When you think of a modern-day Mozart, you may picture a complex, classically trained, strictly disciplined persona whose compositions render a series of intricate masterpieces. Few might hold the image of a native Argentinian who can’t read or write music. Yet, there is Gustavo Santaolalla — a musician, producer and composer who boasts 17 Latin Grammy Awards and two Academy Awards for best original score for Brokeback Mountain and Babel. His riveting story from starting a band at the tender age of 16 to being jailed numerous times for his political beliefs, reads more like the movies he has composed scores for than real life. Nevertheless, Santaolalla is one of the most prolific, highly acclaimed musicians in the world.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Santaolalla — who earned an Emmy nomination for scoring the third episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, titled “Long, Long Time” — digs deeper into his incredible journey overcoming adversity, the emotional connection behind the projects he chooses and ultimately, why he feels love is love.
How does someone achieve multiple musical accolades in one lifetime, and yet not have the ability to read or write music?
My mom had a lifelong frustration that she really wanted to, when she was younger, learn guitar. But it never happened. My grandmother gave me a guitar as a present when I was five. My Mom actually started me with formal training. I had a teacher that used to come into my house every Monday, and I never really took up the academic side. I became very skilled pretty soon, so I pretended that I was reading the chart. But really I was playing by memory. She [would] cover the charts and say, “Well, start from here,” like a random place, you know? I pretended I was reading the charts, but I really wasn’t. I felt that strong connection with the music since I started.
But as years went by, by the time I was nine, I started to become very frustrated with the teachers. That’s why I wasn’t even practicing. My teacher actually quit on me. She came to my mom and said, “His ear is stronger than my music.” I will never forget that. Those were the words: Your music was paper, and my music was music.
How has that experience contributed or affected your process when composing?
I was around 11 or 12 years old when I had the urge to start a band. The Beatles came out then, so you know that is all I wanted to do. I didn’t have anything that would notate, so I had to really memorize. I actually disciplined myself that every week, I had to do a recount of everything that I’ve written, and play all of those pieces so I wouldn’t forget them. And then, when I was 13, my parents bought a reel tape recorder. That became my way of notation. Today, even with the phone, that’s the way I notate if I have an idea. Even when I have an idea to do with an orchestra, I lay down my ideas and then I get an orchestrator that will translate those ideas into paper. And that’s the way I work. But most of my scores, anyhow, are minimalists, and usually I play most of the instruments myself. Brokeback Mountain has, like, a 60-piece string orchestra. So I work with orchestras too, but usually, like in The Last Of Us or The Motorcycle Diaries, it’s usually me just playing the instrument.
Already involved in a successful music career in Argentina, what made you transition from musician to composer?
For a long time, I only had bands. I’m still a member of a band that I also produce. I created it with a fella 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 did my first album. By 20, my band Arco Iris was very popular in Argentina. I always work kind of in that format, and when I did my solo albums it was the culmination of 30 years of my life. I never play them live. I try to not put myself in a comfort zone, but try to always challenge myself into new things. I always love the art of making records. But then I translated that to producing other artists, and I did more than 100 albums.
I’ve always been very interested in cinema. When I finished high school, I thought I want[ed] to study cinema. I already have my band and am making records. Let’s add it to this. In Argentina, we went through some really dark years of military rulers that actually ended up with the lives of more than 30,000 people, who disappeared. The government actually closed the Institute of Cinematography. There was no more career for film directors there. So, I just continued with the music. But I always had this love for cinema and this visual element in my music.
One of my many interests was this instrument, the ronroco. I recorded [the 1998 album Ronroco], and suddenly I get a phone call from Michael Mann’s office … He wanted to use one of the Ronroco pieces in The Insider. From there, more introductions followed. Within three to two years, I had my first BAFTA [for 2004’s 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-altering. What is it about your technique that makes you 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 don’t 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 incredible musicians, but they just execute the work. For me, it’s different. The emotion connects me to the music. Directors have told me my music kind of becomes a character in the movie. [Co-creators] Craig Mason and Neil Druckman have said that my music is part of the DNA of The Last of Us, the fabric of the story.
You scored both the original Last of Us video game and its 2020 sequel. Did you ever think you would create 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 game’s players] connect on an emotional level, outside of the combat and the survival. If somebody connects to the heart with a great story, it’s going to be a revolution. After the two Oscars [for Brokeback Mountain and Babel], I was approached by several companies for video games. But it wasn’t for me.
Why is turning down projects equally important as the projects you do accept?
I think it has been important in my career to say, “No, this is not for me.” Even if it was a great offer or a big, great project. Suddenly Neil appeared and told me the story of The Last of Us. He told me that he also was looking for a connection. He wanted to connect with a gamer outside of the fighting, the killing, the surviving. He wanted to create a story that was going to be very emotional. There are a few moments in the game that people actually cried, just like in the movies.
It was very organic, also, in the way of the work, the protocol of the work. Usually, composers come at the very end of a project. It is cut, then there is a rough cut with temp music, and then the composer [tries] to fit it in. For me, I compose first. I actually like to start at the very beginning of the process, from the script. I create music based on my relationship with the story, the characters and obviously conversation with the director or the person that actually conceived the project. Then I start and adapt. Around 70 percent of my scores are done this way, with the exception of Brokeback Mountain. I composed the score 100% before a single frame was shot.
Brokeback Mountain has a lot in common with The Last of Us third episode, for which you’re nominated: Both are gay love stories. In a predominantly heterosexual world, what are your thoughts for being 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 in a certain point in the narrative, was secondary. This is about two human beings and the soul — a love story, a heart-breaking story of separation. Both stories were for different reasons. For The Last of Us, one of the things that I loved about this episode in the series is that in the game we know that Bill [Nick Offerman] had a gay relationship, but we never really got deep into his life or what had happened. This has expanded into Bill’s character, which I think is fantastic. I feel the most important thing in these two stories is really put in the relationship of two human beings. While writing the music I had that in mind: two human beings, and this is a love story.