Society of the Snow marks the second time that Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino (Up) and filmmaker J. A. Bayona have worked together, although the films and their respective scores couldn't be more different. Their first collaboration was on 2018's Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, although Giacchino points out that their friendship dates back much further than that.
"We've been friends for 20 years," says Giacchino. The two met at a film festival in Spain and bonded over the Superman shirt that Bayona was wearing. "I introduced myself and asked him, 'What's with the shirt?' He said, 'Oh my God, I love Superman.' He mentioned Richard Donner's film, and that was all he needed to say. We talked until 4 in the morning."
The two stayed in touch but never had the chance to work together until Bayona was tapped to direct Fallen Kingdom; Giacchino had scored 2015's Jurassic World and was set to return for the sequel. "He called me and said, 'They're offering me this. Should I do it?' I was like, 'Yes! We'll have so much fun!'" Giacchino recalls that they were like "two kids in a candy store" whilst making that movie. Now, five years later, they've collaborated on Bayona's Spanish-language survival thriller, Society of the Snow.
Telling the true story of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, Society of the Snow is a somber thriller about the 1972 plane crash that stranded passengers in the Andes for 72 days. "Making this was a very different experience from Fallen Kingdom," explains the composer, "because when you're working on a film like that, it may be very sad to see a dinosaur die, but you also know it's not real. There's a line of separation."
"On this film, there was no line," Giacchino tells A.frame. "In the end, what's happening on-screen is what happened to real people. That keeps you grounded in a very different place."
A.frame: Were you familiar with the story of the Miracle of the Andes before J. A. approached you about it?
I first heard the story when I was a kid. In a way, it was sort of an urban ghost story. It was the '70s, which meant there wasn't any internet around to fact-check it yourself, but you'd hear second-hand or third or fourth-hand from people who knew about it. It's one of those stories that really sticks with you over time because, even if you don't know all the details or the entire story, just the base facts of it are enough to stick in your soul. Years later, I remember seeing Alive, the movie Frank Marshall made about it.
Eventually, I sat down with J. A. and started talking about his vision for Society of the Snow, and through this whole process, I've gotten so close to the group of people at the center of the film. Now, I feel like I not only understand them in a way that I never thought I could, but I also think about the people around me and the life I lead in a different way. It's one of those films that really does make you look in the mirror and think, 'Who's this person on the other side that I'm staring at?'
Was it J. A.'s character-first approach to the story that appealed to you?
Yes. We talked about the idea of giving a voice to those who didn't have a voice. For him, I think that was a very important element of the story that he wanted to construct. For me, it's a perfect way to express a story, because you're musically giving a voice to those who didn't have it. The music is there to represent the voices of not only the people who survived and whose stories we know and have heard, but it's also a window into the lives of the people who sadly did not make it off that mountain. I like to think that the music is a representation of them. It's what's holding their place for them.
I was really struck by how the film's score complements and works in tandem with its sound design. When you're composing, is that something that you keep in mind?
I'm always cognizant of what the next guy has to do. My music is not the end all be all for this film. I'm a part of a team, and being part of that team means you have to understand that someone else is doing something that may equally help get the same idea across. I'm always trying to think, 'In this scene, there are going to be these sounds and sound effects, so what instrumentation can I use here that won't interfere with that and will give it room to breathe?' Sound is so important to the storytelling; everything is important! As soon as you think that what you're doing is more important than what the next guy is doing, that's when you've gotten it wrong.
I love working with the sound people. On this film, we didn't officially talk to each other or say, 'Hey, I'm gonna stay out of the way here so you can do that,' but that's something I'm constantly thinking about. There are times when I'm watching cuts of a film where I'll see something and go, 'Take the music out of there, because the sound effects are doing everything we needed to do,' or 'That one line of dialogue already says everything. I don't need to be on top of that.' I'm always thinking about it from the point of view of a filmmaker — not just as a composer, but as someone who makes movies, too.
In recent years, you've worked on a truly wide, diverse array of projects. [Including Next Goal Wins and Thor: Love and Thunder for director Taika Waititi and Matt Reeves' The Batman.] Is your process the same for every film, or does it differ each time?
