June 21, 2018 / 8:00 PM

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: 'The Book Of Life' Composer Gustavo Santaolalla Talks Scoring New Animated Movie, Upcoming Projects & Making Music For Film, TV And Video Games



Gustavo Santaolalla is a world-renowned recording artist that just happened to become an acclaimed film composer due to reputation. After winning multiple Grammy awards (both Latin and Anglo), the man who put the ronroco on the map made his way into the world of scoring movies and took home two Academy Awards for Best Original Score two years in a row (Brokeback Mountain and Babel). Gustavo's even made name for himself in the video game realm, composing the music to 2013's best title The Last of Us. Moving right along into the animated movie genre, Santaolalla's newest project, The Book of Life, just hit theaters this weekend.

In a new exclusive interview with Music Times, this very busy musician shared stories of his journey from a recording artist making his own music into creating scores for film, television and video games. Gustavo spoke about his work on the newly released The Book of Life and also shared advice for making it in the music industry.

How did you get into composing music for film, TV and video games?

I got into the world of music and film really by accident. I've always been a big fan of films and always been attracted to the idea of doing music for films. I only had one previous experience years ago in which I worked on a film for a friend of mine. I come from a background of making records and producing my stuff and then producing a lot of other groups, and I really did a lot of stuff like that and got a lot of recognition doing that, especially producing Latin alternative music. I won a lot of Grammys - Latin Grammys, and some Anglo Grammys, too - doing that. I did a record years ago, like 15 years ago, called Ronroco, which is the name of the instrument that I use quite a bit. I would say that now my instrument, although I play a little bit of everything, is guitar and ronroco. So I did an album based on that instrument. We put that album out on Nonesuch, which is a very famous record label, and we started to get a lot of response. There was a buzz about the album. There's a great radio station here in Los Angeles, KCRW, and they started playing the album quite a bit. And then one day I got a phone call from Michael Mann's office, that he loved the record, he wanted to use one of the pieces in his movie, The Insider, the movie with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe about the tobacco industry.

Parallel to that, a common friend of [director] Alejandro [González Iñárritu] and myself (I didn't know Alejandro at the time) started to tell me "listen, you should do the music for [Amores Perros]. This is a first time director, but you know you guys should meet." And also talking to Alejandro, "you know Gustavo should do the music for your film," and finally it happened. And once when I was doing that film, Alejandro said "you should meet this friend of mine that is doing this movie The Motorcycle Diaries." I go "Oh [director] Walter Salles, I love him." So I met Walter and I did The Motorcycle Diaries, and then when we were presenting The Motorcycle Diaries in Sundance somebody said, "you should meet Ang Lee, because he's doing this piece of Americana but it's really different." And that's really how it happened, no Hollywood agents, no logistics behind it, no strategy saying "Okay, I made it as a Latin alternative music and producer, so now it's time for me to move to movies." It was very organic and I think because I come also from another angle- I'm not a classically trained musician- I brought something different to the mix, and I got immediately recognized.

The style of whatever I brought to the world of movies, it was different I think than anything that was out there, and people connected, and that's why I was blessed to get the recognitions that I had. The first one was a BAFTA; I got a BAFTA for The Motorcycle Diaries. I wasn't even going to go to England, because I was nominated with this big guy Howard Shore, and other big composers, but they insist on me going there because they said, "Listen, you know the movie here, people love the movie and love the music and you should come over." It was a big surprise for me. And then obviously everything else that happened if you know, I got a Golden Globe, I got an Oscar, and then I got nominated again. I got a second one! Still it's kind of surreal for me, everything that happened, but I guess I've done, and I'm doing something that connects with people, and that's what makes me really happy. But there wasn't any big plan or strategy; it was pretty much an organic flow of things that brought me here.


How did you get involved in The Book of Life?

