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You may not know his name, but Michael Giacchino has likely scored some of the biggest pop culture moments in your life. Every brilliant movement in Pixar’s Up, particularly that three-hanky opening scene. The moody WTF? moments on TV’s Lost. Frankly, if you've ever loved anything that's come out of J.J. Abrams's Bad Robot production studio, Giacchino was probably the man behind the score. But the two had never tackled anything quite as big as the project they embarked on over half a decade ago: reinventing Star Trek.

In short: the 2009 flick worked. Now, four years later, the film’s sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, is poised to become another blockbuster win for the pair, and the soundtrack, available May 28 from Varese Sarabande Records, is a suitably epic collection with surprisingly bold moments of humour and humanity.

Despite the fact that the movie opens today, May 16, the pair is already looking ahead to the next adventure: reinventing Star Wars. CBC Music spoke with Giacchino about tackling the Star Trek legacy, the craft of composing and his enduring love for John Williams.

What’s the first score you remember taking your breath away as a kid?

There are three I remember vividly. I remember watching King Kong for the first time on TV and I remember being really entranced by the music. Then I saw, also on TV, which is such a travesty to see for the first time on TV, 2001: A Space Odyssey and I remember just being amazed at how they used music I already knew because they used a lot of classical pieces. But the one that really lit for me was Star Wars. Once I got a hold of that double album, that was kind of the end for me [laughs].

How much did the legacy of Star Trek factor into your decisions on the first film?

It was funny, because in the very beginning, the legacy of Star Trek played into almost every decision and it was actually ruining the experience for me, because I kept writing all this music like, "This is what Star Trek should sound like." It became very frustrating because everything I wrote didn’t sound like something that our movie should have in it. I must have written 20 different versions of the main theme and I was sitting down with J.J. and one of the producers, Damon Lindelof, and he said, "Forget you’re even writing a score for Star Trek. What if I told you if this was just a film about two guys who met and became the best of friends in the hardest of circumstances?"

At that point I could finally let go of everything that came before and all the expectations I thought people would have as to what it should sound like and just concentrate on what we liked and what worked for our story, which is about these two characters, Kirk and Spock. It was a weird, strange process to go through but necessary I guess in the end.

Do you continue a narrative thread for Into Darkness?

Definitely. What was nice about Into Darkness was that it felt like our world had been set up for us and I was just able to go and expand on that already set-up tone that was so difficult to create for the first film. I felt much more in control on the second film and knew what the soul of this movie should be. I was able to just have a little more fun with it in the writing process than the first one, which was more difficult.

Some of that fun comes through in some of the amusing track titles, like “Brigadoom.” How much humour does one need to balance the more grandiose moments?

You’re always doing that. When you’re watching the film, you’re always asking, "How big do I go and how small do I go?" It’s almost like you have to let the film tell you what to do. If I sit here and start making decisions ‘cause I want to hear big music, I can completely ruin a movie by not paying attention to what it actually needs. In a way, it’s almost like a doctor talking to a patient. You need to listen to that patient and figure out what it needs; a film will tell you its story and tell you what it needs if you just listen to it.

It also comes out of conversations with J.J. of course and we sit and talk about the characters and talk about the feelings that they’re feeling and the things they’re going through. We rarely talk about what the music should sound like; we usually just talk about how we want to feel during a certain moment. And that’s what it all comes down to: how do you want to feel and how do you want the audience to feel?

Are you reading a script in advance or basically just going on these ideas?

I spend a lot of time on the set because I love filmmaking and it’s a lot of fun and I have so many friends that are involved in the filmmaking process. I spend a lot of time there and I’m always in touch with J.J. about how it’s developing. I don’t necessarily like to read the script if I can help it because I find if I read the script I get my own ideas about how this film should be made and it’s better to just see J.J.’s idea and where he’s going and go from there. I like to just wait and see footage and he’ll show me rough cuts of scenes, and then as time goes on it becomes more whole until it’s ready for me to really start writing. But most of my time on a film like this is spent just observing and talking to J.J. and thinking about what it is I’m going to write. The writing process itself might take only eight weeks, but before that eight weeks start, I’ve spent maybe a year thinking about it. It’s a strange sort of lead up to an enormous amount of work.

Was it tempting to go more digital and space-y rather than orchestral?

No. I think orchestral is always at the heart of what I love to do because it creates a true soul for the film and the story. That’s not to say you always have to do that, but there’s something that’s really hard to replicate when you have 100 real, live, breathing human beings sitting in front of you playing this music. You put your heart and soul into the notes that they write and they put their heart and soul into the playing and performance of those notes. It’s hard to compete with that with just a plain old electronic score. Again, it’s not to say you can’t, but with this kind of thing, it just needed that real warmth. The film itself is already in space and has all this spaceship technology surrounding it; the music gives it that human quality that really helps draw the audience in.

Are there some classical composers at the foundation of this score?

The classical influences are always there because I listened to them when I was growing up. It’s never really intentional, just a byproduct of having listened to so much music over the years as I grew up and went to school and studied music. I’d like to think it all just seeped into my head and all becomes a part of what I do. For this project, it was never overtly drawn on, but I can only hope that some great classic works of the past are somewhere buried in what I do. Art inspires art as life goes on. It’s funny to see how one thing inspires the next thing and then that inspires something else. You can go back in music history and just see how it all slowly evolves and gets bigger and different and changes. It’s a really fun thing to do.

Star Wars is in J.J.’s future and John Williams has allegedly been invited back, and earlier you spoke about how much his scores inspired you. One: are you freaking out being so close to it and two: what kind of involvement might you have?

[Laughs] I have no idea what my involvement would be. Honestly, the first thing I thought when I heard the news was: "How cool! I get to hear another John Williams Star Wars score." That was literally my first response. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so the thing that excites me most is being able to hear more of what he would do with it. It seems like he wants to, it seems like he’s interested in it, so we’re just keeping our fingers crossed. I think that’s where it is right now. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want to do it if I was needed, but I want to hear his Star Wars music, not my Star Wars music.

Follow Andrea Warner on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner.

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posted by Andrea Warner on May 16, 2013