When you think of a modern Mozart, you might imagine a complex, classically trained, strictly disciplined personality whose compositions produce a series of intricate masterpieces. Few may have the image of a native Argentine who cannot read or write music. Yet there is Gustavo Santaolalla – a musician, producer and composer who has won 17 Latin Grammy Awards and two Academy Awards for Best Original Score for Brokeback Mountain And Babylon. His riveting story, from starting a band at age 16 to being imprisoned countless times for his political beliefs, is more like the movies he has composed music for than real life. Nevertheless, Santaolalla is one of the most prolific, critically acclaimed musicians in the world.
Speak with The Hollywood reporterSantaolalla — who earned an Emmy nomination for scoring HBO’s third episode The last of ustitled ‘Long, Long Time’ – digs deeper into his incredible journey to overcome adversity, the emotional connection behind the projects he chooses and ultimately why he feels love is love.
How can someone earn multiple musical awards in one lifetime, and yet not have the ability to read or write music?
My mother had a lifelong frustration that when she was younger she really wanted to learn the guitar. But it never happened. My grandmother gave me a guitar as a gift when I was five. My mother actually gave me a formal education. I had a teacher who came to my house every Monday, and I never really got into the academic side. I quickly became very skilled, so I pretended to read the map. But actually I was playing on memory. She topped the charts saying, “Well, start from here,” like a random place, you know? I pretended to read the charts, but I really wasn’t. I felt that strong connection with the music ever since I started.
But as the years went by, by the time I was nine, I started to get very frustrated with the teachers. That’s why I wasn’t even practicing. My teacher actually quit with me. She came to my mother and said, “His ear is stronger than my music.” I’ll never forget. Those were the words: your music was paper and my music was music.
How has that experience contributed to or influenced your process of composing?
I was about 11 or 12 years old when I got the urge to start a band. The Beatles came out then, so you know that’s all I wanted to do. I had nothing to write down so I really had to memorize it. I disciplined myself that every week I had to tell everything I wrote and play all those pieces so that I wouldn’t forget them. And then, when I was thirteen, my parents bought a tape recorder. That became my way of taking notes. Nowadays I even write down on the phone when I have an idea. Even if I have an idea that has to do with an orchestra, I put my ideas down and then I get an orchestrator who will put those ideas down on paper. And that’s the way I work. But most of my scores are minimalist anyway, and I usually play most of the instruments myself. Brokeback Mountain has a string orchestra of 60 men. So I also work with orchestras, but mostly as in The The last of us or The Motorcycle diariesusually it is me who plays the instrument.
What led you to move from musician to composer, already involved in a successful music career in Argentina?
For a long time I only had bands. I’m still a member of a band that I also produce. I made it with a guy from Uruguay, and it’s a combination of tango milonga music from Río de la Plata, with a mix of rock, electronica and hip-hop.
But by the time I was 18 I made my first album. When I was twenty, my band Arco Iris was very popular in Argentina. I always work in that format, and when I did my solo albums, it was the pinnacle of 30 years of my life. I never play them live. I try not to put myself in a comfort zone, but always try to challenge myself in new things. I always love the art of record making. But then I translated that into producing other artists, and I’ve done over 100 albums.
I’ve always been very interested in film. When I finished high school, I thought I wanted (would like) to study film. I already have my band and I’m making records. Let’s add it to this. In Argentina, we have experienced some really dark years of military rulers, which have actually led to the lives of over 30,000 people who have disappeared. The government effectively closed the Institute of Cinematography. There was no career left for film directors there. So I just got on with the music. But I’ve always had this love for cinema and this visual element in my music.
One of my many interests was this instrument, the ronroco. I’ve Recorded (the 1998 album Ronroco), and suddenly I get a call from Michael Mann’s office… He wanted to use one Ronroco pieces inside The initiate. From there, more introductions followed. Within three to two years I had my first BAFTA (for the years 2004). The motorcycle diaries). I didn’t come to Los Angeles looking for an agent. It all just happened organically.
Great composers have the ability to evoke emotions that can be life-changing. What makes your technique one of the greatest composers of our time?
I really feel through the music. Music connects people. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I didn’t belong to any clubs or groups that could introduce me to people. I felt like an outsider. I do not represent the prototype of a film composer. I feel more like an artist because my music is different. Also the fact that I play in most of my scores. There are scores that consist of great musicians, but they just do the job. It’s different for me. The emotion connects me to the music. Directors have told me that my music becomes a kind of character in the film. (Co-creators) Craig Mason and Neil Druckman have said that my music is part of the DNA of The last of usthe structure of the story.
You scored both the original The last of us video game and its 2020 sequel. Have you ever imagined making a score for a video game?
It was never about writing music for a video game for me; the music was for a great story. I mean, I’m a terrible gamer. I always enjoy watching people play. It’s like watching a game on TV. But I always thought the players of the game connected on an emotional level, beyond the combat and survival. If someone touches the heart with a great story, it will be a revolution. After the two Oscars (for Brokeback Mountain And Babylon), I was approached by several companies about video games. But it wasn’t for me.
Why is rejecting projects just as important as accepting projects?
I think it’s been important in my career to say, “No, this isn’t for me.” Even if it was a great offer or a big, beautiful project. Suddenly Neil appeared and told me the story of The last of us. He told me he was also looking for connection. He wanted to connect with a gamer outside of fighting, killing and surviving. He wanted to create a story that would be very emotional. There are a few moments in the game where people actually cried, just like in the movies.
It was very organic, also in terms of the way of working, the protocol of the work. Usually, composers come at the very end of a project. It is cut, then there is a rough version with temporary music, and then the composer (try) to fit it in. For me, I compose first. I like to start at the very beginning of the process, from the script. I make music based on my relationship with the story, the characters and of course the conversation with the director or the person who actually came up with the project. Then I start and adapt. About 70 percent of my scores are done this way, with the exception of Backlash Mountain. I composed the score 100% before a single frame was shot.
Brokeback Mountain has a lot in common The last of us third installment, for which you are nominated: both are gay love stories. In a predominantly heterosexual world, what are your thoughts when you’re recognized for two romances centered around LGBTQ+ relationships?
I thought it was a great love story. The sexual part of it, or whatever that aspect was at some point in the story, was secondary. This is about two people and the soul – a love story, a heartbreaking story of separation. Both stories had different reasons. For The last of usOne of the things I loved about this installment in the series is that we know in the game that Bill (Nick Offerman) was in a gay relationship, but we never really got deep into his life or what happened. This has extended to the character of Bill, which I think is fantastic. I think the most important thing in these two stories is really in the relationship between two people. While writing the music, I had that in mind: two human beings, and this is a love story.