The Book of Life was an interesting story, because I know Guillermo del Toro for a few years- for quite a bit of time, and I always wanted to do something with him. I always wanted to be connected and try to do something, and so did he. We just had to find the project. We actually started talking, as a matter of fact, about doing a musical version of Pan's Labyrinth. Actually that's how my connection with [The Book of Life lyricist] Paul Williams came about, because we started thinking about lyricists. I've worked prior with Bernie Topin, I did the song that we wanted for Brokeback Mountain with him, and I love good lyrics. In fact what Guillermo was responsible for was bringing Paul Williams into the mix. He said, "I think for Pan's Labyrinth he would be great, Paul Williams." And I went "oh man, Phantom of Paradise," and all the hits that I grew up listening to and I'd love to work with him, and that's how I connected with Paul.

In the middle of all this, Jorge Gutierrez came into the picture with this wonderful rendition of The Book of Life, and immediately the stories, the characters, the fact that Jorge was also a big fan of my work as a Latin alternative producer ... you know, he said that I sort of composed, or worked on, the soundtrack of his life, because he quit his job with this song, his wife had taken him to a concert and he lost his virginity with this song [laughs]. So we connected really good and I really, really loved his artistic vision and the story and the somatic of the story, which I think was deep and really unusual for an animated movie. And so that really happened very quickly. Also I mean one of the things that immediately interested me was the fact that this was going to be a big challenge for me and was going to be something that moved me from my comfort zone. I mean I already had a really interesting experience last year, with the Last of Us, which was a video game, something that I've never done before, I'm not even a gamer, my son is, but I'm not ... but that was a challenge too, just because it was a totally different media and very different than I've done before. And this animated movie also implied doing things that I've never done before because we wanted to stay sort of true to the code that already existed.

This type of movie, which implies big orchestra, a lot of music, much more music than I've ever done before. Usually in the movies I've been involved prior to this, there's a very economic use of music and it's very minimalistic, not only in the use of music, but in the instrumentation and this is quite opposite. It was not only going to be a score, but also I was going to be able to produce the covers of some of great songs, and also write a couple of original songs and that's when we brought Paul in because we already talked about, but hadn't done anything for Pan's at the time. So this was also a way to test the waters and see how we were working together. It was a really full feeling, joining in a lot of different aspects and sure enough, it's been extremely gratifying for me and very, very enjoyable. It was a lot of work because it's a lot of music, but it's been a wonderful experience to do that.

How much creative freedom did you have with The Book of Life? 

I would say almost total freedom. I worked in the parameters of what Jorge had in his vision, which was a strong one. I always liked to, not to say myself; I worked so far with directors that have a strong vision, in the same way that in the record world I've worked with artists that have a strong vision and that know what they want. So obviously guided by Jorge, but just being able to explore my intuition and my take on whatever was needed. And I would say that I had really total freedom to try all kinds of different things. Part of the challenge was to do something that would stay in the code that we know, like I've mentioned for this type of film, but at the same time, infuse it with something that was going to be unique, as unique as the film is, and I think that the use of Mexican and Latino rhythms and timbres and instrumentation makes for a different score. You know the way we have reworked some of the known songs like "Creep" or "I Will Wait" - I think that put a spin on those songs that is really different how we know them in their original version and the songs that we made a mix. I was really, really given a lot of freedom to do whatever I felt was what we needed.

You scored the 2013's biggest video game, The Last of Us. How was working on this title - which was your first foray into the composing for a video game - compared to working on movies and TV?

Well you know it was great and there is a parallel in the logistics of the work with this film too, with The Book of Life, and a connection with the way I like to work. I always mentioned, prior to making The Last of Us and The Book of Life, that I always liked to work from the script and I talk to directors much more so, than just watching footage. So the biggest example for that is Brokeback Mountain, which I did the whole score before one frame was shot. I mean it was the genius of Ang Lee to sort of place in the music in this part of the movie, or this part will go here or there. And then obviously we edited and recorded the orchestra for real, but all the themes and my guitar, all that was done prior to any filming. And with this type of project, like The Last of Us and Book of Life, because of the way these projects are built and designed ... it takes a long time to render a game like The Last of Us, so actually you are producing music perhaps just watching, seeing the characters drawn, but not really any action yet.

