TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COCO")
RENEE VICTOR: (As Abuelita) No music.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Spanish).
VICTOR: (As Abuelita, yelling) No music.
ANTHONY GONZALEZ: (As Miguel Rivera) I think we're the only family in Mexico who hates music. And my family's fine with that. But me?
SOFIA ESPINOSA: (As Mama) Be back by lunch, mijo.
GONZALEZ: (As Miguel Rivera) Love you, mama.
I am not like the rest of my family.
GROSS: The Disney-Pixar film "Coco" just won the Golden Globe for best animated film. It was co-written and co-directed by my guests Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Unkrich also directed "Toy Story 3" and co-directed "Finding Nemo," "Monsters, Inc." and "Toy Story 2." Molina worked on "Ratatouille," "Toy Story 3" and "Monsters University." "Coco" is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy named Miguel who lives in a small Mexican town and loves to play guitar.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COCO")
GONZALEZ: (As Miguel Rivera) Sometimes I think I'm cursed because of something that happened before I was even born. See, a long time ago, there was this family. The papa - he was a musician. He and his family would sing, and dance and count their blessings. But he also had a dream to play for the world. And one day, he left with his guitar and never returned.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
GONZALEZ: (As Miguel Rivera) And the mama - she didn't have time to cry over that walkaway musician. After banishing all music from her life, she found a way to provide for her daughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GONZALEZ: (As Miguel Rivera) She rolled up her sleeves, and she learned to make shoes.
GROSS: After forbidding Miguel to play music, his family has been preparing him to enter their shoemaking business. The film takes place on the Day of the Dead, the holiday in which the living honor their dead loved ones. For reasons I won't give away, Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead, where he meets his great-great-grandparents and other long-gone relatives and hopes to learn why he's obsessed with music and why his family forbids music. Miguel has to figure out if it's possible to be true to himself while remaining true to his family - the living and the dead. The movie is also about how we keep the dead alive by keeping them in our memories.
Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the Golden Globe. So...
LEE UNKRICH: Thank you. Yeah, it was very exciting.
ADRIAN MOLINA: Yeah, thank you.
GROSS: Yeah. So I want to start by talking about Day of the Dead because that's the holiday that is supposed to unite the family, the ancestors as well as the living people. So what is the Day of the Dead?
UNKRICH: Well, the Day the Dead, or Dia de Muertos or Dia de los Muertos, depending on where you live and where you grew up, is a tradition in Mexico that happens once a year. It's the first couple of days of November. And it's a celebration where, essentially, it's a time for families to remember their loved ones who are no longer with them. And they actually believe that their ancestors, their loved ones, are returning to be with the family. It's kind of like a family reunion that spans the divide between the living and the dead.
And many people will build ofrendas, these kind of offerings, in their homes, where they'll put out photos of their loved ones, and they'll put out foods that they loved in life. You know, sometimes you'll see, you know, 2-liter bottles of Coke sitting on the ofrenda if that's something that somebody loved, the idea being that they're coming back to be with the family and celebrate and partake of things that they loved in life.
GROSS: And Adrian, has the holiday been celebrated in your family?
MOLINA: When I was growing up, no, not so much. My mother is from Mexico, but where she was raised, they didn't celebrate Dia de Muertos the same way that we saw when we did our research in Oaxaca or Michoacan. But there was definitely in the way that the family talks about death, and talks about remembrance and talks about being connected to stories and people who have passed - that was something that was familiar to me.
That was something where, at any funeral, afterwards, the music would come out, and the food would come out, and the stories would come out. And that sense of not accepting death as being final as much as knowing that that imprint that that person left on your life is important to talk about, is important to celebrate - that was kind of my access point for this story.
GROSS: Is your father of Mexican descent, too?
MOLINA: He is. He is half Mexican.
GROSS: So I'm wondering what your parents thought about you doing a movie about a holiday that they don't really celebrate.
MOLINA: Well, I think they learned a lot about the details of it, but I think they were also very touched and proud to see, just in general, their Mexican heritage shown on screen, to see their son exploring and embracing and creating art out of his culture. You know, I grew up in the United States, but this film has been a really beautiful thing in my personal life only because it's been a wonderful excuse to be able to dig in really deep, to connect with where I'm from, where my grandparents were from, with the language and, you know, attach that to another important part of my life, which is making art, making animated films. So they are over the moon about it, I'd have to say.
