We Create Music Blog
May 17, 2013

Michael Giacchino on Star Trek: Into Darkness

JJ Abrams (left) and Michael Giacchino at the Star Trek: Into Darkness recording sessions

JJ Abrams (left) and Michael Giacchino at the Star Trek: Into Darkness recording sessions

ASCAP composer Michael Giacchino is the latest in a long line of film music masters asked to bring the Star Trek universe to musical life. With so much beloved music and nostalgia attached to the franchise, the job would be a daunting one for any composer. Instead of bowing to expectations, Giacchino did the same thing he’s done for Lost, Ratatouille, Up and so many more of his acclaimed projects - he wrote the right music for the story. The week before the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Giacchino told us how he did it.


You commented in a previous interview that when you got the 2009 Star Trek gig, you were both excited and terrified. Did it feel anymore relaxed this time around?

This time it was much more relaxed, because I felt like the entire production team had settled into our version of what Star Trek is. You had so much Star Trek that came before this. How much of that do you keep? How much do you throw away? You’re also thinking all the time “Well, if I don’t use this particular thing, is somebody going to be mad?” Because it has such a huge fanbase. But in the end, you just had to do what was best for that story. Once that struggle was over and we got into this next film, I felt much more at home. I just sat down and I knew the world that we were working with, and I was able to expand on it from there. It was a nice experience.

The Star Trek franchise has had such an amazing music lineage. There must have been pressure on you to uphold that.

Yes, there was, and there was also pressure to create what everyone believes Star Trek is or what it sounds like after all these years. Everything I wrote in that vein was wrong. It just didn’t fit, it wasn’t right. And JJ [Abrams] and I both were trying to figure it all out. It was Damon Lindelof, who was one of the writers on Into Darkness,and also one of the producers on the first one. He said “Everybody, just forget that we’re making a Star Trek movie. Just think about this in terms of ‘We’re making a film about two guys who meet and become great friends.’” And that’s when it all started to make more sense, and it was about taking that idea and moving forward with it on this one. And then you just got to stop worrying about what the fans expect and what they want, because in the end what they all want is irrelevant to what the film actually needs. And if the film needs something that lines up with what they expect, that’s a great bonus, but it doesn’t always. I’m there to serve the story and really nothing else.

Did the critical responses to the last one, or the responses from Trekkies, make any impact at all about how you scored this one?

No, not at all. Honestly, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and there will be all kinds of them floating around when you work on something that has such a huge fanbase. And the worst thing you can do is worry about what they’re saying. Again, the job is to look at the film, see what the story is, see what the characters are doing and write for that. It’s all about that story. And the people who are out there, it’s so easy to throw out opinions on something you are so far removed from. You just have to remember that these people are not involved in the day-to-day making of this, and you have to hope that they trust you and the filmmakers to do what’s best for the movie. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but that’s okay. That’s their opinion. And I’m never upset if somebody doesn’t like it.

I did read a story about a tweet from a fan that said “I hope you are able to include some theme from the old series...”

Yeah, there was someone who mentioned [they wanted] something from the original series. I had literally just finished [the Into Darkness score], went downstairs and I just kept thinking about that tweet. It kept bugging me, because I knew exactly where I could do something like that in the film. I was going to let it go. Finally I was like “Oh, alright.” I went back upstairs, turned everything back on, went to that particular scene, erased about eight bars of something that I had done, and did an arrangement of one of my favorite themes from the old series. It’s a quick thing in there, but it makes sense for the scene that it’s used in. So…I’m not completely heartless!

When you throw in the theme that you just mentioned, or reference the scores of Star Treks past, is there usually a wink of the eye, a sense of quirkiness to it?

No, because I’m not doing it in the same way they did it. I’m doing it in a way which fits into my score, so that it feels like it could be part of this score. But if you are a music fan and you know these themes, you’ll know particular motifs. You’ll hear and go “Oh, I remember that.” As far as all of the other scores, it didn’t make sense to bring anything from any of the other movies in. The only thing that we really have in this film is at the end, where we go into the credits and celebrate where it all began, which was of course with Alexander Courage’s theme.

It’s the same thing that you did with the 2009 Star Trek score, too. You hold off bringing out Courage’s famous theme until the end, as a little treat.

Exactly. It makes the most sense. It’s an interesting theme, and I love it, but when you are trying to use it within the body of a very serious film like this, there was something that took you out of the movie when we did it. So we chose to hold off until the end. We thought that was the best time to do it.

