Thank you to Disney and Pixar Studios for hosting me during the #PixarCocoEvent.
Interviewing directors and producers-especially when it’s an animated film-is the best! They spent years working on the movie you’ve just seen, and they’re full of great stories and fun facts. And don’t forget the Easter Eggs. We always manage to get an Easter Egg or two out of them.
Director Lee Unkrich, Co-Director and Writer Adrian Molina and Producer Darla K. Anderson have all worked on some Pixar classics. They all had their hands on Toy Story 3, as Director, Storyboard Artist and Producer, respectively. Toy Story 3, also known as the movie that turned me into a sobbing, hysterical mess. Was there any hope of walking out of Coco without crying? Nope. None at all. Another hysterical, sobbing mess. It’s just that this time I got to do it with Benjamin Bratt a few rows behind me…
So do they like making us cry?
Lee: I don’t know that I like making you cry, but I like making you feel something.I know that when I go and see movies, they’re very few and far between where I actually feel genuine emotion or a movie really sticks with me after I’ve seen it. So when we make our movies we try to do that. There’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to, but I think that’s the most satisfying for us if we can have the audience feel something personal to themselves. And we know we’re on the right track when we have those feelings ourselves. It’s hard when we’re making the film over the course of six years. You’ll have an idea-like we had the idea for Miguel to sing to Mamá Coco. We had the idea to have Miguel to sing to Mamá Coco and kind of bring her out of her dementia very early on. It was in our first screening, I think, and I think we were all very affected that first time that we put it together. But it was then years afterward that we continued to refine the movie and change the story leading up to that point, and we had to just trust in that initial feeling that we had when we first put that scene up. And try to hold on to that and make sure that many years later when we were actually animating the scene that it, hopefully, would still have the effect on other people that it had on us initially.
Darla: But in order to, to feel all those feelings you’ve had to go on a journey with all of our characters, and you’ve had to, you know, laugh with them and be on a big adventure with them, and become completely invested with them. We have to earn all of that emotion. So, it comes out of a multitude of the emotions from the movie.
Were there any cameos in the film?
Adrian: There’s only two cameos of actual living people in the film. One is Michael Giacchino, and the other is our music consultant, Camilo Lara, who plays the Dj at the party.
Lee: Adrian and I both have a line in the movie. I always like to have a cameo, not physically, but just my voice. So, I’m the guy who says, “What did I miss?” at the end.
Adrian: And then, after, after Miguel takes the guitar and the, the light comes in on the window, I’m the [the guy who] says, “The guitar, it’s gone!”
Lee: We tried to fill the film with as many kinds of famous Mexican celebrities as we could. Some of which we knew would be recognizable for general audiences, but some we knew would only be [for] people who grew up in Mexico. People like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete and Cantinflas, Maria Felix, El Santo of course, Esquivel… I made, Juan Carlos Esquivel is the guy who’s playing the glass harmonica before the talent show. He’s a quirky, kind of semi-well known Mexican musician… Of course Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo.
Adrian: So much of that was inspired by the fact that we’ve got this once in a lifetime opportunityto have characters literally go into history, and Miguel is this kid who wants so much to use his music to connect, but he doesn’t have the role models to be able to help him on that path, so what a wonderful opportunity to lean on these Mexican icons who used their art to change the world, and let them be the kind of characters that kind of inspire him and push him to use his art to do beautiful things. And I’m so happy that this is the one film where, where you can do that in such an intuitive way.
Lee: We were always striving to make a film that felt kind of timeless. It’s kind of set now, but I’m hoping that it will always feel like it’s kind of set now, no matter when people see it. I remember when I was a kid after school watching Warner Brothers cartoons, like Bugs Bunny, and every once in a while one would pop up that would be full of people I didn’t recognize. They’d have like a scene in a bar and there’d be Edward G. Robinson and a lot of movie stars from that time that I didn’t know who they were, but I knew they were somebody famous at some time. It just felt that doing this in this film also felt like a little nod to kind of the history of animation in having kind of caricatured cameos of well-known people.
Darla: But they were so totally entertaining when you were a kid. It didn’t matter that you didn’t know who they were. Yeah.
Were the lead characters in the film inspired by specific performers?
Adrian: I mean, people see the film, and they’ll see de la Cruz, and they’ll be like, “He’s Infante!” Infante’s in the movie and we imagine he’s a contemporary, and Cantinflas is in the film, but you get a sense from Hector, he’s got that vest and the low-riding pants. We wanted to have these characters exist in the film, but I think it’s a compliment that the characters of the film themselves, and it feels like it harkens back to this age of Mexican cinema.
Lee: We were so immersed in, in our research for so many years that it’s inevitable that things would infuse their way into the film that we weren’t consciously trying to put there, but just because that was the world we were living in and creating from.
Did they always plan to have an all-Latino cast?
Lee: Yeah, absolutely. It was non-negotiable. I mean, we knew we had to put John Ratzenberger in the movie.
Darla: We’re not breaking the spell.
Lee: It was very important to us because it was the right thing to do. It would have been very strange to not. It didn’t make casting a challenge. It definitely narrowed the, the options. I’ve worked with a lot of great actors in the past, and many of them have become my friends. Part of me felt like, I wish I could work with them again, but I knew it wasn’t going to be on this movie. So, we, we have new friends.
What was it like premiering the movie in Mexico?
Darla: Oh it was really important.
Adrian: We try to talk as much as we can about how much research that we did on this film, and part of the effect that research had on us wasn’t just on the story. It was the fact that we were meeting these families and we were making these friends, and we were collaborating with artists all over Mexico. And the least we could do to pay homage to the beauty of the tradition and the place where they came from-we were just over the moon to have the opportunity to premiere in Mexico, especially in Mexico City at the Palace of Fine Arts. It’s like, who gets that opportunity? And the level of love and engagement from that audience and from the country ever since…
Lee: It’s been a little overwhelming.
