Over the summer I visited the hallowed grounds of Pixar (of course I took an obligatory photo of the big Luxo Jr at the entrance... it's almost mandatory when you go there) and got to see a little bit of the behind the scenes of Coco.
One of the big focuses was on the music
of the movie. Composer Michael Giacchino was on hand to talk about
his score and so were Germaine Franco and Camilo Lara. Germaine was
in charge of arranging the music and writing the actual songs and
Camilo's job was to keep the movie authentically Mexican by making
sure the source music wasn't just random Mariachi stuff that is in
every Hollywood production set in Mexico.
The reason why there was such a focus on the music is pretty self-evident when you see the movie. It's about a boy whose dream is to be a musician, but his family will not allow it. Music is the soul of this child and frankly it's the soul of their small town, who worship a deceased movie star/singer named Ernesto de la Cruz.
The filmmakers needed to populate this town with music, give young Miguel the inspiration that sparks his passion, and for that to work it had to be authentic, which is where Camilo comes in. He's an expert on the broad tapestry of traditional Mexican music so he makes sure the music you hear playing in the town or in the town square (the source music) isn't fake Hollywood stuff.
The second type of music are the original songs in the film, inspired by the various types of Mexican music, but do it as storytellers that support that story they're telling. That's what Germaine Franco was in charge of. She arranged both the original songs as well as some traditional Mexican tunes so that they melded together into one cohesive soundscape, taking particular inspiration from the Oaxaca region of Mexico.
And then there's score, which was Giacchino's job. You know Giacchino's work from a million things. The Incredibles, JJ Abrams' Star Trek, Rogue One, Up, War for the Planet of the Apes, etc. The job of the composer is to bring emotion and themes to the music, something John Williams so masterfully did in his Star Wars score, for instance. Themes and motifs became one and the same with the visuals. When you hear his Force Theme you know some force stuff is going on or when the Imperial March kicks up you know Vader is near.
I was able to talk to all three people during my visit. Below you'll find my interview with Michael Giacchino, Germain Franco and Camilo Lara. Enjoy!
Eric Vespe: First of all, I wanted to start by telling you that your War for the Planet of the Apes score is one of my favorite scores of the year so far.
Michael Giacchino: Aw, thanks. Matt Reeves is a great director. I love working with him.
Eric Vespe: Since I have all three of you here in front of me I think we should talk a little about your collaboration. What is the creative process like since you're all bringing different kinds of music together that ultimately has to be one cohesive, rich sound.
Michael Giacchino: Basically if you look at three aspects of what has to be done in the film you have songs, you have source music and you have score. Germaine and Camilo have been there since the beginning, since before I came on board. If you guys want to talk about how you started I can pick up when I came on board.
Germaine Franco: Camilo started a month or so before me...
Camilo Lara: It's been very interesting. It's a complex situation. I guess Michael needs to put some salt on the emotions, make it so you can show those feelings, and Germaine has been working on these amazing songs, which are instant classics. I'm so excited to see them blossom. I've been helping with the process of making sure the elements are Mexican.
Michael Giacchino: He's our Mexican Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Camilo Lara: I would say Yoda. (laughs)
Eric Vespe: So you're here to keep Michael honest and make sure everything is authentic.
Camilo Lara: In a way, but I am not a purist of Mexican music. I mean, I do Mexican music because I'm Mexican, but I guess it just needed to feel right. It needed to feel correct and you can tell that.
Eric Vespe: Yeah, you can tell when you see a movie set in Mexico and they pull out the canned public domain Mariachi music or whatever.
Michael Giacchino: That's exactly what we wanted to avoid. We wanted to make sure it felt truthful and it came from the heart of this country.
Germaine Franco: From the beginning we had the mandate to keep it authentic, but also be able to tell a story. We took songs, some that you've heard before and some that were written that I helped arranged and orchestrate... The first thing I ever did was arrange and orchestrate the big extravaganza of de la Cruz singing. We thought “What would that be like in that golden age of Mexico meets Hollywood cinema?” and adding fantastic Mexican musicians into the tracks.
Also, there's a lot of great Mexican musicians in LA and players that can play the style very well, including the guitarist you heard today. Every time we sent a demo or I did an arrangement, we kept that in mind. It's not just going to be a marimba score or a mariachi score. Even though that's great music, let's look at all the kinds of music that you hear and let's focus on certain styles and, as Camilo likes to say, smells of Mexico.
Michael created a bunch of source music which we took down to Mexico and we got to collaborate with the musicians there. In addition to playing the traditional music we also had them play some of his source music. It's all been a really great situation. We all respect each other for what we each do, so it's a lot of camaraderie, a lot of nice experimenting and openness.
Michael Giacchino: One of the things that I love so much about movies in general is that I can jump into a project and take on this whole other character. You know my music. I like it to fit the movie. If that means it needs a completely different orchestration idea I do it. This is a perfect project to come into and become what the soul and heart of Mexico is.
I had a narrow window into that world through my dad's record collection, but then growing up and getting to work with these guys I learned so much more about it. Camilo sent me a list intially and I was like “Whoa! This is whole other ball of wax!” It was really incredible to go down that rabbit hole and trying to use that to tell the emotional story of the film.
Eric Vespe: Music is emotion in movies. Your Up score is a perfect example. At the beginning of that film your music is the dialogue for Carl's life story. Maybe you guys can talk about shouldering that responsibility in a movie like this. You have hundreds, if not thousands, of people working here at Pixar to bring these characters to life, but ultimately if the score is jarring it can derail all that work they've done. Not to put more pressure on you guys...
Michael Giacchino: The emotion is the number one thing in the back of my mind. Always. A film like this is so tricky because you could easily just put music everywhere. You could not care about throwing in source or score and let them bleed into each other, hoping no one would notice, but that's not what we wanted.
One of my things talking with Adrian (Molina) and Lee (Unkrich) was saying that as important as figuring out where you want music is it's just as important to figure out where you don't. You want music, when it's there, to mean something, to have something to say. If it's just talking all the time it's like that person you get into a conversation with at a party that you just can not get away from and just won't shut up. So many movies do that and it's just like constant wallpaper.
It was about how do we balance these
three ideas: song, source and score, and get that to tell the story
in a proper story in the same way you would if it was just score.
Eric Vespe: You also want to give it personality, too, I bet. A lot of times that comes from happy accidents. How open were you guys to that?
Germaine Franco: Totally open. That's the only way to be on a project like this, or any project. You have to keep experimenting. By experimenting you find what you're looking for. Sometimes you try four or five different versions and the first one is the best, but you only know that because you tried the other ways. That's one of the things that I learned from working with the Pixar team. Don't be afraid to try things. You don't have to make it a huge effort and try to make it perfect. Just see. Does that idea work? Oh, it doesn't. Here's another idea. Not having a preconceived notion of what the outcome has to be.
In Mexico that was what was so beautiful. He were were sitting in a room with a lot of musicians, giving them charts of all these things. I didn't know if they would be able to play it, but I thought “let's find a way for them to engage with the music.” There's some source music that I think came out really beautiful because of that.
Michael Giacchino: Oh, yeah. It's amazing to listen to. When you write something you have it in your head what you want it to sound like and you're maybe writing it just on the piano and then Germaine does these beautiful arrangements of these tunes and the next thing you know they come back and you're like “Oh, my God! That really sounds like it just came out of the country, like it had been there forever! How does that happen?!?” It's a crazy, wonderful magic trick.
Coco is in theaters now and now you can go see it knowing even more about the thought put behind the music.