Miguel and his abuelita in “Coco” (Photo/Courtesy Pixar)
Miguel and his abuelita in “Coco” (Photo/Courtesy Pixar)

Q&A: This Pixar artist sees his Jewish grandma in ‘Coco’

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Jason Katz, 47, has spent nearly his entire career at Pixar and was part of the team that made “Coco,” which just won the Oscar for best animated feature. The Pixar story producer, who lives in Oakland, also worked on “Ratatouille,” “Finding Nemo” and the “Toy Story” series.

J.: Mazel tov on the Oscar for “Coco.” Given Pixar’s track record, don’t you always expect to win by now?

Jason Katz: Never! I was raised in a superstitious house with Eastern European Jews so there was a lot of knocking wood and throwing salt over your shoulder. So saying that you hope to win out loud makes me uncomfortable. You just hope it happens, and it’s amazing when it does.

Jason Katz (Photo/Deborah Coleman-Pixar)
Jason Katz (Photo/Deborah Coleman-Pixar)

Though “Coco” is a beautiful celebration of Mexican culture, the themes seem very Jewish.

I agree. What was important to us from the very beginning was a strong desire to get it right, to educate ourselves and do the research. Of course we wanted to be as authentic as possible. We spoke about that all the time, the importance of community, the responsibility to keep traditions alive by handing them down to the next generation in a loving way, and to acknowledge our collective responsibility to doing so. All of that feels very familiar to aspects of growing up Jewish. My parents both grew up in kosher homes in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh and they would talk about what it was like growing up in community. My grandparents were very involved in our upbringing, so I really related to that multigenerational household, where everyone has a voice at the table.

I’ve read that you compared Miguel’s Abuelita to your own grandmother.

My grandma raised my younger brother and me while our parents were at work. She was this amazingly powerful woman, larger than life, and when I would think about Abuelita, she would remind me of her. My grandmother was a bit of a softie and it was easier to get away with things, but she did run our day-to-day, and a lot of my values and the way I look at the world came from her.

Having a strong matriarch who helps guide you as a child was something I really related to. In earlier versions of “Coco,” Abuelita was a lot more superstitious, which was something I got from my grandmother to a T. She’s the one who taught me to draw, and about film and movies, and she laid the tracks for who I am today. We’d read TV Guide together and circle the highest-rated films to watch that week. We loved anything with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Gene Kelly.

With cultural appropriation a current topic of discussion, were you pleased about how well the film was received in Mexico?

I was so appreciative that Disney decided to release it in Mexico a month before it was released here. People reached out to us with such incredible gratitude via Twitter. It was one of the highlights of working on the film. We talked a lot about the importance of making a movie that was centered on something so specific to Mexico and Mexican heritage, but that others would connect to. The theme of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is this acknowledgement and understanding that those of us who are living must remember and celebrate those who have passed on. We make an altar to gather around them and make a physical display of remembrance to those we loved. That idea is central to the theme of the movie — connection and remembrance and reaching across the veil to those we can’t see anymore. In addition to our Mexican American co-creator, we had many advisers to make sure we got it right. They gave us a lot of very frank feedback on earlier versions and that made it so much better. This movie took six years to make, and we kept doing screenings and getting more and more feedback.

You’ve now been at Pixar for almost 25 years. Where does one go from there? Isn’t it kind of an animator’s dream job?

That’s the existential question. It was my dumb luck that I stumbled into Pixar in 1994; it was the year after I graduated from CalArts, and the year before “Toy Story” came out. The company was trying to figure out how to make an animated movie and had a really awesome chip on its shoulder and wanted to make a film that could “out-Disney” Disney. In college, I worked with someone who equated the world of animation to “Star Wars”; there was the empire and the rebel outpost, and at that time, Pixar felt like the rebel outpost while Disney was the empire. Everyone was young and hungry and feisty and it was an opportunity to really try and push the medium. I really won the lottery, and I’ve been really fortunate to work with amazing, generous people.

When you started working on “Coco,” you had no idea of the political climate we’d be in when it came out. Do you see the film in a different light now, given what our president has said about Mexicans?

There was no way we could anticipate where we are right now, and it’s so opposite of the way we develop our films. We’re searching for stories that mean something, and in this process, we’ve learned so much about the beauty of the Mexican people and their culture. The fact that we can have this film be part of building a bridge and having people understand a culture that maybe they’re not completely familiar with, but that they can see themselves in it, is the best path to having us all get along. I don’t think that’s a blue state or red state kind of thing. Anyone of any political belief understands the importance of family and tradition and love and respect. So if we can have a small role in helping the conversation turn toward the positive, that’s lovely.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."