Interview with Germaine Franco

It might be said that a sure sign of a post-“Hangover” Hollywood’s equal opportunity consciousness is that women can get just as down and dirty as the bros in movies from “Bridesmaids” to “Girls Trip.” Yet for all of the wolfpack comedies that get put out, no female composer has been able to shatter the bro music barrier – until now. That trailblazer, in many more respects than one, is Germaine Franco, who now gets to be “It” with “Tag.” Very loosely based on a real, decades-running game that’s followed friends from childhood to greying hair, this spin on the buddy comedy has “Hangover’s” nerd Ed Helms as Hoagie, leading his now-grown comrades to finally lay hands on their super suave pal Jerry (Jeremy Renner) who’s never been “It” in thirty years, and now plans to retire his unequalled record with the event of his marriage.

The guys’ antics to capture this Neo-like Zen Master of a game that most people left behind with puberty is given a super fun spy-oriented score by Franco that’s perfectly in line with the rude caper genre bro sound. Playful rock beats jam with electric guitar and cunning strings, the score escalating into epically suspenseful orchestrations as the machinations to capture Jerry spiral into madness. Franco creates a rhythmically hip playing field where everyone is a suspect, truly becoming one of the boys as her music chases Jerry from pre-wedding banquet to golf course and a wrecked Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with a humorously rude attitude to spare.

For all of the empowering lip service that Hollywood gives them, female composers are relegated to sensitive, costume stuff when it comes to the major multiplex entries. However, Franco is most definitely winning that sexist game for herself and her peers. Rising through the ranks as an assistant, orchestrator and music producer on numerous John Powell scores from “The Italian Job” to “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Kung Fu Panda,” Franco’s Latina heritage played a part in her solo composing efforts with “3 Americas,” “Visions of Aztlan” and “Margarita” before the acclaimed indie urban dramedy “Dope.” Franco then got to dance with both cartoon musical salutes to Mexico’s Day of the Dead as an additional composer on “Book of Life,” then repeating that job as well as co-producing the Oscar-lauded songs and Mexico sessions for Disney’s multicultural hit “Coco.” She became the first female composer hired by Dreamworks with her particular animated skills, while applying live action empowerment to the LA Latina power of the Starz TV series “Vida,” Inducted into the Academy as its first Latina composer, Franco has now become a prime mover in The Alliance of Women Composers. But for a composer and songwriter who definitely knows how to get her groove on, the act of playing “Tag” just might be the biggest breakthrough of her rising career.

Was becoming a film composer always in musical equation for you?

I was a performer before I was a composer. I started composing in college while attending Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. I used to write charts for my Latin-jazz band, then I started writing for theater. Eventually, I moved to film composition via theater.

Who were the composers and songwriting artists that inspired you?

I was inspired by many types of composers: Bach, Debussy, Schumann, Bartok, Cage, Milhaud, Copeland, Bernstein, Revueltas, Chavez, Alberto Iglesias, John Powell, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, John Agustín Lara, Kurt Weil, Cachao, Mercedes Sosa, Carol King, Siedah Garrett, Sergio Mendes, Chick Corea, The Kronos Quartet.

How did you make your first break in the industry?

I scored a film for the Hispanic Film Project sponsored by Universal. My first film was recorded at the Fox Scoring stage with Armin Steiner mixing and dubbed by Chris Jenkins. Also, shortly after that, Raul Pérez at Sony Music hired me to produce source music for “Thunderheart,” which was directed by Michael Apted.

Germaine Franco and John Powell

How did working with John Powell help you grow, and ultimately break out as a composer?

I worked with John Powell for many years. First of all, he is one of the kindest human beings I know. He is also a musical genius. I watched him write scores and songs, produce music, and make amazing sounds for every new soundtrack. He allowed me to develop as a musician and composer by keeping me involved in every stage of the music production process as an additional composer, arranger, orchestrator, producer and session musician. I worked on over 35 tent pole projects alongside him. He always encouraged me to work on my own projects on the side as well, which I did for many years before leaving his studio.

Do you think your abilities as a songwriter also helped in your instrumental development?

I was an instrumentalist before I was a songwriter. I used to sit at the piano for many hours as a young girl playing pop songs over and over, plus often improvising. I think that discipline helped in my development as a songwriter.

Your first film to get widespread notice was “Dope.” What was that scoring experience like, especially given how the film veered from urban teen comedy to more serious issues in the characters’ urban neighborhood?

I received the film “Dope” from Hans Zimmer’s studio manager, Steve Kofsky. When I started it, it was a small independent film. Who knew it would be so well received at Sundance, and later sold to Open Road? When I first saw it, I connected with the message of that film. It was well made. It had great songs by Pharrell Williams. I loved working with Rick Famuyiwa. He is a visionary filmmaker. He had a clear sense of what type of music he wanted. It was a mix of electronica, hip hop and some emotional cues with strings.

