Winning an Oscar seven years ago for Toy Story 3—his solo directorial debut—Pixar’s Lee Unkrich looks to be a certain frontrunner again this year with his gorgeously colorful, thematically powerful Día de Muertos drama Coco. Centered on the young, musically-talented Miguel, the film charts the boy’s journey to the Land of the Dead, as he follows his dream—in spite of his conservative upbringing—and visits his deceased ancestors in their domain.
Set in Mexico—with the filmmakers undertaking an extensive research process and hiring an all-Latino cast—Coco has been a smash hit in the U.S. and Mexico, a warm celebration of a diverse culture, though representation was not the primary consideration when the project began.
As always, for Unkrich, it began with a story. Below, the director tells the story of the project’s genesis and evolution, discussing the singular Mexican city that served as inspiration for the Land of the Dead and the process of finding his cast, including breakout newcomer Anthony Gonzales.
You originated the story for Coco. Where did that come from?
After I finished Toy Story 3, I started to look to what was next. I kicked around a few different ideas, and one of them was the idea to tell a story set against the Mexican celebration of Día de Muertos. I had thought about doing that because I had long been interested in Día de Muertos but I knew that there was a lot about it that I needed to learn. So I embarked on a journey, diving in deep and learning as much about the tradition as I could. When I did, I learned about how much of this holiday is about family and the obligation to remember our loved ones, and to pass their stories along and tell their stories to the next generation.
The more I got into it and learned about how special the tradition was, I started to see the potential to make a movie that could be really entertaining, and funny, and colorful, and full of music and life and celebration, but could also have a really strong emotional core, which is really the most important thing that we look for at Pixar when we’re trying to settle on an idea.
Setting out to make this, was there the specific intent to expand Pixar’s representation of other cultures?
The intent in making the film was not to bring more representation, or diversify the kinds of stories we’re telling. It really was that I had an idea to make a film and tell a story, and Pixar and Disney supported me in that. Ultimately, it’s come to be important for representation and all of those things, but in its inception was purely in telling a story.
Was there a certain weight of responsibility in representing Mexican culture truthfully and authentically?
Once I got the go-ahead from John Lasseter to pursue this idea, there was a huge responsibility on my shoulders. I knew from the very beginning that I needed to endeavor to make a film that was free of clichés and stereotypes, and tell a story that was culturally authentic and as respectful as possible. That responsibility never left me for a single day in the six years I worked on the film. Everyone on my crew knew that that was paramount, that we do our best to tell an honest story about this very real culture.
As part of your research process, you spend a good deal of time in Mexico. How did those early journeys help you arrive at the film as it stands?
I first pitched the story in September of 2011 and by the end of October, we were on a plane down to Mexico. We wanted to get down there to experience Día de Muertos firsthand in Mexico, so we did that that year, and we did the following year as well. We spent a long time in Mexico traveling all over the country, taking hundreds of thousands of photographs and trying to steep ourselves in Mexican culture. But also, learning specifically about how different families throughout Mexico celebrated Día de Muertos.
The thing that was the most valuable for me on all of those research trips was the time we spent visiting families, embedding ourselves with them and watching not only how they celebrated Día de Muertos, but also seeing how they interacted as families. Many of these families were multi-generational, with three or four generations living together under one roof, and it was really wonderful for us to observe and have them share their traditions, and their culture with us. Many of the experiences we had and the things we observed ended up being woven into the fabric of what became Coco.
What about the city of Guanajuato jibed with your vision of the Land of the Dead?
Guanajuato is a city in Mexico that is very unique, in that it rests in a bowl-shaped valley. The buildings are all encrusted into the hillside and they’re all painted very bright, vivid colors. There is nowhere else like it in the world. It had a big impact on us and we ended up using that as a jumping-off point for the feeling of the Land of the Dead, where we envisioned lots of buildings and houses all kind of encrusted together, growing up into tall tower forms.
