By now – pretty much everyone has seen Coco, Pixar’s latest family classic that makes even hardened cynics shed a tear or two. So much of the success of the film depends on how authentic it feels to Mexican tradition. The music – from the score to the songs – capture a culture ill represented by Hollywood cinema as of yet. For composer Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Rogue One) and songwriter Germaine Franco (Kung Fu Panda 3), it was critical that the music of Coco never felt like your typical Disney or studio approved sounds, that the music had a unique feel of its own. The distinctive sounds of Coco actually add a sense of familiarity to the film – the joy & unity Miguel and his family derive from music isn’t just a Mexican tradition but a universal one.
In the following interview with composer Michael Giacchino and song-writer Germaine Franco, the duo discuss coming up with the score & music of Coco, how the music changed as the film took shape, and their own love for Mexican music. For the full interview, read below, and check out a new behind-the-scenes featurette about the film’s music.
Did Coco inspire you to look more into your family tree?
MICHAEL GIACCHINO: For me, I grew up knowing all that. We were told stories over and over. There’s literally a wall in my parent’s house. You walk in the hall, turn to the left and there’s a wall covered with pictures of our ancestors, who came way back from Italy. People I never met, but they’re there [on the wall]. In my office, at home, I now have pictures of ancestors that I never met. I know that I’m connected to them. I used to see a picture of an ‘ofrenda’ and think, ‘I don’t have one of those’, but actually, I guess, I sort of do have one of those. Everyone has one. That’s the beauty of it.
Germaine — what about yourself?
GERMAINE FRANCO: I grew up on the border but it wasn’t a tradition we practiced. I knew I had ancestors in Mexico and I have black and white photos of my grandparents. When I started traveling more, because I was on a quest to learn even more about Mexican music, I started making my own [ofrendas] and I still do. It’s a special thing because you remember your ancestors all the time, but when you take the time to really sit and have a moment and make the ofrenda, it’s just really a nice tradition. It’s nice to share with friends and children.
Moving to the music — how early in the production of Coco, are you brought in?
FRANCO: I was brought in four years ago, since early 2014. Basically I started the songs – arranging and orchestrating the “Remember Me” song. Then after that, I did some additional arrangements. I started writing with [co-writer] Adrian Molina and we did some original songs. Then I was brought on to help Michael [Giacchino] with the source music. He allowed me to go to Mexico and take his writing and add to it.
GIACCHINO: We were all supposed to go together to Mexico and I was set to do it and then, well, Star Wars happened. That took me out. So I stayed behind; but I came on to [Coco] two years ago. [Germaine] went to Mexico with [consultant] Camilo Lara and they recorded these incredible musicians. I was so jealous because I’m sitting there in sessions recording Star Wars and they kept sending me videos [from] Mexico. It just seemed like so much fun and I was sitting under this giant pressure cooker of a movie. But it was wonderful to be a part of [Coco] even then – just to see what was happening.
Does [director] Lee Unkrich give you any guidance on what he’s looking for from the score and music?
GIACCHINO: It was always about being authentic and true and exploring all the areas of music that comes out of Mexico, not just to say we’ll be happy if it sounds like a Mariachi band. You need the film to delve way deeper and pull out all the flavors and ideas and different textures that live there. The order from day one was always let’s make this as authentic as we can.
Did anything change from those earliest talks about music?
FRANCO: Some of the songs – they would start out with a certain idea and then there would be suggestions… In particular ‘Remember Me’ – it morphed through many different versions since it’s the signature song. If anything changed – it was always to make the storytelling better. Like [the song] ‘Un Poco Loco’, we wound up adding a sequence where [Miguel & Hector] dance and to do that, we extended certain parts [of the song]. We also cut things if they didn’t work with the story. We had to keep thinking: what are we trying to tell here? What is the emotion of the moment?
How does the score change as the movie takes shape?
GIACCHINO: The score is always there to support the emotions and one of the things we didn’t want was just your traditional Disney score. It was important for us to feel that the source music, the songs and the score were borne from this world. We want you always to feel like you’re with these characters, not from some outside point of view that’s telling you how to feel emotionally. It happens from the instrumentation — what instruments you choose to use, what chord progressions you choose, what harmonies you choose… All these things really speak to the music of Mexico. So there was a lot of research in that. Also just growing up, listening to that style of music, which I love, it was a great chance… I was so excited that I got to write in that idiom.
What sort of music are you listening to when you’re coming up with the score and songs?