Pixar have hit a home run with Coco, delivering a profoundly moving reflection on love and memory. It’s an amazing triumph of character, spectacle, story and theme. How do they keep doing it? I spoke to producer Darla K. Anderson in an attempt to understand. You can also expect some top tips on how to get a gig writing scripts at the studio, but you shouldn’t expect to hear that it’s easy.
Here’s how my conversation with Anderson went down…
People have heard a lot about what a producer might do at Pixar in the abstract but what you actually do on a day-to-day level is more of a mystery. What actually happens? Let’s start with you becoming attached to a film in the first place.
I’ve been there since the very beginning, as has Lee, and we’ve fallen into this cadence and chemistry of working together so after Toy Story 3 we just asked each other “Do you want to work together again?” It was barely a question.
Because it works.
Like any relationship, it’s all about about trust and respect. If you have trust and respect you have a great foundation and Lee and I have that together. Every producer is quite different, and brings with them their own proclivities and talents, their own complements to the director, but generally speaking it’s about strategy. We have a finite amount of resources, and something always goes wrong at the studio – some other film’s story hits a hiccup – so all of our best laid plans are thwarted. One of the many aspects of the producer’s job within the walls of Pixar is to strategically figure out how to get it all done. It’s fun because it nearly always does not work on paper. If you were to break down the number of characters that need to get animated, and – we still speak in archaic terms about this – how many feet of film we need to get animated, then it doesn’t really translate logically.
I have to figure out how we’re going to rally the troops, in a way, or think differently. We have to figure out how to manifest what the film needs to be and get it on screen.
In that early stage where Lee is just scribbling on the back of an envelope, really, what are you doing?
You’re looking at the back of the envelope?
There was only three of us at the beginning of this. Jason Katz [who gets a co-writing credit alongside Lee for ‘Original Story By’ on Coco], me and Lee. I’m in the room creatively brainstorming. I do that; not every producer does that, but I sit in the story room and talk it all out with everybody and participate because later I will have the full breadth of the entire DNA of the film as part of my being, then I can make very quick decisions on the fly later, I won’t have to catch up to any of the history, any of the very long story process. I help to steer the ship.
We need scripts so I try to find writers, scriptwriters who might be good for the film, a lot of that at that time.
Are you reading piles of scripts, submissions from agents, looking for the kind of voice you think works?
Yes. Jason was internal but we had two writers – well, more than two, but two who ended up getting credited on this film – Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina.
Do you remember how Matthew became part of this?
We brought him up and we read his scripts that were on the blacklist [2011’s Father Daughter Time: A Tale of Armed Robbery And Eskimo Kisses and 2012’s The Ballad Of Pablo Escobar] and they were wonderful. We met with him, had lunch with him, and told him what we were trying to do to see if he really connected with our storytelling and what the challenges were here and he was very much into it.
What was it you saw in him?
He’s really smart, he’s really good at structure, he’s really good at unique dialogue and specificity of voice. He has depth of emotion in his storytelling. It was all of the things we needed on this film, he had them all in spades. And he was very articulate and strong in how he expresses himself, we really appreciated that.
When writers work at Pixar in this way are they brought onto the campus for that period of time?
Somewhere between one and two years, maybe. Each film is different, of course, but about that.
It’s totally unique now, to animation, but it is the way one might think it worked on live action films of the 30s and 40s.
I think so. I think it’s like an old-school studio system. It’s also… we started with nothing on Coco, the gesture of an idea, so the writer could also have been sitting alone in a room writing the script but we brainstorm together and then they go off and write for a few weeks, come back and we bounce it off each other. It does feel like my impression of how it would have been in the past, that very collaborative, bounce-it-off-each-other kind of way. Then we branch out and help all of the other films that are going on, which is stimulating, also helpful.
You must buttress one another’s work.
There’s no question. We invite all of the writers to see our work in progress, to give their opinions on what we’re missing and how to get there, then we go take that mass of notes and write them up, try to figure out what makes sense in making the most successful story.
As a producer, I’m part of all of that. I’m in the room, helping to pin the cards, to help the teams working, and in the meantime we’re doing technical R&D, trying to work out the world.
Some R&D is obviously necessary to make some of the scenes just happen, quite clearly. When you start on a project like this, it seems like there’s an onus on you to take a leap of faith and say “Okay, Lee you’re asking for something 95% possible, we’ll make it happen…” What did you not know for sure was okay when you started developing Coco? Where did you have to put your faith?
Two things. One is just the general scope of the movie. Just getting all of those things up on screen means this must be the most complicated Pixar film we’ve ever done, the amount of characters and amount of sets we did. But I trusted the entire team. I put my faith in the team. And the team was very excited to shake it up and do something very challenging.
The way we did the Land of the Dead, in working with technical director David Ryu and his team, was daunting. We had six million lights in the Land of the Dead, lots and lots of houses. We built it into modular units and repeated them, in some ways, but even in those, there’s so many unique features it would be really hard to find the replication. The scale was a very big challenge, we wanted people to feel the expanse when we went across that bridge. The way we did it was to impress that visual impact on them, but it took a giant leap of faith.
Was there anything you said no to? Anything that seemed like it would just be making a rod for your backs?
That’s… not… my proclivity… The only thing I’m really cautious about is starting in on anything that won’t stay in the film. I’m really conservative about that.
Story beats you’re not sure of?