You had the opportunity to write additional music for the first “Day of the Dead” animated musical “Book of Life.” How did that experience help you with “Coco?”

I was very happy to work on “The Book of Life” project as I admire and love Gustavo Santaolalla’s work. Also, the Fox Music Department, Danielle Diego and Rebecca Morelatto, had been very supportive of my work. I think working on “Book of Life” helped prepare me for “Coco” because it was another large project that had a super quick deadline. In addition to writing additional score, I was able to arrange and orchestrate some of the songs with Gustavo including “Cielito Lindo” sung by Placido Domingo and “No Matter Where You Are” by Us the Duo. Every project brings more experience. I also scored the “Book of Life” video game on my own as well, which was a wonderful experience.

What would you say were those films’ biggest similarities, and differences?

Both films may be about the same celebration held in Mexico, but they are very different regarding the story. “The Book of Life” directed by Jorge Gutierrez and score and songs composed by Gustavo Santaolalla had more of a pan-Latino soundtrack, with all types of musical styles from across Latin America and many rooted in Mexican culture too. “Coco” directed by Lee Unkrich and co-directed by Adrian Molina with score by Michael Giacchino is different because most of the musical styles of the songs are specifically of Mexican origin. Also, we recorded many songs and source cues in Mexico with Mexican musicians of multiple styles. I think both films are super inspiring to many Latinos around the world.

Before “Tag,” you scored a movie about the public jokester group the Jankosians with “Public Disturbance.” How do you think that set you up to score “Tag?”

I spent several months last year working with director Danny Lee. Danny wanted a very serious EDM and hip hop approach to his score. I really got my feet wet with comedy on that project. I hear it will be released digitally by Lionsgate soon, I hope.

How did you get to play “Tag?”

I have to thank my agent Laura Engel at Kraft- Engel Management and of course Erin Scully and Jeff Tomsic. I had an interview and met with Jeff and Josh Crocker, the film’s editor. Jeff heard my work from “Dope” and “Public Disturbance”, also some of my action cues from the “Kung Fu Panda” theme parks. He must have heard something he liked!

This is essentially a “bro” comedy about male bonding. How do you get into that headset, and could you relate to it at all?

Yes, of course I could relate. I related to the characters, to the playful and intense aspect of the game, and the strong theme of friendship throughout the film. I started out as a drummer. I have always been one of the only females hanging out with guys from an early age. Currently, I am often one of the few women in the control room. I am also the mother of a son who has multiple friends over all of the time, so relating to these men and their game of tag was easy.

You could also say that “Tag” is a caper movie as well. Do you think there’s a jazzy-spy sound that comes with the genre?

I think the jazzy-spy sound is a typical sound that one would expect to hear. Jeff specifically did not want the score to be “jazzy”. We spent a lot of time exploring ways to avoid that. Mainly, instead of a triangle, bongo, and jazz approach, we decided electronica and rhythm section worked best.

Like “Game Night,” your score takes an essentially “serious” approach to how far these antics will go. Was it always the intent not to have the score by “funny” as such?

Jeff wanted to portray the seriousness of the game, and how the players spend multiple hours strategizing on how to avoid being tagged. There are funny moments, but by playing them serious with action music, it makes it more over the top. It was quite fun to do so. Jeff was great at directing me.

In that way, do you think “Tag” could set you up to do a serious 007-style score?

There are some cues that could lead to that idea. Yes, bring on the 007style films, please! I would love to do work on those types of films.

How did you want to thematically distinguish the guys, especially when it comes to the seemingly invincible character of Jerry and the slo-mo way he plans his escapes?

Jeff had specific ideas about the themes for the film. He wanted to build a theme that had elements of a caper theme that could also be transformed into a friendship theme, which is more of the fun theme with synths and band. In addition, we created a mission theme, to show how much the characters were quite serious about the game of tag. This is the big low brass and percussive theme.

What was your favorite scene to score of attempted “Tag,” and why?

My favorite scene is the final action scene with the slo-mo escape. I can’t give away the story, but we worked carefully to build the score around the SFX and slo-mo dialogue. So the score starts out sounding like musical sound design and then morphs into a true action heroic theme.

How far out did you want to go in musically conveying the extreme lengths they go to in trying to tag Jerry?

We use the caper theme in various scenes with different orchestral elements and band to show that although they go through multiple extremes to catch him, it is always a game and still fun.

Talk about your “Tag” ensemble, especially when it comes to the score’s groove. And how did you want to blend more conventional strings with it?

