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Making Beautiful Music with “The Book of Life” Composer Gustavo Santaolalla

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The Book of Life Gustavo SantaolallaMulti-talented Gustavo Santaolalla has made an impact in the world of music as a musician, a songwriter, an album producer, and a film music composer. The Argentinan-born musician began his career as a teenager when he founded the rock band Arco Iris in the late 1960’s, which fused rock and Latin American folk music to become one of Argentina’s foremost “rock nacional” acts in the early 1970’s. Mr. Santaolalla fled the country in the late 1970’s as the military dictatorship tightened its grip on the country, moving to Los Angeles in 1978 to start his music career over again from scratch. His career as a musician and a producer was thriving by the time he returned to Argentina after its 1983 presidential election, where he and fellow expatriate León Gieco traveled the country in an ambitious project to record folk musicians in their own environments for roughly two years, producing the much-hailed De Ushuahia a La Quiaca. After that album’s critical and commercial success, Mr. Santaolalla shifted his focus to Mexico, moving to the fore of rock en español as a producer and as a founding member of the band Café Tacuba.

When director Michael Mann asked to use a song in his 1999 film The Insider, Mr. Santaolalla found his way into the world of Hollywood soundtracks, eventually winning back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Original Score: in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain and in 2006 for Babel. His latest contribution to the music of film is for Jorge Gutierrez’s animated feature The Book of Life, where he had to provide the score, two original songs, and cover version of several rock hits. Before the release of The Book of Life on Blu-ray and DVD, we were able to chat with Mr. Santaolalla over the phone about composing the music for the movie.

The Book of Life Joaquin, Manolo, and MariaTOONZONE NEWS: I know you were working on the Pan’s Labyrinth musical before working on The Book of Life. Did you get attached to this project because of Guillermo del Toro’s involvement in both?

GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA:: The connection with Guillermo del Toro was beforehand. I had contact with Guillermo for a few years and we always had the will to do something together, but we never had the chance to work together. When the possibility of working on Pan’s Labyrinth came, we got together and we started playing around with the names of lyricists. I’ve always been a big fan of great lyrics, and I’d written a song prior for Brokeback Mountain with Bernie Taupin, which I loved. Guillermo was very clear, he said, “I know who the person for this is, it’s Paul Williams.” I immediately jumped out of my chair and said, “Oh, man, I grew up listening to his hits!”

So that was the connection with Paul. I met Paul, we had really good chemistry. Right at the same time, Jorge Gutierrez came into the picture. Jorge pitched his movie to Guillermo, Guillermo was on board, and Jorge was the one that was looking for me. I have several facets of my career, and one of them is as a producer. I’ve produced more than 100 albums, and some of them, I think, are of the greatest Latin alternative artists, and that’s how Jorge knew my work. He told me, “Man, you did the soundtrack to my life. I met my wife at a Cafe Tacuba concert, I lost my virginity with Julieta Venegas.” He was very clear that he wanted me to be involved substantially in the musical landscape for The Book of Life. So then, basically, Guillermo got us together. The job was a big one because it demanded not only to create the score for the movie, but also doing cover versions of existing songs and writing a couple of original songs. So that was a perfect opportunity to test the waters with Paul, instead of embarking ourselves on a huge musical. why don’t we see if we can write a song together?

The first song that we wrote was “The Apology Song,” which is a very important song in the movie. That was a big challenge in itself, because it’s very different from the ballad that Manolo serenades Maria with, which we also loved, “I Love You Too Much.” In “The Apology Song,” we had elements of the plot that were not taken care of by the dialogue, so we had to tap into those concepts. Paul did an amazing job. I think it’s a song truly about forgiveness.

The Book of Life I Love You Too MuchTOONZONE NEWS: I wanted to ask about those songs in particular because everything in those scenes is working together so tightly, but I had read that you and Paul Williams were not working together very often. I don’t even think you were working directly with Jorge very often, either. How exactly did you collaborate to create those scenes?

GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA: We really got the direction from Jorge. The way we worked with Paul is that we’d talk about the song, and then he’d write words and send them to me. I would perhaps re-arrange some to fit with what I’m working with melodically. If I needed to add a word or two, I’d do it, and I’d run it by him to make sure that I get the approval from the maestro. Sometimes what happens is I get a line that I really like, and I will repeat it or I will turn it into a chorus. And that’s the way we work. We managed to see each other every now and then, and we work really good by phone and by mail. That’s how it went.