You just mentioned it’s a very serious film. The score feels darker, more brooding than the last one. Did you and JJ Abrams know you wanted to give it that gravity from the beginning?

I think so. The idea of this has ties to much more real world events. You could look at the film and see how some of the subplots and the environments and the situations really do echo and reflect things that are going on today, whether in the military or politically. So it’s very interesting in that way, and because of that you really can’t treat that too lightly.

There are a lot of questions and a lot of challenges for the characters to act in a certain way, to make certain decisions that are right decisions, as opposed to the easy decisions which many times can be the wrong decisions. So it just felt from the get-go that this was going to be – without sounding silly, because of the title of the film – it is a darker film with deeper themes to it. And that’s not to say it’s without its fun moments either. There is great levity provided by the actors themselves in some of the situations. But as far as the score goes, it felt like the best thing to do was to underline those more serious tensions that are going on within the story.

A lot of the great symphonic composers have written overtly political or allegorical works. What role did your score play in tying the film to modern day events?

For me, the music is always speaking from the point of view of the characters. Rarely do you score an event. To me it’s more “Okay, how does this group of characters feel about that group of characters?” It’s always a personal thing; it’s always an internal thing with me.

In the case of John Harrison, one of the main characters of the film, the villain, for me it was all about listening, watching the film, listening to the way he spoke, the way [actor] Benedict Cumberbatch handled his character, and getting a feel for what is going on inside that guy’s head. What’s going on inside the head of somebody who believes the things that he is saying? If he is saying this and he believes it, how does that sound musically? How do I score those thoughts? How do I score that intention that he has to do the things that he wants to do, to hurt the people that he wants to hurt? What does that sound like?

It’s not always a horrific thing; it wouldn’t be just scary music. To me, it’s much more; it’s a true look inside the head of somebody who is not all there. It sometimes can be very sad. Sometimes people do things because they are sad, or because they are upset, or were hurt by other people. And I wanted that reflected as well, because just to treat a villain as a bad guy doesn’t always work. Sometimes the best villains are the ones [where] you can actually hear what they are saying and go “You know what? I understand why you did what you do. I may not agree with it, but I can kind of understand.” It’s all about that empathy, right? And finding empathy for others, even if they are people that you don’t necessarily like.” That’s always the challenge, and I like to find a way to do that.

The majestic main title theme that you wrote for the last film shows up in a bunch of different guises in this one. How did you transform it for Into Darkness to reflect where the characters are now?

There’s a moment when the Enterprise is taking off, and they are going off on their mission, and I thought “This would be fun to bring back that similar moment from the first film,” but it wasn’t working. It was too much of an adventure feel, and it was all about saying “Okay, well how do I do that same idea but in a darker way?” It’s all about finding the right chords and substitutions that you are using with those melodies – and how did that alter the melody? It’s constantly trying to bend and twist things so you feel that theme from the previous film, but it’s being used in a different way. You have a different emotional response to it. If I had just used it exactly as it was, it wouldn’t have been the right emotional response that you would want for the audience. So it was about twisting things in a way to make it fit right.

Like your last one, the Into Darkness score is largely orchestral with some choir to heighten the drama on a couple tracks. Do you always know that this would be more or less a traditional score in terms of instrumentation?

On the last film we used a lot of choir, I think too much, but when I went into this one I thought “No choir, we’re not going to use any choir.” Starting from that point helped me, because then I was able to look at the film and use [choir] only where it was absolutely needed. So there are only like three cues that have it in the whole film, and I’m much happier with that, because it feels like it’s earned when you do hear it.

Did you get the chance to throw in any instrumental curve balls this time?

On this film, we actually started fiddling around and trying to design some electronic sounds. I really wanted a different sound and a different feel for the main villain. His personality was a very analytical one, and it felt right to create some sort of sound that reflected that very technical, very forthright and planned-out individual that he is. It was kind of fun finding the right sounds for those and mixing it with a prepared piano thing. The other thing is to create a sound that sits well with the orchestra, so it doesn’t feel like you just threw something on top that you know was created somewhere else. Also, there were some patches we created. We brought them to the stage, and we actually had [studio musician/MD] Mark LeVang play them on keyboard, which was really nice. So it wasn’t all just coming out of the sequence. It was actually performed with everyone else, which was nice.

Actor Chris Pine has a go at conducting the orchestra

Actor Chris Pine has a go at conducting the orchestra

Did I hear some kind of organ in the background in the “Brigadoom” cue?

Yes, there is a pipe organ in there, mixed in with some other sounds. Just to give a gothic undertone to the whole thing.