The score’s band ensemble is made up of some stellar musicians including Alex Al, bassist (Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder), Jeff Chamberlain, drummer (Pearl Jam), Luis Conte, percussionist and my previous Latin Percussion teacher (James Taylor), and Andrew Synoweic, drummer (Michael Bublé, Shakira, “Coco”). I had worked with all of the players before, except Matt. I knew what they could do, and what great players they are. Their groove helps to give the score a human element when with mixed with the electronica. After recording the band, I added live orchestra on top of the tracks. In some cases, I left my synth strings to make the sound more of a hybrid orchestra, instead of a completely orchestral sound. Jeff likes the bridge of the two.

There’s also the fun use of chorus in “Tag.” Where did that idea come from?

Jeff wanted a big sound with chorus for that track. It was going to be way over the top. So… originally I scored it with nonsense Latin lyrics. Later, I had a poem that my brother, international artist Michael Petry, had sent me at the start of the project. He was so happy for me when I got the gig, so he wrote and said “You may need some lyrics for a song.” I put the lyrics away for a few months. When the wedding cue came up, I had the English lyrics translated to Latin by Ryan Dooley, a friend. I set the poem to the melodic material I had developed, and Jeff liked it. We had live singers conducted by Edie Lehmann Boddicker. It was great fun.

You’ve scored the acclaimed Starz series “Vida,” which is about Latinas in LA. Would you say it’s one of the most relatable projects you’ve worked on?

Vida S1 2018 Marketing Shoot Dec 17 2017

I relate to all of my projects in some way. I am a storyteller, so I don’t need to look like the characters. I relate to the characters as a human beings. I do my best to find the tone of a narrative as soon as possible.

What was your approach for the show?

“Vida’s” creator Tanya Saracho wanted a very organic and realistic drama series. She didn’t want to overplay the emotional elements of the scenes. As it is a show about Latin culture in Boyle Heights, we mixed electronica, hip hop and traditional Latin sounds with indigenous instruments and even Nahuatl chant on one song.

What was it like to get recognition from ASCAP for your career, as well as getting inducted into the Academy?

Receiving the ASCAP Award in the name of Shirley Walker was a career highlight. I have been helped and supported by so many people in my life, I felt like I was floating on air the night I was able to thank all of my mentors, especially John Powell. To be honored on the same night as John was quite special. We enjoyed playing music together with all of our musician and singer friends. It was a night to be remembered. Also, being invited to join the Academy was a great honor. Having worked many years behind the scenes, it was great to be recognized for my many years of work, prior to my work on “Coco”!

Germaine at 5 Cat Studios

Tell us about your work on behalf of the Alliance of Women Composers. Do you think that for all of the promises from Hollywood to advance their cause that it still largely remains lip service, or do you think things are really improving when it comes to getting them assignments?

I think that in general, we are still in a very dire situation according to the data that is coming out of all the research institutes like USC and UCLA. Female composers made up 3% of the composers on the top films in 2017. We tend to hover between 2% and 3% in any given year. In the past ten years though, the number is even lower, 1.4% according to USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. So, while a few of us are doing well, and there are some new programs for women and people of color, overall, there is much room for improvement in regards to inclusion. At the same time, programs like the Sundance Institute’s Music and Sound Design Lab are supporting women in a big way. This is really helpful to our situation. I currently work with the Alliance, Women In Media, Women in Film, and AMPAS to raise the visibility of females and women of color in the industry.

How important is it for your continued work to reflect your Latina heritage?

I feel it is important to continue my work as a composer foremost. I draw upon my Mexican roots for strength and courage. Music is universal, so regardless of our origin, as musicians, we create music of all genres and styles.

When you look at hit comedies like “Bridesmaids” and “Girls Trip,” do you think Hollywood is realizing that women can be equally capable of raucous comedic behavior? And do you think it’s important to see that sort of equal opportunity?

Women are capable of making babies, they are capable of directing, writing, shooting, acting, producing, composing. We can do it all. Yes, equitable representation in all genres and fields is the goal.

How do you think “Tag” sets you up for gender / ethnic-neutral assignments when it comes to just being viewed as the composer of note on major studio releases?

I don’t really know what the outcome of this project will be. I hope people go see the movie and enjoy it like I did. The phrase “gender neutral and ethnic/neutral” sounds so pedantic. Of course, in the same way that people don’t say a British composer can only write British music, or a German composer can only write German music, I hope people get past saying, “Oh, doesn’t she only do Latin music because she is Mexican?” That’s really part of this inclusion problem, isn’t it?

“Tag” opens on June 15th, with Germaine Franco’s score available digitally that day from Lakeshore Records HERE

Buy Germaine Franco’s soundtrack to “Margarita” HERE and “Shovel Buddies” HERE

Dance to the Day of the Dead with “Book of Life” HERE and “Coco” HERE

Join The Alliance For Women Film Composers HERE

Visit Germaine Franco’s website HERE