Lee Unkrich on embracing the darkness for Pixar’s Oscar-winning COCO

March 5, 2018 Danny Munso

Here’s an excerpt from Backstory Issue 31 for your reading pleasure:

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Coco delivers Pixar’s biggest narrative twist thus far, one that Unkrich surprisingly says they thought of incredibly early in the storytelling. As viewers know, Héctor turns out to be Miguel’s great-great-grandfather. The man Miguel thinks he is related to—his hero and famed singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt)—is in reality Héctor’s old songwriting partner, who murdered him to take credit for his work. “We had that idea fairly early, but it just took us a long time to discover who those specific characters were,” director Lee Unkrich says. As a studio, Pixar is never afraid to go dark, whether it be for the death of Nemo’s mother in the opening scene of Finding Nemo or Carl and Ellie’s struggles with fertility in Up. But an onscreen murder is something new for the studio. And yet Unkrich was never concerned about how the plot point would affect younger audiences. “I can’t remember many things we rejected because it was too dark. Just the fact that there is a murder is dark itself, but The Lion King had a murder in it. I guess having our murder be poison is kind of a tame way to show that onscreen. I don’t know that it’s particularly traumatic.”

While he was adamant that the plot point itself not be changed, there was another idea the filmmakers had that he did deem too dark. In an effort to visually show the audience the stakes, Unkrich and the team made the decision for Miguel and Héctor to witness someone else suffer a final death. This character—Héctor’s old friend Chicharrón—is enveloped in a beautiful, warm, golden light before fading away. It’s a sad moment to be sure, particularly because it registers to the viewer that this is what could soon happen to Héctor, but it sends the character off in a graceful way. Unkrich’s original plan to show the final death was something much more gruesome. “We played with the idea of the life going out of the skeletons,” he says. “The soul would leave and the bones would just collapse into a pile. In retrospect, that was a little disturbing. We also had a wasteland at one point where all the discarded bones were taken. It was one thing to write that on the page, but when we started drawing it in storyboard form, it was way too creepy. It was not right for the tone of this film.” The change is emblematic of the numerous changes a Pixar film goes through before the filmmakers find the perfect resulting version. “You don’t have the right idea from the get-go. Sometimes it takes going down a certain path and trying things. But even when you go down those dead ends, you end up finding things along the way that you can make use of in other ways. It’s not wasted time at all. It’s part of the process.”

To read the complete article in Issue 31 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe.

Backstory Issue 31 includes in-depth looks at Oscar-winning films The Shape of Water, Icarus and Get Out plus fellow nominees Lady Bird, Mudbound, Molly’s Game, The Big Sick, and much more! For more info, check out the Table of Contents.