Even if you haven’t heard of Michael Giacchino, you have heard Michael Giacchino. His film scoring has backtracked some of the most popular and beloved films to grace the silver screen in the past two decades, from superhero fare such as The Batman or the MCU’s Spider-Man trilogy, to Pixar films such as Inside Out and Ratatouille, to other recognizable franchises such as the Star Trek reboots and Jurassic World, and the list goes on. He won an Oscar for his tear-jerking Up score as well as numerous other awards including a Golden Globe, Emmy, and multiple Grammys. Known for being distinctive and emotionally moving, you’ll be humming a Giacchino score long after you’ve left the theater.
Giacchino’s most recent project, Werewolf by Night, is unlike anything he’s done before, it’s his first time directing a feature-length film. The Halloween special, a first-ever for the MCU, released this October on Disney+ just in time for the spooky season. Although it’s a Marvel project, it’s inspired by their monster comics and its resulting adaptation is a stylized black-and-white love letter to the creature feature genre.
Endlessly enthusiastic, Michael Giacchino was gracious enough to sit down with us and explain the logic behind many practical decisions of Werewolf by Night, the empathy he infused it with, and how his inspirations manifested in the story. We also had the chance to go over some of the lessons he’s learned from his plethora of past projects from esteemed directors like Brad Bird and Matt Reeves and how he implemented them when directing something of his own.
Exclusive Interview with Michael Giacchino for Werewolf by Night on Disney+
This is your first time directing a feature-length film. The “Creature Feature” is a very visually distinct subset of horror, is there anything specifically that you really wanted to bring to life in terms of atmosphere or style?
Michael Giacchino: I grew up with these movies, I loved them so much. I spent every single Saturday of my childhood watching Creature Double Feature. I grew up in New Jersey, outside of Philadelphia, and my brother and I would just watch them religiously. It was as if that was our church, you know, and so whenever I could watch an old Universal monster movie, or an old Hammer film, or even – I was also obsessed with Japanese monster movies as well, kaiju movies. So when the opportunity came up to do this, it was just a no-brainer for me.
I was having a conversation with Kevin Feige one day, and he said, “Well, if you’re going to direct, what do you want to direct?” And I was like, “Werewolf by Night. Absolutely” because they were comics that I used to buy when I was a kid. I still have the ones I did buy when I was a kid. I always loved that character and I just love werewolves. So I was like, “And you guys haven’t done anything like that before, so that’s what I want to do.” It was a natural progression. It just made a lot of sense for me.
You mentioned you came to Kevin Feige with the concept. So obviously, you were big fans, how did it feel like bringing them to screen? And do you feel like you’ve done them justice with your portrayal?
Michael Giacchino I hope I did. I think the actors we worked with were incredible. I can’t imagine anyone else except Gael García Bernal being Jack Russell in my mind. In terms of Elsa Bloodstone, Laura Donnelly just was the best. I feel super lucky to have had them join the team and be a part of bringing this to life. It certainly is a love letter to everything I loved about those comics as a kid and everything I loved about the movies growing up, the old movies. I did the best I could and it’s definitely a reflection of me, that is for sure.
Why did you choose those actors specifically? What about them made you imagine the characters?
Michael Giacchino There’s something about Gael’s performance in anything he does which brings such humanity, empathy, and humor. He’s somebody that when you see him on screen, he is a real human being. He’s not acting. He just becomes this real entity in front of you. He and I worked on Coco together and that, even more, made me feel like, “Oh, this is the person.” I just love everything he’s done. I just love how he’s like, to me, a modern-day combination of Robert Redford and Buster Keaton. He’s very unique and incredibly talented in that way.
As far as Laura, she brings such a presence to the screen. She is the epitome of a 1930s movie actress. She just brings this incredible sense of self to the screen and that’s not easy to do. When you watch her on screen, you just buy into everything she’s saying because it feels like it’s coming completely from the heart, and that was exactly what that role needed. They both delivered in spades and so again, an embarrassment of riches in terms of the talent I got to use on camera, and I just wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
You mentioned that they’re very human, so it seems like you very much wanted to round out this performance.
