John Debney & Germaine Franco on Crafting the Music of Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dora and the Lost City of Gold arrives in theaters this weekend, adapting the world of Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer for a whole new generation. The film follows a teenage Dora (Isabela Moner) as she ventures out of her life in the jungle and enrolls in an American high school. When her parents are kidnapped, Dora and her friends are sent on an adventure to save them -- and possibly solve an ancient Incan mystery in the process.

Adapting an iconic children's' cartoon into an action-packed adventure is certainly no easy task, but Dora goes above and beyond to authentically portray its multicultural setting. This can be felt in a significant way in the film's music, which is composed by John Debney (Iron Man 2, The Greatest Showman) and Germaine Franco (Coco, Someone Great). The duo's score utilizes a live orchestra, choir, Latin musicians and indigenous Andean singers/musicians, all of which combines into an exhilarating soundtrack for the film.

Ahead of Dora and the Lost City of Gold's theatrical debut, got a chance to chat with Franco and Debney about crafting the film's unique sound, their relationship with Dora, and the significance of diversity in the world of composing.

dora and the lost city of gold composers interview
(Photo: Paramount Pictures / Jean Baptiste Lacroix for WireImage)

*** How did you both initially get into the world of music and composing?

Germaine Franco: I got into music at a pretty young age; I was really interested in drums, percussion. I had played in orchestras and jazz bands, marching bands, and I wound up going to a conservatory in Houston and that's when I had started writing. And I got into film music through theater, working at the Los Angeles Theater Center, writing a lot of music for theater, and that transitioned into film. That's the short story.

John Debney: Well, same with me. I started playing at a really young age and started working for other composers as an orchestrator for quite a while in television. And then, like Germaine, went to college, got my degree in composition, and started working my way up, and here we are today.

What was your background with Dora going into this project? I know the character has become this sort of cultural touchstone, so I was curious about what kind of relationship you both had with that.

Franco: I have a son, so we spent many hours watching the Dora TV show and the specials. We speak Spanish as well, so it was, you know, part of our son's growing up. He always enjoyed it. Dora always felt more culturally relevant to us. So when the chance came to work on Dora with John; I was super excited because I already knew so much about her character.

Debney: It was the same with me. I have a lot of nieces, and I remember years ago when they were smaller, they were watching Dora and loved Dora. So I sort of got to know Dora back - almost twenty years ago, something like that. I always thought it was a pretty great animated show. So I kind of fell in love with it during then myself.

I love that you both worked with Latin and indigenous musicians with the Dora and the Lost City of Gold score. I was wondering if you both could speak to that and the significance of it.

Debney: I couldn't have picked a better partner and co-composer than Germaine. The choice was sort of made by the studio, and Germaine and I knew each other and respected each other's work, so it was sort of a no-brainer. And in terms of the cultural influences, that was hugely important to both of us. We wanted to both do a resurgent to ancient music, like ancient Incan music, etc. for all different ancient cultures. So we wanted it to be true to the culture and true to the heritage. And Germaine did some wonderful translation of ancient poems.

Franco: We originally wanted to go to Peru, but we came onto the project in [post-production], and there was a deadline and such. So we decided, "What can we do to make it culturally relevant?" And make it have some voice of the Indigenous people of Peru, and using some of the traditional instruments. So I started researching and reading a lot of books and pushing through a ton of music. And there's also of Peruvian musicians in L.A that we've worked with in the past, who had some idea the instrument keys and had used them on some other score.

I wanted to use the Quechua language in, you know, some of the choir pieces and for some soloists. So what I did was I wrote some poems in Spanish, and then I had the Quechua consultant who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and he translated those.

We also found Bolivian musicians and Peruvian musicians. We had a language coach named Dante Concha who played all the indigenous flutes and the panpipe. And then another woman named Phaxsi Coca, and she's from Bolivia and speaks Quechua as well. And so they were chanting, and then helped us add their beautiful instruments on top of the score, which was really organic and added so much to it.

What is your favorite thing about the score for Dora and the Lost City of Gold? Is there like a certain sequence that you're particularly proud or anything like that?

Debney: I'm most proud of our collective work together, you know, Germaine and I were worked so thoroughly and every day, daily, at the, when we saw it all together, I think we were both really impressed that our styles worked so well together. And I think I'm most proud by how we integrated these instruments, these ancient instruments, and we kind of created a score that is a big adventure score but it's also infused with all these great colors of other cultures.

Franco: Yeah, I think what's really great about it besides the fact that we had our two voices, our sound, become one cohesive score was the way that we worked with so many different varieties of musicians and cultural styles. Because we have the epic, huge adventure cues, and there are emotional cues, and then there are the indigenous sounding cues. And so we had these incredibly trained orchestral players, and then the next two hours later we had the indigenous chanting going on, and we had the choir. So it was just a whole experience of putting them all together and collaborating that was, for me, a fantastic experience.

Germaine, I know you've become a champion for more diversity in the world of composing. What progress would you like to see made in terms of women and people of color, getting more opportunities in the composing industry?

Franco: I think the first thing is education, more females and people of color accepted into these incredible conservatories. But it has to happen at a really young age, because to cultivate a composer it takes years and years and hundreds of thousands of hours of practice. So we have to start really young, and so, for example, Sundance, they've already done it: they take fifty percent women, fifty percent men right off the top. I'd love to see that within my own performance rights organization, ASCAP, do the same thing.

Also, I speak at different universities, and when I go and I see just one or two women in the audience. And I would like to see more women admitted to those programs because it is the people coming out of those programs that are getting the bulk of work. I mean, there is a whole other group of musicians that are artists and you know, do pop and rock and jazz that turn to scoring. But having that incredible foundation of music education is very essential to get a bulk of the work done.

And then the last thing, I think, is not assuming that because we're women, people tell us that we only write a certain type of music. For example, people assume, "Well if your last name is this, then you only write that type of music from your cultural background", and that is completely not the case. Most composers write all kinds of music from a variety of styles. So, I think that would be good.

If you were to give advice for someone who wants to get into your shoes and break into the composing world, what would it be?

Debney: Wow, that's a class right there. I would tell younger composers to study, study, study. Meaning really learn the task of, you know, learn counterpoint, learn harmony, learn orchestration, right Germaine? It's incredible to have a musical gift, but I think just to stand the test of time and have longevity, the more well-rounded you are as a musician, the better.

I look at Germaine, Germaine is a wonderful instrumentalist and a brilliant composer. And I think that the more we learn and the more we do and running to different styles, I think that all helps.

Franco: Oh, I agree. I've worked with many interns and composers graduating from Bachelors and Graduate degrees. And the thing that separates the ones that I want to work with on my team and the ones that I would say need more work is exactly what John said: harmony, orchestrations. Because you've got to learn to work with a full orchestra.

And it's fantastic to have all of the software down. You must have the technical, but you can't just be technical. You have to have both. You have to have a musical background. So, not just listening to film composing, or scores, you got to listen to the basics and learn all the Western harmony. And then also study the music of other cultures outside the Western realm. Because there are thousands of new composers coming out every year, and so in order to differentiate yourself from the others, the ones that have the most musical skills and technical skills are the ones that I want to work with.

Debney: I would add one thing. I think Germaine is right. Especially now, we're certainly more global-oriented in terms of all the new things that are happening both for men and women composers. And I think studying other cultures and other cultures' art and music is an intentional thing. And I would just add that. I love that thought.



Dora and the Lost City of Gold will arrive in theaters this Friday, August 9th.