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Fred Topel Interviews and Movie Reviews

Coco Interview

Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos and Director Lee Unkrich


With their latest film, Coco, Pixar is taking a cultural tradition of Mexico and spreading it around the world. Based on the Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) celebrations, Coco is about a boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) whose family has banned music. Since he wants to be a musician, Miguel goes to the Land of the Dead to find out why his departed ancestors forbade music. Along the way he meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Chicharron (Edward James Olmos). Benjamin Bratt plays Ernesto de la Cruz, the famous musician who inspires Miguel.

The cast of Coco spoke with reporters in Los Angeles along with director Lee Unkrich, producer Darla K. Anderson and writer/co-director Adrian Molina. Th whole world will learn about Dia de Los Muertos, all the way to China, when Coco opens Wednesday, November 22.


Q: How did this film originate at Pixar?

LU: So Darla, Adrian, and I all worked on Toy Story 3 together.  When we finished that film, I started to think about what was next, and I had a few different ideas that I was kicking around. One of them was the idea of telling a story set against Dia de Los Muertos. I had always been interested in the tradition, and I spent some time doing some research, and really trying to understand more than I already knew.  And the more that I dug in, the more that I learned about how central family is to this celebration, and that Dia de Los Muertos is all about this obligation that we all have to remember our loved ones, and to pass their stories along. I just really started to see the potential to tell a unique story, to tell a story that could only be told in animation, that could be visually dazzling, but also had the potential to have a real emotional core to it. That was really kind of the beginning of this journey and we immediately headed down to Mexico. We went on the first of what proved to be many lengthy research trips, to spend time learning about the traditions, learning about the culture, and spending a lot of time with many beautiful families down in Mexico. 

 Disney's D23 EXPO 2017

Q: For the actors, what was it like to be in a film that was so close to Mexican culture?

GGB: it is such a privilege to be here, right now, talking to you, to be talking about the movie, to know the result of it, because it is always an act of faith in a way. When I got the invitation to meet with Lee, with Adrian, and with Darla and talk about the movie, I remember how already I was so convinced about it before going into the meeting with them. After the meeting, I was just amazed by the amount of research. Also the incorporation, the holistic kind of approach that they were trying to do to the Day of the Dead celebration, that they were also putting forth a very personal point of view, as well. Ultimately, personal point of views are what make a movie good. I was willing to jump into that and to interpret that point of view. It has transcended all my expectations. So I’m really happy for and proud and lucky to be part of this, with all this great team, with all this collaborative effort, me being a little part of it, being able to put forth into the world a a little fable about a mythology and a tradition that I hold very dearly, and very proud as well that Mexico can give this to the world and everyone in the world can adopt this tradition, this reflection on death, which is a very, very important thing to do, I think, in life.


Q: Benjamin, was Ernesto de la Cruz’s voice inspired by anyone you know?

BB: The first inspiration you draw from is the image that they create. As actors, we don’t have the benefit of performing with one another. It’s a very kind of isolating experience to be in a booth, with only three other people in the room, and with Lee giving you the lines. Most of what we try to do is create something organic through action and reaction. So with just this to work with, you have to pull on all kinds of other things. So I start with the images they created. Clearly this guy, even in a skeleton form, he’s got swagger. So it’s easy to kind of adopt that idea principally. Beyond that, Lee, Adrian, and Darla pointed me in the direction of studying some of the movie clips of Pedro Infante, and Jorge Negrete. These were film stars and music stars in the equivalent strata of someone like Frank Sinatra, guys who were as beloved and as admired for their singing prowess as they were for their acting chops. There’s plenty of footage to be found on YouTube, and so I studied that quite a bit. To your question, my own father, who’s now deceased and who I lost touch with many years before he passed on, I lived with him in some very formative years, from 12 to about 17. Although he was quite a bit different than who Ernesto de la Cruz is, he was larger than life: 6’3”, massive frame, broad shoulders, and a booming voice, the kind of person that no matter which room he walked into, he commanded attention, sometimes by saying the wrong things, I’ll say that much. Nonetheless, it was the kind of thing that I could draw on because it was familiar to me. In that way, that was kind of like the lynch pin for me, with all this other stuff to create someone that enjoyed that adulation, not only enjoyed it, but they actually used it as his life’s blood.


