The evolution of an earworm: 'Coco' songwriters on how they came up with Oscar-nominated 'Remember Me'

Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Entertainment
A moment in <i>Coco</i>. (Image: Disney-Pixar)
A moment in Coco. (Image: Disney-Pixar)

Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, Oscar winners for “Let It Go,” explain how their latest Disney tune changed along with the film.

While working on the Pixar film Coco, married songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez wrote a handful of songs that didn’t make the finished film. As it turned out, Coco only needed one. “Remember Me,” nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, is the tie that binds the story together. We first hear it sung by Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the famous midcentury Mexican musician idolized by young hero Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Miguel secretly learns the song on his guitar despite his family’s dictate that music is forbidden in their home. Later, Miguel and the audience discover that “Remember Me” originated as a lullaby written by Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, a traveling musician, for his own daughter. When the story comes full circle, and Miguel returns from the Land of the Dead to play “Remember Me” to his great-grandmother, it’s one of the most emotional moments in any Pixar film.

The Lopezes, who previously won an Oscar for “Let It Go” from Frozen, spent years developing Coco with Pixar’s writers and filmmakers. Now they’re celebrating their Oscar nomination in the midst of rehearsals for the Broadway adaptation of Frozen, for which the couple wrote 12 new songs. In an interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Kristen and Bobby went deep into the evolution of Coco from a full-blown musical to a single-song adventure. The songwriters described cut song moments, the “puzzle” of writing the double-meaning lyrics, and the very personal meaning “Remember Me” took on in their own lives.

Watch an exclusive video featuring Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez discussing all the versions of “Remember Me” in Coco:

Yahoo: So you’re doing Frozen on Broadway and doing Oscar press, and you’re also parents — have either of you slept lately?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: No. At one in the morning last night I was like, “OK, need to find an Oscar dress, need to find Oscar travel, need to remember to take my daughter to the doctor tomorrow.” I mean, it’s just one of those times. But these are good problems to have.

When Lin-Manuel Miranda was nominated in this category last year, I talked to him during the Super Bowl because that was the only time he had free.
Bobby Lopez: That’s a safe bet for all musical theater composers.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: We were totally free during the Super Bowl. We had dinner and actually talked facing each other. It was lovely.

Coco and Miguel in concept art for <i>Coco</i>. (Image: Disney-Pixar)
Coco and Miguel in concept art for Coco. (Image: Disney-Pixar)

Before we get into “Remember Me,” I want to talk about how your work on Coco began. We recently ran on Yahoo Entertainment a couple of deleted scenes from when it was more of a musical. And I was very confused by that, because the whole premise of Coco is that Miguel’s family has banned music, yet in the original concept they were bursting into song. So maybe you can shed some light on what that story was like when you first came into it and how it evolved.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Well, you already put your finger on why it wasn’t a musical. [Laughs] Because having a family that sang about not loving music just didn’t sit right in that moment. I think we could have gotten away with it, but it was questionable enough that we were like, you know what? There’s so much else moving as this story develops; let’s get the story right and make it a story with songs…
Bobby Lopez: I’m flashing back, actually, to a device that we tried — that didn’t work, but was a really valiant effort — that there was sort of a curse on the family after they died, that in the afterlife for eternity, since they had turned their backs on music, they were all cursed to have to sing everything they said. And we had to make all of their lines into sung little bits. It was pretty funny and wacky. But that didn’t work.

How many songs did you actually work on for Coco? Was “Remember Me” the first?
Bobby Lopez: “Remember Me” was the first. And it has always been in every version of the script, and it always worked. It was always emotional. And it never changed. And then the other songs, I think we wrote maybe five or six other ones.

Ernesto’s family in <i>Coco</i>. (Image: Disney-Pixar)
Ernesto’s family in Coco. (Image: Disney-Pixar)

Kristen Anderson-Lopez: The other thing is, we were very involved in the story. Something that people don’t really know about what we do when we work on these movie musicals — especially with this one — is that we were there from the seed of the idea. We really shaped these characters, and really shaped who Mama Imelda was going to be. We spent hours and hours and hours on that — which is I think very different from many songwriters who get called up to write a song when the movie is already done. That’s not what we do. They come to us and say, we’re interested in maybe making this a movie with songs, or a musical — can we explore that together? And we do a lot of story work with the story team and the directors. A lot of that story work is still in [Coco], and then I think we did do five or six songs. It’s more like an exploratory process. We have a couple different “I want” songs for Miguel that fit the same exact moment in his hidey-hole, where he’s sort of dueting with Ernesto de la Cruz.
Bobby Lopez: Where he’s playing the guitar and watching him on TV.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: We wrote a couple versions of that song. One that I really love called “Invisible Music” — it was like [sings] “I only play invisible music…” It also spoke to what happens — like, we wrote all this invisible music for the movie! [Laughs] But it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do, because there were so many things we had to hit to get the authenticity right. And the story had so many moving parts. The most important factor was telling the story that really reflected: If you are Mexican-American or Mexican, you see your family up there, you hear your family up there. And that ultimately was the right guiding principle.

