Courtesy Disney/Pixar
Screenshot from ‘Coco’Courtesy Disney/Pixar
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A Conversation with Lee Unkrich, the Oscar-Winning Director of ‘Coco’

The Pixar mainstay opens up about cultural appropriation, Steven Spielberg’s socks, and the similarities between Mexican and Jewish-American cultures

Douglas Century
April 24, 2018
Courtesy Disney/Pixar
Screenshot from 'Coco'Courtesy Disney/Pixar

Last month, filmmaker Lee Unkrich, a longtime member of Pixar Animation Studio’s creative team, won his second Academy Award as director of the Best Animated Film of 2017. Unkrich’s first Oscar was for directing Toy Story 3; his latest is for Coco—now released on DVD—a critically acclaimed smash, with a global box office gross of nearly $800 million.

Set in Mexico during Día de Muertos celebration, Coco—codirected by Adrian Molina—tells the story of Miguel, a music-loving 12-year-old boy, who journeys to Land of the Dead, seeking to find his deceased great-great-grandfather, along the way uncovering many shocking family secrets.

Lee Unkrich recently talked with Tablet about the six years he dedicated to researching, writing and making Coco, and the sensibility he brings to the film as a Jewish-American director from Cleveland.

Douglas Century: Full disclosure: you’re married to my cousin, Laura Century, who was live-Facebooking your Academy Awards night experiences at the Dolby Theatre. I’ve been hearing through the family grapevine for years about “a passion project that Lee’s working on down in Mexico.” Well, that project is now the Oscar-winning blockbuster Coco. How did you first develop your passion for Día de Los Muertos?

Lee Unkrich: I’d been aware of the existence of the Día de Los Muertos tradition for a long time. I did my undergrad and grad school in Los Angeles and was drawn to a lot of underground art galleries in those years—seeing visual artwork that made use of the iconography from the Día de Los Muertos. I think a lot of people have that same casual awareness [that I did] and it’s led to the confusion that Día de Los Muertos is just a Mexican version of Halloween. It’s not, of course. When I started this project, my relationship was strictly though the folk art and the iconography of the celebration.

DC: How did the casual interest in folk art morph into an idea for an animated feature film?

LU: I said: “This is a world I’ve never seen explored before in a feature film—whether in live-action or animation.” I approached some close collaborators at Pixar and we started kicking around ideas—back in 2011. While doing research about where and how the holiday was celebrated, I came to understand that it had nothing to do with Halloween. I realized that Día de Los Muertos was its own distinct celebration which just happened to take place at the same time of year. The celebration is all about family: the idea of family reunion, the need to remember our ancestors, to keep their memories alive, and to keep those memories alive joyously. And most importantly, to pass their stories along to the next generation. In September of 2011, I pitched a more fleshed-out story to Pixar. Everyone was excited. Everything took off fast: by October 2011 we were on planes heading down for our first of what would turn out to be many trips to Mexico. Día de Los Muertos takes place on the first and second of November and we wanted to experience it firsthand. We traveled to many parts of the country, but mostly to Central Mexico—Guanajuato and the state of Michoacán, spending time with different families, just to learn and to observe and experience as much as we could.

DC: Why Guanajuato and Michoacán instead of, say, Mexico City?

LU: The holiday is celebrated all around Mexico but in different ways. We really wanted to go to Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Morelia, places that are considered “ground-central,” where it’s widely seen as being most deeply celebrated.

DC Was there any resistance—on a corporate level—to making a Disney Pixar movie set entirely in Mexico?

LU: No, they were all in from the very beginning. At the first pitch meeting, I talked about the importance of being culturally respectful and authentic. But the first way we conceived this film was a very different story than what we ended up with. I knew that a lot of our audience wasn’t going to have much idea about what this holiday was, that there was going to have to be some degree of education involved. The first idea I pitched had an American kid in it.

DC: An American kid? As the central character?

LU: Yes, it was going to be a story about an American kid with an American dad—he’d had a mother from Mexico who passed away, and the father is taking his son down to meet the Mexican side of his family for the first time. To be there during Día de Los Muertos. The dad is helping his son cope with his mother’s death through this celebration. That was the first stab. I thought that by seeing a kid who doesn’t know what any of this holiday is about, the audience would learn about it through his character. It would feel less expositional. It would make Día de Los Muertos somehow more accessible.

DC: The non-Mexican audience who knows nothing about the traditions would learn about them in real-time though the American kid’s eyes?

LU: But at a certain point I had an epiphany: I realized we were telling the story from a very Western point-of-view. We were making our story about grieving. About letting go. And that’s antithetical to what Día de Los Muertos is all about. Día de Los Muertos is about never forgetting—that we should always remember our ancestors who’ve died. I saw that we needed to lose the white American protagonist. At that point we were down in Mexico, living with Mexican families, so we started over from scratch and came up with the beginnings of what ultimately became Coco.