GROSS: So Lee Unkrich, what does Day of the Dead mean to you? Because you're not Mexican.
UNKRICH: I am not. I am far from Mexican. I actually did...
GROSS: How far? (Laughter).
UNKRICH: Well, I did one of those ancestry.com kits, and I was praying that I would have just even a tiny bit of myself that was of Mexican descent.
UNKRICH: But it didn't work out that way. I'm very, very much Eastern European Jewish, so no Mexican blood in me. You know, so, you know, I grew up Jewish in Cleveland - in the suburbs of Cleveland. And, you know, I had I think a pretty typical American relationship with death, which is that it was something kind of hidden away, a little taboo. Cemeteries were just kind of grim, gray places devoid of color. And, you know, in my own religion, you know, we have this concept of the yahrzeit, which is a yearly remembrance of people who have passed on on the anniversary of their death, and it's kind of a - you know, it's a somber time.
And, you know, as I started thinking about the film that I wanted to make next after "Toy Story 3," I was reminded of this kind of fascination that I'd had with Dia de Muertos for a long time for many reasons. I was drawn to a lot of the folk art and a lot of the iconography that people are familiar with, but I think I was also interested in the notion of a culture having a different kind of relationship with death than what I had grown up with. And, you know, so I started doing a lot of research in earnest early on.
And, you know, the more that I read and the more people that I talked to, this whole notion of this remembrance not being this kind of somber time but more being a time of just joyously remembering people and gathering together as a family to tell stories and, you know - and to pass stories along to the next generation - it's just - you know, it's beautiful. It's a beautiful, beautiful celebration. And I almost wish I could roll back time and introduce these ideas into my own family because it's a beautiful thing, and it's something that we're - or my family's definitely embracing now moving forward. My own father just passed away a few weeks ago, and, you know, he's very much going to be perched on our ofrenda at the beginning of November.
GROSS: An ofrenda - correct me if I'm wrong - is, like, an altar on which you put the offerings to your ancestors to remember them.
MOLINA: Yeah. The offerings, a photo...
GROSS: So I'm sorry to hear about your father, Lee.
UNKRICH: Oh, thank you. Yeah, he was quite old. Well, I mean, you know, he's - I think he's about 93 years old. And he, mentally, was completely there all the way till the end, but physically, he'd been declining recently. And I was actually very fortunate because I had been on a big press tour as we opened "Coco" in Europe and different places, and when we got back from that, I had a window of time where things slowed down, and my dad just happened to fall into decline at that moment. So I was able to travel to where he lived in central California and be with him for, you know, the last couple of weeks of his life, which was very meaningful to me.
And the other thing that was really meaningful was that I was able to show him "Coco." He was too frail to visit the movie theaters, but they set me up so that I could show it to him off the laptop. And it really meant a lot to both of us because I - there was part of me that worried I would - that he would never get to see the film because, you know, we spent six years making it. And he would even joke about, you know, hurry up, finish the movie, I want to see it before I die. But he was able to. You know, he watched the movie, and it was less than a week before he then passed away.
GROSS: That must have been beautiful for him since it's about honoring your family and honoring ancestors although it takes a lot of twists before getting there.
UNKRICH: Yeah, my dad was a funny guy - well, funny in a - he was very stoic. And he - it brings a smile to my face to think of what he said to me after he watched "Coco." The very first thing he said was, well, that was different...
UNKRICH: ...Which was very - if you knew my dad, that was very my dad. But I - through that, I knew he was very proud and very happy that he got to see the film.
GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Adrian Molina and Lee Unkrich. And they co-wrote and co-directed "Coco," the latest Pixar Disney animated film. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "IT'S ALL RELATIVE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. They co-wrote and co-directed the latest Disney Pixar animated film "Coco," which is about a boy in Mexico and his family. The family doesn't want him to play music, but that's all he wants to do.
As we were talking about Day of the Dead, which is the ceremony that the movie is focused around, in the movie you depict the afterlife. You depict the ancestors who are now skeletons and who are being summoned back for the Day of the Dead. In a lot of Christian imagery and just American pop imagery in general, the afterlife is like, you know, in the clouds with like angels and harps and, you know, angels flying around. The afterlife as depicted in the film is skeletons now walking around in the Land of the Dead. And they know each other. They talk to each other. They have parties. They play music. How did you decide how you were going to depict this afterlife that you came up with?
