Not My Job: We Quiz 'Coco' Director Lee Unkrich About Taco Bell

Nov 13, 2017
Originally published on November 11, 2017 12:53 pm

Lee Unkrich has helped make many Pixar movies, including the Academy-Award-winning Toy Story 3, which he directed. He's followed up a movie where he almost killed a beloved group of toys by making one in which almost everybody is already deceased — his new movie Coco centers around the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Since Coco pays homage to actual Mexican culture, so naturally, we wanted to quiz him about the opposite of that: Taco Bell.

Click the audio link above to see how he does.

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And now the game where we invite people on to do something easy as a reward for doing something difficult. Lee Unkrich has helped make many Pixar movies, most importantly "Toy Story 3," which he directed. So he followed up a movie in which he almost killed a beloved group of toys by making one in which almost everyone is already dead. His new movie, "Coco," comes out this week, and we are delighted to talk to him about it. Lee Unkrich welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

LEE UNKRICH: Hey, Peter. Thank you for having me.


SAGAL: It's so much fun to have you on the show. Now, you are a big film guy. You went to film school. And I know, because I follow you on Twitter, that you are in particular a big fan of Kubrick in the movie "The Shining."

UNKRICH: I am. Yes. "The Shining" - I first saw it when I was 12 years old.

SAGAL: Yeah.

UNKRICH: My mom took me to see it in the movie theater, and it changed my life. It was the movie that made me want to make movies myself. And, you know, people are always surprised when they hear that the guy who directs all these beloved family films was most inspired by a really scary Stanley Kubrick movie. But that's a fact.

SAGAL: And that's - that of course is what led to the brilliant and heartwarming axe murder scene in "Toy Story 3."


SAGAL: So what was it about that movie that made you say, yes, this is what I want to do with my life?

UNKRICH: I think it was the first time that I sensed the hand of an artist behind the camera. I think, up to that point in my life, movies were just about entertainment. And that was the first time that I started to see filmmaking as an art form.

ROXANNE ROBERTS: Isn't it true that almost all animated films or films for children have all these various little inside jokes for adults that reference various movies and things that the writers and the director loves?

UNKRICH: Yeah. I don't know that they all do, but we certainly do a lot in our films at Pixar. And part of it is that we spend so long making them. I just spent the last six years of my life making "Coco." And you have a lot of free time on your hands.


UNKRICH: And we're all still, you know, kids at heart. And we just - we get naughty sometimes and kind of hide little hidden things and references to other movies and inside jokes. And...

ROBERTS: Can you tell us one in "Coco"?

UNKRICH: In "Coco" - well, just to keep things on topic, you know, I always hide a few references to "The Shining" in every film that I direct. There are some in "Coco."

SAGAL: OK. I was asking about that. So there are some in "Coco."


SAGAL: We'll let people discover those. Where are "The Shining" references in "Toy Story 3"?

UNKRICH: In "Toy Story 3," there's a license plate that says Room 237 on it.

SAGAL: Uh-huh.

UNKRICH: There's a Kleenex tissue box that has the carpet pattern from "The Shining" in it. There's a bunch in that movie, a lot of little hidden things here and there.

SAGAL: Oh, very cool.


SAGAL: I swear to you I am going to ask you about "Coco," which we saw and love. But I have one last question...


SAGAL: ...About "Toy Story 3." So you're at Pixar. And you came there, and you were working as a story editor, as a director. You were like - you helped in a lot of movies before you were put in charge of one, right?

UNKRICH: Yeah. I started as a film editor on the first "Toy Story." And then I edited "A Bug's Life," and then I started co-directing. I co-directed "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo" before John Lasseter then asked me to direct "Toy Story 3."

SAGAL: And that must've been a big deal when he was like here - here are some of the most beloved characters created in film in the last 40 years. Do something with them.

UNKRICH: Yeah. Well, you know, when John first asked me to direct it, I initially was elated and had a huge grin on my face. And then I had this, like, soul-crushing darkness fall over me...


UNKRICH: ...When I realized that I was now going to be responsible for making a sequel to two of the most beloved films of all time.

SAGAL: Right. And you did a pretty good job. There's that scene in that movie in which all the characters are about to be incinerated. And it's pretty serious stuff for a kids' movie. Did you guys get any pushback on that?

UNKRICH: You know, we didn't really at all. And, you know, I think people just felt like it was a - it was an intense scene, but it was kind of emotionally honest. And it was the right conclusion for that film. I had shown the reels - the storyboard reel to my own kids several times. And, you know, they liked that scene a lot. But they weren't, you know, traumatized by it certainly. I think that adults feel very strong emotions, and they think about issues of mortality when they're watching that scene. But that's not the way kids are experiencing it. So it's very different for adults than kids. And I think a lot of adults just feel like they - and parents especially feel like they maybe want to protect their children from those strong feelings that they might be having themselves.

SAGAL: Yeah. And the little boys are going - oh, they're going to burn. Cool.


SAGAL: All right. "Coco" - you say - and you spent seven years working on this movie that's about to come out. The movie is set in Mexico and around and in the Day of the Dead celebrations. Where did you get this idea? Were you in Mexico and you're like, hmm?

