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Interview: Michael Giacchino Talks Love, Hate, and the Music of ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Jojo Rabbit Davis McKenzie

Michael Giacchino is living his childhood dream. He got his start scoring video games in the 90s before eventually working his way into film and television. His works include “Alias” and “Lost,” for which he won an Emmy in 2005.

To date, Giacchino has worked on nearly 150 projects. He scored his way to an Oscar nomination for “Ratatouille” in 2007 and then won the award for “Up” in 2009. He has worked with Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Matt Reeves, and Drew Goddard. He has worked in different genres, and in the biggest franchises. And he has taken on work in smaller, more intimate films too.

We spoke recently about working with Taika Waititi on the charming and heartfelt, “Jojo Rabbit.” The film tells the story of young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic member of Hitler’s Youth who believes the glossy propaganda fed to him by local leaders. His imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (Waititi) himself. But his world starts to fall apart when he learns his mother (Scarlett Johansson), whom he idolizes, is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house.

Jojo Rabbit

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: When did you first sign on to “Jojo Rabbit?”

Michael Giacchino: Now you’re testing my memory! It was last year sometime. I got a phone call from someone saying, “Hey, Taika [Waititi] is trying to contact you. Would you mind if we passed your number on?” I’m like, “Uh, yeah, sure! Why not? I love his movies. And if nothing else, it would just be fun to talk to him.”

He was shooting [“Jojo Rabbit”] at the time, overseas. He called me in between one of his breaks and explained to me loosely what he was doing and what it was. He didn’t want to over say too much because it’s one of those films that’s kind of hard to explain. It’s better to either read it or see it and he asked if I would mind reading the script, so I said, “Absolutely.” So he sent me the script, which is something I normally don’t like to do. I don’t like reading scripts because I envision my own version of that movie in my head and then, inevitably, when I see the version I’m going to work on, it’s always different. I have to undo a lot of thoughts. But in this case I definitely wanted to read it because I love him.

I read it, fell in love with it, called him back the next day and said, “Okay, I’m in. Whatever you need, let’s do it.” He did tell me, “Listen, what I really need from you on this, more than anything —” He was very funny. He said, “Do you remember how you made me feel during ‘Up?’ Just do that. Make me feel that again.” (laughs)

So that was his marching order from the beginning. But it was clear that he understood the film was a very difficult emotional tightrope to walk, and he wanted to make sure that at every step we were doing the right thing for the characters and making sure that we were focusing on what the film is truly about and not actually, really, what it was doing.

KP: To just tell you to make us feel those feelings from “Up,” that’s no small task!

MG: I know. I was like, “Gee, thank you for that, Taika!” (laughs) I knew what he really meant, which was the idea that we want to make sure we treat each of the characters as real people and we’re not shying away from any of the true emotional aspects that the film has to offer. Even though there are some ridiculous and kind of comedic things that happen. That’s not what I was gonna be worrying about. I was going to only be worrying about telling the story that was important and emotional and had something to say.

KP: When you were reading the script and watching some of the first footage, what were some things that stood out to you?

MG: I think for me, the biggest thing that I wanted to try and accomplish was using music to show how a person’s worldview can change. At the beginning of the film you have this character, Jojo, and his worldview is very narrow. As every ten-year-old kid’s is. And only concentrating on the things that are important to him. He’s obsessed with the idea of being in this Hitler’s Youth and being in a gang, being part of a group. He loved the fact that Hitler was providing these experiences for him, without really understanding what was behind everything. But as the film goes on, he starts to slowly unravel what the truth is and what’s truly happening. So that very narrow view we started with in the beginning widens out to something much bigger.

One of the ways I wanted to try and do that was in the music itself. In the very beginning, the film opens with Jojo’s theme, but it’s sung as a German march, with children singing lyrics to it as well. These lyrics were written by Elyssa Samsel. The conversation I had with her was that I wanted the lyrics to be, if you heard them in a German march at the beginning of the movie, if you read them, you would think, “This is terrible. These are awful lyrics. This stands for fascism. It’s everything that I stand against.”

But if you were to read them again at the end of the movie, during the scene where Jojo is sort of stuck in the middle of the battle and everything is blowing up around him and he’s looking at everything, by that point in the story, he’s completely changed. Everything he thought he believed fell apart. Those are the same lyrics we hear at the beginning of the film, and if you hear them again at that point, you say, “I believe every single thing these lyrics are saying.” So it’s the exact same lyrics but it’s all about your point of view and how it’s presented to you. And that’s what people like Hitler and people even around today do. They take words and bend them to get you to fall in line with their way of thinking. That’s a very dangerous weapon. And anyone who can do that well should be watched. We should be wary of them. So that’s what I wanted to do with the score.

