‘Coco’ sings with a deep respect for Mexican culture: Director Lee Unkrich discusses how to tell heavy stories to kids

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‘Coco’ sings with a deep respect for Mexican culture: Director Lee Unkrich discusses how to tell heavy stories to kids


Disney-Pixar’s “Coco” from director Lee Unkrich is a heartwarming tale dealing with dreams, family and death. The movie, which explores elements of Mexican culture, is vying for the best animated feature and best song awards at the upcoming Oscars on March 4th. [WALT DISNEY COMPANY KOREA]

Disney-Pixar’s exploration of Mexican culture has stolen the hearts of audiences around the world. Following its win of the Golden Globe for best animated feature film, the movie is vying for the best animated feature and best song awards at the upcoming Oscars on March 4th.

The heartwarming tale set in the backdrop of Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, when Mexicans display photos of their departed loved ones to remember those who have passed away and to invite their spirits to visit the living, has sold 2.7 million tickets in Korea as of Tuesday, and the film topped the North American box office for three weeks straight.

Coming from the director behind the second and third “Toy Story” films and “Monsters, Inc.,” Lee Unkrich, “Coco” combines top-notch storytelling with beautiful visual elements. In an email interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, Unkrich described the multi-year process of making the film.


Lee Unkrich

Q. After “Sanjay’s Super Team,” a story revolving around an Indian boy, released two years ago, Pixar has again turned to a different culture. What was the reason behind wanting to explore Mexican culture?

Every movie we’ve ever made has sprung form the imagination of the director. Some directors have told very personal stories, while others have been inspired by things outside their own experience. In the case of “Sanjay’s Super Team,” Sanjay was telling a very personal story about his childhood, and Pixar supported him in telling that story.

In the case of “Coco,” although the Mexican culture represented did not reflect my own upbringing, I was nevertheless fascinated by the Dia de Muertos traditions and wanted to explore them. In the course of our research, I discovered aspects of the holiday - like the love of family - that I was convinced would be relatable to people all around the world.

You have worked at Pixar since 1994. What do you love so much about Pixar’s films, and what is the most rewarding thing about working for Pixar Animation Studios?

The thing that I find most rewarding about working at Pixar is the knowledge that the films we create will be seen all over the world, by many different cultures. It is also great knowing that the stories we tell will continue to be around long into the future - they will outlive me. I also feel incredibly lucky to be able to work alongside so many incredibly talented people. I am humbled by the level of talent at Pixar.

“Coco” revolves around a Mexican boy named Miguel who comes from a big family. Do you come from a big family?

I come from a relatively small family. I’m an only child, and didn’t grow up with many cousins. I did, however, have many strong women in my family who collectively raised me.

Were there any special moments you had in Mexico when you visited the country for research?

All of the research that we did in Mexico was incredible, but the most special experiences were the time we spent with the many lovely families who welcomed us into their homes and shared their traditions with us. I think most of the families didn’t quite know what we were up to, but they were nevertheless quite happy that we showed such interest in Dia de Muertos.

These families fed us and told us stories, and laughed with us. They proudly shared their family businesses with us, and also walked us to the town centers to show us their cleaned and decorated family cemetery plots.

Most of the families were multi-generational. Kids, parents, grandparents and often great-grandparents all living together under one roof and sharing the collective responsibilities of raising the children. It was beautiful to observe, and many of the experiences we had were woven into the fabric of “Coco.”

“Coco” deals with death in a way that can be understood from a kid’s point of view. It also delivers the message that how an individual achieves one’s dream is more important than just blindly pursuing a goal, both of which aren’t easy topics to discuss with kids. Have you ever talked about these topics with your family?

My own children are older - they’re 20, 18 and 13 - so their reaction to the film was very different than it would have been had they been quite young. They enjoyed it, but I don’t know that it sparked any deep philosophical discussions among them.

My father passed away not long after Coco was released into the world. I think that having made Coco has cemented for me the importance of always remembering him and making sure that his stories are passed along to my own children, and someday, hopefully, their children.

You dealt with fear in “Monsters, Inc.,” parting in “Toy Story 3” and death in “Coco,” all of which are heavy but important parts of children’s lives. Pixar is known for giving freedom to directors to make films that suit their taste. What triggers your interest in these heavy topics?

I think that as I get older, along with my fellow filmmakers at Pixar, I’ve become more circumspect about life and the human condition. The things that I think about and which concern me have a way of making their way into the stories that I choose to tell.

Our goal is always to make entertaining films, but I think that if a movie can also make you think about your own life, and what kind of a person you choose to be, that’s a real bonus.

What’s your favorite line or scene from “Coco” and why?

I love the entire film, but if I were forced to single out one scene, it would probably be the scene where we see Miguel up in his attic, practicing guitar while watching old De la Cruz movies. I love how it expresses Miguel’s passion for music without him having to talk about it. We see it, and we deeply feel it.

BY NA WON-JEONG [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]

낯선 멕시코 문화를 바탕으로 저승세계를 그린 할리우드 애니메이션이 전세계 관객의 마음을 훔쳤다. 올해 골든글로브상 수상에 이어 아카데미 시상식에도 장편 애니메이션상, 주제가상 등 2개 부분 후보에 오른 ‘코코’ 얘기다. 한국에선 개봉 열흘 남짓만에 '어른 울리는 애니메이션'이란 입소문과 함께 관객 200만에 육박했다. 앞서 북미에서는 3주 연속 박스오피스 1위, 중국에선 ‘주토피아’에 이어 역대 애니메이션 흥행 2위까지 올랐다.