Adrian: It’s been very overwhelming in the most beautiful way.
What did they learn in their research that really touched them?
Lee: One thing that I didn’t know, that we learned early on, is this belief that we’re all capable of dying multiple deaths. The actual belief is that we all die the first time when our heart stops. Then we die a second time when we’re buried and no one can ever see us again. But then there was this idea of this third and final death, when there’s nobody left among the living who remembers us and who can tell our stories… Once we all heard it, it just was clear to us that it was incredibly poignant and needed to be an important part of the story that we were telling. And so, it took some time, but ultimately, that notion end up becoming the bedrock of the story that we told.
What was the biggest challenge in getting the story right?
Adrian: There’s a lot of pieces to this story, and I think when you’re watching it the first time through, a lot of them can be hidden, and that’s by design. But there’s a very certain order to what the characters know about each other and what they say to each other, and who’s in the room when. And it just took a lot of iteration to figure out how to put these puzzle pieces together. On top of that, there’s the fact that this is a tradition that a certain portion of the audience is going to be very familiar with, and then another very large portion is going to have no idea. It took a while to figure out, how do we invite people in, who aren’t familiar, without slowing down too much for the people who are?
Lee: Or coming off as pedantic
Adrian: Or coming off like it’s a school lesson. It took a while to find, but it ultimately came down to the way this tradition is transmitted is through the family, so a lot of it fell to Abuelita to be the one who can convey this tradition to Miguel, at the same time as doing it for the audience. And that became a very natural way to get people understanding why this is important to the culture and to the family.
Darla: Will you tell the story of your family when you went off to college?
Adrian: Oh yeah. The other thing that was very difficult about this is that in the land of the dead, we needed to create a whole set of rules that are not exactly intuitive to an audience. One of them being the idea of a blessing, and that the blessing is the way to send you home. So this was an idea when I started writing I started suggesting in the room. Because in the first act, we always knew what Miguel really wanted deep down. He’s a musician and he loves his family, and all he wants is for them to give their acceptance and give their okay. And so we’re like, well, in the second act, why don’t we make that manifest? Why don’t we make him literally need his family’s blessing in orderto go home and set things right? And this was inspired by this moment when I was going off to art school. I had the car packed up, my dad gave me forty bucks to gas up the car on the drive down five to Cal Arts.
Darla: As dads do.
Adrian: As dads do. But before I left the house, they said, “Before you go, we just want to give you our blessing.” And I’m like, I don’t know what that means. So it was my mom and my dad, so I took a knee, I knelt down and they just said a little prayer over me, and said, “We love you, we support you, we know this is your first time going off on your own, and we want you to know that you have our blessing.” And I told the story in the story room because, I said, “I think this could be a very powerful moment.” And I don’t know that it’s something everyone has experienced, but it was something that came from my family life that I thought, if we can convey what this feels like, it will…
Darla: It’s making me cry.
Adrian: If we can convey what this feels like, I think it has the power to be very meaningful. Especially the sense that, especially with Mamá Imelda, her blessing changes over the course of this film…
Lee: It’s conditional.
Adrian: It’s conditional at first, and then it becomes unconditional, and that transition I think says so much about when a family is really… She’s completely motivated by protecting her family, but she needs to analyze what that actually means. And her action changes over the course of the film, and I think that’s so beautiful that it takes both sides coming together to really bring a family together.
What inspired the pictures in the credits?
Lee: I had an idea at some point that I thought it would be lovely to do some sort of digital ofrenda at the end of the film because we had learned so much about the traditions and we had incorporated them into our lives at Pixar. For the second year now we’ve created a big ofrenda in the atrium of Pixar, and we’ve invited everyone in the company to bring in photos of their loved ones to put on the ofrenda, and I just had this thought, wouldn’t it be lovely to kind of thank all the people that supported us, and continue to support us across time. So we ended up extending the opportunity to everyone in the company to submit a photo of somebody who they had lost who was important to them, and we did that. My grandmother’s in there.
Darla: My mom.
Adrian: My grandparents.
Lee: We also put a lot of people that we’ve lost over time. Different animators that we’ve los, unfortunately.
Darla: Walt Disney.
Lee: Walt Disney is in there, Steve Jobs is in there. We put Don Rickles in there because we lost him this year; he was a big part of our family at Pixar. I regret that it’s at the end of the credits because I think that a lot of people won’t see it because a lot of people don’t stay for credits. But for the people who do, I think it will be very meaningful for them, and it’s very meaningful for us. It’s a very personal reflection of thanks to everyone who’s been there for us.
How would they like to be remembered?
Adrian: I would probably like to be remembered as someone who tried to use their art to make the world a better place.
Lee: I will say that, and I will add on to that the same thing I always tell my kids: the only thing I want for them is to be kind people. That’s always the most important thing to me, so I would like to be remembered as somebody who was kind and fair.
Darla: I will say that. It’s like dominos. And as somebody who-I think especially as a woman-who had the courage to learn how to find my voice. And to set an example for others. I’m always conscious of that in the world. If you’re in any kind of a public figure to set an example to find your voice and speak out loud about things that matter.
Follow along with all of my #PixarCocoEvent coverage for more exclusive interviews and behind the scenes information!
Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel (voice of newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael García Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history. Directed by Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”), co-directed by Adrian Molina (story artist “Monsters University”) and produced by Darla K. Anderson (“Toy Story 3”), Disney•Pixar’s “Coco” is in theaters now.