To write the music for The Book of Life, ASCAP composer Gustavo Santaolalla fused his deep knowledge of Latin music with the playful traditions of animated film. His score evokes all the bright colors and layered emotions of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. And in ASCAP President (and Hall of Fame songwriter) Paul Williams, Santaolalla found a sympathetic collaborator on two beautiful, original songs. A couple weeks before the film’s release, we spoke with these two master musical craftsmen about bringing The Book of Life to life.
Gustavo, The Book of Life is your animated feature debut. Did you go into it with some different intentions than your past films?
Gustavo Santaolalla: Absolutely. First of all, I love to get involved with projects that take me out of my comfort zone. I try to do things that are not necessarily what I’m used to. I always wanted to do a big animation movie, and stick to the codes that this genre sometimes implies. And in this case, we’re talking about things I’ve never done before: a big orchestra – we have a 90-piece orchestra here, and a 35-person choir, and music wall to wall. It’s a lot of music – usually, the movies that I’ve been involved in have a much more discreet use of music. So it was very different to do something that was inside of a genre and kept true to that code, and yet, infused with something that will make it different and that will make it original.
I think the project itself invited me to do that. It’s a movie that is designed for a massive audience, it’s a kids/family picture and an animated movie with all the things you expect in an animated movie: comedy and action. But at the same time, it’s a movie that, in our direction, the design of the characters and those worlds and the thematics of the movie, are so deep. We’re talking about life and death and the chance to write your own story in life, things that aren’t usually associated with an animated feature for kids and family. It was a big challenge, but at the same time it was very exciting and very inviting for all the reasons I just mentioned.
The Book of Life is centered around memory, the idea that people and traditions live on as long as you remember them. What are some of the musical traditions you remember from growing up in Argentina that you’ve carried with you?
GS: One of the things that was a blessing for me is my parents were music lovers. Neither of my parents played an instrument, but they were avid record buyers. And I grew up at every age listening to all kinds of music. So of course, we listened to tango and to Argentinian folk music. And we also listened to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Nat King Cole, a lot of American music, and a lot of classical music. I think that’s part of who I am.
My first band was an Argentinian folk group when I was 10. When I was 12 I had my electric guitar, and by the time I was 13, the Beatles came into the scene and that was over. So I have a mixture of all these traditions, and I think that’s who I am, a mixture of everything. I have a very strong identity that connects me to Argentina and to Latin America, but at the same time I have a deep connection to the music from the United States and music from Europe, too.
There are so many different locations that the movie takes place: the museum, the town of San Angel, the Land of the Remembered, the Land of the Dead. Did you treat each of them as completely separate realms, musically-speaking?
GS: I did have some different and key things for the different worlds, but in general, I tried to connect those worlds. One of the things that I loved was the opportunity, [with The Book of Life] being a Latin American and such a Mexican story, was to tap into some of our rhythms, some 6/8s and some timbres, like marimbas and accordions and trumpets and ethnic flutes. And I think all of that helps you connect to the different worlds but at the same time make the score unique.
You grew up in Argentina but have worked with so many artists from across the Spanish-speaking world. Do you distinguish between the musical traditions of Mexico and, let’s say, Argentina?
GS: Of course. There are certain things that are very different, but there are things that still connect all of Latin America, like rhythms. That famous 6/8 is a rhythm that you’ll find from Mexico to Argentina. But there is a big difference between the music from the north of the equator to the music of the south. And remember, Argentina is at the very bottom!
We [Argentinians] have the pampas and we have the gauchos. But they [Mexicans] have the charros, which are our cowboys. There are a lot of things that are different, but there is still that Hispanic connection to the music. I grew up listening to all kinds of music and certainly, all kinds of music from Latin America, so there is different music from Argentina, as it is from Uruguay, and from Chile and from Peru. Each country has its own thing and its own flavor.
How do you use ethnic instruments and ethnic styles from outside your own tradition, in a respectful way? With sensitivity and not stereotyping?
GS: Considering that this movie was going to be seen by people that aren’t necessarily Mexican, or Latin American, or from a Hispanic heritage, one of the things that was important for me was to create a bridge. It is a fantasy, so the music is not necessarily a pure breed of Mexican music; it is a fusion of different things. But I hope that it definitely has the tone and the spirit of our Latin music and the Mexican spirit. I was looking to not do something that wasn’t absolutely, chemically pure Mexican music; something that was not alienating anybody but at the same time, people or kids that have never heard those rhythms or timbres, then will be interested in listening to more pure Mexican music.
I loved all the different musical jokes you included, like that brief moment where Maria leaves town and the mariachi band is singing “Adios, Maria!” to the tune of “Ave Maria.” When it comes to those jokes, did you get to decide what was going to be in there?
