Disney, Moana, and the major songwriting role of Opetaia Foa'i

Thursday, 25 Jan 2018

Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Disney Music Supervisor Tom MacDougall (photo by Julie Foa'i)

Of the distinguished group of APRA AMCOS members in seats at the 2018 Grammys on January 28 in New York, will be Opetaia Foa'i, who had a major role in composing and writing music for one of 2017's biggest albums. No, he wasn't a producer on Lorde's Melodrama. He was one of the principal songwriters for Disney blockbuster Moana, the soundtrack that landed on year-end bestseller charts at #5 Australia, #4 New Zealand, and #6 US Billboard and is nominated for the Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media

For over 20 years, the Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised, Sydney-based, composer, singer, songwriter, and guitarist has been leading successful contemporary Polynesian band Te Vaka . They have toured extensively and released numerous albums. But, in 2013, an opportunity presented itself that was completely unexpected. Disney called. Opetaia shares his story with us.

Q: How did your discussions with Disney and the Moana team begin?

Opetaia: I think it was in 2013, we got an idea because Disney started buying everything off the Te Vaka website. We sent an email over and about a month or so later, we got the phone call. They said, "Think Lion King, 3000 years ago. We want you to write the music." That was pretty, ah, wow. I was speechless for a little while.

Q: Were you hesitant about getting involved or were you ready to dive in?

Opetaia: I was ready to dive in, because it aligned very well with what I’ve been doing for over 20 years, which was promoting my Polynesian culture. But of course, a bit wary. When they flew me over there in December 2013, I got to meet the directors John Musker and Ron Clements and they assured me this was not going to be one of those surface-level things and that’s when I decided to dive in. But, you know, I could have been sacked three to four times, that’s the truth of it, because I refused to do things. In the beginning I was asked to do things that I knew did not forward the culture and I refused it. And, I thought, well I’m gone. 

Q: How did you handle the pull of the Hollywood versus your own musical and cultural instincts?

Opetaia: I was working with the very experienced Mark Mancina and up-and-coming superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda and I was really green, I was very new to this Hollywood mentality. But after a short time I realised: I’m immersed in my culture and they’re doing a movie about my culture and they were outside of it. So, I realised slowly that I needed to point them in the direction I wanted them to go in. And they were very receptive to that.

Q: How did the songs fit into the Moana production process? How far was the story developed when you became involved?

Opetaia: I think it was initially developed around the character Maui, and I said the most important things here are the achievements and the abilities to navigate, and it slowly started to go in that direction. We were Skyping weekly or every fortnight, and the story was sort of changing each time. You’d write a song, put it forward, they’d change the story, so you’d change the song. Adjust the story, adjust the song. Three years of doing this! So the songwriters were very involved in the story as well.

You’d write a song, put it forward, they’d change the story, so you’d change the song. Adjust the story, adjust the song. Three years of doing this! So the songwriters were very involved in the story as well.

Q: So it wasn’t like you went in, watched a movie and dropped a song in to a specific storyline?

Opetaia: Most films Disney makes are based on books. This was based on nothing – just the mythology and stories passed down about this character Maui and this culture. So we had to find our way to navigate though those three years of production.

Q: How did the collaboration work with a team of three very different songwriters?

Opetaia:  I was in New Zealand mainly at the time – I split time between Sydney and New Zealand. Lin is in New York, Mark is in Monterey, California. So we were Skyping and sharing ideas that way, and then we’d meet at either Avatar Studios in New York or Red Horse in Carmel, California, or they would come down to New Zealand. We would meet and these ideas that we were developing, we’d record them and put them forward. That would happen every two to three months.

Q: When they came to New Zealand did they record with Te Vaka as well?

No, for recording with Te Vaka, we’d all go to Warner Brothers in Burbank. But when they came down to New Zealand it was for them to be immersed in the culture, that was the initial thing, and also for us to see if we liked each other. And, we discovered we did! We could be like little children in the studio, we were able to make fun of things and make ourselves look silly and not be worried about it.

Q: Did you ever feel like this kind of songwriting and collaboration was out of your comfort zone – with a focus for a film audience, for a younger audience?

Opetaia: I felt quite at home. All I needed was someone who was excellent with lyrics, and that’s where Lin comes in. He's fantastic. I was not used to the film process and how they do these things. I sat back and watched how they’ve done it. I worked with Chris Montan and he’s done it so many times. They were so patient. They were so patient with me. They would educate me and show me how it was done. It was my culture and I felt very much at at home with it, and they very respectful about it and respectful about their learning about that too.

Q: You wrote portions of the film score as well as featured songs. Do you approach the two elements differently?

Opetaia: What’s good about those movie bits is they are quite short. You don’t have all these pre-choruses and bridges to fill out. I find myself really well-suited to it. They recognised this very quickly when I was at Warner Brothers. They realised that I could actually find an emotion for a bit and get it straight away. Most of the stuff done for the score, I composed that in the moment when they showed me.

They brought in this big screen to put in front of me, and showed me bits and asked me to put something in. It was so much fun.

Q: When the film was complete, were there any surprises as to how the songs were used?

Opetaia:  This was what surprised me - the professionals at Disney, they are so good at what they do with matching the vision to the sound. I worked closely with music editor Earl Ghaffari and he would suggest things for a visual piece and I would send it back to him. It was a joy to work with such professionals.

Q: How do you feel about your cultural role in the creation of the movie and the music?

Opetaia:  I would use things as an excuse to my Disney team, I would say, “If we don’t do this right, I can’t go back!”

I hear from so many people. Even from people whose ancestors are Vikings – it stirs something inside of their part of the world. It’s a universal sort of thing. This is from aside of feeling proud that my culture has had a window that other cultures can look into. I want people to look beyond the tourist places – Hawaii and things like that. People can now look into the real Pacific culture, rather than just the surface stuff.

Q: In We Know the Way, you sang lyrics in Tokelauan language. Did you have convince Disney for something like that?

Opetaia: I worked so hard to get these pieces in so that they will never change it, never be taken out. So with We Know the Way, I actually made singing in my own language into the Billboard Hot 100!

Q: You spend 20 years of building a career, and then Disney calls. As a songwriter, how do you take that opportunity and really seize it?

Opetaia: It comes back to doing what you are passionate about. What I do has never been for fame or fortune, but just to promote my culture. Because of that I became obsessed, and good at it and I’m so thankful that it was recognised by Disney.

Q: What happens next in your career? How does Moana impact what projects you take on?

Opetaia: It's impacted in that I am able to live better, to do better quality music and creative ideas. I have a few things on the go at the moment.

Q: Would you like to do more film work or children’s music?

Opetaia: Great question, I actually don’t know. I have spent all this time promoting my culture, and this has opened up such a wide vista of things for me to do. I need to sit down and think about what good I can do now.


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