His 2018 Oscar nomination for Coco, which is up for best animated feature, is far from Lee Unkrich’s first time at the awards rodeo. Unkrich joined Pixar more than two decades ago, as the company was transitioning from making just shorts and TV commercials to features. He co-edited Toy Story and went on, as Pixar employees do, to work in various capacities on many more films, including directing Toy Story 3. In Coco, Unkrich roots the story of a young musician whose family hates music in the visually sumptuous and intellectually rich soil of Mexico during a Día de Muertos holiday, creating the most emotionally resonant Pixar film since Toy Story 3. The film incorporates the gorgeous colors of Mexican treasures like Oaxacan alabrijes, the hillside houses of Guanajuato, and the strings of papel picado that festoon so many of the nation’s walls and streets. The film also animates resonant Mexican concepts like the belief that we all die three deaths: the first when our hearts stop beating, the second when we are buried or cremated, and the third when there’s nobody left on Earth who remembers us.
In a phone interview last week, Unkrich talked about how studying the Día de Muertos helped him deal with the death of his father, the challenges of making a film about Mexico when you’re “a white guy from Ohio,” and the tension between family ties and individual freedom.
Coco started out for you as an exploration of Día de Muertos. What initially interested you about the Mexican holiday?
I went to school at the University of California. There’s obviously a big Latino community in Los Angeles, and I remember starting to see a lot of the iconography and the folk art having to do with the celebration and being fascinated by it. There was something about the juxtaposition of skeletal imagery and death imagery with bright colors and this feeling of celebration that was so different than anything I had grown up with. So I was interested in that, but I had just kind of filed it away. It wasn’t until I finished Toy Story 3 and I was thinking about what to do next that it kind of popped into my mind, the notion of doing something having to do with Día de Muertos.
I started to do a lot of research and learn more about the holiday. I quickly moved beyond the kind of misconception that a lot of people have that it’s some kind of Mexican Halloween and started to learn about the roots and the history of the celebration. Death is of course an element in it, but it’s not about death; it’s about life, it’s about family; it’s about remembering one’s ancestors and keeping their memories alive and passing them along to the next generation. It seemed to me that we could make a film that would not only celebrate the beauty of Mexican culture, but could also tell a story that would be universally relatable around the world.
Has making this film changed your own thinking about death?
I don’t know that it has, specifically, but I do know that I now do some things that I didn’t do before making this film. My family and I now make an ofrenda at home, and I think that that tradition is going to strengthen over time. It’s important to us now. My father just passed away in December.
Oh, I’m sorry.
Luckily, I got to show him Coco just a week before he passed away, and it was really meaningful sharing that experience with him and then knowing that he was going to be joining our ofrenda. It’s such a lovely notion, to be able to help actively keep people’s memories alive and tell their stories. My mom has boxes of old photos and old photo albums from her childhood and the generations before her, and we know who some of the people are in the albums, but we don’t know who all of them are, and we certainly don’t know who they are as people. I know a few names and maybe one story, but that’s kind of it, and that seems like such a shame. That’s why this idea of the final death that we explore in Coco seems so powerful to me, this idea that when nobody remembers you any more, you really cease to exist, as if you had never existed in the world before.
Yeah, that’s a really interesting idea. I hadn’t known that about the three deaths before I saw your film.
I didn’t either. That came out of the research we did, and talking to people. At first we wanted to find some spot for that in the movie. It took us a while before we realized that that idea needed to be the bedrock of the entire story.
I grew up in the Midwest and went to college in the Northeast. It wasn’t until I moved to Texas and that I really came in contact with Mexican culture, and it struck me as a kind of revelation. Why do you think so many of us North Americans know so little about Mexico, even though we share a border and it has had such a strong influence on our own Southwest?