Michael Giacchino You’re dealing with monsters, right? Monsters are very fantastical creatures and, to me, monsters are just people with problems – that’s at the heart of all of this. A monster is somebody who has a problem and whether or not that can be solved, that remains to be seen, but they are struggling with something. They’re struggling with an affliction. Nobody wants to be that monster. Nobody wants to be a werewolf. Nobody wants to be assembled from the body parts of a lot of different people like Frankenstein’s monster. That’s not what anyone asks for, but it’s the card they’re dealt in life.
The exploration of how somebody handles those afflictions is very interesting to me. It really does parallel so much of what’s happening in the world today in terms of people being so quick just to label anyone that is different. If you’re different, you are labeled different and you’re ostracized, it really is no different – that’s the allegory we’re talking about when we tell a story about a werewolf or we tell a story about any monster that is on-screen. If you take one moment to think of it from their perspective, you’re going to see this story in a whole new light.
So that’s what I wanted to do, to talk about this idea that people are people and they have problems. If you take a moment to acknowledge those problems, listen to those problems, you’re going to see a whole different side of this person, and maybe you won’t call them a monster, you know?
Speaking of werewolves, why did you decide to use mainly practical effects for Werewolf by Night?
Michael Giacchino You know, for several reasons. One was, as I said before, as a love letter to all of the filmmakers that made these kinds of films in the past, I wanted to follow in their footsteps. But also, I really do believe that if you have a real person in front of you, a real person in front of that camera, the audience believes that even more. It’s always fun to watch a CG monster. Yes, absolutely. I get it. I love that as well. But for this, this was such a personal story that I wanted someone real – someone that when I looked in their eyes, I was looking into the eyes of a human behind that monster. And that was very important for me. Thankfully, Marvel supported that from the very beginning. We were just like, “As much practical as we can do, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Speaking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ve done several projects for them now, both as a composer and a director. What have you learned about the different processes of crafting releases?
Michael Giacchino It’s interesting. Music is all about storytelling. In all the years I’ve been writing music, I’ve been working with these directors who are incredibly talented and helping them tell their stories. When you move from that into directing, it’s not that different, other than the fact that you then are dealing with many different departments, as opposed to me just dealing with my department, which is the music. I’m now using those tools that I’ve learned over the years to apply to storytelling. It’s all about storytelling. Filmmaking is the greatest group art form there is and everything you do when you’re making a film is geared toward telling a story. I feel like I’ve had many years of really understanding the process of storytelling.
I’ve been working with people like JJ Abrams, Brad Bird, Matt Reeves, and Pete Docter. All of these people that I’ve been so lucky to work with over the years, and also really soaking in every little bit of knowledge I could from every experience I’ve had. There wasn’t a day on set where I didn’t use some of that experience to solve a problem or explain something to somebody or deal with what I had to do. Since I was nine years old, I was making movies. That’s what I started doing. That’s all I ever did. I got my dad’s eight-millimeter camera, and I started making films. If I wasn’t at school, I was home making movies. That was almost my entire life growing up. It really does feel like a big extension of that childhood, which veered into music, and I was learning about stories through music, and now I’m continuing that with filmmaking again.
Did you feel like you were thinking about storytelling differently from a director’s perspective? Versus a music perspective?
Michael Giacchino: No, actually, it was very similar. When I’m watching a film, and I’m scoring a film, I have to understand how that character is feeling so the music can reflect it. It’s not just telling you what’s happening on screen, that’s the wrong approach to film scoring. To me, it’s always about going for the emotion behind what’s happening on the screen. So I was always very in tune with those ideas and those approaches. Going into directing, it was a very similar approach, trying to understand, “Okay, what is this character feeling at any given moment that [I’m] working on? And then how can I interpret that through the lens of the camera?” Different tools, but the same ideas.
In both composing and directing, you have to often balance your influences or what you’re paying homage to, with just a distinct sound or distinct visuals. Did you find this process to be different between directing and composing?