You’ve always loved playing around with your cue titles, but I think you outdid yourself with “The Kronos Wartet.”

::laughs:: Well, I have to give that credit to my music editor Alex Levy. We always have a contest for who is going to win with the cue title. He won out on that one.

Do you think there is anything particular Kronos Quartet-y about that cue?

It’s a very odd piece of music, and it’s a very strange and dark and different kind of a thing. They are prone to do all that kind of music, very experimental, and it is Klingon music, which is bizarre and weird and out there. It just felt right, and as soon as he came up with that one, we threw all ours out and said “Yeah, you win.”

Music assistant Alex Levy teaches Klingon to the choir

Music assistant Alex Levy teaches Klingon to the choir

Is the choir in that cue saying anything in particular in Klingon?

They are hurling insults and different things, and sort of anger ideas, mostly not nice things, but not overly crazy either. You know, the things you would say to someone who showed up at your house that you really did not like. ::laughs::

One of the first things that struck me about this score is how live it sounds. It’s so intimate, with very few sound design-y elements. It’s just like you are right there in the room. What was behind that choice? Were you involved with how the score would be mixed?

I’m there every single day at the mix. Not only that, but I go to the final film dub to make sure that it is what it's going to be. You know, I have a lot of talks with the engineer Joel Iwataki about how we wanted it to sound and the feel we were going for. Joel is an incredibly talented and smart guy. It was our first time working together. Joel has such a great sound and such a great demeanor that I was really excited to work with him. He knew exactly what I wanted and also inherently recorded that way, anyway. So it made a nice teaming up.

After your work on the last two Star Trek films, do you feel like there are any other classic film franchises that you want to score or that you have always dreamed of scoring?

I don’t have any off the top of my head that I’m particularly dying to do. There’s so many things I love from when I grew up, and I’m sure if something popped up that I loved I’d be all over it, but for right now I’m really excited about new things. The things that I’m most excited about now is working with Brad Bird on Tomorrowland and working with the Wachowskis on Jupiter Ascending.

I have been very lucky with JJ as well, because even though we’re doing franchises, he does give me a lot of freedom to take it somewhere different and not be 100% a slave to what came before. I always appreciated that, and loved that about him. It makes sense, because he does the same things with the films he makes, even between Mission: Impossible and this.

After spending so much time with the Star Trek characters, is there one of them that you identify with the most?

My music editor and I have a very particular relationship, where it very much reflects the Spock/Kirk relationship. He is the very logical one, much more of “I want to plan for every single thing that could happen.” I am very much the kind of person that likes to think on his feet and deal with problems as they hit me. So we constantly find ourselves in these situations where it was almost like watching how Kirk and Spock react to each other. That was the running joke on the stage. ::laughs:: I was Kirk and he was Spock.

But as far as truly identifying with any of them, truth be told I would probably be a mixture of both Kirk and Spock.

I know through your work with Education Through Music – LA that you’re very much invested in education, the idea of preserving the future of music. Can you tell me why music education means so much to you?

I was fortunate enough in my public school that they had a full music program and no one escaped it. It was treated as a subject that was as important as everything else, and I believe it is. It’s all part of this big pie chart with equal parts, and they are all equal to me, the math, the science, the music, the art, the drama, all of those things. In order to create a truly well-rounded person, you need access to all of those things. It doesn’t mean you have to go into it for a career, but what you learn in one almost always helps you be better in the other. When you take a piece out of that formula you are basically handicapping the children before they even get a chance to grow up.

Music helps immensely with math skills and math skills help immensely with music skills. Music is a great historical tool, as well. There are so many ways that these subjects all cross-pollinate and help each other that it always amazes me when you see them being cut like nothing from these programs. To work with ETM-LA, and find schools that have suffered these sorts of cuts and then reinstate a music program for them…that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.

Can you tell me how you view ASCAP’s role in that goal of making a viable future for music creators?

ASCAP has always been there to help us in the things that we need. It takes backing and help and support from big organizations, and ASCAP has been one of our biggest helpers along the way, which is always great. You need help from these big organizations, you need their blessing on it – to do it on your own is next to impossible.


Michael Giacchino is an Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award-winning ASCAP composer for film, TV and video games. He is the go-to composer for director JJ Abrams (Alias, Lost, Mission: Impossible III, Super 8, Star Trek) and has earned universal acclaim for his music to the Pixar films The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up and Cars 2. Visit Michael on the web at www.michaelgiacchinomusic.com.

Star Trek: Into Darkness flew into theaters on May 17th. Find out more at www.startrekmovie.com.