GS: This really was Jorge [Gutierrez, the director]’s vision. He had a tremendous vision for the film and everything, from the look, to the story, to the characters and to the songs, too. I mean, obviously, the original songs were original songs and we were given very broad guidelines to do that. But for the jokes, the thing is, how do you make that funny?
When I had to do “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” that was an idea of one of the brothers singing an ill attempt to serenade Maria. But when you have to do the song, that was a challenge for me. I mean, how do you make “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” funny? I went “Okay, I’m going to grab the riff of the song," and I just went with a charro voice. It’s this little thing, but it works. Or you know, during the Biz Markie song [“Just a Friend”], with the toy piano and the boom box...Jorge had the ideas, but we had to execute it.
The story takes place long before a lot of the non-original songs in the film were written. Did you and Jorge have to discuss how to integrate those into the film so it still felt like it was within the film’s world?
GS: No. I think there was a connection between the score and the songs, and the fact that I was in charge of doing everything. In some [other movies], you get the songs outside of the guy that is doing the score, or it comes from different sources. Here, everything was under the same roof. So I think already that connection was bringing it to that world.
I’m going to give you another example; the Mumford and Sons song, “I Will Wait.” That was a song that I loved and I immediately diagnosed it as an “oompa” song. “What can I do with this? Why don’t we turn this into a Mexican norteño song?” And it worked perfectly! I’ve heard that [Mumford and Sons] loved it, which I’m very happy [about]. It was basically bringing those songs to that world, that Manolo world, that Book of Life universe.
So much of your film work has involved a minimal palette, and The Book of Life is the complete opposite. There are all these visual jokes weaving in and out, and your music has to follow that. Was it a challenge for you to create a score that jumped around so much?
GS: You know, I worked hand-in-hand with Jorge Gutierrez. We had a vision for the whole thing. The nice thing about the music of The Book of Life is the combination of the score, the songs – I also had the chance to produce different versions of existing songs that I really liked, and do it in a different way – and the possibility of writing a couple of original songs, which I had the tremendous pleasure and honor to work with Paul Williams, one of my heroes, one of the songwriters I grew up listening to. So the combination of all that is what makes the music of the film, for me, so interesting.
And to work with the orchestrations that I did with Tim Davis, who is the same guy I worked with on my Motorcycle Diaries that I played at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Phil and [conductor/composer] Gustavo Dudamel. And [Tim] did the orchestrations and conducted the orchestra we recorded at Air Studios. It was really interesting, because I did the demos of the different themes of the characters and the movie, and then [Jorge] was working with Tim on all the things that you’re mentioning: the twists, the quick turns and all that. I think he’s a master at doing that. It was a tremendous experience for me, and really a departure from everything I’ve done before.
How did you and Paul Williams come together originally?
GS: We came together through Guillermo del Toro. This is a long process, but we’re already working on a musical version of Pan’s Labyrinth. So that was the first thing. I’ve known Guillermo for several years now and we always wanted to do something together. And now this idea of Pan’s Labyrinth came to life, and we sat down and we were thinking of lyricists.
We threw [out] some different names, and it was Guillermo that said, “How about Paul Williams?” I said, “Oh man, that would be perfect!” He did Phantom of the Paradise and all these hits that I grew up with. They already knew each other, but I didn’t. So I met with Paul and we immediately connected, and right at the same time, that’s when Jorge came with The Book of Life. And I said, well this is a great opportunity. Before we even start with Pan’s Labyrinth, why don’t we test the waters and see how we do?
Paul, did the family-friendliness of The Book of Life impact how you wrote lyrics for “I Love You Too Much” and “The Apology Song?” What about the fact that it was animated?
Paul Williams: There's a strong spiritual element to the story of The Book of Life. It's fun and funny, family-friendly for sure, but at its core I think it's a myth worthy of Joseph Campbell’s attention. Follow your bliss, respect and remain true to your beliefs no matter the pressure or opinions of the world around you. Manolo will not kill. Ever. How can you not love this little hero? Of course there's a marvelous love story as well.
The animation is unique and I think for me there's an unconscious connection to the wooden toys of our childhood. A kind of emotional harmonic or memory that opens our hearts. Promotes a kind of childlike willingness to believe and enjoy this sweet story.
What kind of instruction did you receive about the two original songs you wrote?
PW: The script is the bible of course. The characters and storyline dictate the task in detail. “The Apology Song” was the first lyric I wrote for the film. A remarkable opportunity. To speak to the importance of forgiveness and making an amends. Our little hero faces a bull that represents centuries of pain and suffering. The essence of all the creatures who have died in the bullring.