UNKRICH: You know, I think most human beings think about the concept of an afterlife, regardless of their religion or non-religion. And they think they want to know what that place might look like. And so the way we tackled that in our story - luckily, you know, by embracing this idea of the final death and that there's kind of a beyond the beyond, we were able to just kind of have fun creating almost like a way station - like a temporary place while souls are remembered, where they can just live joyously and especially around Dia de los Muertos, which is when they're coming back every year to visit their families. You know, we figured it would be a very celebratory, colorful kind of a place. And so that's what we really leaned into from the beginning - creating a world that would capture that celebratory feeling.
And I really wanted it to have a kind of a quintessential Mexican-ness. And so it ended up being very influenced by a lot of places we visit in Mexico - primarily this beautiful city called Guanajuato, which is a city that's kind of encrusted into kind of a valley. And it's filled with beautiful, colorful houses that are growing like coral almost all round these hills. And so we really embraced that. And, you know, we came up with kind of rules of our world of the Land of the Dead. And like we had rules about, you know, there wouldn't be any handrails or guardrails in the Land of the Dead because everyone's dead already.
UNKRICH: They don't need safety items. You know, if somebody falls off the top of a building, it's more of an inconvenience than anything.
GROSS: The idea of this like intermediate place where the dead are still kind of alive, it's based, as you said Lee, on the idea that you remain alive in some way as long as you are alive in memory - as long as there are people who are remembering you - that you still in some ways are alive. When the people who remember you die or when the living just forget you, then the dead move to like the final death. And they kind of disappear from this intermediary place between life and death. And it's a really interesting way of looking at it - that the afterlife is memory. It's the memory of the living. Adrian, can you talk about coming up with that idea?
MOLINA: That was something that we had learned in our research - this thought that there are not just one death that there are three deaths that a soul can experience. One is when your heart stops beating. The second death is when you are buried in the ground and are never to be seen in this world again. And then the third and final death is that one that is attached to memory and when you are forgotten that, you know, you disappear - that that is the method by which you remain attached to the world are the memories that come your way.
And the really wonderful thing, from a storytelling and from a thematic standpoint, that building a world on that idea gives you is that for some people this is paradise because they are remembered fondly and with love. And everything that they did in life, they get back in the afterlife in visits to the people that they left behind and the things that they offer them. And then for others, it's not a paradise. It's - you know, they're straggling along. And maybe the memories that they're getting aren't fond, and maybe they don't have long for this, you know, way station world.
And that did a lot for our main character Miguel to be able to reflect on, well, what is my part in this legacy of family and what am I going to be remembered for and really what's important in these relationships that I'm building throughout my life. And, you know, it's lovely because it was wonderful to explore in this this story. And it was also linked so closely to the actual beliefs and the actual traditions associated with Dia de los Muertos.
GROSS: So I want to mention here that there's a lot of really funny things in the film. Like in the world of the dead, where the dead are remembered and are therefore kept alive, but they're still in the Land of the Dead, there's these checkpoints. So that on the Day of the Dead, when they're brought back by the living to the world of the living, they go through this kind of, you know, guard gate or checkpoint. And if they're having trouble going through, there's the department of family reunions that they can (laughter) go to for help. So do you want to talk about coming up with all of these kind of humorous touches in depicting this transitional place?
MOLINA: You know, a lot of it is just born out of having to create a world that holds together. You know, we tried to think, what does the world of the dead have to offer us in terms of entertainment and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this film? So stuff like the Department of Family Reunions, we thought, you know, if anything is going to survive the barrier between life and death, it will probably be bureaucracy. And we wanted to lean into that.
We wanted to lean into this idea of family reunion, the thought that the Land of the Dead is almost the more lively place of these two worlds that we explore because this is the one night a year where people get to reunite with their families and all of the pitfalls and joys and, you know, left turns that that entails.
UNKRICH: Every film that we've made at Pixar is different. You know, we've made some movies where we have a really funny idea and we have an idea that's inherently, you know, just rife with humor, and then we struggle to find the emotion and the heart within that story. And then other times, like with "Coco," the heart kind of comes first, you know. We knew we had a potentially really emotional story and a story that people could really connect with emotionally, but we struggled with humor.