DC: Funny, because of Disney Pixar’s reputation as a money-making colossus: From a strictly commercial point-of-view, if you’d had an American kid and a white American dad as central characters, you could’ve had the voice of Tom Hanks or Bradley Cooper as the father, and potentially that would be more commercial—

LU: Just to be clear, the commercial aspect was separate from the creative conversation. It would come up only from the point-of-view of: “What’s the best way to market this film?” We always had our eyes wide open; we did discuss the potential of having a character, who wasn’t Mexican, and who might help us market it the film in countries around the world that have no connection to Mexico whatsoever.

DC: The film has resonated with both Mexican and non-Mexican audiences. If you know nothing at all about Mexico, if all you’ve seen is Coco, the message you get about Mexican culture is universal: “Family is everything. Familial memory is everything.” It feels so authentic; a far cry from some of the earlier Disney animated movies, the ones I watched with my daughter when she was younger, now seen as being so culturally ham-fisted: Like Pocahontas, in which they sanitized the ugly reality of what happened to Native Americans. My daughter—now fifteen—is constantly saying: “Do you realize that she was really just twelve years-old? And John Smith was in his forties?”

LU: Sure, I’ve been aware of the controversies over the years, especially where white actors are hired to play of characters from another culture. We live in a different time now—it’s so crucial to be accurate and respectful. Very early on in the process we brought in our first cultural consultant, Marcela Davison Aviles. She taught us a lot about the Latino community—particularly the Latino community in the United States. She told me: “Look, Lee, you can do everything possible you can to get this movie right and there’s still going to be people unhappy with it. You need to go in knowing that.”

DC: In your Oscar acceptance speech last month you said: “Representation matters.” It was so unambiguously a political statement; you also thanked the all the people of Mexico: “Coco would not exist without your endlessly beautiful culture and traditions.” This is clearly not an act of Disney Pixar engaging cultural appropriation, of taking another people’s holiday and crassly marketing or mainstreaming it.

LU: That was paramount. There wasn’t a day working on his movie when we weren’t on some level weighing issues of sensitivity or accuracy. It was a lot of extra work—but I don’t regret any of it. It was all worth it. It’s paid off in spades. Of course, there’s still some friction. There’s some people who don’t like the fact that I’m a white guy who directed the movie. They would have preferred to have seen a Mexican filmmaker. You know, I can’t blame them for feeling that way. But the reality is that Coco wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t thought of the idea, decided to make it, and being fully committed to telling a story set in this world.

DC: You have a long track-record with Pixar: You’d already won an Oscar for directing Toy Story 3, so I’ve got to assume that in a pitch meeting, your opinion carries some weight. But you’re saying that without you personally falling in love with the Day of the Dead—

LU: Coco just wouldn’t exist. I think most people who get upset about it just don’t understand how it came into being. They assume that Disney just decided to make this movie and then hired a white director to make it. That’s not how it came into being. I had an idea, I was passionate about, and I wanted to make this film. I just happened to be white. I knew that was going to be an issue. I decided to take that on because I also know the history. There have been plenty of filmmakers who tell stories of cultures different from their own. I’ve learned, even on Coco, good things can come from that. I’ve had plenty of people in Mexico taking me aside and thanking me for opening their eyes to their own culture. Things that are so commonplace that they get lost—I mean, sometimes it takes someone from outside telling a story to make people think differently about their own culture.

DC: A Mexican-American friend told me she was so impressed by the choices you’d made in the film: the layers of architecture you see when Miguel goes to the Land of the Dead; the hairless breed of dog who serves as Miguel’s guide in the underworld. What’s the name? Xoloitzcuintli?

LU: We tried to avoid stereotypes and clichés. Yeah, people appreciated that we had Xoloitzcuintli, considered Mexico’s national dog, rather than the Chihuahua which would have been the quick and easy choice.

DC: Your total immersion in Mexican culture—living down in Guanajuato and Michoacán— reminds me of a lot of Jewish guys I knew in the 1990s, myself included, who went to Kingston, Jamaica, passionate about reggae music, about Rasta culture, listening to songs like “Poor Israelites” and “Rivers of Babylon,” wearing Lion of Judah pendants, and making an intense personal connection between reggae and Judaism. Maybe it’s the fact that Jews, until recently, always felt as if we “come from somewhere else”—maybe that’s why we tend to fall more deeply in love with another culture? Did your sense of Jewishness play a similar role into the conception of Coco?

LU: Sure, it did on some level. During all my research, all the trips to Mexico, there were a lot of things about Mexican culture that resonated with me, things that seemed in alignment with Jewish culture. Being on the fringes—well, here I’m talking more about the Latino experience in the United States. And being so family-centered. I grew up in a big Jewish family in Cleveland and there were a lot of Jewish get-togethers. My experience down in Mexico, spending time with a lot of the families was that—other than their religion being completely different—there were so many things I could personally relate to. A lot of it felt very familiar to me as Jewish-American.