KP: I was listening to the score in my office and one of my colleagues came in and said, “What is that music? It’s so beautiful!”

MG: It’s one of those things that you’re constructing it in a way that if you can listen to it away from the movie, you hopefully still get the same intention and feeling that the film would have given you as well. It’s about reliving that emotional story that Taika wanted to tell.

KP: You’ve talked a little bit about his marching orders for you, but during the collaborative process of making a movie, what was it like working with Taika and helping him realize his vision?

MG: He is a blast to work with. He has an incredible energy. He’s incredibly dedicated to being creative and to finding new and interesting ways to solve problems, and I really admire that about him. I admire that he can have fun when he’s working as well, because that’s something that’s important to me. The whole experience was just a great collaboration. He listens, he wants to hear what you have to say. If there’s something I have feelings about that maybe aren’t working quite well for me in the film, I’m free to be able to say that too. And that’s the best kind of situation you want. To work with people that can listen. And that goes both ways. They will listen to me, I will listen to them and we come up with the best solution. It really is so fun to see him do his thing. And if you look across all his movies, they’re all so unique and so different. You’re always wondering what is he going to do with his next thing?

KP: Well, your work, too! You definitely have some signatures where, yes, this sounds like Michael Giacchino, but you also bring in different elements when you work on different types of projects. For you, when you’re sitting down to score a new project, where does it start? Is it the story, or a particular character? The setting?

MG: It’s always about emotions, really. When I watch something, I track very carefully how I’m feeling during it. If the thing I’m working on doesn’t effect me emotionally, then it’s very difficult to write music. I don’t like pretending to write sad music. I want to write music because I’m actually sad. I don’t want to pretend to write scary music, I want to write scary music because I’m actually feeling that way when I’m watching this. So the film has to work on many levels for me to be a part of it. Because it’s very difficult for me to write it if it’s not. So it really starts from watching the movie and then going and sitting at a piano and just sort of reflecting about how I felt and keeping track of those emotions and then trying to get them into music so that if you were to listen to that music, you would feel how I felt when I watched the film.

KP: “Jojo Rabbit” has a unique look to it, but it also has a unique musical style too. What were some of the elements you were really excited to bring in?

MG: I love the fact that I got to work with a much smaller orchestra than normal. There was no way this movie would have worked with a hundred piece orchestra like I normally am doing on these bigger movies. So I was happy to work with much more limitation and to try and convey the ideas I needed to convey with a smaller group. And the idea of adding in the children’s voices and also having a recorder ensemble paired with the string quintet and paired with two guitars and then weird percussion instruments. It’s always fun to find a unique palate that could belong only to that particular story you’re working on. And it’s something I try to do with each of the movies that I work on is create some sort of identity for that score so that if you were to listen to it you’re like, “Oh, yeah that’s from ‘Planet of the Apes’ or that’s from ‘Star Trek,'” or whatever it is. It’s important to create something that only fits that particular story. I’m always trying to do that, along with trying to tell the most truthful, emotional version of that story through music.

KP: The emotional journey we go through with this young boy gives you the opportunity to play some of those elements too.

MG: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things I liked most about the film itself was just the idea that you could enter it through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy and see the world as he sees it. And then you literally watch it all change and fall apart right in front of him and you’re there with him the whole way.

KP: Which was the first part you scored?

MG: I always work in order, so the very first thing I did was the opening logos over the Fox logo and with the boys singing and all that. I like to write the scores sequentially as opposed to jumping around. Because I feel like I’m trying to craft an overall story that needs to lie right alongside the completed film. And if I jump around, I feel like I’m not properly leading from one moment to the next in the right or best way that I can. So that’s why I always start at the beginning and I don’t stop until I’m at the end.

KP: What was the part that came easiest to you and what was the most difficult?

MG: The whole thing, in many ways, was difficult in some respects because you’re dealing with very difficult themes and situations and it’s hard. When you’re working on a film, you have to watch it over and over and over again. So some of these scenes, some of the most difficult stuff was with Rosie. I loved that character and I loved what she was doing and how she had a sort of dual life. One side of her life was to protect Jojo from everything that’s around him and the other was to protect Elsa from everything that’s around her, and still trying to be out there, fighting for what’s right without people knowing it. So she had a very interesting and complex character that I didn’t want to ruin in any way with music. So to keep it as simple as possible. I always go back to the word ‘truth’ because it’s really important that the music feel truthful. Feel appropriate and feel real to that character. So I think she was the most challenging aspect of it.