That was kind of a thing that dogged us through the whole making of this film is, how can we make it funnier? How can we make it funnier? But, you know, I had a rule for myself at the very beginning. I didn't want to have just kind of silly topical humor. I didn't want to show up in the Land of the Dead and see like a Starbones (ph) coffee shop.
UNKRICH: I mean, that would have been easy. You know, I could have just put a bunch of gag people in a room and come up with silly kind of Land of the Dead versions of things that we have. But my personal taste is that I don't like that stuff. I think it's kind of cheap and easy. And we wanted to make a film that was going to be timeless, that was going to work, you know, 50 years from now without people having to get kind of topical references. We really wanted the humor to come out of the situations and out of the characters as much as possible.
GROSS: Now, this is a family film. Adults are supposed to bring children to this film, though you don't need children to enjoy the film as an adult. But it has to be child-friendly, and so much of the movie is about death and the dead and people who might be dead soon and how that's seen through a child's eyes. So you couldn't make it like a terrifying story (laughter) about the dead. So what message did you want children to take away from it? And what are some of the things that you did in the film so that, you know, children would enjoy it and be comfortable with the story that you were telling?
UNKRICH: Well, I'm glad you said what you did about you don't have to have kids with you to go see the movie because I can't tell you how many people have said to me, oh, I haven't seen your film yet because I don't - I haven't been able to find kids to take with me.
GROSS: Well, I saw it without kids and enjoyed it very much.
UNKRICH: Thank you. That's like my biggest pet peeve is that people somehow think that we're making kids movies and that they're embarrassed to go see the movies about kids. I just want to pull my hair out. But the fact of the matter is that when we're making our films, we don't think about kids all that often. I mean, we're not - we don't see ourselves as making kids films. We're making films that we want to see. And we know that kids are going to be a part of the audience, so we make sure that they're appropriate.
So yes, we - in this case, we knew we were making a film that had death as part of the subject matter, but we knew that the film wasn't about death. It's not about grieving. It's not about coping with death. It's very much about life and family, and death just happens to be part of the backdrop of the story. I mean, we need the notion of death to tell this story. But, you know, I've learned over the years that, you know, kids are much more resilient and wise than I think we often give them credit for.
GROSS: My guests are Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, the co-writers and co-directors of the Disney Pixar animated film "Coco." We'll talk more after a break. And Lloyd Schwartz will review a new box set of live Maria Callas recordings. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "COCO - DIA DE LOS MUERTOS SUITE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, the co-writers and co-directors of the Disney Pixar film "Coco," which just won the Golden Globe for Best Animated Film. It's set in a small town in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. The main character, Miguel, is a 12-year-old boy who's obsessed with playing guitar.
So in the movie, music is forbidden in the boy's family because the boy's great-great grandfather walked out on the family to follow his dream of being a great musician, a famous musician. And this 12-year-old boy has a gift for music but he's forbidden to play. And he feels like he's being forced to choose between music and family. So it's an interesting premise for a family film since you have parents and children watching it together.
But Miguel comes to - Miguel, the boy, comes to believe that his late great-great-grandfather, the person who walked out on the family to become a famous musician, is actually Ernesto de la Cruz, who became Mexico's most beloved musician in the movie - this is a fictional character. So, you know, Ernesto becomes, like, a music sensation and a movie star. So I want to play a song from here, and this is "Remember Me," which is done several ways. At first, we just hear it as a big Ernesto de la Cruz production number with, like, dancers on, like, a staircase, and he's kind of on this, like, moving staircase being raised higher and higher. And everybody's wearing brightly colored costumes. And then later, we hear it as a much more kind of somber, nostalgic song.
So I want to play a little bit of both of them back to back just so we can hear the way that you've come up with a song that was flexible enough to be sung both ways. And this was written by Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. They're married. He did the music for "Avenue Q" and for "Book Of Mormon." And together, they did the music for "Frozen." And here's two versions of the song that they did for your film, "Coco."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COCO")
BENJAMIN BRATT: (As Ernesto de la Cruz, singing) Remember me. Though I have to say goodbye, remember me. Don't let it make you cry. For even if I'm far away, I hold you in my heart. I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart. Remember me. Though I have to travel far, remember me. Each time you hear a sad guitar, know that I'm with you the only way that I can be. Until you're in my arms again, remember me.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COCO")
GAEL GARCIA BERNAL: (As Hector, singing) Remember me. Though I have to say goodbye, remember me. Don't let it make you cry. For even if I'm far away, I hold you in my heart. I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart. Remember me. Though I have to travel far, remember me. Each time you hear a sad guitar, know that I'm with you the only way that I can be. Until you're in my arms again, remember me.
