‘The Power of the Dog’ tops 2022 Oscar nominations
It was just one of those Tuesdays for Lin-Manuel Miranda. The composer, lyricist and actor – known for ‘In the Heights’ and ‘Hamilton’ – was struggling to get his youngest to kindergarten, and his eldest son’s school bus was running late.
He sat down with his wife, lawyer and engineer Vanessa Nadal, just in time to nab Oscar nominations. The real joy of watching, he said, was “how many friends I’ve been blessed to know who have done such incredible work this year.”
He texted Ariana DeBose when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for ‘West Side Story’ and reached out to costume designer Paul Tazewell when he scored a wink for the same movie. When Germaine Franco was awarded Best Original Score for the Disney animated film “Encanto,” for which Miranda wrote songs, he shouted for the whole neighborhood to hear.
“Encanto” follows Alma Madrigal, who fled her home years ago to escape conflict. She saved her three small children, but lost her husband, Pedro. Devastated, Alma clung to the candle she used to light her way, which became enchanted – hence the “encanto” – and imbued her family members with magical powers, all but her little one- Mirabel daughter.
Miranda also received a Motion Picture nomination for Best Original Song for “Dos Oruguitas,” a heartbreaking ballad at the emotional climax of “Encanto.” To top it all off, the film – directed by Byron Howard and Jared Bush and co-directed by Charise Castro Smith – earned a nomination for Best Animated Feature.
Miranda, who lives in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, ran across the George Washington Bridge and came back in her excitement.
Although he has written his fair share of music – his “How Far I’ll Go” for Disney’s “Moana” earned a nomination for Best Original Song in 2017 – ‘Dos Oruguitas’ is the first song Miranda wrote from start to finish in Spanish.
“I really stepped far enough out of my comfort zone to write the song, so I’m really glad it got recognition,” he said. “It just makes you want to do more: lean into the things that scare you and do those things. That’s what’s worth doing, because that’s what makes you grow.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When did you write this song? What was this process like?
It’s probably early last year, like March or April. But I remember the idea came while brainstorming with Jared and Charise on the phone. Just kind of like, “I think the butterfly metaphor is already there visually. And if this song addressed the original miracle of nature? And then when I thought of the idea of two caterpillars in love, it was a wrap.
There are so many things it could contain: both Abuela [Alma] and Pedro, and what the family does to each other by holding on too tightly. I wanted it to sound like a song that has always existed. All of my favorite folk songs all contain nature metaphors. I started dreaming again in Spanish while I was writing it. It was like my whole brain was trying to make it happen, even my subconscious.
Once you had this idea – caterpillars in love – was it easy to write or did it take you a long time to write in Spanish?
I think I wrote the first verse and the chorus in about a week. Sent to the creative team. They were all sniffling and saying, “You’re on the right track; I needed to achieve a poetic language that goes beyond my standard conversational Spanish. I am fairly fluent in conversational Spanish, but that must have been high. words that are not in my daily use: crisálidas [chrysalises]disoriented [disoriented]. You do whatever you need to do to get the hook out.
Why did you feel like this song had to be in Spanish?
Because honestly, all the central words of the metaphor are more beautiful in Spanish, on a technical level: oruguitas, crisálidas, mariposas [butterflies] are just nice words. But I also think there’s a subtle generational game going on with the way we use language in this film: the younger siblings all express themselves in rather contemporary genres: reggaeton for Luisa, rock 90s in Spanish for Isabela. [Mirabel’s sisters]. And it was as if the matriarch of the family and the central and fundamental history of this family and this miracle had to be in Spanish.
How did you choose Sebastien Yatra – a young pop-y singer – to express this feeling?
We first went back and forth to find out if it was a female or male voice. And we were like, ‘Well, if it’s a woman, it will feel like Abuela is singing her.’ It wasn’t quite right. I tell the story a lot, but a big part of writing the right song is figuring out what’s not the right song. It didn’t seem right for Abuela to sing a song at Mirabel, period. So that’s what brings you to the male vocalist.
When we started working on it together – Jared, Charise, Byron and I – we all sort of made mixtapes for each other. We’ve all done our own deep dives into Colombian music, and Sebastián has appeared in all of our mixes. He has such a great voice and he’s about Abuelo Pedro’s age when the movie takes place, so he’s just a perfect fit.
What specific aspects of Colombian folk music have inspired you?
First of all, the folk music that we heard there, which was so beautiful — basically anything that has a tip on that, I was kinda in love with. But then the other thing I really thought about was, “What are some Latin songs that live forever?” I thought about “Guantanamera” and “Cielito Lindo.” I feel like nobody ever wrote those songs. Of course, they all have amazing songwriters. I just feel like they’ve always been there. So I really listened to these and their form. The verse and the chorus owe much to these successes.
The only other song that comes close to it in the songs I’ve written is a snippet of a song called “Siempre” in “In the Heights,” where I wanted it to sound like a bolero that’s always been there. But again, it’s not a complete song. It’s like a verse in the chorus of a scratch joke.
In the scene where “Dos Oruguitas” is heard, golden butterflies are everywhere, evoking a favorite motif of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Did her butterflies inspire the metaphor in any way, or did they just line up once you came up with the caterpillar idea?
Absoutely. The song itself was absolutely inspired by the visual metaphor the animation team was already toying with. This scene in its entirety didn’t exist yet, but I had seen the candle that turned into a butterfly. And that was the inspiration to go to this metaphor. So it’s also a great example of the collaboration that happens in an animated film. It’s like writing for the theater to the nth power.
Like I write a rap section for Dolores in “We don’t talk about Bruno”, and the writers take that and give her that vibe throughout the movie, and in turn the animation department thinks about that butterfly metaphor absolutely inspired by García Marquez. And then I can run with that as a song idea. You know you’re cooking on gas when you all feed each other.
This song makes me cry every time. Did you cry while writing it?
Oh yes. I still think of myself as Tita in “Como Agua Para Chocolate” [“Like Water For Chocolate”]: I cry in the recipe.
I thought about my first serious relationship and how we were two people who loved each other very much, but the world was bigger and we were going in different directions. I definitely went to my heart there as I was writing it. You shoot all that. And also times in your life when you were so afraid of change, and you just have to believe there’s a reason why it’s happening. This, to me, strikes a deeper chord than even the themes as they appear in the film itself.
This is your second Oscar nomination, and if you won, you would become the 17th person to achieve EGOT status. What does it do?
On some level, that sounds totally silly, because it’s a term that was popularized by “30 rocks”, which is a hilarious thing for anyone to pursue: that you’re pursuing something that Tracy Jordan pursued.
But on another level, what’s always special about it is that the artists vote on it. My fellow filmmakers, my fellow songwriters, the music branch. I’ve met some of these people, and they’re like the most incredibly smart people who’ve made music that I love.