There are few composers working today who have discographies more envious than Michael Giacchino’s. From scoring hugely popular TV shows like Lost (2004–2010) to providing the music for multiple films in the Pixar, Mission: Impossible and Marvel Cinematic Universe franchises, there’s not much that he hasn’t done.
For his latest project, he once again teams up with director JA Bayona for Netflix’s Society of the Snow, a survivalist thriller focused on a Uruguayan rugby team who find themselves stranded in the Andes for weeks after a disastrous plane crash. We asked Giacchino about that director-composer partnership, the inclusion of a choir singing in Mapuche and much more.
AMON WARMANN: You team up with director JA Bayona again on this film. How did this experience differ from your collaboration on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ?
MICHAEL GIACCHINO: Fallen Kingdom was a massive movie to be a part of, so JA was just spinning plates like crazy. For me, I was like, ‘I’ve done two of these already. I got you. Don’t worry.’ Whereas on this film we had much deeper conversations about the spirituality of the characters. He wanted to make sure our focus wasn’t purely the people who were trying to get out and survive. It was also about the people who didn’t get a chance to come home and tell their stories the way everyone else did. So that was really interesting.
In most movies, you’re always focused on the survivors, right? How has this person escaped that dinosaur? Or how does the crew of the Enterprise get to safety from wherever the heck they are? JA constantly wanted us to focus on the people on the other side of the coin. So it was different in that sense, and it became a much more emotional project than I had ever imagined it would be.When you’re putting yourself into the shoes of those who don’t survive, that’s a very tough place to live for an extended period of time while you’re trying to write music. I really wanted the music to be the voice of those who didn’t get to come down off that mountain and see their families again.
AW: What was your starting point for this score?
MG: I wanted to understand what it felt like to be where they were in this mountain range, in this place that they had never been before. I think the feeling is not one of sadness or desperation or melancholy; it’s a feeling of bleakness. The first thing I imagine is just the emptiness of it all, the hopelessness of wondering, ‘What am I going to do?’ Then taking that idea and turning it into, ‘I’m going to take one step at a time. And each step is going to be an excruciating step, to see if I can figure out where to go, what to do, how to survive.’ That was the first feeling I wanted to find. And I remember reaching into the piano – Juan Antonio [JA] was in the room with me – and I was playing music saying ‘it’s not like this sad stuff. It’s more like if you grab the strings and pluck them and let them just wring out this horrible sound. That’s what it feels like to be stuck here. That’s what you’re up against’. So that was really the first thing I went and found and tried to understand.
Then I started putting those ideas to picture and it just felt right. And I said, ‘Do you remember the original Planet of the Apes? When those astronauts are stuck in this place?’ It was this feeling of dread and bleakness, and where am I and I don’t understand any of this. Those were the feelings I got from Jerry Goldsmith’s score. And this feels like that same idea, in terms of how to approach the emotional side of this. JA agreed with that. And then I went full force. I just sat down and started writing. I generally like to start with the very beginning of the film, and make my way through it so I can feel the story out as I’m going.
AW: We don’t hear any of your music until we’re eight minutes into the movie. What were the discussions like with JA about the balance between the natural sounds of the film world and your score?
MG: On a film like this, it’s very easy to overshadow the story on the screen. The images and the characters and the actors do so much to tell us what is happening. And sometimes the tendency – even when we know what’s happening – is to put music on top of that. I don’t feel that was at all necessary for this movie. In fact, less was more. That made the music even more impactful when it came in. There was no reason to score many of the areas that remained unscored in the film. There were even areas that we did score that we ended up taking the music out, because I felt like we both understood that it made it better. It’s one of those things you’re always discovering along the way, once the narrative is getting assembled and as the cut is coming together in different ways. You start going, ‘Oh, we don’t need this because the look on that character's face says everything we need, and adding one ingredient more will only take away from that.’ So it’s just about undoing, undoing, undoing, and leaving the bare minimum.
Not that we set out to do this, but I think that that is a representation of what they had to go through in terms of rationing things. I feel like doing that with the music and the sound and even a lot of the dialogue – because there’s a lot of moments in the film where there’s no dialogue – was about creating an atmosphere for the audience to understand what it might have been like to be there. We’ll never be able to fully understand, but the job of art is to try and give you that idea.
AW: To quote another of your scores, Mission: Accomplished! Your work on Society of the Snow includes a choir singing in Mapuche. What motivated that decision?
MG: It’s a really cool language that is indigenous to the Andes region. I was talking with my orchestrator Jeff Kryka about it, and he did some research. We looked at everything. We didn’t want our use of the language to be too pointed, but it was talking about nature and Mother Earth. It was all about the surroundings, because even in the starkness of an area like that, there’s still beauty there. In the worst of circumstances, there were times when they would talk about looking at the stars, or the mountains and just admiring the incredible beauty of where they were. So it was about adding a layer of that, and having a choir was really another way of giving a voice to the voiceless.
AW: What was it like writing music for a true story like this, how does it compare with your franchise work?
MG: There is a similar mindset, in that you want to treat each character on screen with the utmost respect, and believe that they are real people. That way, you can write music that truthfully reflects the human condition. But this was different in that I left the room every day understanding that we were writing for real people who had their whole future cut off unexpectedly. You feel a responsibility to make sure every single note you write is respectful to that, and is giving voice in a truthful and proper way. There was definitely an extra weight and an emotional burden on this that I hadn’t felt on other films. Even though I always try to get as emotionally deep as I can with them, this was a whole other thing. At the end of the day, you just felt spent emotionally because you’re really putting yourself in their shoes, and that’s the tough thing to live with every day.
AW: You met with a couple of the crash survivors, right?
MG: Yeah, I met two of them. They have tremendous humour about it, which is incredible, because humour obviously is a way to work through grief. But you can tell that these are people who did not take their survival for granted. They still think about their friends who they left there every day. And it’s something I don’t think they’ll ever possibly be free of. I loved meeting them. Their outlook on life and their spirit was amazing.
AW: Next up for you is sports drama Next Goal Wins, which sees you reunite with Taika Waititi after working with him on Jojo Rabbit  and Thor: Love and Thunder . What sort of vibe can we expect from that?
MG: I wanted it to feel like American Samoa, and to come from the point of view of the people who live there, as opposed to the point of view of the guy who was coming in to fix his own life and get this football team up and running again [played by Michael Fassbender]. The spirit of everyone on that island is just incredible. The way they look at life makes you question why we’re always running around so much and going crazy trying to do all these things, when everything we need is right in front of us. There’s a beautiful spirit to that, and I wanted to reflect that in the music. It’s always fun working with Taika. He’s got such a beautiful way of combining wit and heart. I love that about him. There’s no cynicism. It’s just getting to the root of what makes us tick as humans, and I think that that’s really interesting.
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