.”

Giacchino scored “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in 2014. During the scoring sessions for the new one, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” he set up the actual 1968 cardboard playhouse (see below) that he had as a kid.

Composer Michael Giacchino and director Matt Reeves in Giacchino's "Planet of the Apes" playhouse while working on "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."
Composer Michael Giacchino and director Matt Reeves in Giacchino's "Planet of the Apes" playhouse while working on "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." Photo credit: Maria Giacchino

When writing the scores for both films he got to play with some even cooler “Apes” toys.

“Emil Richards was one of the original percussionists on the very first ‘Planet of the Apes.’ Back, I don’t know, it must have been 1967 or ’68, he found himself in a hardware store, and he saw these mixing bowls on one of the aisles, and he grabbed them and he started just hitting them and going, ‘Oh, that sounds really cool.’  It’s such a distinct sound — you can hear it in the original score for ‘Planet of the Apes.’”

“When I got my job working on ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,’ Emil came to me and said, ‘You know, I still have those mixing bowls. Would you want them?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I would want them.’  So I put them in the score, we used them, and then when it was over he goes, ‘Here, take these. You can have them.’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” 

“This [ram’s horn] is also from the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ score. And I actually played this on the score.

In composer Michael Giacchino's house he has a bookshelf of toys including the mixing bowls and ram horn that were played on the original "Planet of the Apes" score and on the one he wrote for the reboots.
In composer Michael Giacchino's house he has a bookshelf of toys including the mixing bowls and ram horn that were played on the original "Planet of the Apes" score and on the one he wrote for the reboots. Photo credit: Maria Giacchino

Giacchino keeps the bowls and ram’s horn in one of the glass cabinets that stretch across an entire wall in his studio — watching over him as he works, filled with his old toys. Giacchino credits his mom with saving everything. He showed me, among other things, his old Kermit the Frog puppet with one of its eyes was missing.

“‘Sesame Street’ and the Muppets were a massive influence on my life as well,” he said. “I think I learned everything about comedy and timing and drama from watching ‘The Muppet Show,’ which was one of the best shows ever produced. I used to do puppet shows as a kid — me and my brother would do them — and then any poor soul who came into the house had to sit and watch our puppet shows.”

He pulled out his “Raiders of the Lost Ark” flip book that he'd made when he was 10 years old, his original “Star Wars” and “Planet of the Apes” action figures, and a whip he used to practice on his brother. Giacchino turns 50 later this year, but in many ways he’s still playing with his old toys — along with the rest of Hollywood.

“When I think back to those days when I was sitting in the backyard with my Captain America action figure — all of those guys... Superman, Batman, Captain America, the Hulk — and now I’m working on ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Doctor Strange,’ and in some ways it’s literally just a blown-up version of what I did as a kid — creating new adventures and things with these characters. I used to do that all the time, used to love doing that. But then every once in a while I start thinking like, well, but what about the new stuff, too? I would love to still see some new ideas and new characters.”

When I visited him, Giacchino was working on new ideas and new characters, writing music for the upcoming Pixar movie “Coco” — which isn’t a sequel or prequel or reboot or rehash. And as much as he loves playing with his childhood toys, that excites him and gives him a little hope for the future.

“That’s where you’re really sparked,” he said. “Your imagination gets a chance to go off the rails and have some fun. But it’s a balance, and I still feel like the town is trying to figure out the balance. And hopefully it goes a little bit more towards new things as we move forward.”

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