Michael Giacchino interview: Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible

To mark Pixar's Ratatouille being scored by a live orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, we chat to film composer Michael Giacchino...

Ratatouille returns to the big screen this Wednesday – with an orchestra in tow. Brad Bird’s 2007 Pixar animation is showing at the Royal Albert Hall, accompanied by a full orchestra.

If you’re one of the 12 people who haven’t seen it, the film follows food-loving rat Remy as he secretly teams up with a hapless kitchen boy in Paris to create beautiful dishes. But that alchemy of ingredients takes place place off-screen too: between the visuals and Michael Giacchino’s Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated score.

As life-long fans of his work, from Jurassic World and Mission: Impossible to Inside Out and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, we dropped him a note to quiz him on how he composes, why he names his tracks with such bad puns – and, of course, whether he’s a Jason Statham fan.

So… let’s start with the most important question. What’s the best pun you’ve ever written?

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I love that everyone is so into the puns, and it has become a ‘thing’. It really started with one of my music editors, Stephen Davis. He began to name the cues, and then we all got into the act. The music editors, Paul Apelgren and Alex Levy, joined in. So all of us try to come up with the best one. The folks on the music team either laugh or cringe. But if I had to pick one I really like from Ratatouille for example… I would say: Granny Get Your Gun.

Heist to See You. That was a particularly… special one. Do you still remember the music from Ratatouille? (Well, before you had to go back to it in preparation for the Royal Albert Hall concert.)

Of course I still remember it! I love the film and I always love working with Brad Bird. Who can’t relate to a story of a dreamer who against all odds is going to make something of himself that is completely unexpected?

What we’ve always admired about Ratatouille is the way that Brad Bird captures the sense of taste in a completely different medium. But, of course, music is as much a part of that as the visuals: how on earth do you go about capturing the sound of food?

In Ratatouille, there are two different themes that express the two sides of Remy’s personality: the creative side: the chef, and the “thief” side: his nature as a mouse. Yes, Brad wanted me to express the taste of food with music, while he would do the same with the images. Perhaps our joint efforts are particularly evident in the scene where Remy tries to make his brother Émile aware of the various combinations between tastes: the music accompanies stylized shapes that appear on a dark background, trying to translate the tastes in sound and color.

I think that to capture food in music, you really are capturing an emotional response to food. In Remy’s case, his relationship with food is pure joy, and his pursuit of the perfect meal that he holds up as the ultimate artistic expression has to be felt in the music.

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There’s this wonderful lilting quality to your score, which allows you to drift between the gentle accordions and the jazzy guitar, clarinet and piano. But you don’t rely on the accordion as this constant signpost that we’re in France. Was that a conscious decision?

Absolutely, it was a conscious decision. I wanted to find the elements of Paris, of course, but had to create a score that was not only drawn out of the city itself, but out of the story of the film. It would have been easy to think that there should be nothing but accordion and jazz violin or jazz guitar, but the story asked me to go much deeper than that. I needed to create a score for Brad about his particular set of characters, and those characters and their emotions had to be the guide for my music, not just the setting, there had to be a broader scope. So I think you find a very diverse collection of influences at work there; European romanticism, quasi-classical music, and some bit of folk-pop music in addition to the traditional elements of Parisian cafe sounds.

You always seem to put a lot thought into orchestration – there are so many electronic components in soundtracks these days, it’s a treat to hear music with an orchestral focus.

Yes. I like live musicians, and personally orchestrate about 80 to 90% of all my scores. The colour is an incredibly important part of the writing process – it’s what spells out the emotional quality of the music. So while I love to orchestrate out as much as I can, it really comes down to the time available. But I’m also very lucky to be able to work with Tim Simonec, a wonderful orchestrator and good friend. Tim has been a great partner for many years. [Note to readers: You will also have heard Tim Simonec’s work on Whiplash.]

Along with that orchestral quality, your work has always had a strong sense of melody running through it. Is that an equally intentional stylistic choice?

Yes, absolutely intentional.

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As your career has grown, you’ve become involved with a number of sequels and you have this great ear for taking apart existing melodies and reinventing them. Your work on Mission: Impossible, for example, sounds like a lot of fun. Do you enjoy playing with that kind of iconic tune? And how far do you try and take it from the original?

I’ve had to do it now several times, and the real key is where and how you will use it. For example, in Star Trek, J.J. and I agreed that we wouldn’t use Alexander Courage’s theme until the end credits of the first film, because this film was not about Star Trek as we know it. The crew needed to earn that iconic theme first, and it becomes a bonus at the end for the fans. It worked so well for the first film, we did the same in the second.