And then also the idea of changing someone’s point of view. You know, starting as a German march, ending as an elegy, sung by a children’s choir. That, to me, was probably the most rewarding thing of the whole project. And, outside of that, just being part of something that’s putting a good voice into the world at a time when the world needs it most.

KP: It really does. It’s funny, the reactions that have come as people have seen the film. Some say it’s over the top and others say it doesn’t go far enough. I feel like it’s just exactly what we need right now.

MG: Yeah. I think it’s absolutely perfect. I think, for me, the most important thing about this movie, whether you like it or don’t like it, it starts a conversation between people. And I’ve had conversations with people who have both loved it and others who have not liked it and I’m fine with whatever the point of view is. What’s more important to me is that people are talking about it. And because it ends up bringing up very difficult subjects — race relations, genocide, all of these terrible things — they’re no less in our world than they were at that time. They’re still here. And we have to keep talking about them. So I feel like if this film can do that, I’m happy with whatever anyone’s opinion is of it.

KP: You’ve worked in film and television for awhile. You’ve worked on so many projects. Do you still learn new things when you’re working on a film? Did you learn anything new on “Jojo Rabbit,” musically?

MG: Yeah. You’re always trying to find new ways to do things, to say things. Absolutely. I think, more importantly, when you’re doing these kind of projects you learn more about yourself along the way. That’s sort of the whole point about art is to explore who we are and how we feel and what we think. And those are things that this film certainly made me pause and look back and double check how I feel about things and people and all of that, you know? I really like that about it.

KP: You’ve become a household name for film composers. Even my friends who aren’t in the industry at all know who you are.

MG: Yeah. It’s a household name that no one can pronounce! (laughs)

KP: Right! I’m always correcting colleagues. “It’s in his Twitter bio!”

MG: (laughs) But it’s a great feeling. Because when I grew up, the people I admired were filmmakers and composers and they were a big part of my childhood. I grew up in New Jersey. My parents and everyone else didn’t quite know who any of these people were, but I feel like they learned who they were through me and it was really important and they made a big difference in my life. So even if one little thing changes or somebody can enjoy it, that’s good. Because again it’s just about putting positive, good things out into the world. That’s what we want to do.

KP: And you do that. Just looking through your filmography, I think the first thing I recognized you for was “Alias.” But over the years, you’ve done so many things. Everybody knows your work. Everybody.

MG: It’s crazy because when I look at the sprawling landscape of the things I’ve worked on, if you were to ask me at ten years old, “What kind of things would you want to work on?” Literally, everything I’ve done would have been on that list. I love all of that. It’s really fun. In some ways, I’m still living in that ten-year-old mindset of being able to do things that are fun, that I enjoy, that I’m interested in, that I’m passionate about, with people who feel the same. When you’re a kid and you’re playing with your friends, that’s about the best that it gets.

KP: You’ve worked on “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” You’ve worked in Marvel and DC.

MG: It’s crazy. All the things I loved as a kid.

KP: And not too many people get to say that.

MG: At the same time, it’s also important to put things like “Jojo” out into the world. The world needs new things. Sometimes you feel like you have to force it on them to watch something new that isn’t a sequel or a franchise thing. Not knocking the franchises. I love them as much as anybody. But I also love it when something new like this gets put into the world and makes you think differently.

KP: What has been the most satisfying or rewarding part of working on “Jojo Rabbit?”

MG: Not disappointing Taika was the most satisfying thing. Because he was someone I really liked and respected his work and I tend to work with a lot of the same people over and over, so we all know each other well. When someone new comes into the fold, you’re always rolling the dice. But on this one, I felt like it was more him rolling the dice than me. I didn’t want to mess that up. I wanted to make sure the story we were telling was the one he wanted to tell. I’m really happy with how it all turned out and I ended up having a great time working with him. So it’s good.

KP: We’re almost out of time, and I know people would love for me to ask about “The Batman,” but I’m not going to.

MG: That’s going to be a lot of fun. Matt Reeves is one of my favorites to work with.

KP: What is something you haven’t gotten to do yet that you hope you get to do?

MG: I want to go to Egypt. I wanna see the pyramids. That’s what I want to do. I want to go and check out all the history that is there. And I know that has nothing to do with writing music or making movies, but that’s the answer.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Michael Giacchino for his time.

“Jojo Rabbit” is distributed by Fox Searchlight and is still playing in limited release.

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Written by Karen M. Peterson

Karen Peterson is a writer from Southern California. When she is not at the ballpark cheering on her LA Angels, she can usually be found in a movie theater or in front of the television. Karen is obsessed with awards shows, and loves everything from the smallest indie film to the biggest of big budget spectacles. She is also unapologetically in love with Tom Cruise.

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