Directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina and producer Darla K. Anderson on Disney•Pixar’s Coco
In Disney•Pixar‘s Coco, a young boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) and his faithful Xolo dog friend Dante search the land of the dead to find Miguel’s distant relative Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Along the way he meets the trickster Hector (Gael García Bernal) who helps him on his quest. We got a chance to chat with directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, and producer Darla K. Anderson about the film, the characters including the alebrije Pepita, something to keep your eyes peeled for in the film, and more. Check out our interviews with the filmmakers of Coco below.
ComingSoon.net: Can you talk a bit about the amount of research you did for this film?
Darla K. Anderson: Well, right after Lee pitched the film to John [Lasseter] six years ago, we jumped on a plane, in September of 2011… it’s so great to work at a company — John just really supports and insists upon us doing a lot of research and getting things right. We went to Mexico City, we went to Morelia, we went to Michoacan and then we went down to Oaxaca and steeped ourselves with the families and traditions and food and music, and we were so inspired on that first trip.
Lee Unkrich: And there were many more.
Darla K. Anderson: And there were many more! We had cultural consultants that we brought on; three very important ones who then connected us to every expert, well, not every expert, but many experts in the field of music and customs, food and everything. It was a really, really awesome journey.
CS: You’ve got an entire movie centered around a young kid. Can you tell us what it was like casting Miguel?
Lee Unkrich: Yeah, he was a huge challenge for us. It’s always hard to find kids who can act in a really natural way. It’s really like finding a needle in a hundred haystacks. [laughs] And our job was that much more difficult because we needed to find a Latino boy who could act, who could sing, who was young enough that his voice wouldn’t change as we made the movie, because it takes so long to make, but old enough to be mature and to take direction. It was like a nearly impossible task, but we worked with a casting director named Carla Hool who’s from Mexico, and she specializes on working on Latino-themed projects, and so she was a great resource for us. We saw hundreds and hundreds of boys all over the United States and Mexico, and there was a certain point where I was like, what are we going to do because we still haven’t found him. Thankfully, one day Anthony Gonzalez walked through our door, and the rest is history.
Darla K. Anderson: And he sang!
Lee Unkrich: And he sang! We didn’t even know if Miguel was going to sing at that point, but he, on his own, asked if he could sing to us at the end of his audition. He brought a CD to sing along with, but we didn’t have a CD player where we were, so he said, “Oh, I’ll just sing to you a cappella.” So he just sang like a ten-minute, beautiful balled. We just fell in love.
CS: During the screening, there were audible sobs at a certain point. I now know better and bring tissues. Every Pixar film does this to me. This may sound silly, but is that a goal?
Lee Unkrich: [laughs] I don’t think our goal is to make people cry, but our goal is to make people feel something. We feel great when people have that level of reaction. I know it can be a little cliche, people say oh, when you go and see a Pixar movie, you’ll cry, but it’s not always the case and we don’t take it for granted.
Adrian Molina: It’s all born out of the fact that when we’re making these films, we want to dig deep and we want to say something that feels true and honest and meaningful. When we’re watching the films, we want to feel those emotions. We want to get those reactions, so that’s part of the reason why we do it; because we’re motivated by telling stories that touch our hearts.
CS: Tell us more about the alebrijes. Adrian, your collection is so cool. [Note: Molina brought in his personal collection of alebrijes to the early press day for the film, as well as during the production process.] Can you tell us about the decision to bring them into the film and to make them spirit guides.
Adrian Molina: So many of the moments in our story, we wanted the research to be present in the storytelling decisions, because there is so much beauty in Mexican culture, Mexican art, that that was the first place we would often go when we were trying to create this world. And alebrijes, while they’re not necessarily associated with the Day of the Dead, are this beautiful, uniquely Mexican folk art tradition, and you go to Oaxaca, you go on the streets and you see these creatures and they look like they’re alive. They’re colorful, they’re vibrant and seeing that — in animation, we’ve got an opportunity to do something that no one else gets to do, which is to literally bring these models alive. So we created a space for them to be spirit guides that help the family through the journey. It’s just one of those things that it feels like you could only do on this film, but I’m so happy that we’ve got a studio that wants to create this type of art and do something where we can bring…alebrijes to life.
Lee Unkrich: You know, it’s funny. Alebrijes are kind of a mashup of different animals. For us to create the whole menagerie that we needed to create for the movie, it was going to be too much work. [laughs] We already have so much in this film, that we had to find a way to create them efficiently. We ended up searching through our back catalogue of movies, and we ended up finding characters in the other movies that we could repurpose and redesign. So a lot of the alebrijes, many of them, but not all of them, actually come from our film The Good Dinosaur, because we had to create so many critters and insects and different creatures to live in that world that people didn’t to see a lot. So we ended up taking them and pushing them, pulling and putting wings on animals that didn’t have wings.
Adrian Molina: There are a few that are based on Kevin from Up.
Lee Unkrich: There are a whole bunch of characters that we ended up repurposing into background alebrijes.
Darla K. Anderson: There is a very specific story — I remember when we were on Toy Story 3 and we were about to go to the hotel room. We were checking into the hotel room and the folks who were checking us in took two of the alebrijes that were decorating the room and they put them next to my bedside and said, “These will protect you on your dream journey. They’ll keep the bad dreams away from you.” So little things like that… stick in your brain.
CS: Can you talk a bit about Miguel’s friend Dante?
Lee Unkrich: Dante, I think it was Matthew Aldrich, who I think was the original writer that was on the film, he, I think, came up with the idea of putting Dante in the film, and he named him, and making him a Xolo dog. You know, Xoloitzcuintli are the national dog of Mexico, that many people know about. They’re obviously very unique looking, because they have very little hair. Many of them are missing their teeth, which is why their tongues kind of hang out. We embraced that with Dante’s tongue. But also in our research, in learning about ancient Aztec folklore and mythology, there was this belief that, when somebody died, they had to go on this long journey to Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead, and that they needed a companion to help them on some parts of the journey. Specifically it was a Xolo dog. So it just seemed so fitting for us. It was an opportunity to have a goofy sidekick for Miguel in the movie, but also have it be for a reason. It was born out of actual research we did and we also loved the idea of Dante seemingly being this useless, goofy character, but then proving to be useful to Miguel. There’s a reason that he’s on this journey with Miguel.
CS: I know you guys did a lot of research into the specific mythology of the afterlife in Mexico, but that a lot of people weren’t specific in their ideas. Can you tell us about that?
Darla K. Anderson: The land of the dead was inspired by a lot of the research that we did, and all the places that we went. We wanted to honor all of the architecture in many respects, so at the base — it’s like a family tree — so at the base there’s the pyramids and as you go up, there’s the layers of generations because a lot of souls need to be housed. One town in particular that was really inspiring was Guanajuato, which has these beautiful — when we were doing our research and we got to that small town/city of Guanajuato, it really inspired us with all those colors and encrusted small houses.
Lee Unkrich: All the buildings have to be painted from a certain color palate. The city mandates a certain color palate, and as long as you pick one of those colors, you can go for it, but they’re all very bold, bright colors. And when you take in the whole city and take in all those colorful buildings encrusted into the hillside — if you look at a picture of Guanajuato and you look at our land of the dead, I think it’s pretty clear that we were influenced by it.
Are you guys excited for Coco? Let us know in the comments. Coco opens in theaters tonight!