(PCM) Helping to create the vibrant, inspiring and musical world for “Coco” has been a dream come true for Jason Katz, the film’s story supervisor.
Throughout the lengthy process of making this beautiful animated holiday movie, there was one vision that went through Katz’s mind: celebrating family.
Katz, who has spent the past six years eating, sleeping, and learning everything about the Mexican culture that was the backbone for “Coco,” says that this is a movie about family, and as such, it transcends boundaries.
The new movie from Disney/Pixar Animation Studios, its 19th feature film, which opens on Wednesday, Nov. 22, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, is a tale of 12-year-old Miguel, a young boy, who has big dreams.
From the team that created such animated gems as “Toy Story 3,” and “Monsters University,” is a beautiful new movie about the unbreakable bonds of family.
His hardworking family has a long history of shoemaking, and banning music, and all Miguel wants to do is leave behind the family business, and become a musician.
Miguel feels like he has to choose between his passion for music and his love for his family. He really wants to share his talents with his family—to prove to them that making music is both beautiful and honorable. But he definitely goes about it the wrong way.
Instantly, we are transformed to a brightly-colored world of the beautiful and complicated relationships that come with family. The sweet, bossy grandma, who insists on one more bite could be anyone’s grandma, and having big dreams that the rest of the family doesn’t quite understand, definitely is a universal theme.
Set in Mexico, “Coco” features two distinct worlds: The Land of the Living and The Land of the Dead. Miguel and his family hail from Santa Cecilia, a charming town with a bustling central plaza where residents congregate.
The look and feel of Santa Cecilia is inspired by villages visited by Katz and the other filmmakers as research trips before they started to make the movie. The people of Mexico made the filmmakers think about our own families, our own histories and how that makes us who we are today.
The filmmakers went to markets, gardens, altars, haciendas, churches and plazas, which inspired the film’s city of Santa Cecilia. They saw mariachis performing, stumbled on parades and visited cemeteries. Everywhere they went they saw lively crowds and events filled with inspiring music.
Another important aspect of the story takes place during Dia de Muertos, a special festival for the day of the dead, which evokes a common need in many cultures to be remembered, and to feel like we will always make a difference in the lives that come after us.
Katz recently gave a presentation for Drexel University and Temple University students on the Drexel Campus. He showed the first five minutes of the movie, in addition to additional clips with behind the scenes snippets on the making of the movie. He also gave a similar presentation to students at Villanova University.When Katz was a young boy he and his grandmother loved movies, especially animated films. She was a positive influence in his life, and gave him the love and support to follow his dreams that led to his stellar work at Disney-Pixar Animation, a life he feels blessed to have.
How long did it take to make your stunning and memorable movie, “Coco?”
JASON KATZ: Six years. We definitely spent our time, and the beauty of making Pixar movies is that first we want to ask a question that deserves to be answered, and then we are able to take the time to get it right.
Please explain a little of the process.
JZ: We put up a movie and screen it on rough story boards and take it down if we need to start over. Not only do we want to make it hopeful; but clearly, we need to have something to say. We want to create great characters that are memorable and constantly try to improve it, screening after screening. There is always a beginning, a middle and an end. We are always refining it, and finding smarter ways to find things that are more culturally specific or that is specific to these characters.
What was the most challenging aspect of the movie?
JZ: I think that probably the most challenging thing really was trying to tell a story in a real world centered around a real holiday and real celebration that is extremely important to Mexico, and to be committed to trying to tell this story as respectfully and authentically as possible.
Tell me more about this.
JZ: Well, Pixar has never done a movie like this – one that was intertwined with the culture and heritage of a people. So, it was important that we did the research, and involved people who were experts in so many aspects of the film: the celebration, music, and their lives. We needed people whose families celebrated the holidays and grew up challenged and in stations that our main character had to deal with, and they, in turn, helped us follow the correct path. That’s what we were committed to in the beginning.
What were some of your concerns?
JZ: We didn’t want the holiday to be window dressing; we needed it to be connected to our story, and the specifics of our story. The theme of the holiday had to be completely connected and interwoven with the themes of our movie.
What movies did you love while you were growing up and which ones were early influences for you?
JK: I was lucky to grow up with a grandmother who raised us, and had loose rules and high standards.What do you mean?
JK: I loved anything Disney and anything animated. My grandma and I had a tradition and I would grab the TV Guide and circle any four-star movie. Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain,” is my all-time favorite. I also loved animated movies – good or bad. I was a huge Jim Henson fan and loved “The Muppet Movie.”
Has anyone ever told you that you could not pursue your dreams or passion in life?
JZ: The only person who has told me that is me. I grew up in a family where my parents were amazingly supportive of my brother and I. My maternal grandmother raised us while our parents worked. She taught me how to draw and gave us our great love of movies, so I know I wouldn’t be who I am without her.
What messages did you get from your family?
JZ: My dad always wanted us to be happy with what my brother and I did. I felt that I needed to follow a more traditional path. I was my own rule maker and inhibitor, and it was through meeting some amazing mentors, and having doors open up, and people were looking out for me and recognized me during those moments of choice, that there were opportunities in the world, that’s how I found my way to Disney and Pixar.
Do you see these stories reflected in real life?
JZ: One of my storyboard artists had similar things happen to him that Miguel had to go through. He came from a family of doctors. His parents made an amazing life for him, and they wanted him to be a doctor, and so he went to medical school. He also worked on animation on the side; because initially his family would not allow this type of career. But he was not happy, so, he dropped out of med school, and now that he is happily embroiled in this career, his family has finally come around. Ultimately, when they see his name in the credits of “Coco” they will feel good about all of this.