Exactly that. But once my guts, my heart and my knowledge – probably in that order – are set, I know it’s going to be in the movie and I just want to get going on it, try to figure out how we can start achieving. What you want, especially when people are climbing a mountain, trying to get things done, is traction. If you’re conservative as to when you put [material] into production you won’t start going backwards, you’ll build momentum and get a lot onto the screen.
Are you really interested in all of this?
I ask the questions I want to know the answers to. That’s my rule.
I’m imagining there must be a time where you’re not sure of a story beat or choice but Lee is so there’s a little bit of something going on between you. How do you work that out?
There isn’t that much friction between he and I in that way. One gamble that we put into production first was the scene where Miguel is playing guitar in front of the TV, with Ernesto de la Cruz. We had only had that scene up once – normally we’d put a scene up [in draft, on reels] several times, we only had that up once but we needed to put something into production.
Was the decision made at all arbitrarily?
I’m the producer, I have to say something needs to go into production but I thought that would be a great scene. It’s like you’re baking a cake – you have to start baking it somewhere – and that scene felt like the heart of the movie to me. It’s where you can see and feel Miguel’s passion and love for the music. I loved that scene but it was a bit of a gamble because it had only really been seen by everybody once.
When I saw that scene in isolation six months ago and when I saw it in the context of the movie it felt very different. In isolation it seemed very much like a scene from Ratatouille. In context, actually, it’s superficially similar, there’s one important connection, but it is very different in other ways. Are you mindful of people contrasting Pixar’s scenes in that way?
For me, personally, the Pixar universe is so big now, we just endeavour to be as original and true to the story we’re telling as we can. I find [comparing scenes] overwhelming as we have so many movies, images, and story points. I think it’s a compliment when people want to compare our scenes in this way.
The truth is, that scene in Ratatouille lives on in me enough to come to mind but how many other scenes in other movies don’t? Tens of thousands of scenes forgotten.
It’s our intention to make classic, long-lasting films that permeate people’s hearts and souls.
The universe of Pixar is huge and each new galaxy requires new exploration and research but I don’t know much about how you might interact with Disney. I remember the moment the Disney and Pixar relationship changed, Disney were no longer just a distributor and staff were shared at a very high level. Yet you remain very distinct organs, right down to the animation software you use. Is there no perceived benefit to cross-pollination and sharing more?
Yes. We do hang out with each other, share ideas. I’ve learned from producers at Disney. It’s an unending font of ideas on how to do things, how to divide up the work and approach production. We also are creatively important to one another. We’ve got in the habit of taking our films down to Disney to have their brain trust watch them and vice versa. As a producer I try to ensure every viewing of our films is for a fresh audience, to get the truest reactions, I think it’s very helpful to take the movie out of the building and get a fresh point of view on it. It was extraordinarily helpful for us to get Disney’s brain trust to see our film.
Can you cite any specific advice?
Yeah, we changed our opening. That came out of that meeting. The opening we did have didn’t make sense to them – it was a vestige of an old idea, beautiful and lovely but more obtuse – and we had wanted papel picado [papercraft cutouts] and had it in another draft, another scene. We came back and shifted how we open the film.
What does this new version bring that was missing before?
On a culturally specific level it’s that papel picado is uniquely Mexican. When you see those banners you know it’s Mexico. For me, on an animation geek level, I love to see the cut-out animation. And also for me, technically, that we worked out how to do translucency between the paper. Story-wise, we needed a more efficient way to get at this crazy idea that this family would not allow music.
That’s the thing we’ve got to buy into at the start of the film.
You have to buy into it so we have to be more efficient and clear in how we [related that] to the audience.
It’s partly a very abstract opening, with the story in the cut-outs, but it’s also very photo-realistic. The depth of field makes the images seem so tangible. We seem to be reaching a point where conversations about what’s possible are nearing an end. Surely it’s nearly ‘If you want to build it, you can build it.’
That’s true but we are doing a lot of things at once at Pixar so we have to manage our resources and keep everything going at once. Strategically we work that out together.
So it’s about working out how to create these renderings responsibly.
Yes. And we’re constantly upgrading the software, doing new things, so those technical nuances factor into the do-ability of things. 30 years in this industry, 25 years at Pixar, and I’m having some of the same conversations. Things are infinitely more doable now, of course, you can make anything organic, you can do almost anything, but we still have to work out how to approach it responsibly and get everything done that we need to get done. At the end of the day, what we do know that you can have all the bells and whistles in the world but all that really matters is story. It’s wise to keep the focus responsibly on story, keep the focus there for all of our films, then distribute the rest of the resources accordingly.
Can we assume that a number of films at Pixar just fade away, development on their story just doesn’t go to plan? Do you have colleagues and peers whose films are quietly ending development because while the story germ is great, when it’s built out to two hours, you just can’t iron out all of the kinks?
That happens. It’s rare – most things happen getting made.
With a writer sitting at home with a typewriter it’s not so rare so how come it’s so rare at Pixar?
We have an arduous pitch process. You pitch a few ideas, then you have to pitch a script breakdown, you have to keep on and by the time you get to scriptwriting, [it] has gone through some key milestones in development. But it does happen.
When you knew you were definitely taking Coco into production, how long had you been working on it?
I think we knew it was going to happen right away, that it would get traction and go, but I’d say, probably, five months in we started to get that traction. But still, we changed our story quite a bit after this, it wasn’t smooth sailing, there were definitely a lot of twists and turns.
Though in the end, it’s worked out absolutely wonderfully. Darla K. Anderson, thank you again.
Coco is in UK cinemas from Friday.