Setting out to pen Pixar’s Day of the Dead-themed Coco, from an original story by Lee Unkrich, screenwriters Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina found an exciting amount of cultural material to draw from in visualizing the Mexican holiday, while recognizing that they would be held accountable for representing Mexico’s culture and traditions faithfully.
The stakes at hand were all the more apparent when the writers actually traveled down to Mexico with the Coco team as part of their research process, breaking bread with real Mexican families, who conveyed a simple request: “Please get this right.”
When Coco finally bowed in theaters this past November, Mexico’s endorsement of the film was clear. Pixar’s latest now stands as the highest grossing film in the country’s history, playing to equal success in the U.S. and around the world. A Mexican-American himself, co-director Molina is still processing the meaning behind the film’s outsized success.
Indicative of the “transformative” power of on-screen representation, the success of Coco hinged on songs capturing the celebratory essence of Mexico’s holiday, and little visual details mined to bring Mexico to the screen in a way it never had been before.
How did you get involved with Coco, fleshing out Lee Unkrich’s story into a fully-realized experience?
Adrian Molina: All of the films at Pixar are director-driven. After Lee finished Toy Story 3, he wanted to pitch a new idea, and one of those ideas revolved around Día de los Muertos. That got everyone excited—all of the imagery in the early research that Lee had done spoke to the potential for a story that could be about family, about a connection to your ancestors, and the journey in that realm.
Matthew Aldrich: Lee had been working with Darla [K. Anderson, producer] and [story supervisor] Jason Katz—that was the core team before I came on in 2012. They had a story that had some similarities to what the story eventually became, but it had some differences, as well. We put it on its feet and could see that parts of it weren’t going to work, so we took it down to the studs again.
Once I got involved, we took a really long look at the holiday itself. If you’re going to make a Christmas movie, you’re going to look at: What are the values of Christmas? What would the happy ending of a Christmas movie be? So we looked at Día de Muertos, and what the things are that that holiday values.
That was where we started. We said, “If everybody’s remembered, everybody’s on the ofrenda, they’re all together, it is a true family reunion that spans the ages.” Then we said, “Okay, if that’s how the movie ends, let’s work backwards and create a scenario where there’s a problem at the beginning.”
Then, traveling down to Mexico and actually celebrating the holiday was transformative in a way that I could never have imagined.
What was the thinking when it came to your audience for this film—how you would please the Mexican community, while bringing the world at large to the film as well?
Molina: We want to build it into a story that anyone can access, anyone can relate to, but not at the cost of compromising the integrity of the actual tradition.From top to bottom, that was something that we all took very seriously. We all very much wanted to present something that was faithful to the people we met and the experiences we had.
Aldrich: When we were down there with these families in their homes, they said, “Do us proud.” It was an incredibly personal request, in my book.
Can you give a sense of specific cultural details taken from your research process that you were able to embed in your script?
Molina: So much of the research was foundational to the storytelling. Whenever it came to a plot device or story problem, there was a wealth of real-life reference that we could use to help lend an extra layer of meaning to what was in our story.
When the group went down to Mexico to learn about the holiday, we learned about these paths of cempasuchil, marigold petals that people lay out in trails through the cemetery, through the streets, to the household, that are meant to guide the spirits and connect the spirits back to the family. That’s a real life detail that exists in the celebration that we could then develop into, “Oh, if we need to visualize the way that these two worlds are connected, that’s a beautiful place to begin.” That was the jumping-off point for this marigold bridge moment that you see in the film.
Aldrich: Día de Muertos is sort of an embarrassment of riches. Especially in the early days, we had all of these pieces on the table. We had a table covered with Alebrije figures, and the cempasuchils and calacas. It was more like, “How do we get all this in the movie?” There was never a shortage.
Were the film’s musically oriented scenes all explicitly detailed within the script?
Aldrich: They happened in different stages. Early on, we were developing the story as more of a traditional musical, so we were working very closely with Bobby [Lopez] and Kristen [Anderson-Lopez] to craft what were probably more traditional musical theater moments.
It was absolutely in the script and out of the script and in the boards, and it was all happening sort of simultaneously. But as it moved to more of a movie with music, that transformed.
Molina: “Remember Me,” written by Bobby and Kristen, that was there from the very beginning. Once we heard that, we’re like, “Okay.” [laughs] We checked one box off.
Aldrich: With that specifically, we went to them with a really hard problem. We said, “We need a song that can be sung three times in the movie, fast and slow. It has to be a Vegas show number in one, it has to be a love letter to a daughter in another…”
Molina: And we want the lyrics and the melody to be the same.
Aldrich: We gave them this laundry list of things that we needed, story-wise, and like a rabbit out of the hat, they had “Remember Me.” I remember listening to it for the first time and crying.
Molina: When I started writing, the film had begun to shift into a realm where we wanted the music in the narrative to be performance-based. When we got to those moments where Miguel needed to perform, I worked with Germaine Franco, who also orchestrated for the film, and we started talking about what styles of music really feel like they’re of this world. What would they be singing about, knowing who wrote the songs and what they were about? That kind of scene-by-scene became little challenges that we picked off as we went along the way.
What were the biggest challenges you faced on Coco?
Aldrich: I, like other writers here, was sort of brought in. A lot of us come from live-action, so for me, one of the greatest challenges was that it feels like you’re trying to jump on a moving treadmill and not get flung backwards. Things move so fast here and it’s so highly collaborative and dynamic that, for me, it’s just a challenge of acclimating to the animation process. I was lucky in that Lee was incredibly patient with me in the early days while I was getting up to speed, and once I started to wrap my brain around how animated movies were made, I started having a really good time.
Coco has been a huge success, becoming Mexico’s top-grossing film of all time and playing like gangbusters in the U.S., as well. What has this success meant to you?
Molina: I’ve put the last four-and-a-half years of my life into this film, and it’s probably one of the most personal stories I’ve ever been a part of telling. From that angle, I’m extremely proud to have gotten to the other end of it.
It’s almost hard to express in words what I’ve felt from the reaction people have to the film, whether it’s because it reminds them of someone that they love, and maybe aren’t in contact with, or it’s because they’re Latino, and they’ve never seen their experience and their families represented on screen, in a way that shows the world the pride that they have in the place that they come from.
That is so much of what we were trying to do with this film, is represent things faithfully, and the side effect of that is that people see themselves on the screen with all of the honor and pride and love that they have. I don’t think that’s something that a lot of communities get very often. That has been really overwhelming, in a good way, to hear the response that people have had in those respects.
Aldrich: For me, it’s completely humbling. To see the way that the movie has been received in Mexico—not just by these families, but by the entire country—I feel like we kind of made good on that promise, like we did right by the people who were so generous by letting us into their homes and telling their own stories, that we repaid them in some way. I’m just remembering these people that I met. I hope they’ve seen the movie, and I hope they had a good time.