Dia de los Muertos [The Day of the Dead] has begun to permeate pop-culture, featured prominently now in both Bond (Spectre) and animated children’s films (The Book of Life). Per tradition, during the Mexican Holiday, the dead journey from the afterlife to the land of the living. To celebrate – families set up altars, vigils, & parades all to honor loved ones lost. It’s a bright, bold, festive event – so it’s no surprise it caught the attention of filmmaker Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3).
Unkrich immediately then set out to make a film centered on the holiday, yet struggled to come up with a compelling story within. Now over six years later, Unkrich has seemingly cracked the narrative. Coco, the first all Latino Pixar feature, focuses on Miguel, a young boy who yearns to be a singer despite the misgivings of his parents & grandparents. To escape from his family and follow his dreams, Miguel steals the guitar of his dead idol Ernesto de la Cruz, thrusting him into The City of the Dead (turns out stealing the dead’s items during Dia de los Muertos is a big no-no). Now in order to return to the living, Miguel must find Ernesto and ask him for his approval before the sun rises and he’s stuck there forever.
In the following interview with Lee Unkrich, co-writer/co-director Adrian Molina & producer Darla K Anderson, the trio discusses Coco’s long development process, the original scrapped story and why Dia de los Muertos has suddenly become so popular in pop culture. For the full interview, read below.
How important do you feel a cute animal is to Pixar films given Dug (Up), The Good Dinosaur and now Dante (in Coco)?
[Coco co-stars Dante, a hairless dog that joins Miguel on his journey to The City of the Dead]
LEE UNKRICH: Is Dante really a cute animal?
I think so…
UNKRICH: You know, in this case – having a dog really came out of the research. A lot of ancient Mezo-American beliefs center around traveling to an afterlife. The Aztecs believed that during this journey, to get to the City of The Dead, there were some difficult challenges that you would have along the way. There was this belief that you need to have a dog with you, specifically a xolo dog (a hairless dog), to help you on that journey… so it seemed fitting that we could have a fun animal.
DARLA K. ANDERSON (producer): That was the spark of the idea.
UNKRICH: Then you have this comic sidekick for Miguel, and it was also fitting and part of the mythology that we had studied.
Is it always research that informs the characters in the story?
ADRIAN MOLINA [co-writer/co-director]: Not always, but as much as you can. It’s a good way to test whether an idea has earned its way into your world and into your story…
Are you looking to other Pixar films as a template for what works and what doesn’t work?
UNKRICH: No – it’s more that sometimes we think that we have this really great idea and we run with that idea until someone goes, ‘Wait a minute – this is exactly what we did in Ratatouille.’ And then everyone just groans in the room because we have to start over and come up with a new solution.
Then are you cognizant of finding different emotional beats for each Pixar film?
UNKRICH: It’s never about saying, ‘Oh we’ve done this in Up, so let’s try [something else] in this movie.’ It’s never that. We go where the story takes us and we hope we have a story that allows for a broad range of tones and emotions. We really just try to go where the story takes us, so it’s never about ‘we’ve never done this so let’s do that.’
Has the development process at Pixar shifted or changed during the years?
ANDERSON: I don’t think so. The zeitgeist and spirit of it all is still the same. People have seasons where they’re busy and they’re coming and going, but in terms of us getting together and putting the film up every twelve weeks and everyone coming into the room and putting all their energies into supporting the best of what that movie can be — that process has stayed remarkably consistent.
UNKRICH: It’s great to be at a company, especially with the original films, they’re given whatever gestation periods they need. Sometimes it’s a long time before something finds it’s footing. It’s happened again and again. When we made Up, it started out being a very different film then what it finally became and that’s happened on a few of our films. Even Coco – this was a very different story at the beginning, but luckily [Pixar] give us the room to try things and fail. We know that’s going to be a part of the process until we get to a place where we have a movie that’s worthy of being in this world.
What was that initial spark for Coco?