GROSS: So that's two versions of the song "Remember Me" from the film "Coco." The first one sung by Benjamin Bratt, the second by Gael Garcia Bernal. So when you told the Lopezes that you needed a song that could be a signature song for the film, what did you tell them?
UNKRICH: The earliest notion was this idea that there would be a song that was kind of Ernesto de la Cruz's signature song that would be a big, splashy, kind of showstopping number but that we could then hear later in the film performed in a different way that would allow the song to kind of be imbued with more meaning, and that was really all we had. We didn't even have a name for the song. I had always wanted to work with Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. We've been friends for years. And I had been kicking around the idea of doing a musical at Pixar. And so in talking to them, we actually had them write a number of different songs early on, and one of them that they came back with was "Remember Me." And they really were excited by the challenge of coming up with a song that could retain the same melody but that would feel very differently depending on how it was sung.
And so for Ernesto de la Cruz's character, played by Benjamin Bratt, you know, we did have it be this big kind of showstopping - you know, it's a Mexican supper club number that we see early on in the film with fireworks going off and dancers. And it feels like a song that he's singing to all the different women that he ever had relationships with in his life. And it doesn't come off as super smarmy, but there definitely is an edge of this guy has kind of been around and, you know, he's had a lot of relationships in his life, and it's a little egocentric feeling.
But then, of course, later in the film - spoiler alert - we learn that the song was actually kind of a lullaby, a song that was meant to be shared with a child by a father who had to leave home sometimes and wanted there to be a kind of a song that they shared between them that they could sing together and stay connected. And Bobby and Kristen wrote this song, and it was just really, really beautiful, and even though the movie, the story, changed quite a bit in the years that we developed it, one of the few things that stayed very constant was that song. It always was in the bedrock of the movie, and it never changed from that first song that they wrote.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here, and then we'll take a break. If you're just joining us, my guests are Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. They co-wrote and co-directed the Disney-Pixar animated film "Coco." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "THE STRUM OF DESTINY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. They co-wrote and co-directed "Coco," the animated film that just won best animated film at the Golden Globes. Let's talk a little bit about the actual animation for "Coco." What was one of the most challenging things that you had to do to make the film work?
UNKRICH: Well, there were a lot of things that were challenging about the movie. I mean, the scope of the story was huge. Just visually, it was a lot to put on screen. The skeletons were certainly a challenge. We hadn't animated anything quite like them at the studio before.
GROSS: Why are skeletons hard?
UNKRICH: Well, A, they were hard in their design for us to figure out how to create characters that were appealing yet were still skeletons because we didn't want them to be off-putting. We don't want them to be frightening. In our minds, they were just characters who happened to be skeletons. They were people.
MOLINA: We knew that there would be moments in the film where you would have to really relate to the emotions that these characters were going through. And, you know, in all the history of skeletons in cinema, usually they're created to be off-putting and foreboding and to warn of danger. But this was a situation where we needed you to fall in love with these characters. And so we had to make some very targeted decisions, on you know, in the eyebrows, in the decision to give them eyes and to get those expressions where you would see that character and it would remind you of someone you loved.
UNKRICH: And then beyond that, you know, all the different directors at Pixar have kind of their own taste and style. And I tend to lean more naturalistic and less stylized. I think it's because I didn't come up through an animation background myself. I come from live action. So in my mind, I'm always looking for kind of the truth in moments. And I want the emotion and the storytelling to kind of transcend the artifice of animation. So there was a lot of very subtle tender animation that was done on this film that - thankfully, we have amazing animators at the studio who were up to that challenge. But that took time. It took time.
And it was very microscopic work at times to have the audience kind of believe that the characters have souls inside them and are going through all the hundreds of decisions that one is making at any given moment about how to navigate a conversation or whether they're trying to hide their emotion from somebody else, all those little things that actors in live action, you know, either are thinking about or just come to them naturally. Our animators have to kind of create that from nothing.
