Interview with Michael Giacchino

In the numerous heartwarming, and heroically empowering blockbuster franchises that he’s scored, Michael Giacchino’s Oscar-winning gift for warm and morally righteous orchestral melody haven’t left kid-filled audiences questioning the good in the world. But as the current political climate in America progressively resembles Germany from an era we thought we’d said never again to, Giacchino’s most adventurous music is now shining in a particularly audacious – if no less powerful way for “Jojo Rabbit.”

But then, leave it to cheeky Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows,” “Thor: Ragnarok”) to put his distinctively whimsical, and ironic spin on the decidedly unfunny situation of the propagandized kid Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) discovering that his resistance mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been sheltering the potentially monstrous Jewish girl Elsa ((Thomasin McKenzie) in their apartment. Of course, Waititi also casts himself as the child’s best bud Hitler for the growingly ominous shenanigans that ensue when the nutty Nazis begin to catch on.

That “Jojo Rabbit” works as both surreal satire and a bittersweet family drama is a testament to partnership between one of the most gifted comic auteurs since Mel Brooks and the heir apparent to John Williams, with both pushing their limits to produce a cinematic Holocaust history lesson unlike any other. For Giacchino, it’s starting his theme with one of the nuttiest, blarting brass bands this side of “Hogan’s Heroes” for a Hitler Youth training camp – then gradually bringing in orchestral colors beyond the red, white and black flag as the film’s unconventional (and execution warranting) family come together. But that’s only if Jojo can see the young woman without the music of her beastly Jewish brethren, terrifying strains that could easily play for the relationship between innocent kid and deceptively youthful female bloodsucker of Giacchino’s “Let Me In.”

Sure the composer may have gone inside out to reveal the Id of an adolescent, but gradually opening up a little boy beyond Nazi madness is a whole other deal. Yet Giacchino’s chamber-inflected music understands his often-adolescent kid audience beyond measure, his delicate emotions flowering inside of this very confused boy, who’s not helped at all by the honeyed words of his imaginary Fuehrer friend. That “Jojo Rabbit’s” score progressively becomes more moving, and eventually devastating in an unforced way shows just how well Giacchino can poetically change the hearts and minds of the characters, let alone his music’s audience. Indeed, one can imagine just a few of the Marvel, or even Disney viewers lured to this by wacky Waititi to find that an era and country likely unknown to them is now more than relevant in theirs, a perilous journey of discovery guided by always-memorable themes and oddball instrumentation that brings out a new side of Giacchino’s inventiveness for his most distinctive film and score yet.

Had you seen Taika’s movies before this, and if so, what struck you about them and their sense of humor?

I’m a huge fan of Taika’s movies. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is one of my favorites. I love that film so much. And of course “What They Do in the Shadows” is an amazing film. Taika is absolutely one of the funniest people around. But the thing about his movies is that there’s always a sense of empathy to them. There’s emotion that goes along with them, so they’re more than just comedies. He’s able to do both very well and very stylistically in a way that no one other director does them. So when, when he called about this new movie, I was like, “Oh man, that sounds like an amazing opportunity to work with someone who I admire a whole lot.”

What do you think led Taika to you for “Jojo Rabbit?”

I think it’s because I’m, known, for better or worse, as a composer who can make people cry. “Jojo Rabbit really needed a strong emotional center to it. Taika mentioned that he had watched a lot of movies that I had worked on and that he liked that aspect of the music- that it didn’t ignore the most important and emotional part of the story. And for the one that he was about to make, making sure that the core of the story remained emotional was really important to him, and me as well. That’s how I approach every movie I work on, no matter, no matter what kind of film it is, whether it’s something with a little more comedy, something that is serious or something that is action based. For me it’s always about the emotional core of what’s happening.

You’re both like Flying Wallendas on this movie, because one step off of that extraordinarily thin tonal tight rope and it’s catastrophe. How hard was it for you to keep that balance between absurdist humor and drama?

It was like being on a tight rope every step of the way, and it was something that we discussed a lot during the whole process. You know, whether or not we should comment on something funny that is happening or whether we might take something people might construe as funny and make sure that it reads is more serious. There’s a scene where they’re in the kitchen and Hitler is giving this speech to the boy and it gets more and more intense as time goes on. And I didn’t want anyone to ever feel like that was something that they should laugh at. So it’s one of these scenes where we just put a very low tone underneath that, just to kind of say, “No, this is serious.” That was a very delicate thing. It wasn’t something over scored. It was looking for those very simple ways to make sure that whatever you were watching in the film, you took it very seriously. We did allow the comedy to play on its own if it wasn’t in a scene that was involving something more serious. But it was always looking for those moments where we had to make sure that what we were doing was resonating with what the story was asking for.

If there are any two scores that “Jojo Rabbit” would hearken back to, it would be “Let Me In,” which deals with the relationship between a child and a child-like monster, as well as “Inside Out,” which is about the emotion inside of a kid’s brains. Do you see that similarity here?

