Exclusive: Michael Giacchino Talks Cars 2

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While Cars 2 represents a return to the big screen for characters like Mater and Lightning McQueen, it also represents a return to Pixar for composer Michael Giacchino. While he’s made a name for himself with big live-action adventures like Star Trek, Speed Racer and Super 8, as well as TV shows such as “Alias,” “LOST” and “Fringe,” Giacchino has also turned in award-winning scores for The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up.

ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Giacchino about the studio’s latest animated adventure, expanding the world of 2006’s Cars to an international scale, bringing in Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer as Finn McMissile and Holly Shiftwell, two top secret British agents who served as the major inspiration for the film’s music.

In addition to discussing the score’s origins in “British Surf Rock,” Giacchino spoke about the differences between scoring animation and live action, working with familiar team of filmmakers, and walking the fine line between genre homage and parody.

ComingSoon.net: The first film has a lot of pop songs and this one really seems to have a shift, featuring more original score. What’s the challenge in keeping tone with the original but providing something completely new?
Michael Giacchino:
I’m trying to think if there’s anything otherwise, but yeah, it’s mostly original score. The story is such that it kind of demands that because of where they take you. You get brought to so many different places that it really does demand that. But there’s a little bit of the same with a pop song in the middle of it. But it’s a totally different kind of movie.

CS: The through-line is the spy movie, but do the different countries also open up the opportunity for corresponding musical themes?
Giacchino:
Yeah, there’s flavors of all that in there for sure, but for me the most important thing is that we stick with what’s important for the characters at that moment. While there’s going to be flavors of where they are, it’s mostly going to be about them. The music is always hopefully what’s going on inside their head as opposed to what’s going on in the world outside of them. With music, you always want to be inside the character. You want to stick with them. When you get with the environment instead, it stops being about the characters and it stops being interesting. Brad Bird has always said to me, “Music is the one thing that can so easily derail what’s going on inside my movie.” And rightly so. He’s always very adamant that what’s going on musically is story related. You have to constantly watch out that it’s going hand in hand with what the story is doing.

CS: You work in a pretty amazing world these days where you get to work with both original scores but also get influenced by a lot of the great scores. In the case of “Super 8,” there’s a Spielberg influence. Here, you get to work with some music from classic spy films.
Giacchino:
We didn’t do too much of that with the music for this one. I just really wanted to give it a sort of surf rock sound. That kind of brought back a swinging ’60s feel in a way. Not so much in the way that “The Incredibles” evoked the ’60s, but in a way that gets to it in its own way. I kept thinking of the Finn McMissile as a guy who is maybe in his ’50s or ’60s and, if we go back to his heyday, he was a very successful spy in the ’60s in London. He was probably very hip and cool and I asked myself, “What would I have listened to back then?” The answer was surf music, which is very fun. We kind of made that the centerpiece for the whole film and it became his identity. Whenever there’s someone that he meets, it branches out from there.

CS: As composer, do you have ideas that you come up with that just get saved until you find the right project?
Giacchino:
Nope. Not really. Years ago, when I was first starting out, I would write themes all the time and pretend I was working on this or that. I would write all these melodies and pretend I was working on all these things. A lot of those things disappeared during the “Medal of Honor” days. I had to write so many themes for those video games that I sort of burned through them. After all that was exhausted, I don’t really just write to write anymore. I’m always writing for something. I can’t just pull something out a drawer anymore because the drawer’s empty. I have to constantly refill it.

CS: You write the music and then set up recording sessions. Does it change in that period or does it stay pretty much as you wrote it?
Giacchino:
It can change. When you hear something, maybe you go, “Oh, that’s not exactly how I intended.” I will have to tell the orchestra, “Okay. You don’t do this. Instead of what you have on your notes, play this instead. You guys, tacit. Don’t play.” You can change it on the fly and make it sound like a completely different type of music. I love that. The challenge of the scoring session week is that you have one chance to get that scene. I love that challenge. I love doing it and adding, “Okay, don’t do that. Do that. That sounds better.” That, to me, is the fun of it. It’s puzzle solving throughout the whole week that I just love.

CS: You have said that you started looking at filmmaking with the idea of becoming an animator.
Giacchino:
Yeah, I started out making flipbooks and stuff like that. I had this one where I did Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi in a lightsaber fight. Each one was colored in. Their lightsabers were colored and Ben was in his brown robe. It was really tedious work. It ended, of course, with Ben getting offed by Vader and Vader stepping on him. It was very funny and I still have it. I loved doing those things.

CS: You used the term “British surf rock.” Is that the breakthrough in your head when you’re brainstorming? As soon as you know that, does it just come together?
Giacchino:
On this film, yes. I thought, “Oh my god! That’s exactly what I want. British swinging surf rock!” I don’t even know if there’s such a thing as British surf rock, but it seemed to fit for this film. I didn’t want to do just a straightforward action score. So many action films just sound the same nowadays. You can’t tell one from the other. I’m always careful that what I do fits one specific film in the right way. I want it to fit. I want it to be only for that film. I want people to go, “Oh, that’s from ‘Cars’! I remember that from ‘Cars’!” When I thought of that, I thought, “That’s what I want to do!” And thankfully John [Lasseter] liked it, too. If he didn’t, I don’t know what I would have done.

CS: Do you have a preference for working in live-action or in animation?
Giacchino:
Nope. For me, they’re both very similar. There’s nothing anymore real about Captain Kirk than there is with Lightning McQueen. To me, they’re both the same thing. They’re both stories being told. One is about cars and one is about guys in space. Nothing I work on is real. Is the guy flying around in the red cape any different than the rat who wants to cook? It’s all the same to me. It’s all pretend.

CS: Would you ever want to jump in a do a very, very serious drama?
Giacchino:
Sure! Absolutely. I would definitely want to do that. Even “LOST” was a very serious drama at some points. There are always elements of that in what I do, but I do think it would be fun to do for an entire film. When the right thing comes up, it’ll happen. I don’t go looking for things. Maybe J.J. [Abrams] will do one one day. I’m not a big fan of going out and looking for work. I just sort of wait to see what shows up.

CS: It’s pretty interesting that you’ve been working so closely with both J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird and now they’re connected through the “Mission: Impossible” franchise.
Giacchino:
I was dying for them to meet. I had always told JJ, “You have to meet Brad,” and I had always told Brad, “You have to meet JJ. You guys would be amazing together.” For years, I did that. I was trying to tell Brad, “Go direct an episode of ‘LOST’!” When we finally got them together, it was at the premiere of “Speed Racer.” It was great. I knew they were going to love each other. They both have the same love of movie making. It’s just unmatched and I always thought that, together, they could do great things. I think Brad’ll make a great movie.

CS: Were you ever teamed to do a James Bond theme song with lyrics?
Giacchino:
No, it’s really a different kind of thing. You could have done that for “The Incredibles,” I guess and we did talk about it, but it just wouldn’t have been right for this one.

CS: You mention the time periods and how this one is distinctly ’60s. You have “Super 8” in the late ’70s. Do you imagine that you’re writing as though you’re actually in the time period?
Giacchino:
It’s always a tightrope. You can easily launch into parody if you’re not careful. You have to say, “What is this one about?” It’s about friendship. It’s about adventure. The second you take your eye off that, you run the risk of doing disservice to the film. But a lot of it is guesswork. You’re really hoping that you find that proper match.

Cars 2 hits theaters this Friday. June 24th.