I mean, they're sitting at a computer with essentially a digital puppet. And they're having to make decisions to bring that character to life. And I don't mean just to move, I mean to have a soul so that the audience can watch the movie and forget that they're watching our animation. They can forget the artifice and just get lost in the story and believe that these are real thinking, caring, loving people. The other thing with the skeletons is that we saw them as being a great potential source of entertainment and humor in the film and in terms of them falling apart and having to put themselves back together and that different characters could have kind of a different way that they walked, in a different way that their bones jangled around.
And that all tied into this overall notion that we had for the Land of the Dead of, you know, how well one is remembered kind of dictates even just their physical health in the Land of the Dead. So a character like Ernesto de la Cruz, who is very well remembered, the most well remembered, he's kind of the most gleaming and white. And the kind of - the magic invisible rubber bands that hold his bones together are very tight and healthy. Whereas a character like Hector, who is not well remembered at all, he's more jangly and, you know, loose. It's like his rubber bands need to be replaced. And, you know, he's not gleaming and white. He's kind of yellowed and fading and...
MOLINA: Held together with duct tape.
UNKRICH: Yeah. You know, we would play with those - you know those little toys that - where you push the bottom and the toys kind of collapse? I don't know if you know what I'm talking about. They're little toys we had when we were kids that had kind of rubber bands or elastic inside them. And you would push the bottom of the toy, and the toy would kind of collapse. And we always imagined all the skeletons in the movie being kind of at different points on the spectrum of being kind of taut or being completely loose and falling apart.
GROSS: So the boy at the center of the film, the 12-year-old boy is played by Anthony Gonzalez. How did you find him?
UNKRICH: It was very difficult. We auditioned hundreds of kids all over the United States and in Mexico trying to find our Miguel. And thankfully, one day, Anthony Gonzalez came into our lives. I think he was about 11 when we first started working with him. He lives in downtown Los Angeles with this family. And ever since he was a little boy, he'd been performing mariachi music at Oliveira Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. And he's just a natural-born performer. He's an amazing singer. He has that special something that is very difficult to find in kids where he can give a very natural heartfelt performance with seemingly no effort. I mean, there are times in this film where he needs to cry and be very emotional, and he would just turn it on magically. He was a joy to work with.
I can't separate Anthony from the character of Miguel. They're kind of one and the same in my mind. You know, he really influenced the animators and the performance in the film. And I'm just - I'm so thankful that we found him. One of the things that was very tricky was that we needed him to be of a certain age. You know, he needed to play a character that was 12. And since it takes so long to make our films, I couldn't hire him too early on for danger of his voice changing in the middle of production.
GROSS: Oh, of course. Right.
UNKRICH: So his voice never changed while we were making the film, but he was growing. His body was physically getting bigger. So by the time we were finishing recording with him, his voice actually was sounding different than it was at the beginning. And so we had to do some digital trickery here and there to make sure that it all kind of balanced out. But he was amazing. You know, when we first auditioned him, we didn't even know that Miguel was going to need to sing in the film.
And at the end of the audition, Anthony asked us if he could sing for us. He just wanted to sing. And he had brought along a CD he wanted to sing to, but we didn't have a CD player in the control room. And he just kind of shrugged and said, well, I'll just sing a cappella then. And he launched into this beautiful 10-minute ballad that was just beautiful. And thankfully, we have it on tape. It was an amazing moment. And so then when we, you know, as the story developed and we realized we wanted Miguel to sing, we knew that we, you know, had the perfect kid to play him.
GROSS: Since you worked on "Coco" for six years, it means you started way before Donald Trump ran for president, let alone was elected president. It was years before you knew he'd be calling to spend billions of dollars building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, years before he said that Mexico sends us their worst, the rapists. So I'm wondering if the meaning of doing a film set in Mexico, about Mexican people, about families, if the importance of that and if the meaning of it changed after the campaign and the election?
MOLINA: Well, it's a long time coming for Latinos to see themselves on screen represented in a way that they can be proud of and in a way that reflects the things that they value about their culture and they value about their families. And, you know, that was something that we were all very excited about, working on this film. But like Lee said, as the climate changed, all of a sudden, it was something that was necessary, something that I think the community really needed to hear spoken aloud because oftentimes, you know, you never hear it, and you never see it.