"I Love You Too Much" is the simplest of confessions: "I love you too much / To live without you loving me back.” What heartache is hinted at with that line. To live without Maria is inconceivable to Manolo. He believes they are old souls and were born to be together for all eternity. "There's love above love and it's ours / ‘Cause I love you too much."
I think there's a touch of the juvenile [in the] use of language there. It's one thought, and damn it, it's gonna end phrase after phrase. I love you too much. Again, Gustavo's melody found a simple beauty that is perfect for the character and his level of innocence and devotion.
The beauty, uniqueness and glory of Jorge Gutierrez’s direction and writing is the beautiful tree that our music and songs are a branch of. Any conversation about The Book of Life has to include a nod to his brilliance.
Paul, the core message of "The Apology Song" ("If you can forgive / Love will truly live") dovetails so nicely with the work you do with Gratitude and Trust. Did the song resonate with you on a personal level?
PW: Tracey Jackson and I worked two years on the book Gratitude and Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life. Its core message is that "Recovery is not just for Addicts!" I'm 24 years sober and for years, people have told me they wished they had a process that gave them the kind of tools to improve their lives that I had been given. Our fourth affirmation is "I will make right the wrongs I've done wherever possible." That means making amends. There's no doubt that “The Apology Song” is an example of recovery in action.
You are both veteran music makers. What is it like forging a creative connection when both of you have such long creative histories and established ways of writing?
PW: Gustavo and I write in a variety of ways. I'll send him a bit of lyric or he'll shoot me a melody, and it's been one of the most emotional collaborations of my life. I don't think I can put my reaction to Gustavo's music into words. He captures an innocence and a purity that is absolutely breathtaking to me. I'm stunned by the beauty of his music and I love his voice. His performance of the demos kills me. In a good way.
GS: [Paul] is a busy man, and I am, too. And I travel quite a bit and he does, too. So we really work from a distance. We’ve been together physically a few times. We actually gave a talk together once already [at the 2014 ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO]. Basically, I get his words when we have an idea or concept. I accommodate them to what I need, and if there’s something I want to add or if there’s something I want to consult with him, but it’s always been approved. Sometimes I take a phrase I find attractive or powerful and I turn it into a chorus or something that will be repeated in the song, and that’s how we work, really. It’s very, very open and very free and very magical, so to speak.
PW: I wrote a song with Kenny Ascher years ago called "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday." It has a line that best describes meeting Gustavo: "There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met." I feel that connection to Guillermo as well. This is a perfect third act gift for me. The collaboration of a lifetime. And we're just beginning our next major project together. Very exciting.
What can we expect from your collaboration on Pan's Labyrinth?
GS: We’re really in the beginning. We started and then we got very busy with The Book of Life and with other things with myself, and him with his book. But we have three songs, and Guillermo is still working on the other side of it, which is partnerships to put it together and things like that. I foresee that now that I’m done with [The Book of Life], in the first quarter of next year, we’ll have a lot of stuff done.
PW: Guillermo Del Toro's brilliant adult fairy tale is ripe with opportunities for dark humor, sweeping, beautiful, anthemic love songs and edgy, sardonic wit. I've always been attracted to unique projects. Again, I can't say enough about my response to Gustavo's music. The work is just beginning and I'm amazed at the breadth of his creativity.
I'm not sure how I wound up with the life I have today. The chance to represent the over 500,000 members of ASCAP...to have a chance to share the principles of recovery I've been given in a new voice in Gratitude and Trust...and to help decorate the wisdom of Jorge Gutierrez and Guillermo Del Toro's remarkable storytelling with my lyrics? I'm a grateful man. Loving my life. “Love above love."
Maybe this was just a coincidence, but both The Book of Life and Pan’s Labyrinth are essentially fairytales with a lot of darkness in them. Is there something that draws you to that idea?
GS: The idea of the films that I work on, like the Alejandro González Iñárritu films [Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel & Biutiful]…and you know, Motorcycle Diaries, which is different…I like dramatic stuff, and I like to see both sides. I love light, but I like shadows, too, you know? In the middle between light and shadows, there’s a subject, there’s the individual, that’s where we are. So I find these things that are supposedly very fantasy, I find them very human, too. I find that they are metaphors for things that are very real and not so fantastic, you know what I mean?
The important thing is that death is a part of life. It’s not a separate thing. It’s really to be praised that a movie like this is made and that somebody like Jorge and Guillermo have stuck to it and kept that artistic integrity. And a movie that’s a commercial movie in a way. I mean, it’s an animated movie, but it really has substance and an artistic value and I really appreciate it. I’m very proud to be a part of that.
The Book of Life was released in theaters on October 17th, 2014. Find out more at www.bookoflifemovie.com.
Gustavo Santaolalla on Facebook: www.facebook.com/gustavosantaolalla
Paul Williams on the web: www.paulwilliamsofficial.com