Austin Film Festival Celebrates Dia de Los Muertos with Coco Screening and Writer Matthew Aldrich

Revisiting ‘Coco’ a year later and it’s still as powerful as ever.
By  · Published on November 5th, 2018

Next month marks the one-year anniversary release of Disney Pixar’s Coco, centering around a young Mexican boy Miguel who wants to be a musician, despite his families ban on all things music. After he runs away to enter a talent show, he steals the guitar of his diseased idol Ernesto de la Cruz, and finds himself stuck in the land of the dead on Dia de Los Muertos, where with the help of his family, he must make it back to the land of the living before sunrise. Through his journey, he learns the importance of keeping your family close and the significance of a holiday he once took for granted.

The weekend before Dia de Los Muertos, the Austin Film Festival coordinating with Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum’s Viva La Vida festival and parade as well as the Texas Book Festival, put on a free public screening of Coco at Austin’s historic Paramount Theater. After the screening, co-writer of the film Matthew Aldrich came out for a Q&A and to discuss the creation of the film.

Watching Coco again, a year later, I find to still be just as powerful an experience as it was when it first opened. It’s a film that people can find an emotional connection with on various levels. And as a story that centers around a holiday, Dia de Los Muertos, it has the making of a film that can be watched every fall season in celebration of that holiday, just as Christmas and winter holiday movies are watched every December. In fact, I’d say it’s already at that point, especially considering the turnout and the excitement from the audience at Austin Film Festival’s public screening. It’s cathartic and entertaining and most of all, meaningful, in a way that not every holiday film, or films that deal with such topics heavy topics like death and forgiveness, can achieve.

So, with that said, and in celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, here are 5 interesting takeaways from the Q&A with Matthew Aldrich.

1. Coco could have been an entirely different story.

In total, Coco took about 6 years to make, as most Pixar films do. Before landing on the story that we now know and love, according to Aldrich, the film was really more about letting go. “It was an American version of how to grieve. It was very much a story about letting go,” he said. “And you take a few minutes to learn about this holiday and you know that that’s not what this holiday is about at all.”

Thus, from there, they completely started over, really digging in and getting to the heart of what Dia de Los Muertos is about. They researched and they went to Mexico and celebrated the holiday with families. Eventually, they realized they needed to have the family in Coco begin the story apart from one another and then come together in the end. As Aldrich said at the Q&A, it became the “ultimate family reunion.”

2. The film was originally developed as a full-on musical.

While Coco has lots of great songs in it, one of which won an Academy Award, the film itself is not really a musical in the traditional sense. The characters don’t break into song with every new feeling they experience. This was not the case originally, though. It was supposed to be more of a traditional musical, but as the story progressed and evolved, they decided to take a simpler, subtler approach. Songwriters for the film, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, had initially written loads of songs for the film when it was being developed as a musical. These never made it to the final cut, but some are included on the DVD/Blu-Ray edition of the movie.

And while the film is not a “sing-your-feelings musical” as Aldrich said at the Q&A, there are still remnants and inspiration from that type of storytelling within it. “The structure of the movie is the structure of a musical,” he said. “Miguel still has his ‘I want’ song. It’s just that he doesn’t sing it. It’s when he’s up in the attic, with the ofrenda to de la Cruz and he’s playing a duet. And the ‘I want’ song is a duet between these two people who you want them to meet.”

3. Writing children characters gives even Pixar writers some trouble.

During the Q&A, Aldrich discussed the process of writing Miguel’s character, one which he said was in certain ways difficult. He understood the fine line between creating a character too young for this experience and a new teen old enough to be a little annoying. Ultimately, they strayed away from both of these tropes and instead, wrote Miguel in between these two ages with this in mind: “My own personal rule of thumb is that they [kids] feel things twice as deeply as adults and they think half as far ahead when they’re making their choices,” he said.

4. If you look closely, the film’s got a few Pixar Easter Eggs.

When asked about where in the process of adding Easter in the movie that references other Pixar films, Aldrich noted that those are decisions made by the scenic designers way into the animation process. However, he pointed out that all Pixar films have a Pizza Planet reference somewhere in the film and that during the writing stage they did briefly discuss where it could possibly go. You can catch that reference in Coco on a truck in the very first few minutes of the movie.

5. The choice to make Miguel’s family shoemakers sort of came at random.

In Coco, the Rivera family are shoemakers, “through and through.” While at first glance, one might not question this choice of family business, it is interesting to think about how the writers eventually decided on that choice. At the Q&A, someone asked Aldrich this very question to which he replied “One day I was in my office and I literally just went ‘shoes!’ They have to make shoes. And I was so excited.”

He was thrilled just thinking about the different metaphors the shoe business could make between Miguel and his family as well as the ways in which the shoes’ footprints could be used later in the story as clues. So after coming up with this, he ran to pitch it to the room and apparently got crickets. They decided to put it in for the time being, and eventually ended up using in it in the final story, to which Aldrich said: “I love that it’s still shoes, that they didn’t change shoes.”

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