And for a family to go and see themselves reflected on screen the way they experience their lives and see that shown to the world means a lot. It means a lot for your self-esteem, and it means a lot for how you see yourself in the world. And so the story didn't change, but the context around it really made this something that we only knew more so we needed to get right and that could be, you know, very healing for people.
GROSS: Well, Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, thank you so much for talking with us.
MOLINA: Thank you.
UNKRICH: Thank you. It's so fun to be here.
GROSS: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina co-wrote and co-directed the Disney-Pixar film "Coco," which on Sunday won the Golden Globe for best animated film. After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review a new box set of live Maria Callas recordings. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The career of soprano Maria Callas was relatively short. She died in 1977 at the age of 53, and most of her commercial studio recordings were made in little over a decade. But her performances onstage were legendary, and many of them turned up on pirated recordings taped from radio broadcasts or in the opera house. Now Warner Classics has released an entire box set of these live recordings. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VISSI D'ARTE")
MARIA CALLAS: (As Floria Tosca, singing in Italian).
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Maria Callas was lucky she lived when she did. Her legacy is secure because almost every role she sang was recorded. Her astonishing range encompassed 18th century operas by Gluck and Mozart, up to Puccini's unfinished "Turandot" in 1926. She excelled in Verdi and Wagner and recorded an unforgettable "Carmen." But maybe her most significant achievement was in the early 19th century bel canto tradition of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini in which she transformed flighty coloratura vocal exercises into passages of a heartbreaking poignance (ph). No opera singer seems to have cared more about connecting musical notes to words and complex feelings.
From early in her career, recordings of her live performances, often in abysmal sound, kept trickling out, reassuring her admirers that her extraordinary gift was not merely manufactured by recording engineers. Now Warner Classics has released a whole box set of her live performances - 20 complete operas all remastered, plus videos of four live concerts and, most treasurable of all, a telecast of the fully staged second act of Puccini's "Tosca" at London's Covent Garden, the only footage of her in an actual opera production. But let's start at the beginning.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCENA ED ARIA ABIGHAILLA")
CALLAS: (As Abigaille, singing in Italian).
SCHWARTZ: That was the young Callas in 1949 singing Abigaille's ferocious aria in Verdi's "Nabucco," the earliest complete opera for which any recording of hers exists and one of the dozen operas in this new set that she never recorded in the studio. Another is her only complete recording of a Wagner role, Kundry in "Parsifal," sung in Italian in Rome in 1950. Wagner was extremely important to Callas at the beginning of her career when her voice was huge, but she soon found a more sympathetic repertoire.
Included in this set are major Callas triumphs. She's Verdi's ruthless then fragile Lady Macbeth and the doomed but heroic Anne Boleyn in Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," a production famously staged for her by film director Luchino Visconti. She made studio recordings of arias from these operas. But some of Callas's most vivid acting came in her meaningful delivery of the dialogue between the big arias. Isn't "Hamlet" more than just the soliloquies? Here's Anne Boleyn telling her lover that she had wanted a crown but got a crown of thorns.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANNA BOLENA")
CALLAS: (As Anne Boleyn, singing in foreign language).
SCHWARTZ: Eight of these complete operas Callas also recorded in the studio, a couple of them twice. And it's fascinating to compare the subtle differences between her live and studio work. One of the most celebrated of the live recordings is the opening night of Bellini's "La Sonnambula" at La Scala in 1955, another legendary Visconti production sensitively led by a hotshot young conductor named Leonard Bernstein.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA SONNAMBULA")
CALLAS: (As character, singing in foreign language).
SCHWARTZ: The 1981 cult film "Diva" is a convoluted mystery triggered by an obsessed fan who secretly records a soprano who refuses to make records. We're lucky that live recordings of Maria Callas aren't so rare and lucky again that many of them are finally so satisfyingly remastered that we can now hear the real live diva better than ever.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed "Maria Callas Live," a new box set on the Warner Classics label.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Lena Waithe, the creator of the new Showtime series "The Chi" set in the South Side of Chicago. Last year, Waithe became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. She got it for co-writing the Thanksgiving episode of Aziz Ansari's series "Master Of None," the episode in which her character comes out to her mother. It's based in part on Waithe's experience. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA CALLAS' "AH! NON GIUNGE UMAN PENSIERO")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AH! NON GIUNGE UMAN PENSIERO")
CALLAS: (Singing in foreign language).
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.