Coco producer Darla K. Anderson on the power of representation and women in animation

Contributed by
Nov 29, 2017

Since 1998, Darla K. Anderson has produced five wildly successful Pixar films from A Bug's Life to their latest, Coco.  The only long-term, female member of the famed “Pixar Brain Trust,” Anderson has been an advocate for diversity and gender within the company, seeing female hires soar since she joined the company more than 20-years ago.

With the release of Coco, directed by her long-time creative collaborator, Lee Unkrich, and Adrian Molina, Anderson got on the phone to talk to Fangrrls about the importance of cultural representation in animation and how the industry is doing when it comes to attracting more female talent.

After making two Pixar films with Lee Unkrich, was it a given you would do Coco together?

Lee and I had been partnering since, I guess it's been about 10 years now, which is crazy how time flies. Lee and I were together since A Bug's Life. He was the editor on A Bug's Life and I was a producer. And so we'd been working together for a really long time,  probably 22 years, which is also crazy. We knew that we wanted to work together again after Toy Story 3. Lee and I, and then our head of story, Jason Katz, we started bouncing around three ideas. One of them was this idea of exploring a film set against the backdrop of Dia de los Muertos. Jason and I were extremely enthusiastic about just working with Lee because he's just such a wonderful director and partner. But we both had a special interest in Dia de los Muertos as well.

What was your development process with Coco?

The minute we pitched this film, we jumped on a plane in 2011 and went down and started our research, which was to go down and experience Dia de los Muertos down in Mexico. We only had a few weeks to pull that trip together and so we were fortunate to just visit Mexico. We got some great guides and we stayed with families. It was just an amazing, life-changing trip. We immersed ourselves in everything, but mostly we started with families, and that was really, really important to Lee, which I always very much admired. The country is so beautiful and the holiday is so gorgeous and so rich, but Lee knew that the most important thing was the people and how the families were together. How they interacted. How they celebrated. How they cooked. And he knew that that was going be the font of our best inspiration. We focused a lot on that, and that was that.

When you brought that knowledge and experience back to Pixar, what happened?

Back at home, we both worked with external consultants and internal consultants/team members. Internally, luckily, people were very excited about this film and gravitated towards it. As such, we had quite a few Mexican Americans, Mexicans, Latinos, on the story team and in charge. Danny Arriaga's was in charge of all the character design and so on. Externally, we bought in three main cultural advisors and consultants starting with Marcela Davison Aviles, then Lalo Alcarez, and Octavio Solís. The three of them we invited very early on to all of our screenings. We don't really do that at Pixar, for good reason because our films aren't good until they are. We're such perfectionists, and we know it's a very vulnerable situation. But we really valued all the diverse opinions, including those three folks, to contribute all the little details that I think become an invaluable part of storytelling and moving making.

What are some of the specifics they focused on in terms of suggestions?

Like so many Pixar things, it has so much to do with all the tiny little details. They were like, "You know, it'd be so great if you had more Spanish words in the dialogue." And one thing that came from both Marcela and Lalo in different ways, was the idea of la chancla. The shoe came when Marcela said, "You know, my grandmother, who was a nurse, when we were bad, growing up in Texas, she would take off her shoe and throw it at us." And we thought, "That's hilarious!" And Lalo, when we were at a gag session, he reiterated that. And he said, "La chancla. Come on, guys." And so, the little things like that that add up to really awesome, entertaining details that are culturally specific but also broadly entertaining.

Was there anything you particularly pushed for in the film?

I was just in lock-step with the directors in terms of just really wanting this to be culturally resonant. I mean, we're not trying to make the quintessential film on Dia de los Muertos. But it was really important to us that we get it as correct as we could. I am really proud of the three of us. Again, I'm sure there's no such thing as perfection, but we tried extraordinarily hard to be very, very respectful. And I'm very proud of that.

There's also a lot of very strong female characters in the film, which is refreshing too.

Yes, the strong women portrayal. Again, I was in lock-step with the directors, which is so fortunate that it's not in any way a fight. It's a fight together to try to figure out the dragon of the creative process and tell a good story, and trying to figure out how we can get all of that in. To be able to have so many, pardon the pun, fully fleshed-out characters, I'm very proud of all of that

What's been the reaction from kids and from families of the Latin culture who get to see themselves. What does that mean to you?

 I just feel really grateful, to be honest, to work at a company that supports all kinds of unique visions and ideas, including this one. I'm just very proud of this film and since it's been released down in Mexico and gotten so much amazing feedback, it's overwhelming. I just feel enormously grateful that it has resonated with all the countries of Mexico and all the people there and all the stories we've been hearing. I do feel like it's very universal with a universal connection.

As someone who has been in this industry for quite some time, Pixar in particular is so special because you bridge that gap between the technical and the creative. You can't have your stories come to life without the technology that backs it up. How's the industry doing with attracting more diverse talent?

Yeah, the future is very bright. Our director of photography is Danielle Feinberg and she's also a very good friend of mine all these many years. She and I both, in our particular fields, have been championing women and women in the work place and setting up mentorships. Pixar has always been very responsive to these efforts. I do feel like we're, both internally and externally, reaching the point of some kind of momentum that's very, very exciting. And I'm very proud of what Pixar's been doing. And I'm very proud of Danielle and her efforts and so many people at Pixar. There are so many strong women doing so many wonderful things at our company. It's just really good to be part of this great community, and I'm looking forward to seeing all the many seeds I've been planting continue to come to fruition.

Coco is now playing in theaters.