Michael Giacchino: When I’m working on a score, I’m always looking for some unique way to identify that score only with this story. The music from Up is not necessarily going to work in Star Trek and the music from Star Trek is probably not going to work in Planet of the Apes. Everything has its own thing. So even when doing this, I was always looking for a way to make it unique and special in its own way.
One of the things was, of course, shooting it in black-and-white. That was a big thing, which helped it stand apart from everything else. But I am always very interested in seeing… how can we make this different? Not just for me, but for the audience. There’s so much to choose from out there in the world to watch, how do we give them something different, something unique, something fun, and something interesting without completely destroying everything that’s come before? That’s always the challenge. It happens when I’m scoring and it happened when I was making this as well.
All throughout your career, you’ve done a lot of projects in speculative fiction. So what attracts you to that overall genre?
Michael Giacchino: I love it because the characters are always, in my opinion, so sympathetic. I am really drawn to stories about people who are struggling with something, people who work their way through something, whether they have help or not. We all have things in our lives that we’re dealing with, we all have problems, we all have struggles, we all have things that we share with people, and we all have things that we keep secret from people. Those ideas are so much a part of the stories of monsters. That, to me, is so interesting because it’s the most human story you can tell – to talk about somebody who is struggling with either their existence or struggling with how they see the world or how the world sees them. That’s the base of all humanity and to me, those stories are the most interesting.
As your career has evolved, you’ve done larger and larger projects in composing. You’ve been tasked with penning defining character themes that will follow these characters. So, how do you approach these sorts of projects and what do you find most important to focus on?
Michael Giacchino: Thematics are a big thing. When I grew up, I loved listening to movie scores. I was obsessed with them. The ones that had really strong themes to them, I always hung on to longer than I did to the ones that didn’t, because I could listen to those soundtracks and I could relive that movie in my head. The music was also telling the story, so I could relive that in my head. Coming up with a theme for a character to me is so important because it’s basically the character’s alter ego and it’s a way to help tell the audience what’s happening in that person’s head.
You could take a theme, you could play it one way, and you’ll feel one thing, and then you could completely change how you play it or arrange it, and then the audience can feel completely different about that. Brad Bird, I remember when we were working on The Incredibles, he was like, “Now, listen, your music could ruin my movie, so we have to be very careful.” It was my first theatrical movie and I was like, “Well, what do you mean?” He goes, “What I mean is, if your music isn’t telling the exact same story that I’m telling, then the audience is going to start thinking things we don’t want them to think, they’re going to start wandering. So we got to make sure you and I are hand in hand, lockstep the whole way.”
Michael Giacchino: I never forgot that. That was one of the things, that still to this day, rings in my head every single time I start a film, to make sure both that the tone and the theme feel right against the picture because if it doesn’t, he’s right, it could completely ruin the movie.
So you’ve done composing and directing now, do you think you would ever want to screenwrite?
Michael Giacchino: Over the years, I’ve written a bunch of things. Nothing, of course, that really went anywhere. It was more for fun. I think it would be fun to do that. I don’t know, let’s just take it one step at a time!
You’ve had a very busy past few years, and you’re heading into a bit of a break right now. But hypothetically, if someone came with you with a project to direct or compose, what elements would make you want to say yes?
Michael Giacchino: It’s always about the people involved in making it. That’s number one, who am I going to be spending this enormous amount of time with? I want to make sure whoever that person is, it’s somebody that I really am inspired by and excited to work with and learn from. That’s a big part of it. Then also, the subject matter. Is it something that I feel connected to? Is it something that I get excited about when I think about it?
I’ve never ever taken a job just because it was a job. It always had to have some reason behind it, I had to have some passion for it, some feeling that I could do something with this, explore some areas I haven’t explored before, or these are people that I love and would do anything for. All of those elements need to come together and work. If they don’t, then I know that it would be a very difficult proposition for me to follow through on those projects. So I’m very picky about the things that I do and the people I work with.