Germaine Franco Talks Scoring 'Tag' & The Lack of Female Composers in Hollywood: 'It's Not a Glass Ceiling, It's Made of Cement'

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Not too many film score composers look like Germaine Franco. She became the first Latina composer to join the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences music branch in 2016, in a field that is still overwhelmingly dominated by white men. 

While the composing field may not be diverse, the same cannot be said Franco’s résumé, which moves through all kinds genres: a hip-hop/electronica score for the drama Dope, which premiered at Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals; indigenous Mexican music for the animated comedy Coco, which she co-wrote and produced five songs for; and her latest hybrid electronica and action for the comedy Tag, which opened Thursday (June 14).

Last month, Franco received the Shirley Walker Award at the 33rd annual ASCAP Screen Music Awards. The award celebrates those who contribute to diversity music in film and television. During her presentation, Franco took the opportunity to remind attendees the need for inclusion in the music film world.

On the eve Tag’s release, Franco spoke to Billboard to discuss her heroes in music, scoring Tag and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s recent study, which pointed out that only 14 female composers have worked on approximately 1,000 films from 2007 to 2016.

What was the most challenging part about scoring Tag? How was scoring a comedy different from scoring other genres?

This particular score was interesting because a lot comedies don't have as much action music in them, but because the guys are so intense about how they go about playing the game, there were some sequences where director] Jeff Tomsic] wanted some serious action, heroic music... What's so cool is that this is based on a true story and we met the actual players that this article is based on, and he makes it very exciting. In terms the score, there's comedic moments which I have to do scoring a little bit different because you have to stay away from giving away the joke before the audience realizes what the joke is. I also wanted to stay away from the traditional comedy-type scores with triangles and bongos, so I really tried hard to have a new approach based on Jeff's vision. He loves a mix electronica with some hybrid orchestral sounds. There's a caper theme that when the guys are being silly and having fun, but then that morphs into a friendship theme, and trying to find the balance was] the challenging.

What gives you more satisfaction artistically: writing songs or composing scores?

I love them both equally. They're different processes. With the songs, you can be a bit more sometimes silly or emotional and you're dealing with vocal elements, which I enjoy producing. But I also do love doing those huge action pieces and the working with directors and collaborating with them on how they want to tell their story.

What progress do you think the industry has made in the two years you've been in the AMPAS music branch?

More than anything, the progress feels like people are actually talking about the issues that women and people color have been on the margins this industry and not been participating at the same rate, that we exist as a population and are going to see films. We're a big part the audience watching] films, so people are talking about that. People are talking about the difficulty that exists for anyone to get through. As a friend mine said, 'It's not a glass ceiling, it's made cement.' There are new initiatives like Women in Film and Sundance’s ReFrame or] the Sundance Music and Sound Design Lab, they have been super supportive women and people color and they supported me. The numbers from the USC study showed the percentages for female composers and especially people color are not moving up through the years]. So while some us have had the progress, we need it to be a broader spectrum people who are doing the work. 

What responsibility do filmmakers have to use more female composers, and what are some immediate solutions?

If we have 20 panels on diversity and nobody goes home and hires inclusivity in terms hiring women, hires -- a lot people don't like the word "people color" -- just a diverse spectrum people, then we're still going to be in the same place. So that's why I give talks at universities. I've gone to Brown, I'm speaking at Columbia University tomorrow, because I want little girls -- especially little girls that are Latina, African American, black, however you want to say it, Asian and] boys -- I want everyone to see that they have a chance at this because when you don't see anyone who looks like you doing it, you don't think that's something that you could actually do. Luckily, I didn't internalize that myself because I didn't have anyone who looked like me doing it, although Siedah Garrett is a fantastic songwriter. She and Sergio Mendes I met through working on Rio and Rio 2 and she fostered me to be into the Academy.... I just thought 'Geez, I love her style. I love her music.' She was somebody who really inspired me a lot as a female working in this industry.

You worked with Academy Award-nominated composer John Powell for years. What was the most important thing he taught you as a mentor?

I'd say work fast and work well, be 100 percent sure your work and to experiment with music and try things. Explore. Make new sounds and don't make every score sound like the previous one. I consider him a musical genius. He pushed me to know technology and to be able to program. I'm programming, I'm writing and producing. I don't have somebody sitting there doing it for me. The other thing he showed me too was how to produce music for film because it's a different genre than producing a song, a pop song.

Your works spans so many different styles. Do you think it's more important for a composer to be versatile or pricient in one particular style?

Can I say both? Because you have to be pricient in whatever you do. And you want to be good in that one thing, like I always loved Latin music, but that's not the only thing I did. At the same time, I had already been writing for documentaries and independent features that were electronic. So if I hadn't been diverse, I don't think I would've been able to do Tag. I was able to work on Dope] because I had learned to program through working with John on Bourne Identity and] Bourne Supremacy, which had] a lot electronica plus orchestra. I had to be versatile and every composer has to unless you have the luxury only doing one film a year and it's all the same. Nowadays, people expect you to do a lot things.