I think if you combine those doors scores, you might have this one! But I always kind of looked at “Jojo Rabbit” as its own thing. Sometimes you get on jobs that you’re sort of afraid of, and I think that’s the best place to be. You should have some sort of fear about what you’re trying to create because it drives you to, to do the best you can and be better. This was definitely one of those projects. When I saw the movie for the first time, it immediately became one of my favorite movies I had ever seen. I would put it into my top 10 favorite movies, and that was before I even did anything to it. And now having been a part of it, it’s one of those movies that you look back on and say, “I’m really proud to be a part of this because it has something to say. And that’s extremely important in our day and our world right now.

“Jojo Rabbit” starts off with a really fun Teutonic, oompah-loompa marching band melody that will become a much more serious main theme. How did you want it to evolve through the score?

I kind of had to fight to start off the film like that. Not with Taiko or the producers though. But you know, you know when you’re marketing a film like this, there are a lot of people that are trying to balance all the different outcomes of what audiences might think of it. So my idea was to start with a German march that was basically the main theme of the film and having the kids singing this song. But if you look at the English translation of those lyrics, you could see without any context that, “Oh, this is a very fascist song, and nothing that I would want to be a part of.” But if you go through the process of this whole story with this boy, and at the end of the film, reread those lyrics, my hope is that you would have a completely different interpretation of what those lyrics really meant. Because at the end of the film, those lyrics are really all about inclusion and tolerance and love. But it’s all about how you look at it. That’s the truth for so much of what goes on in our lives. Perspective is everything. So for me it was about that boy’s journey from being one thing to being a completely different person by the end.

How “Teutonic” did you want the score to sound for the pompousness of the Nazi party, as well as the setting’s Germanic character?

Well, I wanted it to feel legit. I wanted the score to feel like it could have been written at that time, especially the character themes. I wanted them to be pieces of music that someone may have played on a record player in the 30s, or before then. I want the music to be something that could have existed in that time. I didn’t want it to be something that was modern that we were putting on top of this already anachronistic movie. I thought it was important to keep the music true to the period so that it just sort of fit in and made everything feel as real as it could be.

What were some of the instruments that spoke of Nazi-era Germany to you?

There’s tubas, recorders, an acoustic guitar that we use in different ways, a lot of odd percussion and a string quartet we have at the center of it. There’s also piano, a little bit of harpsichord and a lot of odd things. It’s a mix and match of a bunch of different weird things. But the movie sort of is that, and it felt right to be eclectic and yet try and still feel as though it was something that could have come from that day. It’s about having the melodies that you can use those types of instrumentations with that will still feel organic to the time.

How did you want to chart the relationship between Jojo and Elsa, one that goes from her being a Jewish “monster” to becoming his best friend?

It’s a slow sort of metamorphosis, because it’s slow realization for him, I feel like in his heart, he’s a good kid. But he is a kid who just sort of grew up at a time where, you know, when you’re 10 shit like this looks cool. To be part of a big gang like that, to have a bunch of friends, to be at the camp, to be a part of something. That’s what you want when you’re a kid. And you don’t always look at the deeper meaning behind it because you’re more interested in the, the surface value of being accepted into any group. But once you look a little deeper, it becomes more of an emotional journey. And I felt like the music for me wanted to experience that as well. I always want to be in the seat of the character to make sure that the audience is sort of feeling the transformation that the character is feeling emotionally. So it’s a slow process and it gets more and more in depth as you get into this film. This is one of those movies, and scores that slowly unravel and surprise you at how emotional it all becomes. We held off as long as we could before those big musical moments happen.

How did you want to portray the relationship between Jojo and his mother Rosie?

It’s like the relationship between any good mother and her child. She sees the faults in him and yet she loves him and trusts that he will then come around at some point. She’s in a precarious position too because she’s also working for the resistance and is doing things against the Reich and is living this very dangerous life. But at the same time she stays positive. She tries to keep a good face for Jojo because she knows that this is a difficult situation that she has to try and get him through. But at the same time she sees the bigger picture of how important it is for her to fight against something this awful.

The score and the movie become quite a bit more serious as they go along until there’s almost no real “comedy” in it. How did you want to guide the score to that dramatic path?

Michael Giacchino celebrating his 50th birthday at the Royal Albert Hall. (Photo by Andy Paradise)

I always try to stay clear from what I consider to be “funny” music. I think it’s better to write music to comments on the emotional situation. Let the, let the action be funny. Once in a while I do music that sort of “leans” into the comedy a bit. But for the most part, I try to stay on the straight and narrow and, and just be with the characters. “Jojo Rabbit” is a film that slowly shapes into something you’re not expecting. But that’s the truth of all of this. It’s about a horrific, horrific time in history. And, there’s no way to tell that story without being serious. Even in the guise of a satire such as this in the end you’ll have to come to terms with how serious this is. Taika and I never wanted to lose sight of that.

How do you want to play the very real Nazi threat that Jojo and his family are facing?

I think you just treat it with earnestly. You just write music that’s honest to how serious the threat is. And when those guys enter his home, there’s no funny music at all. It’s all very tense. And even though they are saying things that may be construed as ridiculous and stupid, which you know, most of them were. Yet the music always needed a to remind you that they are a threat. While Taika can make fun of them, my job was just to make sure that the audience felt like there was a true threat in front of Jojo.

