Monday 16 December 2019

Meet Pixar linchpin Darla K Anderson, the producer who inspired a character's name

Darla K Anderson is one of Hollywood's most successful producers.  Our reporter meets the Pixar linchpin who inspired a character's name

Darla K Anderson
Darla K Anderson

Hilary A White

In 2008, the Guinness Book of Records listed Darla K Anderson as the film producer with the highest average gross per release. That figure was an eye-watering $221m, but much more important is the fact that the grande dame of Pixar attained this level of Hollywood success by making grown adults weep in front of their children.

The idea causes an eruption of laughter from Anderson, even if it's probably not the first time she's heard this accusation. As the producer of some of Pixar's biggest hitters, including Monsters Inc and the Oscar-winning Toy Story 3, Anderson has, since 1993, been in the engine room of brilliantly rendered animated fun that comes equipped with a box of tissues.

She is back in Dublin (for the first time since Toy Story 3 seven years ago) with Coco, another primary-coloured carnival of giddiness, subtle intellect and emotional depth designed to make children giggle and parents sniffle.

Set in present-day Mexico during the Dia de los Muertos ("Day of the Dead") celebrations, it tells of a young music-obsessed boy called Miguel who passes into the land of the dead in search of answers from his skeletal forefathers about why his family has banned the playing of music. It has already become the biggest ever film at the Mexican box office, while awards buzz is now growing after its recent Golden Globes success.

The characters Miguel and Hector from Coco
The characters Miguel and Hector from Coco

"You wouldn't feel emotion if you didn't believe the characters," the 55-year-old says happily, "be them toys or monsters or in the case of Coco, families. If you didn't really get engaged and didn't think they were fully rounded and complete characters with complex souls, you wouldn't get emotional, so that's why I think we spend so much time to earn that emotion at the end.

"But we also want everybody to laugh," she quickly adds. "We want them to forget everything for a while and just be enveloped into a completely different world."

There is a timeliness to Coco too that could not have been envisaged when Anderson and director and fellow Pixar stalwart Lee Unkrich ventured down to Mexico in 2011 to scout the essence of a possible story there. The ugly tones of Trumpism arrived too late to ever directly feed into or affect the layout of the film but it did give Anderson and Unkrich a renewed urgency to get the movie out and have it make its own statement about Mexico and the Mexican people.

"We're very proud of that," she says. "Hopefully you just lose yourself in the story and not think about these other issues, but on reflection, you'll think that we're all a bit more alike than we are different. That's the power of storytelling."

Whether by coincidence or because of her involvement, ever since Anderson arrived at Pixar in her early 30s, the studio has gone from being one-to-watch in the animation stakes to sitting comfortably alongside the most powerful film and entertainment studios in the world. Anderson's own background reads like a film script in itself, one fuelled by the American dream and the belief that nothing is impossible.

Growing up in Glendale, California, Anderson's mother tragically passed away when Anderson was 13. After a period of understandable confusion and instability, she steeled herself and worked hard through high school to obtain a modest scholarship in a community college. Eventually she entered the more prestigious San Diego State University to study environmental design. There, a campus lecture by super-producer Kathleen Kennedy (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones, Back To The Future, Jurassic Park) reignited a dormant desire to be part of the film industry.

"I couldn't get into their film and television programme - it was the one thing I hadn't been able to talk myself into! Kathleen Kennedy also graduated from San Diego State, so when I saw her speak, it was like one of those little things in life where you think, 'don't give up the dream'. I still to this day want to be like Kathleen Kennedy. She's a very impressive producer and very inspirational - and probably Irish!" (She will later remark that whenever she meets Irish women, she finds them to be "impressively strong").

Anderson's professionalism and drive have got her to where she is in what is a fiercely competitive industry that involves being able to work alongside massive teams of people. Nonetheless, Pixar does sound like something of a family.

Not only does Anderson's wife Kori Rae also work there (the couple live in the San Francisco Bay Area and always try to work on separate studio projects), but the medium of animation seems to bring out a joshing humour that is a symptom of long, unsociable hours working with passionate creatives. One story goes that Anderson terrorised the production of Finding Nemo - a film that would go on to gross nearly a billion dollars, lest we forget - with practical jokes. It got so bad that the writers and animators ended up naming the monster of the film (a menacing child who shakes fish to death) after her. Really?

"Yes, that's true," she concedes proudly. "There was a lot of teasing each other like brother and sister, constantly and incessantly! It was a way to get back at me. It's very much a compliment, in a way."

Coco is in cinemas nationwide

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