Germaine Franco heard "We Don't Talk About Bruno" long before moviegoers would, and certainly way before it became the biggest Disney song in the world. "I heard the original demo," she recalls. "It was mostly Lin singing, which is very cool to be able to see the transformation of that song."
"When I heard it for the first time, it was one of my favorite songs, because there's more than ten vocal lines going at the same time. And I think that's pretty genius," Franco says. "It's very catchy, obviously, but I was kind of studying the construction of the song and I always thought that one was special."
Lin-Manuel Miranda had already penned many of Encanto's musical numbers when Franco was approached to write a score for the movie. Franco had previously worked as an orchestrator on Disney's Bolt, which was scored by her mentor John Powell and directed by Byron Howard, who would go on to direct Encanto (with Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith). Franco had also worked extensively on Coco, which won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, co-writing five of the film's original songs, and orchestrating, producing, and arranging "Remember Me," which won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
For Disney, she was a natural fit to provide the sounds and rhythms of Encanto. "And then the second call I had was from Lin-Manuel," Franco says. "We spoke for an hour about our mutual love of Latin music and what we listened to growing up, how he grew up in New York listening to Puerto Rican music and I grew up on the border of Mexico in El Paso, Texas, and how that music shaped where we are today."
What Franco didn't realize at the time was that she was making history, becoming the first-ever female composer to score a Disney film. She wasn't made aware of that fact until her work on Encanto was well underway, which she sees as a blessing. "I just want to focus on the work and on being creative and not think about statistics and data or [anything] other than musical thoughts." Franco had, after all, more pressing matters to focus on.
With the demos of Miranda's songs, Franco set about learning his musical language so that his numbers and her score fit together seamlessly. (She would eventually add orchestration to his original songs.) Her score was to be new but nostalgic, beautiful but tragic, while capturing the spirit of Colombia – and she had to do the latter amidst a global pandemic.
Under other circumstances, Franco would have traveled to South America on a research trip to find inspiration and discover the textures and melodies of the music of Colombia. Instead, working from home, she had to do some research online. "Just making the effort to bring Colombia to me, since I couldn't go there."
"I decided early on that I wanted the arpa llanera to be the sound of [Encanto] -- that's the Colombian harp," she explains. "And then I had a marimba de chonta made by a luthier in Colombia. It's made out of palm wood -- like a palm tree -- but you can find it in Colombia. It shipped in this, like, little cardboard box, and I thought, 'Oh, my God! It's got to be busted.' It's come here with almost no bubble wrap, and the resonators were made of bamboo, and we put it all together and it sounded great!"
The Colombian singers were so happy to be recognized and be on a Disney film, and it just elevated it so much."
Franco also added in traditional stringed instruments like the tiple and bandola and cuatro, and after seeing him in concert at the Hollywood Bowl, invited Colombian pop star Carlos Vives and his band to be on the score, including flutist Mayte Montero, accordionist Christian Camilo Peña and Afro-Colombian singer Isa Mosquera.
"And then I asked for a Colombian choir," she explains. "I was trying to get this sound called Afro-Colombiana where the women sing and they're called Cantadoras. The whole entire ensemble is made of women playing the marimba de chonta and chanting. And they're kind of like work songs. That was one of my favorite sounds that I heard in Colombia, and I kept trying to figure out how I could put that in the score."
When the filmmakers said they wanted the sequence in which young Antonio gets his gift and opens the door to his new room for the first time to sound like Colombia's Chocó rainforests, Franco knew it was the place for Colombian rhythms called Mapalé and Bullerengue, and to feature her Cantadoras choir. It wasn't something she could demo, but the directors believed in her vision.
"We had to do a Zoom with Colombia and it just took hours," Franco laughs. "We thought it was going to take three and it took eight hours of like, getting the connection, and then, get the mic, you know. But it was perfect. The Colombian singers were so happy to be recognized and be on a Disney film, and it really made a difference for us and for me to have their voices in the score. It just elevated it so much."
Looking back now, Franco says what she learned working on Encanto was resilience. "I had to just keep trying to be tenacious, just like Mirabel," she says. All of the work has paid off to the tune of three Oscar nominations for the film, recognized for Best Animated Feature Film, Best Original Song for Miranda's "Dos Oruguitas" and Best Original Score for Franco. She is only the sixth woman ever nominated for an original score. Franco is also the very first Latina ever nominated in the category.
"I've been working for over 25 years, and I love music, so to do music full-time as a career, as an artist, it's just a wonderful way of life," she says. "But to have some recognition is an honor. And what's the most honorable about it is that I've had people writing me these letters, like, 'You're opening the door for Latinos! You're opening the door for women.' And I don't think about that when I'm making the work -- I just want to do the best job I can -- but that it's had this other effect is special."
"And people are excited!" Franco adds. She felt the excitement around Encanto when it arrived in theaters and feels the continued excitement from her hometown of El Paso, Texas, where she's being cheered on by her very own encanto. "My mother goes to get a haircut and they're playing the soundtrack," she grins. "And they're all happy and like, 'Oh, Alicia's here and her daughter did this!' It's just special to share it with my mom, who was the one that drove me to all the lessons when I was little, and never interfered, and never said, 'Oh, don't be a musician,' you know? That's so special."