A truly amazing cue in the film is where Jojo follows a butterfly to make a heartbreaking discovery.

That was a difficult cue to write. There was a lot of back and forth between me, Taika and the editors about how long the scene should go on for. We did three or four versions of it, but the music never strayed far from what the core idea of the scene was. It was always about timing and length and making sure that when we get to the most emotional part of that scene it landed the best it could. So that was a difficult thing to do. But I felt like we were always on the same page emotionally about it. It’s one of those things that’s a huge turn in the movie and it comes at a point when he’s starting to feel good about himself and Elsa. Then he gets the rug pulled out from under him. Musically it was always about being there with him, not being too big or emotional, as a lot of movies tend to do. This was more about being inward and quiet. And I always feel that when you’re quieter and simpler, it’s more emotional. So that was basically the approach.

In terms of far more optimistic music, you wrote the moon landing music for the piece “Advent” which premiered at the Hollywood Bowl concert “America in Space.” What’s the future for that suite?

I’ve been working with NASA over the last couple of years. I did something for their 60th anniversary and then they asked me to do “Advent” for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. I’m a huge space nut, so it an honor to be able to do that. My hope is that this piece can just go out and play at different orchestras around the country and people can enjoy it and reflect on where we’ve been and how we’ve gotten here.

After two Spidey, are you happy that Peter Parker didn’t separate from the Marvel universe, especially as you’ll be continuing your adventures in it with your second score for Doctor Strange?

I think it’s the films’ best chance at continuing to be as fun and as great as they’ve been is by staying there Marvel with people like Kevin Feige and Eric Carroll who produced the movies, and with John Watts who directed them. So I’m really happy that everyone came to an agreement on that. In terms of the Marvel universe, it’s really interesting where they’re gong to go. There’s so much going on over there between the Disney Plus shows and the movies. It’s going to be hard to tell the difference at some point I’m sure, because I know the stuff that they’re doing for the TV shows are going to be really high quality stuff. And I’m really looking forward to seeing all of that. I do love working with everyone over there. They’re just some of my favorite people in this business, and the Marvel movies are always just a wonderful collaborative environment.

In other, more optimistic worlds, you’ve taken the director’s captain’s chair with the “Star Trek Short Trek: Ephraim and Dot.” What was that experience like?

It’s been great and a lot of fun. I grew up making movies from the time that I was nine years old. I went to film school and movies all through college. Music was something that I sort of fell into. It wasn’t the thing that I thought I’d be doing when I was growing up. I just got to this point where I missed making movies. So a couple of years ago I called Patton Oswalt and I pitched him this idea for this short called “Monster Challenge.” He was like, “Sure, let’s do it!” So I gathered all my friends and made a short together, which I’m actually going to put online soon. It went to festivals and all of that. It was a blast and it reminded me how much I missed making movies.

Later, Alex Kurtzman called me and was like, “Hey, would you be interested in directing one of these shorts? And he had no idea how much of an animation background I had as well. Used to have an animation company. I used to do things for Dreamworks. I produced animation for DIsney Interactive. When I explained that all to him, he said, “Oh my God, we have an animated one if you want it. And he goes, and I think you’re going to like it because of the time period that takes place in. Of course I wanted to do it. It’s been a blast just sort of getting back and balancing my life so that I can do more of the things that I missed. I’m not going to abandon music at all for sure. There are a lot of fun scores ahead for me and a lot of great people I love working with. But I’m going to balance that out with making more of my own things as well. I’m very excited.

Do you think that “Jojo Rabbit” will continue to show Hollywood that you’re equally capable of scoring big franchise movies as you are od doing smaller, more idiosyncratic films like this, “50-50” and “Bad Times at the El Royale?”

Well, I think for me it’s always going to be about “Do I connect to this story, whether it’s big or small?” It can be hard to find really good movies that are small. I’ll definitely do more small ones like “Jojo Rabbit,” but it always has to come from a place of connecting with the film. If I don’t think my music will have something to say, then I generally say “No” to the project.

Is this an especially important film for you to score now with what is going on in America with a new rise in fascism?

Yeah, I do. I do. I think it’s a very important film that every middle school kid should see, and up from there. This is a film that you can apply to everything you see around you today. This is not something that has gone away in time. The idea of intolerance and racism and, and brutality has just gotten worse. I feel that to put pieces of art out in the world that challenges these things and gets people talking about them is probably one of the most important things you can be a part of.

Do you think your ability to write kid-friendly music will pull that audience more into this story?

If we get anyone to ask their parents, Hey, did this really happen?” then we’ve done our job, because what you want out of art is for it to create conversation between people who are for and against whatever you’re saying. That’s fine as long as there’s conversation, because the more there’s conversation, the less there’s violence. And I feel like that as fun as it is to do all the movies that I have worked on, which I love dearly, I feel like it’s more important to find pieces of art like this to be a part of and help get them into the world in a really good way.

“Jojo Rabbit’ is now in theaters, with Michael Giacchino’s score available on Hollywood Records HERE

Listen to Michael Giacchino’s scores HERE

Visit Michael Giacchino’s website HERE