The Brains and Stars Behind ‘Coco’ Discuss Bringing Pixar’s Latest Wonder to the Screen

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Coco press conference

Once again, the storytelling geniuses at Pixar has delivered another crowd-pleasing tale of wonder with Coco, which sees the acclaimed animation house diving into the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It should come as no surprise that the film is visually stunning, funny, and moving – it is Pixar after all. At a recent press conference in Los Angeles, the minds behind the film and the stars who lent their voices to Coco shared their thoughts on the film. Before they took the ornate stage which utilized imagery from the movie, a mariachi band and a team of dancers entertained the assembled press with an upbeat banda number that set the mood just right.

Then director Lee Unkrich, co-director and co-writer Adrian Molina, and producer Darla K. Anderson took to the stage alongside the film’s stars Anthony Gonzalez, the voice of young Miguel; Gael García Bernal, the voice of the deceased musician Héctor; Alanna Ubach, the matriarch of Miguel’s family Mama Imelda; Benjamin Bratt as the famed musician Ernesto de la Cruz; and the great Edward James Olmos, who has a brief but important appearance as Chicharron.

“Darla, and Adrian, and I all worked on Toy Story 3 together,” said director Lee Unkrich of Coco’s origins. “When we finished that film, I started to think about what was next, and I had a few different ideas that I was kicking around. One of them was the idea of telling a story set against Día de los Muertos. I had always been interested in the tradition, and I spent some time doing some research, and really trying to understand more than I already knew. The more that I dug in, the more that I learned about how central family is to this celebration, and that Día de los Muertos is, you know, all about this obligation that we all have to remember our loved ones and to pass their stories along. I just really started to see the potential to tell a unique story, to tell a story that could only be told in animation; that could be visually dazzling, but also had the potential to have a real emotional core to it.  That was really kind of the beginning of this journey.  We immediately headed down to Mexico and started – went on the first of what proved to be many lengthy research trips, to spend time learning about the traditions, learning about the culture, and spending a lot of time with many beautiful families down in Mexico.”

For co-writer and co-director Adrian Molina, Coco has been one of his proudest moments working in the entertainment industry. “It has been the highlight of my career up to this point. I started on the film about a year and a half to two years into the production. I had finished the storyboarding on Monsters University, and it just one of those ideas that ticked off so many things, or checked off the boxes of so many things that I’ve always wanted to see in a film – that it deals so strongly with this idea of family, Miguel and his musical passion, and especially the expression of these Mexican traditions. It’s one of those things that I felt like I had a lot of experience to bring to it. Also just the way we work at Pixar, it’s such a collaborative effort, and to be able to work with all of these actors, all of these musicians, and to really bring to life this culture on screen was something that I was thrilled by.”

Young Anthony Gonzalez has been working on the role of Miguel for quite some time, having spanned nearly three years since his first audition to the film’s release. Though a little older, his youthful enthusiasm about working with the team behind Coco and Pixar hasn’t waned a bit. “I just really loved the making of it. I loved being with Lee, Darla and Adrian in the booth, and other people.  And there was just so much fun, because it was very easy for me because I had the guidance of them three, and it was like a breeze for me, and it was just so much fun doing the voice of Miguel,” the young actor said with a massive smile.

“At his very first audition we had him read a bunch of scenes, script pages,” Lee Unkrich recalled of Anthony’s audition. “Then when we were all done, he took out a CD, and he said, ‘I brought a song I want to sing to you.’ At that point, we didn’t even know if Miguel was going to be singing in the movie, so that wasn’t part of the audition. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a CD player that day, where we were. So Anthony, true to his great spirit just said, ‘Oh, well, whatever – I’ll just sing it a cappella.’ He launched into this beautiful, like, 10 minute long, sweet rendition of this song, sung just to the few of us. We were already wowed by his audition, and then that just really sealed the deal.”

Gael García Bernal is an acclaimed actor better known for starring in daring arthouse films than crowd-pleasing blockbusters, but the Mexican actor jumped at the chance to collaborate with the crew of Coco. “It is always an act of faith in a way, no?” the actor said of the length of time between signing onto an animated project before seeing its final results.

