"I make a point of hiring as many women and people of color in the musicians group so that I am expanding the group of people who are performing on films," says Franco. "You have to take chances and search."
“Extreme minority — that’s a great way to put it.” Germaine Franco, a composer who scored Dora and the Lost City of Gold with John Debney, is in most cases not just the only woman but the only woman of color in the room, in a field dominated by white men. Representation in all areas of filmmaking is notoriously skewed, and music is no exception. According to a report from San Diego State University, only six percent of 2018’s 250 top-grossing films featured female composers.
Franco is doing her best to change that, both as a composer and a curator of talent. “I make a point of hiring as many women and people of color in the musicians group so that I am expanding the group of people who are performing on films,” she tells People CHICA. “You have to take chances and search.” For example, when she worked on last year’s Little starring Marsai Martin and Issa Rae, she went out of her way to hire people who weren’t included on the regular list of contractors. “I had to do a marching band scene, and I hired a whole drum line from Compton that had never played on a session before,” she says. “I worked with them in a way that I knew they could do it, and then hired a lot of African American and Latino musicians from a nonprofit.”
For Dora, in theaters now, Franco wanted to make sure that the music showcased cultures not often featured in mainstream Hollywood movies. Dora, played by Isabela Moner, is on a quest to find information about an ancient civilization. The character speaks Quechua, so Franco made sure to incorporate the language into the music as well. After writing a poem in Spanish, she asked University of Pennsylvania professor Américo Mendoza-Mori, who runs the school’s Quechua language program, to translate the poem; it can be heard when Dora is in the Lost City of the movie’s title. Franco’s own great-grandmother was a member of the Tarahumara tribe, an indigenous group from Chihuahua, Mexico, so she also felt a personal connection to the film, and sees it as her responsibility to preserve and celebrate different languages.
When scoring the movie, she watched the movie first with no background sound, then watched again with temporary music added by the director to give an idea of the desired feeling for the score. “I was brought in the last couple of months,” she explains, adding, “Every director is different — there’s never a dull moment!” No matter what, though, she never fails to incorporate her Latinidad into the mix. For Coco, she included mariachi and Pedro Infante influences, while also creating space for 50 Mexican musicians to participate in the project.
As a Latina, she’s had her authority questioned and has been stereotyped as someone who only writes Latin music because of her Latin American last name. “It happens so often that it’s better to show people what you can do by the work you do,“ she explains. “As Latinas, we have always been regulated to the stereotypes that are associated with the nanny, the mistress, the prostitute, the poor woman and the mother.” She’s experienced this firsthand at work. “I’ve had people in the studio say to me, ‘Can you get me a cup of coffee?’ while I’m working on a multimillion-dollar budget [movie],” she says. “They’re still asking me for coffee because they can’t see us in a different light.”
She’s also had people ask her if she’s even studied music, disregarding the fact that she has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Rice University’s prestigious Shepherd School of Music. These experiences are the reasons why she believes women, and specifically women of color, need to push the needle forward. Franco, the first Latina composer invited to join the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is certainly moving that needle off the chart. “I never thought I’d ever get invited to [the Academy],” she says. “It was never a goal, because I never thought it was an option for me.” She was incredibly proud of her work, of course, but also proud as a musician, which she believes to be her first identity. “We have to show young Latinx and Black children that they can do this,” she says, “and the way you do this is by doing the work.”