You mention Mission: Impossible. Getting to play with one of the greatest themes in television history was and exciting prospect, but I was so nervous about it. I called Lalo Schifrin when I got the job, and asked him to lunch to talk about the project. I asked him “Should I do this? should I do that? do you have any advice?” And he looked up from the salad he was eating and said: “Just have fun with it.” That made it a whole lot easier!

As for how far to take it, I usually like to take it to the breaking point when I’m able – it’s fun to twist and turn it to fit a particular scene or mood.

We’ve always considered you a natural successor to John Williams, so it was great to see you doing Jurassic World. Would you love to have a crack at something like Star Wars? Do you have a dream franchise to work on?

As long as John Williams wants to continue writing for the upcoming Star Wars films, I want him to. I grew up on his music, and if I am watching a Star Wars movie, I want to hear a John Williams score.

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Do you have any favourite film soundtracks? Do you listen to them in general?

I grew up listening to ALL of them, but probably my all time favorite is Max Steiner’s King Kong.

We like to think of you as an avid tinkerer. How much do you go back and re-work your own stuff during the writing process?

I do most of my thinking and experimenting while I write. Once I move on from a cue, I may revisit it once more for a quick polish – but rarely does it change that much. I’m a big fan of making creative decisions and sticking to them.

To return to Jurassic Park briefly, you were obviously familiar with that universe to some extent musically, because you worked on The Lost World PlayStation game. How different is it to go from video games to movies? With games, the narrative is so different: the music has to be able to loop for a long time, or be triggered by a certain event…

In video game scoring, you have to compose the music in a way that the crew can mix as needed. I would write cohesive pieces for all the settings of the game, trying express the emotions of the different levels musically, and then design the cue so that it can be looped throughout. But in the end, the creative process is the same. You try to get into the heads of the characters in order to translate their thoughts, fears, and emotions into music. For me, no matter if it is a video game, TV show or film, it is always about the story that needs to be told, and not so much about the different mechanics.

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Your work has spanned a lot of other formats, from Lost on the TV to short films, from live action to animation. What attracts you to a job? You obviously have people like J.J. Abrams who you work closely with, but do you deliberately look for new challenges? And is your approach broadly the same, even though, with animation, you don’t necessarily have footage to look at?

I would have to say that my approach is the same no matter what the project is. It goes back to the story and how to express that in music. I work with a number of directors over and over again, they have become my friends, and they have been keeping me pretty busy!

Do you do much composing outside of soundtracks?

Not really. It’s not that I don’t want to, but I like to have balance in my life, and right now I just don’t have the time to work on projects like that. I recently did write a piece for the piano player Gloria Cheng and it’s on her album called Montage. It’s fun when I can do it, but I don’t want my entire life to just be writing in my office.

With Ratatouille at the Alby Hall, it’s fitting that your latest Pixar soundtrack, Inside Out, is still playing in some cinemas. Do you look at that score, then back at Ratatouille and see a progression?

I’m a person who rarely looks back when it comes to my work – I’m always looking to the next adventure. I rarely listen to music I’ve written. Only when I’m working on something like a live to picture project am I forced to delve into the past. But even then I don’t evaluate why or how I did anything. The decisions I made when writing past projects were made for better or worse and to me those decisions are like little time capsules – best not to be opened until long after I’m gone!

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Are you conducting the orchestra on Wednesday? And do you enjoy that as much as composing?

I do enjoy conducting my own music for concerts but I have never conducted the full film to picture. For the Royal Albert Hall performance, I am leaving that job in the capable hands of Ludwig Wicki. In fact, when Ratatouille plays there, I will be back in Los Angeles working on my next project… I am sorry that I have to miss that performance.

There seem to be fewer puns on the Inside Out soundtrack listing. Please tell us you haven’t grown up and decided to stop those…

They’re never intentional and we don’t force it when it doesn’t work – I’m sure there will be many more to come.

Finally, what’s next for you, apart from Star Trek Beyond and War Of The Planet Of The Apes? Do you look forward to playing around with your own themes as much as other people’s?

There are a few other things on the horizon that you will find out about soon. I do look forward going back to write for the crew of the Enterprise and for Apes. It’s always fun to revisit old friends.

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Finally, let’s end with the second most important question… what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Wow – sadly – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so I guess you’ll have to recommend one for me to watch. Sorry!

Michael Giacchino, thank you very much!

Ratatouille In Concert takes place tonight, Wednesday the 28th of October, at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

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