DC: There’s a commonality in celebrating the memory of the dead—in celebrating our ancestors—versus simply grieving. Your wife Laura is the driving force behind a family reunion we’re having this summer in Chicago—we’re all the descendants of one nineteenth-century Jew from Warsaw named Simcha Century and his son Baruch Century. My dad left me old acetate recordings of the Century Family Club gatherings in Chicago, in which my grandfather is singing Yiddish songs accompanied by mandolin. In our family, we definitely have a sense of keeping alive the voices, pictures and words of the ancestors. Is it similar for the Unkrich family in Cleveland?

LU: I grew up Reform—but at the same time my family was very involved with our synagogue. I knew all the rabbis and went to the religious school; my father was on the Board of Directors of the synagogue—we were very active. Every summer, I went to Jewish summer camp. My Jewishness was a big part of my growing up—sure.

DC: Mexico is far more ethnically diverse than most Americans realize. The richest man in Mexico, for example, is Carlos Slim—Mexican born, but his parents, were both Maronite Catholics from Lebanon. The sound of norteño music incorporates the tubas and accordions brought by the many Polish and German immigrants. There’s so much secret-history to “Jewish Mexico,” from the time of the conversos. Buñuelos, the Mexican winter holiday dish of golden, deep-fried fritters of cheese-infused dough, supposedly originated as a Sephardic Hanukkah dish. The community in Mexico is relatively small today, maybe 40,000, but there have been so many influential Mexican Jews, from Diego Rivera to [Tablet contributing editor] Ilan Stavans. While working down there, were you aware of the existing Jewish community?

LU. Sure, I was aware of it. We have friends here [in Northern California] with family down in Mexico. And while I was there I visited a synagogue. But to be honest, none of that factored into what I was doing with this movie.

DC: What you clearly got spot-on in Coco was the music. The passion of rancheras—the booming romantic sound of Vicente Fernandez and Javier Solis—which you portray through your fictional Ernesto de la Cruz character [played by Benjamin Bratt.]

LU: We learned about and tried to represent all the various styles we could. Most people only know about mariachi. That’s the beginning and the end [for them]. Mariachi is a very important part of the culture, but there’s so much more. We tried to focus mostly on music that’s known and played in areas like Guanajuato and Michoacán where we were inspired.

DC: In the suburban theater where I saw it, everyone was tearing up during “Remember Me.” [the ranchera which won the 2018 Academy Award for best original song for Coco’s songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.]

LU. Honestly, it was a tricky balancing act, because our goal was never to try to make the definitive Mexican film: I don’t think anybody can do that. But I wanted our film to be as authentic as possible. Various styles of music are represented throughout the film. But again, it doesn’t matter how much research I did on this film, there will always be critics who say: “Disney is engaging in cultural appropriation.”

DC: Inevitable, I suppose, given that you’re a Jewish-American guy from Cleveland with no Mexican heritage at all.

LU: In my mind, the cultural appropriation that’s truly heinous is when a clothing designer says, “Look at these beautiful patterns—I want to use them in my clothing,” and they never bother to learn the why, the history of pattern, what it means in the culture—that’s really coming it from a surface place. Spending six years trying to do everything to get this culturally right migrated into every decision we made about the film. The marketing, the merchandising, the toys—everything was looked at through a cultural filter. There were products we axed because we didn’t feel good about them.

DC: Like what?

LU: Like the spirit creatures in the film—the alebrijes. That’s a big source of income for local artists in Mexico. We felt it would be inappropriate for us to manufacture toys of all the alebrijes in the movie and just sell them—it would be taking away from people’s livelihoods. We ended up making toys only for the key characters we specifically created for the film. We stayed away from the ones that were inspired by actual folk art. We tried to not create any products that were just generic Día de los Muertos. We tried to dive deep; I would not call myself an expert, ever, on Mexican culture—though I know a lot more than I did when I began to work on this film. Hopefully I learned enough … well, I know I learned enough to make a film that can be embraced by Mexico itself.

DC: Coco quickly set a new box office record in Mexico [breaking the previous record-holder, The Avengers, in about three weeks]. I thought it was savvy to hold the world premiere of Coco at the Morelia Film Festival, long before it ever opened in the U.S. Now, can you tell me a bit about the Academy Awards night at the Dolby Theatre? I was following Laura and you on Facebook: hanging out with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kobe Bryant; Laura holding the Academy Award in her lap. She had one hilarious post, saying you guys were seated so close to Steven Spielberg you could see the black-and-white Jaws socks he was wearing with his tux. You guys were so irreverent, laughing, clearly having a ball: Kids in the Oscars candy store.

LU: We like to share with our friends on Facebook to just go along on the journey with us. It’s a funny thing because it feels like all Hollywood stops to have the Oscars, all the focus in the weeks and months leading up is all about the Oscars—but first thing the next morning everything is just back to business. It’s as if it never happened. Everyone starts already talking about next year.

DC: Next year at the Dolby Theatre.

Douglas Century is the author and coauthor of numerous bestselling books including Hunting El Chapo, Takedown, Under and Alone, Brotherhood of Warriors and Barney Ross: The Life of a Jewish Fighter, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.