UNKRICH: Well, you know, I have long been interested in Dia de Muertos. And I - you know, I wanted to learn more. And the more I dove in and learned what the tradition is all about - which is about this obligation that we have to remember our loved ones and to pass their stories along to the next generation and make sure that their memories never die - it just felt like a really strong universal idea that we could explore and make a really interesting film from, a film that could be entertaining and musical and, you know, full of adventure and bright colors and, you know, lots of comedy but at the same time have a real emotional core, which is that we always look for in our films at Pixar. Because we want - at the end of the day, we want the audience to come away feeling something.

SAGAL: Does - I know that Pixar movies take a long time. But does that ever get - I don't know how best - does it ever get exhausting? You're in Year 3, and you're still three years away?

UNKRICH: You know, it doesn't get exhausting. It's a marathon, not a sprint. You know, we have to find stories that we're passionate about - that we can maintain interest in for a long time. The thing that's challenging is that sometimes we'll have a really funny joke that makes us all laugh in the room. And then it's, like, five years before we actually animate the joke.



SAGAL: And is it....

UNKRICH: ...We just have to trust ourselves and remember that we thought it was funny once five years ago...


UNKRICH: ...And hope the audience will find it funny.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

SAGAL: Well, Lee Unkrich, congratulations on the movie, which is amazing. But we are not done with you. We have asked you to play a game we're calling...

BILL KURTIS: Doritos Tacos Cocos.

UNKRICH: All right.

SAGAL: So your movie "Coco" pays homage to authentic Mexican culture. So we thought we'd ask you about a company that has done something a tad differently. That would be Taco Bell.


SAGAL: Answer three questions about the, quote, "Mexican," unquote, restaurant chain. And you win a prize for one of our listeners, the voice of their choice on their voicemail. Bill, who is Lee Unkrich playing for?

KURTIS: Janet Roseff of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

SAGAL: Are you ready to play?

UNKRICH: All right, let's do this thing.

SAGAL: All right - let's do - do you go to Taco Bell? Did you go there for inspiration while making the film?


UNKRICH: I can say that I did not go to Taco Bell to find inspiration.

SAGAL: All right.

UNKRICH: But I have been at Taco Bell in my life.

SAGAL: Of course, between midnight and 3 a.m., like the rest of us.


SAGAL: The first question - it hasn't all been chalupas and soda for Taco Bell over the years. They were famously sued by a crusading law firm, which claimed what? A, they were mistreating their famous spokes-Chihuahua by feeding it Taco Bell food; B, Taco Bell seasoned beef is not in fact beef but a weird oatmeal-meat hybrid slurry; or C, despite the name, no restaurant actually has a bell.


UNKRICH: Hmm. You know, I think - let's go with B.


SAGAL: You're going to go with B. And that's the correct one, Lee. That was the correct one.


SAGAL: Taco Bell beef is - in fact, they sued saying it's not really beef, and Taco Bell responded aggressively saying of course it's beef. But they also changed their ingredient listing to emphasize there are other things than beef in it. And the law firm withdrew its suit. Next question - Taco Bell isn't just staggering into drunk at 3 a.m. to put something in your stomach to absorb all the Jell-O shots.


SAGAL: You can also go to at least certain Taco Bell restaurants and do what? A, get married complete with a taco catering package...

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

SAGAL: ...B, get sober with Taco Bell Anonymous...


SAGAL: ...Or C, get a GED with Taco Bell Academy?


UNKRICH: Oh, my gosh. Well, I'm going to cross off B, and I'm going to go with A.

SAGAL: You're right. You can get married. Of course...


SAGAL: ...In Las Vegas - if you go to the Las Vegas Taco Bell, go upstairs, they will marry you.

Last question - the company is generally doing very well. Their Doritos Tacos Loco was a huge success. But in 2007, they tried something that failed spectacularly. What was it? A, they launched an ad campaign saying it's good because it's terrible...


SAGAL: ...B, they tried to appeal to vegetarians with a Tofu-co Bell (ph)...


SAGAL: ...Or C, they tried to open a restaurant in Mexico.


UNKRICH: What was the first one again?

SAGAL: They launched an ad campaign saying it's...

UNKRICH: Oh, it's not that.


UNKRICH: I can't imagine it's that. So why don't we go for B?

SAGAL: No, it was actually C. They tried to open a store in Mexico, and it failed. What happened was is they opened these two restaurants in Mexico. They had to call their tacos something else because the Mexicans simply would not stand for that.


SAGAL: So they were known as tacostadas (ph). And both restaurants closed within two years. And as far as we know, there are still - there are, like, 15 Taco Bells on the island of Guam, but there are none in Mexico.


SAGAL: Bill, how did Lee Unkrich do on our quiz?

KURTIS: By our calculations, you still won, Lee - two of out three.



SAGAL: May this be just the first of many awards that are coming your way this next year.

UNKRICH: Well, thank you, Peter.

SAGAL: Lee Unkrich is a writer and director at Pixar. His latest movie, "Coco," is - take it from me - yet another of Pixar's classics. It opens nationwide on November 22. Lee Unkrich, thank you so much for being with us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.


SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill takes it all off for the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAITWAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.