That was a big influence, and also the history of Mexico itself, architecturally, and the history of Mexico City. Mexico City was originally built on water; there were waterways going all through it a long time ago. We paid homage to that by having a world that is kind of built on top of water, and our Land of the Dead grows up out of the water. We have all these layers of history represented in the towers, starting with Aztec pyramids down at the base, and as you work your way up, the architecture becomes more and more modern. It’s not anything that’s part of the story per se, but it’s a feeling. When you’re creating a whole new world like this, you need to have some guiding design principles, even if those design principles aren’t a part of the story you’re telling.
What inspired the use of Mexican marigolds as a prominent design element?
The Cempasúchil flower that we know as the marigold is a very important part of Día de Muertos. If you travel down to Mexico during Día de Muertos, you’ll see fields of them being grown that go on and on forever. They’re made use of in lots of ways. They use them to decorate the ofrendas, but most importantly, they’ll pull the petals off of the flowers and create these pathways made out of marigold petals that sometimes stretch all the way from the local town cemeteries, through town to people’s homes.
They’re meant to be a pathway to help guide people’s ancestors who are returning on Día de Muertos to come visit the family. We just thought that was such a beautiful notion—so striking, visually—that we ended up embracing it in many ways in the story, from the big, beautiful bridge made out of marigold petals to using a single petal as a vehicle of passage for Miguel to travel back and forth between [Mexico and the Land of the Dead].
What was the process in casting Coco, with its ethnic and musical requirements? There’s been a lot of scrutiny paid recently to the casting of projects intended to represent other cultures.
I’ve certainly been aware of controversies at different studios and on different films over casting people to play parts that are not their own culture or race. I just knew from the very beginning that if I was telling a story in Mexico, that we were going to have an all-Latino cast. That was non-negotiable.
It was bit more work, of course, because our pool of talent was narrowed from being able to just cast anybody in the parts, but it was what was right for the film. There was never any question that that’s what we were going to do.
We have some casting folks that we work with within Pixar, and we did work with them on Coco. But additionally, we hired a woman named Carla Hool who is from Mexico originally, and specializes in casting Latino projects. She had a lot of contacts with different fantastic actors and helped get us in touch with them. She also was instrumental with us finding the boy to play Miguel.
We saw hundreds and hundreds of kids all over the United States and in Mexico, and thankfully, one day we came upon Anthony Gonzalez. We had lots of great Latino actors in the film, from Gael García Bernal to Benjamin Bratt to Edward James Olmos—lots and lots of greats folks, and lots of folks that we found actually in Mexico. It was very special group of actors and they’re all very proud of the film.
How did you handle the musical dimension of Coco?
We knew from pretty early on with this particular story that music was going to play a huge part in it. I knew that it wasn’t going to be a break-out-into-song, traditional musical, but I wanted it to be filled with music. For me, one of the models was the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? That, to me, was a perfect model of a film that wasn’t a musical but had music in its DNA, and was filled with music in almost every single scene. It was very specific musical genre in that case— Americana—but in our case, I wanted to embrace the beauty of Mexican music and have it infused the entire story we were telling.
Everything from Michael Giacchino’s score, to the original songs we wrote, to some of the traditional melodies that we have being a part of the film, it was all in an effort to try to capture, in some way, the full breadth of musical styles that there are in Mexican music. We worked with a lot of great different people. There’s a guy named Camilo Lara who had a band called the Mexican Institute of Sound who I was a big fan of, prior to making this movie. We ended up bringing him on as a musical consultant and he connected us with a lot of amazing musicians in Mexico who ended up being part of the soundtrack.
In terms of the singing, that was a tricky one because I purposefully didn’t want to hire actors who were necessarily known as singers first and foremost. In the case of Ernesto de la Cruz, I always imagined him as not necessarily being an amazing singer, but an amazing performer. Benjamin Bratt was great because he can sing and he’s a great performer but he’s not a professional singer—and the same thing with Gael. He’s able to carry a tune so he was able to sing songs we needed for the film.
Anthony has an incredible voice but he’s not really trained. He sings well because he’s just naturally gifted and he’s young—I liked that he wasn’t polished and perfect. He had the texture of a kid who likes to sing, but isn’t a professional singer.