How a Call From Michael Mann Changed Composer Gustavo Santaolalla's Life (Q&A)

Gustavo Santaolalla - P 2012
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 Gustavo Santaolalla - P 2012

In the keynote Q&A of the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film &  TV Music Conference Oct. 24, composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who won Oscars for Babel and Brokeback Mountain, spilled personal tales and trade secrets to Phil Gallo, Billboard senior editor film & TV, and a packed room at Hollywood's W hotel.

The Argentine 1960s rock star-turned-producer-turned-film composer confessed that he always goes with his gut.

"I'm not an academically trained musician, so it's always very intuitive," said Santaolalla. "I don't know how to read or write music. I wrote my first song when I was ten, had my first band when I was 12, and I signed my first record deal when I was 16."

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After producing over 100 albums for other artists, his own 1998 album Ronroco, featuring a song on the Andean stringed instrument the charango, got him a call from Michael Mann, who used it for The Insider.

A month later, Santaolalla initially refused Alejandro Inarritu's offer to score Amores Perros. "I said, 'It's a first-time director, I don't do really music for movies.' But I woke up in the middle of the night -- not in a sweat -- thinking, 'What if this movie is amazing? What if it's the work of an artist?'" It was. "Alejandro said, 'I have this friend, Walter Salles, you should meet.'" Santaolalla scored The Motorcycle Diaries and the upcoming On the Road.

"I like to work from the script, just reading the story, connecting with the characters," said Santaolalla. "I come from making records, so my process is also different. Usually composers are called at the end of the process of making a movie, or the movie's already edited with some other people's music, and then they're trying to chase that temp music. And that's not really the way I work. The best example is Brokeback Mountain. I did the whole score before a frame was shot. And Ang Lee played the music for the actors. It was his genius to put this here and that there."

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When Gallo asked how he picked projects, Santaolalla replied, "It doesn't matter how big there are or how important. It's a combination of gut feel, a mental feel, and a heart feel. If all those things are there, then I feel I should do it. If I don't connect with them, I won't provide a good service to the project."

Asked to define his process, Santaolalla said, "I like that Picasso line, 'I hope inspiration will find me working.'"