Q: Mr. Olmos, how did it feel to play the character who explains the rules of the Land of the Dead?

EJO: They were so incredibly respectful of the material that they were working with, that immediately it transcended into understanding on my part. This became a real honor, because that character is what the story is. Every single person in the room that’s seen that movie understands very well that what it means is if you don’t remember your loved ones, they’re gone. If you don’t tell the stories of that loved one, they cease to exist. It was that simple. I didn’t read the script. They told me the story, but they never gave me any of the information that the story really projected, other than the fact that this young boy wanted to be a singer, and his family wasn’t supporting him and he ends up inside of this world. So they had a screening over at Disney, where my offices are. I walked in and I sat down, and I would see maybe two Latinos in the entire room. They were all of the people who I guess work at Disney. They were all sitting there, and they’re kind of jaded people, you can tell by body language that they were kind of tired. Then the movie started and an amazing feeling came across immediately. The quality was superb, the feeling, the music, the sound, everything. Performances were extraordinary. 

Then my part came in, and I said, “Oh, my God.” I felt emotional for this guy. Chicharron became, within a matter of a minute and a half to two minutes, became someone that I could identify with: a relative, a friend, a person. When he leaves, I was like Miguel. “Where’d he go?”  The answer that Hector gives him was right on. He said, “Well, nobody’s thinkin’ about him anymore, and he’s disappeared now. He’s gone.” “Where’d he go?” “I don’t know.” None of us do. So then the story started to evolve and by the time it got to the end, I was in heaving sobs. I mean, harsh, heaving sobs, like not only is pride taken over, because I am Mexican, full blooded on everybody’s side, not only am I a person who has been inside of this industry for over 50 years, not only have I really tried to understand myself inside of this art form, but this really became something really profound. So I looked around immediately, because I was in the last chair, in the back. These people were all crying, everybody. Everybody was like so intensely, just trying to hold onto it, and wiping their faces, and holding on, and watching the movie. I said, “Hell, this thing just hit everybody like a ton of bricks.” 


I told Lee this yesterday, and I told Darla, too, I said, “You have no idea what you’ve done. You won’t know for 15 or 20 years.” It’s gonna take that long for it to resonate throughout the planet, and really take hold of what art does to people in their subconscious mind. People who are going to see this movie, are going to come out really moved, especially if you haven’t thought about your parents, or you haven’t thought about your loved ones, and you haven’t really gotten into your own family. You’ve been too busy living your life, that you haven’t gone back to even say, “Thank you.” You haven’t been even maybe to the cemetery, where they’re buried now for 30 years, or 20 years, or however long they’ve been away from you. When’s the last time you visited your great-great-grandmother’s burial site? Most of us don’t even know who they are, because the stories weren’t passed on. So they’re going to walk out, and they’re going to feel an emptiness, and they’re going to try to fill that emptiness with the knowledge of what they just got. So they’re going to investigate, and move forward. That’s why I’m so grateful.

You know, the last two years have been very difficult for Mexicans, and it’s hard not to come about and have an attitude. You try to stay strong, knowing that the pendulum swang one way, it’s going to swing back. When it does, it’ll have a different reaction, and we’ll have another sense of who we are, and the changes. This thing placed us in a very strong position for the future. People are going to say thank you to the Mexican culture for introducing them to a value that they did not know anything about. So I am, as Chicharron, doing that one scene, it’s one of my proudest moments in the art form.


Q: What would you like young Latino kids to take away from Coco?

GGB: I’ve been saying this a lot, but I really have to stress it over and over again, because if I have to do a very personal dedication, this film is for the kids, the Latino kids growing in the United States, because in the official narrative, it’s been said that their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents are rapists, murderers, drug traffickers. These kids are being born in a moment of huge, complete fear, and they have to fight against the lie, and it’s very complicated to argue against the lie. This film is going to give kids a way to feel confident of where they come from, of where their parents, great-grandparents, grandparents come from, to know that they come from a very sophisticated culture, and to know that they have the possibility to always have access to that. They can come up with new answers to what’s needed in life that we, as humanity, need right now. This film opens up that discussion, and it is a beautiful reflection on death, and the celebration life.


Photo Credits: Pixar, Disney

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