이런 성적은 ‘코코’가 서구 문화를 탈피한 픽사의 첫 장편 애니메이션이라는 점에서 더욱 눈여겨볼 만하다. ‘코코’는 집안 반대를 무릅쓰고 뮤지션을 꿈꾸던 멕시코 소년 미구엘이 우연히 저승 세계에 가 선조들을 만나며 가족애에 눈뜨는 성장담. 픽사 대표작으로 꼽히는 ‘토이 스토리’ 2‧3편과 ‘몬스터 주식회사’에 이어 연출을 맡은 리 언크리치(51) 감독을 e메일로 인터뷰했다.

질의 :픽사가 2년 전 인도 소년의 신화적 판타지를 그린 단편 ‘산제이의 슈퍼팀(Sanjay’s Super Team)’에 이어 다시 새로운 문화권에 눈을 돌렸는데.

응답 : “픽사의 모든 작품은 소속 감독들의 상상력에서 튀어나온다. ‘산제이의 슈퍼팀’이 산제이 파텔 감독이 자신의 유년기를 담은 자전적 단편이었다면, ‘코코’는 내가 멕시코 최대 명절 ‘죽은 자들의 날(Día de Muertos)’에 매료되면서 출발한 작품이다. 멕시코 문화권에서 자란 건 아니지만, 리서치를 하면서 이 명절에 얽힌 가족애 같은 것이 전 세계 사람들에게 울림을 줄 거라고 확신했다.”

질의 :원래 대가족 출신인가.

응답 :“나는 외동아들이고, 사촌도 많지 않다. 하지만 미구엘처럼 여러 강인한 여성들 손에서 자랐다. 작품을 준비하며 멕시코를 답사하는 동안 감동적인 경험을 했다. 아이, 부모, 조부모는 물론 증조할머니·할아버지까지 한집에 살면서 함께 아이를 키우는 집이 많았다. 이들은 깨끗하게 꾸민 가족 묘지를 보여주며 자신들의 가족사를 자랑스레 들려줬다. 그런 모습을 영화에 그대로 담고 싶었다.”

질의 :저승에 간 망자가 또다시 죽음을 맞게 된다는 설정이 가슴 아팠다.

응답 :“멕시코 사람들은 누구나 세 번 죽을 수 있다고 믿는다. 첫 번째 죽음은 심장 박동이 멈출 때, 두 번째는 시신이 묻히고 아무도 그를 다시 볼 수 없을 때, 그리고 세 번째이자 마지막 죽음은 이승에 그 사람을 기억하는 이가 아무도 남지 않았을 때 찾아온다. 정말 가슴 아픈 이야기여서 ‘코코’ 스토리의 기반으로 삼게 됐다.”

질의 :‘토이 스토리’ 2‧3편, ‘몬스터 주식회사’에서 이별과 공포를 다룬 데 이어 ‘코코’에서는 죽음을 다뤘다. 아이들이 보는 애니메이션으로 만들기엔 다소 무겁고 까다로운 주제를 택해왔는데.

응답 :“픽사의 동료들과 함께 나이를 먹을수록 삶과 인간의 조건에 대해 점점 신중하게 생각하게 된다. 우리의 목표는 재밌는 영화를 만드는 것이지만 보고 나서 각자 삶을 돌아보게 만들 수 있다면 그거야말로 훌륭한 보너스 아닐까.

어쩌면 ‘코코’는 언크리치 감독 자신에게 가장 잊지 못할 작품이 됐다. 그는 “영화가 전 세계에 개봉한 지 얼마 안 돼 아버지가 돌아가셨다”며 “‘코코’를 만든 경험을 통해 언제까지고 아버지를 기억하고, 아버지의 이야기를 내 아이들과 또 그 아이들에게 들려주는 일이 얼마나 중요한지 뼈저리게 새기게 됐다”고 밝혔다.

질의 :‘코코’가 멕시코 역대 박스오피스 신기록을 세웠는데.

응답 :“멕시코 전통문화에 대한 진심이 통한 것 같아 기쁘다. 멕시코 아이들이 미구엘처럼 차려입은 사진이 첨부된 메일을 많이 받았다. 미구엘이 그렇게 많은 아이들에게 영감을 주는 존재가 된 게 영광이다.”

언크리치 감독은 2011년 ‘토이 스토리3’으로 골든글로브‧아카데미 장편 애니메이션상을, 올해 ‘코코’로 다시 골든글로브상 장편 애니메이션상을 받았다. 가장 큰 영향을 받은 작품은 뭘까. “이렇게 답할 때마다 다들 놀라더라”며 그는 스탠리 큐브릭 감독의 1980년작 공포영화 ‘샤이닝’을 꼽았다. “‘샤이닝’은 내가 영화감독을 꿈꾸게 한 첫 영화다. 감독의 예술성이 영화에 어떻게 작용하는지 처음 호기심을 갖게 해줬다. 애니메이션 중에는 단연 미야자키 하야오 감독의 ‘센과 치히로의 행방불명’. 그보다 더 상상력 넘치는 영화를 보지 못했다.”

그는 픽사가 내년에 내놓을 ‘토이 스토리4’(감독 조시 쿨리)에도 ‘인사이드 아웃’의 피트 닥터 감독 등과 공동 원작자로 이름을 올렸다. 카우보이 인형 우디와 양치기 소녀 인형 보핍의 러브스토리로 알려졌다.
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