I don’t know, really. It’s such a shame, because it’s a beautiful country and the people are really beautiful. Unfortunately, these past couple of decades, because of the narco activity, Mexico’s gotten a really bad reputation: A few people have really ruined things for a vast population. And of course the current [U.S.] administration hasn’t done anything to help those perceptions of Mexico. [laughs] I don’t know what people think. I don’t know if they think it’s a country full of people trying to race across the border or something, but you go down to Mexico and you see an incredibly rich culture with, of course, people of every socioeconomic level, and with a long, long history—way older than [North] American history. We never were setting out to make the definitive Mexican film. I think that would be impossible. But within the confines of the story we were telling, I really did want to celebrate as much of Mexican culture as I could, and I hope that the fact that Coco has proven to be such a big hit will start to move the needle a little bit in terms of people starting to really appreciate what is so wonderful about Mexico.
Which puts you in the odd position of serving as an ambassador to a culture that’s not your own. I know you got into a little faux rivalry online after The Book of Life came out—not with the people who made that film, since you always supported their work and they supported yours, but with other people who were expressing doubts about whether a white North American could or should be making a movie about Mexico. Do you think those doubts have been pretty much put to rest?
I think so. When all that was going on, I understood why it was happening, but it was still very frustrating, because I knew we had a special film and it wasn’t the film that people were trying to paint it as being, and I knew that we weren’t stealing anything from The Book of Life and they hadn’t stolen anything from us. They were just two films that just coincidentally happened to be made at around the same time. So once the film opened down in Mexico, once it was so warmly embraced in Mexico, that kind of put that all to rest. Nobody could argue that we hadn’t gotten the details right and that we hadn’t made a film that really, truly was trying to honor Mexico.
Can you talk a bit about what it’s taken to maintain the creativity and emotional authenticity behind Pixar’s films over the years? Were there some crisis points where you felt like something was in danger of being lost?
Every film has multiple crisis points. I don’t think that’s avoidable. Childbirth is messy and painful, and so is making a good movie. It doesn’t matter how many hit films we’ve made; each new film that comes along, it’s as if we’re making our first in many ways. It’s just difficult to tell a good story. You can maybe learn some things about structure, and you can analyze other stories that have been told well, but when it comes down to creating your own, it’s difficult. I wish I could say I’m an expert at what I do now. [laughs] I think I’m experienced—I’ve been through it a lot—but it really doesn’t get any easier.
But are there are no additional pressures as the company has gotten bigger and the financial stakes have grown?
Well, there are pressures that come along, like Toy Story 3. There was huge pressure on my shoulders, as I was asked to direct a sequel to two of the most beloved films of all time. On this film, the pressure was mostly the cultural authenticity and respect. That was the thing I was most concerned about. When I was making Toy Story 3, there was a lot of talk about it, and hope for it to be great. With Coco, other than diehard fans, people really weren’t aware of it. So we were able to kind of fly under the radar and make the film without that kind of pressure. All the pressure was pretty much internal. And, of course, me being a white guy from Ohio, I had that much more pressure on my shoulders to get it right. I knew right from the beginning that there was going to be very little room for missteps along the way.
Coco does a great job of capturing how traditional Mexican culture values family and how that can clash with individual needs by focusing on a boy who longs for something his family forbids. Ernesto de la Cruz’s motto, “Seize your moment,” is an interesting way of getting at this dilemma. It sounds good to us at first, since that kind of language is such a big part of the North American cult of individualism, but the way Ernesto seized his moment is actually the opposite of admirable.
It’s very dark, yes.
So I’m curious to hear what you feel is the film’s message about individual freedom versus being true to your family. Is seizing your moment a selfish idea that’s likely to lead to disaster? Or is it more like we all need to seize our moments when we can, but only while taking into account how our actions affect the people who love and depend on us?
I don’t know that I can boil it down to a simple solution because I think there’s no simple solution in life. We were trying to explore that very real conflict that can arise when somebody has dreams or sees themselves as a different kind of person than what their family approves or sees for them. Especially when you’re a family where everybody does love each other, that becomes a difficult situation. Because one solution to that problem would be everyone just runs away and does their own thing, but many people don’t want to abandon their families. They want to have the love of their family, so they’re caught in this place where there are no easy answers. We wanted to put Miguel in a similar situation and see how he would navigate that.
Coco is now out on Digital and Movies Anywhere today and available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 27.