How 'Book of Life' Added a Hispanic Touch to Covers of Mumford & Sons and Radiohead

Book of Life Still - H 2014

Book of Life Still - H 2014

Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla tells THR about coaxing singers out of Zoe Saldana and Diego Luna for the animated film

Who knew that Diego Luna could sing so well?

Such was the discovery (in English and in Spanish) as the actor led the voice cast of The Book of Life, the 20th Century Fox animated film directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro that follows a romance through the three worlds celebrated in Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. Luna voices Manolo, an aspiring musician who hails from a family of bullfighters and gets caught in a love triangle with the free-spirited Maria (Zoe Saldana) and the vainglorious Joaquin (Channing Tatum).

See more New 'Book of Life' Trailer Introduces Love Triangle, Giant Sword

"Diego has never done anything like this before, but just by being an actor, all the nuances of interpretation, he had those," says Gustavo Santaolalla, the Oscar-winning composer of Brokeback Mountain and Babel, as well as August: Osage County and The CW's Jane the Virgin. "We didn't want a super-professional singer; we wanted someone that was real and was like Manolo. [Luna] really surrendered himself to the work and was very open; he took all the time and was very patient for whatever amount of takes we needed."

Who else was a pleasant surprise when singing in the sound booth? "I think Zoe is amazing; she should make her own record," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "She's a natural. She definitely could do one."

The feature's Sony Music soundtrack, which was released digitally last month and physically hits shelves Tuesday, also features Placido Domingo, Kinky, Jesse & Joy and Us the Duo, among others. It tasked Santaolalla with putting a Hispanic spin on Gutierrez' diverse pop picks: Radiohead's "Creep," Mumford & Sons' "I Will Wait" and Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" (including castmember Gabriel Iglesias' hilarious hook escalations), while Cheech Marin takes on Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" with a toy piano.

To do so, the composer had singers preserve their Hispanic accents on the tracks, changed songs' rhythms to the 6/8 time signature, and combined recognizable Latin American and Mexican instruments — the accordion, marimba, jarana and other guitars — with film's typical timbres of big orchestras and choirs, all firsts for Santaolalla.

Read more 'The Book of Life': Film Review

"The identity of the movie is in these Mexican and Latin American subjects of life, death and the underworld — these are heavy subjects to deal with," Santaolalla explains. "It could have easily went 'Hollywood,' and it is with those details — keeping the accents, not watering down the subjects — that I think it's fantastic it could even get done."

He also penned two original tracks with Paul Williams: the catchy serenade "I Love You Too Much," which Manolo sings for Maria, and the ballad "The Apology Song," recorded by both Luna and La Santa Cecilia. "There's not really any dialogue in the script that encompasses this relationship of Manolo and the bull, and all the bulls that have been in fights with his ancestors," says Santaolalla of the latter. "It's the whole concept of forgiveness — a simple and universal concept."

While other concepts of the film are more complicated — "There could be another world that all the people that we love are actually living better and more colorful lives," he says of another theme — Santaolalla points out his main takeaway: "Each one of us are here, and in the Book of Life with an empty page, and we are supposed to write our own story. Those are big concepts, and that we can transmit that to kids and families as part of who we are as human beings."

Twitter: @cashleelee