TOONZONE NEWS: Do you remember what you had to start with from Jorge? Like, I know there’s the one scene where he just wrote, “Creep by Radiohead” to describe what he wanted.

GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA: He had a very clear vision. I think all great directors and great artists know what they wanted. He had most of the cover songs, and they were kind of like aspiring boards for the music. Those were the first things that we did. “Creep,” “Do You Think I’m Sexy”…which I had to kind of turn into a Spanish song. So how am I going to do that? What if I take that riff and turn it into a charro…and I sang the charro myself. The charro singing in the movie, that’s me. But those were really the first little things that we did because, as you know, these kinds of projects need so many approvals before they get final animation, and it’s so expensive. The movie was still going through the process of storyboarding and animatics and all that stuff.

That was the first thing we did, and then “The Apology Song.” We started to get into the heart of the movie with “The Apology Song.” Then “I Will Wait” and “I Love You Too Much,” and then I started working on the themes: the theme for the Book of Life, the theme of Chakal, the mood for Xibalba and La Muerte, those flavors. The next thing was to get those in the hands of Tim Davies who did an amazing job of conducting and sort of making those things elastic and allowing the accents. It was very different, for me, from any other job I’ve done prior to this. There was a lot of music, a lot of accent, and use of a big orchestra. There was a 90-piece orchestra. So it was a departure from everything I’ve done before, and what also made it exciting.

The Book of Life Xibalba and La MuerteTOONZONE NEWS: In earlier interviews you’ve said you like taking on new projects that deliberately push you out of your comfort zone. You just mentioned some of those things, but I wanted to approach that from a slightly different angle. Can you think of the specific things you were thinking when you started, “That’s outside my comfort zone, that’s why I want to do this”? And looking back on it now, would you say there was something else that surprised you in how far it took you out of your comfort zone?

GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA: I think one of the things is the use and the amount of music. I did the music for a video game, called The Last of Us, which was a fantastic game, and that also demanded writing tons of music. I did 3 hours of music, because in the end, it takes something like 18 hours to play the game. Other processes that were also really challenging and wonderful were working with programmers, deconstructing the music for lots of the moments in the game, like, when you’re walking, but which is still one of the sounds. For The Book of Life, the challenge was writing so much music that it would be all over the movie. I’ve never done a movie that had music and music and music and music and music, you know? To be honest, still, I would love the use of more space and silence, but it’s something that it works in conjunction with Jorge but also with the studio and the producers. And part of my concept which I approached this with was that I wanted to stick to the codes that already existed for this kind of film. So in this kind of film, you have lots of music that accentuates almost everything you see on screen. The challenge is how can I do that and still keep it interesting and still have my original look at things come out. I think the fact that I got to work with some rhythms that are difficult, like Mexican rhythms and timbres and instrumentation, that was a big help to make this stay inside of the rules that this type of genre demands most of the time, and at the same time do it with a level of originality.

The Book of Life Land of the RememberedTOONZONE NEWS: What are you working on now? What’s coming up next?

GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA: Actually, I’m working on a short animated film, independent. It’s a movie that I really like called “Borrowed Time.” I’m also working on a series of documentaries around what used to be known as the Inca Road, but is now called the Qhapacñen. From Cuzco, it goes to the north to Colombia and to the south to Argentina to Mendoza. I’m actually doing all the Argentinian parts of it, maybe about half of the documentaries, and I’ll go back to shooting it in February.

TOONZONE NEWS: You’re shooting that, not just providing the music for it?

GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA: Yes, I’m not only doing the music, but for the first time I’m almost like hosting the program. So I’ve never done that kind of thing before, and that I’d like to try. I also did the music for this film, and I hope we get nominated tomorrow for Best Foreign Film called Wild Tales, and it’s an Argentinian-Spanish co-production (ed’s note – they did get nominated). It’s a fantastic movie and it’s getting wider release next February. This movie got 9 nominations for the Goya Awards, which are our Hispanic Oscars, which will be handed out in February.

Toonzone would like to thank Gustavo Santaolalla for taking the time to talk with us, and Sandy Sirirat and the fine folks at 20th Century Fox PR for arranging the interview time. The Book of Life will be released on DVD and Blu-ray disc on January 27, 2015.

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