An interview with BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN composer, Gustavo Santaolalla.
Before speaking with multiple award winning musician and composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, I was told I would have fifteen minutes with him. This may not seem like a lot of time but in interview terms, it is actually pretty generous. As an ice breaker, I asked Santaolalla, who has won two Oscars for his work in film (for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in 2005 and for BABEL in 2006), to start from the beginning, to tell me when he first discovered his passion for music and how he came to be involved in composing scores for film. Fifteen minutes later, he had not yet finished answering my first question.
Fortunately, we ended up continuing our conversation for another fifteen minutes, which allowed us the opportunity to talk about his illustrious work in film, as well as his latest project, a stage show entitled, Arrabal, which is currently in previews at the Panasonic theatre in Toronto, and opens officially on February 13. All in all, I learned a lot about Argentinian history and politics, as well as the man himself and how his love for music has taken him to places he never expected.
Santaolalla’s grandmother gave him his first guitar at the age of five. His parents were not musicians but they were avid music enthusiasts so he was always surrounded by a wide variety of musical influence. That said, by his own admission, he never took too well to the academic side of music. At ten years old, he took guitar lessons but that was short lived. “There were always tensions between my teacher and myself,” Santaolalla tells me over the phone. One day, the teacher simply told his parents, “His ears are stronger than my music, so I quit.” This is when Santaolalla started writing his own music.
At 12 years old, he got his first electric guitar. “Then at 13, the Beatles came on the scene and it was over. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.
Santaolalla signed his first record deal at the ripe, old age of 16, but the life of a musician in Argentina was not an easy one under the military rule of the time. He was being jailed regularly and was not able to pursue his interest in film as the film school had been shut down. By 20 years old, Santaolalla was very popular and was feeling held back by his country’s politics so he decided to move to California.
“I was excited to be starting from zero, by starting from scratch somewhere else,” Santaolalla, who is now 62 and still lives in California with his wife of 23 years, recalls. He formed his own alternative latin record label and found success (including 16 Grammy Awards) with acts like Molotov and Juanes, before putting out a solo record of instrumental recordings entitled “Ronroco”. This record, actually one song in particular, “Iguazu”, opened doors he never even knew were waiting for him to open.
“I have also always been told that my music is very visual, always,” Santaolalla tells me. All the same, he could not have been prepared for the chain of events that was about to unfold. “One day I got a phone call from Michael Mann. He wanted to meet with me and use one of the Ronroco pieces in THE INSIDER, with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. I couldn’t picture how that was going to work so I met Michael and he showed me the scene, a turning point in the movie, and it really worked.”
It all spiralled from there basically. “After that, a common friend of Alejandro González Iñárritu and of myself started talking to him about me and to me about him. He told me he was making this film and I should do the music for it. So I ended up doing the music for AMORES PERROS.” The two friends would go on to work on the aforementioned, BABEL, as well as 21 GRAMS and BIUTIFUL.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there either though. Iñárritu introduced him to Walter Salles, which led to his work on THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (and eventually, ON THE ROAD). It was this latest connection though that would lead to his breakthrough in the film world.
“We were at Sundance with THE MOTORCYCLE DIARES, and somebody told me I should meet Ang Lee. He was working on this different type of western and he thought I would be perfect for it and that’s how I ended up doing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.” Apparently, one thing can lead to another … and another … and an Oscar.
Working on BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was a game changer for Santoalalla. He won his first Oscar for the score, as well as a Golden Globe for the soundtrack cut, “A Love That Never Grows Old”, which is performed by Emmylou Harris. “Suddenly I was getting BAFTA’s and Golden Globes and then an Oscar and then another Oscar. I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t.”
The experience itself was anything but traditional though. “Like in almost every movie I’ve been involved with, I end up making quite a bit of the music before the film is even shot. I love to work from the script and from talking to the director and seeing how he sees the story and the characters, much more than working to picture. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is an extreme case because the whole score was done prior; not one note of the score, was composed to picture,” Santaolalla confides. “Obviously it is then edited but the beautiful thing about it was that Ang Lee was listening to the music with the actors before and it was he and his team who just decided to put that music here and this music there. It really, really worked.” It really, really did.
“I remember the first time that I saw a rough cut of the movie. It was kinda spooky because the music fit so perfectly; it was the perfect match,” Santaolalla proclaims with pride and fondness. “I have been very lucky to work with some fantastic directors. They are all different but they’re all geniuses. They’re all artists with very strong visions. They know what they want and I think we have complimented each other really well.”
Santaolalla still composes for film; most recently he scored John Wells’ AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. He has even experimented with strong results in scoring a video game with last year’s great success, “The Last of Us”. Currently, he is collaborating with Broadway success, Sergio Trujillo, on a brave, new stage musical that is seven years in the making, entitled Arrabal. The show has no dialogue and tells the entire story of one woman’s coming of age amidst political unrest in Argentina through dance and music. In many ways, this latest project brings together all of Santaolalla’s interests together at once and has allowed him to explore an idea that has always been close to his heart, the concept of personal identity. “I always felt attracted to the idea that an artist should somehow express in what he does, in any art form, who he is and where he comes from, something that will give the artist a true identity and not just be a copy or a repetition of something we already know.”
I believe Santaolalla can rest assured that he has done exactly that.
Arrabal opens officially on Thursday, February 13, at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre. For more information and for tickets, visit mirvish.com.