So I started working, in both projects, two years before they actually saw the light to the public. The movie Book of Life, premiered yesterday, but I've been working on it for two years now. So at the beginning, when they started writing the scenes or music, there was no more than some drawing. The same thing happened with The Last of Life. In the video game as opposed to the movie, you have to do a lot of music, there's like 3 hours of music that I've done for that. The nice things is that some of those pieces ended up being inspiration for Neil Druckmann, the director and writer, to write some new scenes, just inspiration he was getting from the music. So it was really a nice back and forth process, I really find it much collaborative than just watching a scene and putting music to it. So in both cases, in Book of Life and in The Last of Us especially, the fact of working prior to the action itself, it's something that I love to do and gives me a lot of space and a lot freedom to work.

It was a very rewarding experience. As I mentioned in Book of Life, there was a code we wanted to stay true to - a language that we wanted to tap into - whereas in The Last of Us, we really didn't have anything. It was totally open; an open road to do whatever we wanted to do, and that was absolutely, total freedom. And as a matter of fact, the more "out-there" I was getting with the music, the more that Neil Druckmann loved it. So it was really very inspiring to work on that video game, and I know that it's a very special game.

It also has something to do with the projects that I like to be involved. As you probably know, I don't do that many movies, there are other people that work in film music that do lots of movies. I do very few that I pick very selectively because it's not the only thing that I do, music for movies, I still play with the band and I tour, I produce other artists, I do my own records, so for me it's really an outlet, in each one of these things that I do, and I try to be very picky, very selective about it, and only do things that I feel are different or original or unique.

Do you have any projects you're working on now or will be working on in the near future?

I have another movie that is out already, it's been out already in Argentina, it's now officially the biggest box office hit in Argentina's movie history. It's called Relatos Salvajes, It's been picked up here by Sony; it's going to be called Wild Tales. It's an Argentine-Spanish co-production. It's a fabulous, fabulous movie. It's a movie that's been now in Cannes, in Toronto and already there's been some write-ups in Variety and Hollywood Reporter. It's a fantastic, dark humor, very violent movie, but very funny, with a lot of substance. I think there's going to be some screenings here in November, but it's coming out in the beginning of next year. And also a TV series, called Jane the Virgin, which actually [premiered this past week], so those are the projects that I'm currently involved.

Prior to this I was working on, as I mentioned, on the musical version of Pan's Labyrinth, and that's going to take probably a couple of years to see the light- but already we're working on it; we have already 3 great songs for it. So that's what I have in the horizon. I know this next year is going to be The Last of Us, the movie and I know there's going to be The Last of Us, the game, too. That will probably start at the end of next year, moving towards 2016, 2017. And hopefully things go great with Book of Life, and there'll be a Book of Life 2! But for now, these other projects that I'm involved in - I'm always looking, but for now I have my plate full.

Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into your industry?

There are three things for me that I give as advice to young guys, or people that want to get into, really any art form - whether you're a musician, or painter, or a dancer. First of all, I truly believe in the importance of work ethic. I always like to quote Picasso. He said, "I hope the inspiration finds me working." I truly believe in that, that it's 80% perspiration and 20% inspiration. I'm not the kind of guy that sits down in a chair waiting for inspiration to come. I wake up and I work and finally at a certain point, hopefully I'll connect and something comes. So the first thing is to develop a work ethic.

The second thing is, once you have that and you're working steadily, is to find your own voice: who you are, what is your sound, what is it that you have to say. What are the colors and the shapes that will have an identity? The concept for me of identity is very important. Representing who you are, where do you come from, etc. So once you have the work ethic and once you have your own voice, something that will make what you do your thing, then it's the third thing, which is to stay true to that vision.

Once you achieve that vision, you should stay true to it, because you're going to have, along the way, in a career, lots of offers that not necessarily connect with that vision that you have developed. And lots of people sometimes, at the beginning of their careers, go "well, perhaps I do this first and then I can do whatever I really want to do." And I don't particularly think that's necessarily conductive to build a coherent career. That's my view. Also that can happen when you have achieved success, because you might get tempted by economic offers that are big, but not necessarily artistically represent, or connect with that vision, with who you are. And I think you should stay away from those, too. So that would be- those would be my advices!

For more information about Gustavo Santaolalla and his work, check out his Facebook page!

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