Has your family seen “Coco” yet?
JZ: I have seen it with my wife and children; my 11-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. My mom, dad and brother will see it after Thanksgiving, and they can’t wait.
What did your children say about the movie?
JZ: I loved being able to sit in a theater and hold their hands while we were watching the movie, it was an amazing experience. They loved it! They also never knew a time when I wasn’t working on “Coco.” I would bring home my story boards. My daughter put things in perspective – she said Disney-Pixar ‘movies make us feel so much.’ She said that our movies, such as “Monsters University” and “Toy Story,” take you on an emotional roller coaster, So, I was nervous about her being able to handle this. But, not only did she love it, including the emotional scenes, and she said it was the best film she had ever seen. I told her I saw her crying, and she responded: ‘Dad, they were happy tears.’
That must mean a lot to you.
JZ: Yes, the special thing about working on these is that our families are so supportive of what we are doing. Now, we can finally talk about the plot points and share what I have been doing the entire lives of my children.
How were your classes, including the one you taught at Drexel University?
JZ: The class was great. The students were so excited and so enthusiastic. I showed them the first five minutes of the film, and talked about it. I laid out the first act of the story and I was so excited to show work to students who are as passionate about animation as I am. It’s just fun to answer questions, and to see what people are interested in, and are excited about. It is so exciting to dive into this world. It’s been a while since I have been at Cal Arts and I love being with students at the beginning of their careers and so hungry for knowledge. I know that I always walk away from these class sessions so inspired.
Can you talk about the dream of your career verses the reality?
JZ: I have been so blessed with my career, and what I have been able to do at Pixar. Growing up my big dream was to work for Disney one day, and never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would be more than a dream. I not only work at Pixar but I am able to grow as an artist. As the company is growing, and to be part of films I would be a fan of even if I didn’t get a chance to work on them. I am just thrilled with every opportunity that I seem to get.
Are you surprised with your career success?
JZ: I’m a superstitious person; that was also given to me by my grandma. I love telling stories, and getting to have a voice in the room. It may sound cliché, but never in a million years did I think that I would have this opportunity. It is astounding to realize, but I have been at Pixar half of my life. Then when I take a step back and think what I have been able to accomplish and learn, it is extraordinary. I feel so fortunate to be able to work at a place with some of my best friends, and to work on projects that I am so passionate about. I better find some salt to sprinkle over my shoulder and knock on some wood. I’ve been very blessed.
What are the messages and life lessons for the movie “Coco?”
JZ: Hopefully, people walk away with an understanding of the themes of the movie. I feel when we started out we were focused on the holiday of Dia de Muertos, and what it is really about. The theme of the holiday, and the important aspect of remembrance and the responsibility of those who are alive to display, respect, and honor those who have come before us.
Please tell me about this holiday, which is at the center of your movie?
JZ: This is a celebration that is designed for families to gather around and share stories. They put out their favorite food and drinks, and physically welcome the departed back to their family for the day. So, there is something so powerful about that. We really knew we needed to make this central to our story telling. So, we made a movie about the importance of remembrance and the sacrifices that family members make for one other. Also, the fact that every aspect of our identity is based not only on those who came before us, folks we never meet, but acknowledging the group, and the group acknowledging us as individuals. Hopefully, we were lucky enough to make people feel like this is one in same
This is quite a tall order.
JZ: There were similar stories that we heard that resonated with us. We spoke the same way when my grandma passed away. So, there is something beautiful, true, and universal about all of that. What I found so lovely about that holiday is the universality of it. I am a Jewish man, who grew up in Los Angeles, but it was the same for my family. During our trips to Mexico, we learned that they feel we have three deaths; in the first, it is when we are no longer breathing, the second is when we are buried, and the third, and most tragic, is what we called the spinal death, and that takes place when we are forgotten and there is no one around to talk about us or tell our stories. So, this was very specific to celebrating the holiday and those who died.
What inspires you in your work?
JK: Working on films that impact people from all walks of life; it’s impossible not to be inspired by this. What is thrilling to me is to hear how these movies impact people’s lives around the world. My goal is to make something honest and entertaining. My aim is to create something that makes people feel an emotion that evokes laughter or tears. I love that I can create meaningful work – that not only pushes the art form forward – but that people can learn something about themselves or their world. Or appreciate someone else’s world.
Do you feel that “Coco” is an ideal holiday movie?
JK: Yes. It’s a movie about a holiday, and it is a great movie to see with your family during Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any other holiday. It is definitely a movie that we’d like people to see with the those they love. I believe that movies are a shared experience, so, we make our movies for a vast wide audience from young to old. We hope that everyone can get something from our films. This is a movie about family, finding your place, and finding love in your family, so, it seems like such a wonderful opportunity to share it with your family.
How does it feel to hear about early Oscar buzz for Coco?
JZ: As my grandma would say, ‘don’t jinx it and don’t focus on it’ – part of her inherent superstitious nature. My response is that it’s great that the movie has opened and that people are enjoying it. I hope that they really embrace it.
What’s next for you as Disney-Pixar?
JZ: I honestly do not know. I love being in the trenches and being in the dark days of a story. When I am not working on a movie, I really don’t know what to do with myself. I have strict rules from my wife and my mother to enjoy this time, so, that’s what I am attempting to do.