COCO (Part 1): The Script & The Research
This week, we’re going to be discussing Coco, the new Pixar movie by Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich.
If you haven’t seen this beautiful film yet, then you should run to the theatre immediately, because not only is it perhaps the most visually stunning Pixar film yet, but also one of the most structurally interesting for us to learn from as screenwriters and as filmmakers.
Often, when you see a film that’s as perfect as Coco, you imagine that these writers must know something that you don’t. That maybe they worked backwards from their perfect ending, or started with the perfect idea.
But the truth is, Molina and Aldrich’s approach to this film was a journey in itself– a journey they took with director Lee Unkrich of 7 years into research of Mexican culture, and the traditions of Dia De Muertos, into wrong ways and missteps. In other words, it was a process of rewriting.
In fact, the first draft of the story was about an American kid with a Mexican mother, traveling to Mexico for Dia de Muertos and learning to let go of someone he loved and lost.
As an early draft, the idea made perfect sense. They wanted to teach an American audience about Dia de Muertos, so what better technique to do so than to bring us in through the eyes of the main character who didn’t know his own culture.
Because it was built around Dia de Muertos, they knew it had to wrestle with the theme of death, so what better idea than to tell a story about letting go of someone you’ve lost.
They wrote the whole script, and even got as far as developing art for the project, before they finally realized they were telling a story that, as Unkich put it, “thematically was antithetical to what Dia de Muertos is all about. We were telling a story about letting go. And Dia de Muertos is about never letting go. It’s about this obligation to remember our loved ones and pass their stories along.”
Writing is a search for the truth. A mining of our subconscious to find the real characters that live there, the real themes we’re wrestling with, the real structure that can take us where we need to go, the real meaning that makes our movies matter.
In this way, it’s a process by which we find out who we are– just like the main character of Coco, Miguel, finds out who he is and what he believes in, by exploring his art and his voice as a musician.
And sometimes that means realizing, just like Miguel does, that we are staring at half a picture, that our assumptions about our story or our character or our plot don’t match the truth, that we’re not telling the story we think that we’re telling.
Sometimes we find the truth through researching the world of our screenplay– and sometimes that means digging in lots of places to find where the truth lies.
It might seem obvious by the final draft that the theme of the movie and the structure of the character’s journey needed to tie together with the meaning of Dia De Muertos.
But sometimes it takes writing that early draft, or even several drafts that go totally in the wrong direction, before you uncover the source of the feeling that “something is off” and start to discover what the story really needs to be.
It may seem obvious by the final draft that an adorable animal character could generate some laughs for the audience. But who could have imagined that the fabulous dog in Coco, Dante, would spring from research about the Aztec traditions from which Dia de Muertos grew?
The Aztecs believed that a Xoloitzcuintli hairless dog was necessary to bring a spirit from the land of the living to the land of the dead. And this research led the writers into even more esoteric research about that breed of dog, and the discovery that Xolo dogs teeth tend to fall out, causing their tongues to loll out the side.
And who could have predicted that it was from that research, barely even connected to the idea of Dia de Muertos, from which a laugh out loud visual gag in almost every scene would be born?
A non-writer might assume that researching dog breeds for a Day of the Dead movie was a waste of time– or even worse, a willful act of procrastination. A non-writer might assume that writing a whole draft, or many drafts, of a structure that you may not even end up using would be a total failure.
But an artist follows the instinct, not even knowing where it’s going to take them. An artist allows themselves the freedom to follow the feeling that “this feels right” until the real truth starts to emerge.
That doesn’t mean that we should confuse historical research with the writing process. That doesn’t mean that we should try to squeeze in every detail of our research into the script. And that certainly doesn’t mean that we should confuse what we want our audience to learn with the real product we are delivering– the structure of our character’s journey.
But it does mean that we can use our research to find that point of entry. To find that one true thing, that helps us understand the character, or the world, or the entire structure of the film.
From our research we’ll start to find our theme, our characters, the look of our film, the world, our style, our rhythm, our tone.
Many writers think that research is something you have to do before you can start writing– something you have to get perfect, so that you can know everything and find your perfect plan, and not waste any time.
But research is actually something you do as you write.
In fact, the writing itself is research. Every word you write is research. A quest, guided partly by intellect, and partly by instinct, for the seeds out of which your real story will grow.
It’s a quest by which you’ll connect to that real voice in yourself, and transform your movie from something that “makes sense” to something that moves– that takes both you and your characters and your audience on a life changing emotional journey.
At the beginning often that means digging in many places, and playing and practicing and exploring and sketching.
And as you do so, some words you write will start to resonate with you. A single line of dialogue on the page. An image you can’t get out of your head. A moment that you don’t quite understand. A structural beat that makes you laugh or cry.
And other moments that should resonate, that intellectually make a ton of sense– ideas that seemed great in your head, or in an outline or in a pitch– will often surprise you by falling flat on the page. Plot points that should make you cry will instead ring hollow or false.
Until one day, something clicks. Sometimes it’s a moment, or a line, or a movement of your story, or something you learn in your research. Sometimes it’s something as minor as a single moment. And sometimes it’s as profound as a whole structure for your character’s journey.
And sometimes it’s as simple as a song. Like the Remember Me song in Coco. Which ends up being not only the song we’re all going to leave singing, but also the thematic link between Dia de Muertos and the journey of the character. The structure from which everything else will arise.
But what it really is, is your theme. The song inside you that’s been trying to get out. That little bit of truth trying to find its way onto the page.
And suddenly you’re not digging in many places any more. You’re digging in one place. And you’re digging as deeply as you can, because you’ve found that vein of gold, and you want to get as much of it out of the ground and onto the page as you possibly can.
That’s the place that we’re all searching for as writers. And sometimes our desire to find that place cuts us off from the process by which we can actually arrive there.
Sometimes we imagine we can get to there more quickly by thinking really hard or planning really hard or making sure we know everything before we start.
Sometimes we imagine we can get there more quickly by rushing through those early scenes, trying to get the “bones” on the page, rather than doing the real work– the real research– of writing.
Sometimes we imagine we can get there more quickly by getting “serious” about our scripts, rather than playing around and exploring. Or following some pre-programmed formula that some other writer made, or some coverage reader jotted down in their “notes” about your script.
But the truth is, none of these techniques will get you there faster. Rather they will cut you off from the real opportunity of arriving. Keep you digging on the surface, chasing the fool’s gold, when there’s acres and acres of real gold under your feet, gold that you, and only you, have the capacity to access.
To do that, like Miguel, you have to cross over into a land where you don’t normally go.
To do that, like Miguel, you have to remember what is really important to you.
To do that, like Miguel, you have to look the truth in the face, and take it back with you to the other side.
That means taking the time to do the research into your own truth, seeing, feeling and hearing every word you write. Applying both art and craft to every page as if it was the only page that mattered.
That means refusing to rush to the end, and instead keeping focused on where you are right now, so you can connect to each moment and each character and those little details in which the real theme lies.
That means allowing yourself to take wrong turns, so you can find the true path of your intuition.
That means surrounding yourself with great artists who push you past your own blind spots, just like Lee Unkrich pushed his writers. That don’t allow you to accept half truths when there’s still a whole truth underneath. That don’t allow you to stop digging until the full power of your voice is excavated.
And the only way to do that is to commit fully to keep on digging with everything you’ve got, until you find that place where everything suddenly comes into focus.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this podcast in which I’ll be breaking down the structure of Coco, and showing you how one song, “Remember Me” was used to generate a structure for the entire film and the entire journey for the character.
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