Was there a pitch for Coco that made you say, “We definitely want to do this,” or was it simply the opportunity to work with Pixar?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Yeah. [Laughs] Both of those. I mean, early early on in our career, Bobby and I got to go to Pixar when we were turning Finding Nemo into a musical for Walt Disney World. And we used to joke around after we went on the tour and saw all the secret lounges and all the creativity and the fact that they want their workers to like, take macramé and do yoga in the middle of the day to keep their artistic juices flowing. We left and we were like: Pixar is mother. Pixar is father. [Laughs] It was a dream to work there with all of those vibrant, incredible storytellers. And when they said, we might have something, we were like, “Yes! Doesn’t matter! Whatever it is, we’re there!”

Hector and Miguel in <i>Coco</i>. (Image: Disney-Pixar)
Hector and Miguel in Coco. (Image: Disney-Pixar)

Bobby Lopez: But then particularly when they pitched us “Remember Me,” I remember just feeling like, well that’s an idea I’ve never heard: a song with both of those meanings that the whole plot turns on. And it’s not only a revelation that a different songwriter wrote it and it meant something else, but then the music itself becomes the emotion of the moment too. We were just so excited by that idea, and then we really wanted to get to work on it right away.

So how did you end up writing “Remember Me?”
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: After hours and days and years of talking, Bobby had this beautiful melody that kind of came out of him one morning when he was still in his boxer shorts. And he put it on my phone, and I took it on the subway. And it was sort of like figuring out a puzzle, to tell the really emotional personal thing I had to say — which is, how you leave a song behind for your kids when you have to travel. But we also needed to constantly make sure, in every line, in every word, that it could also be interpreted as the Ernesto de la Cruz version of like, “Goodnight ladies! Goodbye! Remember me when I am gone!” Right? We needed this showboating, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” kind of version. And so the interesting puzzle was writing two different songs at the same time: one that really came as a personal, emotional thing, and another that was like, “Look at me.”

Miguel’s shrine to Ernesto de la Cruz. (Image: Disney-Pixar)
Miguel’s shrine to Ernesto de la Cruz. (Image: Disney-Pixar)

“Remember Me” was also translated into Spanish for the end credits of the movie. Was that a process you were involved in?
Bobby Lopez: Disney has an army of the greatest translators in the business, all over the world, doing this. I don’t speak Spanish, sadly, but what I’ve heard is that the Spanish translation really rivals our lyric in terms of emotion and quality, and that it has special nuances that it doesn’t have in English. And the way it turned out in all of its versions so far has been very, very satisfying to me, every time I hear it. Especially sung in Spanish — people sing it with a lot of gusto. The only thing that we contributed to the version that plays over the end credits was, we expanded the song. We created a transitional section, and we wrote a second and third verse of the song. So now we have the three-minute version that we never had had when we first wrote it. It was always a minute 20, and now we have the full thing. And that’s what I sang at my mother’s funeral. It was nice to have it to sing, the full-length “Remember Me.”
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: This was in August, and it was beautiful. And it had a whole other meaning and a different energy when Bobby sings it at the piano from the heart.
Bobby Lopez: I was really happy to have worked on this at that moment, which is such an awful, heavy grief that comes on you. It’s nice to have music to help you through it.

The scene at the end when Miguel plays the song for his great-grandmother — I think that’s the only time in a movie theater when my son, my husband, and I all cried really hard at the same time. What was your reaction to seeing that scene?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: The same as yours. I mean, we cried the first time we heard the script read in 2013, and we’ve cried every time we’ve seen it since. And then how the incredible artists at Pixar animated Nana Coco’s face, sort of coming back to consciousness, and then smiling at him at the end…
Bobby Lopez: And you know, to me it’s when Abuelita reacts, because she’s the one who’s been stuffing down her emotions about being forgotten by her own mother. And when — I’m crying just talking about it! — when her look of dumbfoundedness comes over her face, that’s the moment that I cry.

This will not be your first Oscar rodeo. What place do awards have in your lives now that you’re regular recipients? Is it like a sports season or something?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Well it’s very different, because in a sports season, the athletes are doing it every year. And for us, this is sort of the second time around. What I can say is, it’s much more fun, much more celebratory. Because the first time around, we were in a constant state of fight or flight — like, “What do we do? We’re doing it wrong! We don’t know anyone! What is happening? I don’t know how to get a stylist! I don’t know how to get a dress!” And the second time around, we actually are able to turn to each other and say, “This is fun! Isn’t this fun? We just talked to Steven Spielberg! Holy crap!”
Bobby Lopez: It’s like the second time you ride a roller coaster. It’s always more relaxing.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: This time around, we’re bringing our two girls, our children, as our dates. They’re 12 and 8 now, so they’re old enough. And for us, we’re in the middle of Frozen Broadway previews, so we have not seen our kids very much, and we’re actually taking them to the Oscars to get in some fun time with our family and just really have an extraordinary experience. No matter what the outcome, it’s going to be something we remember for the rest of our lives and a happy day.

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