It mostly stays the same. This is a very special case movie, but in general, I always treat the characters — no matter who they are — as if they're real. People will say to me, 'Oh, it must be easier to do cartoons, because none of that's real,' and I always say, 'It's real to me.' The film will not work if I don't treat these characters as if they're real people who deserve respect. They'll try to compare doing Star Trek to something like Ratatouille, and I'll say, 'Well, Remy in Ratatouille is just as real as Captain Kirk. Yes, he's a rat, but it's all make-believe.' I try to treat every single character as if they're real. I'll treat the rat the same way I'll treat Captain Kirk.
The key to bringing people in emotionally and allowing them to have a truthful experience is not by treating the characters as caricatures, but as actual people — no matter who they are. This film was different, of course, because everything you see really happened. There's no pretending, so I ended up going deeper and thinking a lot more philosophically about ways to achieve what we wanted to musically, because so much of its story is already so powerful. With a film like this, less is more.
The movie touches on themes of struggle and perseverance, and the terror of thinking that you're never going to make it to the other side of the mountain is something that I think everyone can relate to. Has there ever been a moment in your career where you've felt stuck like that?
One hundred percent, and I can tell you exactly when it was. It's happened a couple of times in my career, but the first time I really felt that way was when I was working on video games. I was scoring Medal of Honor and the Jurassic Park: The Lost World video game for Playstation and I was using live orchestras and basically making film scores, but then I would go out for interviews for TV shows and movies and no one would hire me. They'd listen to my work and they'd say, 'The music is fine, but it's a video game. You couldn't possibly understand how to score a dramatic film, let alone a television show.' I can't tell you how many times I was not hired for things because of people thinking, 'Oh, that's just video game music.'
There was a time when I would sit in my office and think, 'I'm never going to get there. I'm never going to get this next opportunity. How do I make it happen?' And I really thought, 'Maybe I never will.' I remember thinking those exact thoughts when this email came in one day, and it was from some guy named J.J. Abrams, whom I'd never heard of before. He sent me this email and it said, 'Hi, my name is J.J. Abrams. I wrote Armageddon and Regarding Henry and I'm doing a new show for ABC. I was wondering if you'd want to talk about doing the music for it?' I was like, 'Is somebody messing with me?' I went and met with him and it was incredible. What I realized that day was that some people don't care about what you've done. They just like what you do, and they have faith that whatever you've done in this one area you can do in a different space.
That's a very rare kind of person to find in this town, and it was J.J. who did that for me, and it was also Brad Bird. Those two gave me my shots. Brad gave me a shot doing The Incredibles at a time when I had never before scored a movie that had played in a theater. But he loved what I was doing on Alias with J.J. and the video game work I'd done so much that he thought I could translate that to the big screen. He understood. Those two moments still stand out to me.
Are there any scores you’ve composed that you think are underrated or weren’t appreciated enough at the time?
I don't know if I can speak to my own work, because it's up to everybody else to tell me if a score is good or bad! But I can tell you the movie that I worked on that I do feel was underrated was Speed Racer. I love Speed Racer so much, and when it came out, it didn't really do anything. That made me question everything I love about movies. I just couldn't understand why the world didn't accept it the same way that I embraced it the moment I saw it. When I was working on it, I was so excited. I know that it's starting to get its due now. There's definitely a group of people who love that movie, and that's wonderful to see, but that was one of the ones where when I came out the other side of it, I felt really hurt in a way, because I just loved it so much.
You made your directorial debut last year with Marvel’s Werewolf by Night. What's the status of your next directorial effort?
There's a bunch of things on the table that are in various stages of development. Right now, I'm working with Warner Bros. on a movie called Them!. The original Them! was one of my favorite movies as a kid, and its story feels incredibly relevant today. We're at the beginning of that journey, which I'm very excited about. I'm really excited to get back to what I did when I was 10, which is just make movies. I've done that all my life, even all the way through college when I went to film school. Writing film scores has been incredible, because it's given me a masterclass working with all the best directors on the planet, every editor around, and so many sound people. I've had this incredible education over the past 15 to 20 years. Now, I feel like, 'Okay, I want to get back to what I miss doing,' which is just making movies with other people. I don't always want to be alone in a room writing something. I like being on a set with a bunch of other creative people, solving problems, and trying to figure out how to get it done. It's just so fun. I'm happy to be back doing that.
By Alex Welch