Gustavo Santaolalla during his keynote Q&A with Billboard's Phil Gallo.
Two-time Oscar winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla can't read or write music. Even more amazingly, he wrote the entire score for "Brokeback Mountain" before a single frame had been filmed. These were a couple of the insights into his process the Argentine-born musician and composer offered at a Q&A Wednesday morning at Billboard's Film & TV Music Conference, where he also performed.
Santaolalla told moderator Phil Gallo of Billboard Magazine that it's all about the script.
"I read the story, connect with the characters, have a good chat and several meetings with the director to see what his vision is of that story," he said of working on film's like "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Motorcycle Diaries."
(L-R): Robert Messinger, Gustavos agent; and Eileen Thompson Ray, Rogers and Cowan, hang with Santaolalla.
"I'm not a conventional, traditional movie making music guy. I come from making records. My approach is different. Usually composers are called at the end of the process when the movie is already edited and temped with some other people's music. But that's not the way I work."
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In the case of "Brokeback Mountain," which won him his first Oscar in 2005 before "Babel" nabbed him his second a year later, Santaolalla said director Ang Lee was able to play his music for Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and the other actors while figuring out where to place all of it.
Santaolalla said he started playing guitar at age 5, wrote his first song at age 10, formed his first band at 12 and had a record deal by 16. "From five to ten I started playing guitar with a teacher. My ability to play an instrument surpassed my ability to learn about theory and all of that stuff. I would have a chart in front and pretend that I was reading, but everything was memorized. This went on for like five years until the teacher quit."
In bands like Arco Iris and Soluna, as a solo artist (whose work has appeared everywhere from HBO's "Deadwood" to Michael Mann's "The Insider") and as a producer for acts like Cafe Tacuba and Columbian singer Juanes, Santaolalla brings a wealth of experience to any project. He told the audience that one of the biggest things he's learned is that the music business needs more people behind the scenes who -- wait for it -- actually like music.
L-R): Ray Yee, BMI; Gustavo Santaolalla; and Anne Cecere, BMI.
"[When I started the label Surco Records] we said, 'All the record labels suck. Give us enough time and we'll show you that we suck, too.' There's this myth that everything is the fault of the record company. With all the years I've been in the industry I've seen it happen many times -- it's amazing the amount of people in the music business who don't like music. The whole thing about labels and stuff, it has to be reinvented."
Santaolalla called filmmaking a very "collaborative effort," noting how many names appear in the closing credits, and mentioned that he's expanding into video games, too.
Santaolalla performs after his keynote Q&A.
The Q&A wrapped up with Santaolalla strapping on a traditional South American instrument called a charango (which he said used to be made from armadillo shells) to perform an instrumental song from "The Motorcycle Diaries," followed by a moving acoustic guitar/vocal performance of "A Love That Will Never Grow Old" from "Brokeback Mountain," which elicited thunderous applause from the assembled conference attendees.
Santaolalla's work will next be heard in "On the Road," which is based on the Jack Kerouac novel and stars Sam Riley, Kristen Dunst, Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund, due in theaters in late December.