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Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich: Cracking the Story of Pixar’s ‘Coco’

‘Coco’ writer and co-director Adrian Molina and co-writer Matthew Aldrich detail the crafting of the story and screenplay for Pixar’s Día de los Muertos-themed musical extravaganza directed by Lee Unkrich.

‘Coco’ © 2017 Disney•Pixar. All images courtesy of Disney•Pixar.

A Day of the Dead-themed musical extravaganza directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) alongside writer and co-director Adrian Molina (story artist, Monsters University, Toy Story 3) and producer Darla K. Anderson (Monsters Inc., Toy Story 3), Coco is Pixar’s 19th animated feature.

The multi-generational story about the power of family relationships introduces Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), who lives in a lively Mexican village but comes from a family of shoemakers that may be the town’s only music-hating household. For generations, the Riveras have banned music because they believe they’ve been cursed by it; as their family history goes, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife decades earlier to follow his own dreams of performing, leaving Imelda (Miguel’s great-great-grandmother) to take control as the matriarch of the now-thriving Rivera line and declare music dead to the family forever.

But Miguel harbors a secret desire to seize his musical moment, inspired by his favorite singer of all time, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). It’s only after Miguel discovers an amazing link between himself and De la Cruz that he takes action to emulate the famous singer and, in doing so, accidentally enters the Land of the Dead.

Adrian Molina

Leading this year’s Annie Award nominations with 13 nods, and shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, Coco has dazzled critics and audiences alike, racking up $450.7 million to date at the global box office. The CG-animated feature has also received two Golden Globe nominations, one each for Best Animated Film and Best Original Song in a Motion Picture.

Co-writer Matthew Aldrich joined the project in 2012, flying to Emeryville to hear an early version of the story and to brainstorm ideas. “So much about the project appealed to me,” he says, “the world, the themes, the team behind it. Like most people I admire Pixar’s films deeply, so just being invited to the campus felt like a win. As I went home to work out my take, I found myself identifying with the material on a personal level: my own family tree contains its share of gaps and mysteries, and I know how it feels to crave answers and connection.”

Molina, meanwhile, first started working on Coco as a story artist in 2013. “I had worked with Lee Unkrich and Darla K. Anderson on Toy Story 3, and really enjoyed the experience in terms of collaboration and cracking story problems with that team,” he recounts.

“My role on Coco expanded in 2015,” Molina continues. “I had boarded on a few iterations of the film, but around this time we were between writers and running up against a lot of story problems that had been difficult to crack for many years. I was enamored of the story in this film, and I found that I couldn’t just let these problems go when I left the studio each night. I took it upon myself to test out some solutions to these challenges in script form, and eventually worked up the courage to email the pages to Lee. That opened the door to writing full outlines, eventually a full draft of the script, and the more Lee and I chiseled at these problems in the story room, the more we found our skillsets (story artist and editor) complemented each other. I became co-director soon after finishing my first draft of the script in the summer of 2015.”

Matthew Aldrich

Renowned for its creativity, innovation and devotion to storytelling, working with the Pixar Brain Trust was “energizing,” according to Aldrich. “There’s no other room with that much creative horsepower focused solely on making a movie as good as it can possibly be,” he says. “Whenever I’m in those meetings -- whether it’s for a project I’m working on or someone else’s -- I just hang on tight and try to learn as much as I can.”

“It’s very encouraging to have the support of a group of filmmakers who have already been through this difficult experience of crafting a story from nothing,” Molina adds. “They’ve hit all the roadblocks that you invariably collide with when you’re trying to create something like this, and they were there to guide us and challenge us to really work the kinks out of this film; the advice came from a place of having gone through the experience many times themselves. And when it came to finding solutions to the problems, we were given a lot of trust. The Brain Trust would watch our reels and let us know what could be stronger, but we were very much empowered to find the solutions to those problems within our own team.”

Both Aldrich and Molina participated in the several research trips to Mexico undertaken to explore the culture and traditions of the country. “I went to Oaxaca and Guanajuato in 2012,” Aldrich recounts. “We spent most of our time in the small towns outside the city, visiting with families as they celebrated the holiday. We sat with them in their homes, visited their family grave sites -- it was a profound experience for me. These families welcomed us into their homes, shared their food, their stories....”

Aldrich found the experience both moving and inspirational. “Their hospitality was humbling,” he says, “and I wanted to make sure every word I wrote reflected their generosity and warmth. I remember several women who expressed concern that the younger generation was losing interest in the holiday, and if they failed to pass on the importance of the tradition, no one would remember them when they passed. This obviously made an impression on me, and the story.”

In 2013, Molina traveled to Oaxaca with a group of Pixar visual development and story artists for Día de Muertos. “We covered a wide range of places that might be inspirational to the film, old theaters, bell towers, markets,” he reports. “In addition to spending time with families as they celebrated the traditions of Día de Muertos in their homes and in the cemeteries, we also visited many family businesses which were inspirational for the dynamic of the Rivera Family Shoemakers.”

Coco’s blend of Spanish and English came very naturally to the writers. “I wouldn’t call myself fluent, but I have some Spanish, and often the Spanish word or phrase just captures the moment better,” Aldrich notes.

“It definitely meant having a game plan,” says Molina. “So much of the beauty of the Mexican culture comes from the language, so we knew that having Spanish was necessary, but we also wanted audiences who didn’t speak it to remain connected to the story. Where words were very common to everyone --for example muchas gracias, or por favor -- or where they were cognates of English phrases (fantástico, familia), those became easy to incorporate. Then there are moments where the meaning of the Spanish may not be intuitive to non-speakers, but they way that the characters are acting give you enough context to guess. Those are some of my favorite moments -- like Abuelita cooing over Miguel, her ‘sweet little angelito, querido, cielito…’”

But the story’s multiple points of view, reveals, misdirects and flashbacks did prove to be slightly more challenging. ”In the early stages, we had to be vigilant to make sure the mechanics didn’t step on the emotion,” Aldrich observes.

“This is a story that has a lot of moving pieces, and it became a situation where every moment on screen had to be doing three or four things at once,” Molina explains. “It’s a bit of a Rubik’s Cube in terms of structure -- you move one piece sideways, and all of a sudden it effects everything else. It took a lot of time to arrange and re-arrange the beats of the plot so that we could service Miguel and his family’s conflict. Hopefully if the mechanics are working it frees you up to get lost in the emotions, but getting all the gears to fit took many, many attempts.”

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.