“When I got the invitation to meet with Lee, with Adrian, and with Darla and talk about the movie, I remember how already I was so convinced about it before going into the meeting with them,” Bernal continued. “After the meeting, I was just amazed by the amount of research; also the incorporation – the kind of holistic approach that they were trying to do to the Day of the Dead celebration that they were also putting forth a very personal point of view, as well – which ultimately, personal point of views are what make a movie good. I was willing to jump into that, into that trip, you know, and to interpret that point of view. And now the results – it has transcended all my expectations. This is what happens when the film becomes good, but there’s nothing you can expect that will match a result when a film is good. It’s just overcomes it, you know, it’s impressive. I’m really happy, and proud, and lucky to be part of this, with all this great team, with all this collaborative effort, me being a little part of it, being able to put forth into the world, a story, a little fable about a mythology, and a tradition that I hold very dearly, like the other mortals, and that Mexico can give this to the world, you know, and everyone in the world can adopt this tradition, this reflection on death which is a very, very important thing to do, I think, in life.”

“The first inspiration you draw from is the image that they create. You know, as actors, we don’t have the benefit of performing with one another. It’s a very kind of isolating experience to be in a booth, with only three other people in the room, and with Lee giving you the lines. Most of what we try to do is create something organic through action and reaction. So with just this to work with, you have to pull on all kinds of other things,” Benjamin Bratt said of his challenging experience as a voice actor.

And yet Bratt was able to find real life inspiration in his preparation for the larger than life role of Ernesto de la Cruz. “Lee, and Adrian, and Darla pointed me in the direction of studying some of the movie clips of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete,” Bratt explained to the assembled media. “These were film and music stars, in the equivalent strata of someone like Frank Sinatra – guys who were as beloved and as admired for their singing prowess as they were for their acting chops.  There’s plenty of footage to be found on YouTube, so I studied that quite a bit.”

For Alanna Ubach, there’s a personal aspect of Coco that she hopes will endure in the same fashion of countless other Pixar films. “They painted such an exquisite portrait of the afterlife. You can only hope that – my son, who’s 12 weeks old – when he’s old enough to understand this movie, he can walk away saying, ‘Mama, I am not afraid of death. I’m not afraid of the afterlife.’ What a beautiful world this would be if the afterlife was like this. Could you imagine?” she asked rhetorically. “Also, that they really did pay such a respect to the one quality that Latin families, Latin American families have across, and that is the importance of familia, and that is something that no presidents, or borders, or politics can ever break – that importance, the importance of familia.”

The esteemed Edward James Olmos carries that gravitas that made him a screen icon on the press conference stage. “They’ve been working on this for six years. Two years ago, I did this. And here, lo and behold, I go see the piece on Monday. I saw it because I had to do press with all of you, and I didn’t know – I hadn’t seen the movie. I said, ‘How can I do press if I don’t know what I’m talking about?’ So they had a screening over at Disney,” the acclaimed actor recalled. “And then the movie started and an amazing feeling came across immediately – the quality was superb; the feeling, the music, the sound – everything. The performances were extraordinary.”

The experience, albeit rather brief, left a lasting impression on Olmos. “Six years ago, you didn’t know that we’d be politically in the shape that we’re in – nobody did. Nobody knew that Mexicans were gonna be treated like they’ve been treated over the last year – nobody. You know, the last two years have been very difficult for us, and it’s hard not to come about and have an attitude. But you know, you try to stay strong, knowing that the pendulum swung one way – it’s gonna swing back. And when it does, it’ll have a different reaction, and we’ll have another sense of who we are, and the changes,” he said with an aura of solemnity. “[Coco] placed us in a very strong position for the future. People are gonna say thank you to the Mexican culture for introducing them to a value that they did not know anything about.  We celebrate Halloween. Hello! That’s how we celebrate the Day of the Dead. We dress up and we go out, and we “trick or treat.” Think about that – versus what the Day of the Dead really represents for many of us, which is a time to celebrate in the memory of, and pass the stories on, and celebrate life at its fullest. I am, as Chicharron, doing that one scene, it’s one of my proudest moments in the art form.  Thank you guys.”

For producer Darla K. Anderson, Coco hit all the notes that they aim for at Pixar. “When we make our movies, we make them for everybody – young to old. So what I really want young kids to take away from the film is to be thinking about their ancestors, and think about where they came,” she said before quickly correcting herself. “Well, first, I want them to have a great time. First I want them to come, and enjoy the film, and have a fabulous time. Then if they watch it multiple times, I want them to be thinking about, hopefully, where they came from, and who their great-grandparents might be, and what their ancestry is. And then Adrian’s fond of saying he hopes that they’ll all pick up a musical instrument.”

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