Vivo's Quiara Alegría Hudes Celebrates Caribbean Culture Through Animation
Sam Stone
Netflix's latest original animated film Vivo boasts some serious talent behind the scenes, with the acclaimed collaborative duo of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegría Hudes reuniting to craft a story about a kinkajou teaming up with a young girl named Gabi on a fateful trip to Miami. Traveling from Vivo's native Havana across the Caribbean, the duo challenges each other as they form a family on the ultimate musical adventure.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, Hudes shared what elements of the animation she personally pushed for in the film, detailed her experiences working on an animated project with director and co-writer Kirk DeMicco, and shared her influences in co-writing the film.
The idea for Vivo has existed in some form since 2009. Do you remember how this idea came along and what changed along the way?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: Lin was working on it for a long time. We were working on In the Heights and he did Moana at some point. And the steps of doing Moana, he would share them with me because we're really good friends and he'd call me to hear a new song or see an animated sequence. As he worked on Moana, he said I would really like to work in animation because it's very similar to theatrical collaboration. When Vivo got picked up again and he had time and interest from producers to really work on it, he asked me to do it with him.
Vivo is a celebration of Caribbean culture and a strong reminder that it's not homogenous. How was it highlighting each of these locales but also maintaining a consistent sense of tone?
One of the things that we experiment with, which is evident in the animation style, is how beholden do you have to be to a steady tone? The notion of creating four distinct visual worlds as they travel, we wanted to push in that way, in terms of animation. I think that was, in part, responding to the writing. I love the very classical and virtuosic vibe of Vivo and Andres. It was so fun to write. But I also did want to get away from a sense that Latino culture, Cuban culture, or Caribbean culture are monolithic so I wanted The Ramones [and put] that punk rock girl in. [Vivo and Andres] represent the apex of a tradition and then comes in a young Latina who goes, "Tradition, schmadition; I don't care! I just want to have fun!"
In some ways, my instinct to write Gabi and bring her in was to be like, "Yeah, we're not all the same! You guys might have a tradition but I'm doing my own thing and I'm perfectly fine in that space!" That was probably my subconscious wanting to do that a little bit.
While Vivo is challenged by Gabi, he's also challenging her and teaching the punk how to work with others. How was it charting their two parallel character arcs? 
Sometimes I think when I write -- I haven't just thought of this for Vivo, I've thought of it for plays I've written too -- each character represents one facet of a complete person and, with Vivo and Gabi, so much so. I think Vivo and Gabi represent something very familiar to artists and musicians which is the balance between control and freedom. If you're a classically trained pianist or a jazz vocalist, you have to master a level of control over an instrument. Then again, if you take that one step too far, it becomes too rigid and loses its artistry. There has to be an amount of freedom.
That really captures the push-and-pull that Gabi and Vivo have on their whole journey. Vivo is virtuosic and refined but Gabi is like, "Just let loose!" And he's pushing her, "You can let loose but there has to be a foundation there. You have to be able to hit a steady beat!" They have to push and pull each other.
Both In the Heights and Vivo have themes of community, both geographic and the familial nature of those around each other. What do you find so intriguing about the nature of community as a storyteller?
I do think In the Heights leans more in that direction. I was very consciously [thinking] the main character is the community as I was writing that. If I was trying to balance the plot properly, I would continue to use that as a marker. With Gabi and Vivo, I think that Vivo's community and world are small. His is a fish-out-of-water story. He's orphaned in Cuba. After someone takes him in and he wants that safe space, he doesn't want to push the boundaries of his experience. But he has a place in the world: He has a place in tradition, a place in Havana, he has his community that sees every day. With Gabi, she's much more reticent of community. She can't even hang out with the Sand Dollars troop, put on the uniform for a day, and sell cookies.
I think what happens is we watch them build a community together which is the two of them and Gabi's family, Rosa, her mom too. As to where that comes from personally in my life, I just wasn't raised in a very nuclear family environment. I didn't even understand the concept of a nuclear family until I started watching sitcoms in middle school. Family is literally all the mess and noise as we're at each others' houses. That's what family was to me and that became community so it comes from a very personal place.
You're not only writing for animation but writing with Kirk. How was that experience versus writing for stage or live-action films and how was your creative shorthand with Kirk?
I found animation so comparable to writing for stage and very different from live-action because, basically, just keep on developing it until you decide that you stop now whereas, with live-action, you get what you get when you shoot it and that's what you're working with it. There's a much more clear endpoint with live-action. We workshopped these songs and scenes over many years and what was really fun having Kirk as a co-writer, he and I would pass drafts back and forth. He and I have really different senses of humor and I think they blended well in the screenplay and I could feel, "That is such a Kirk scene or line! Oh, that one's me all the way!" It's fun having two different comic voices there working together.
Do you have a personal favorite song or set piece in the film?
I'm very partial to Gabi's song, I think that "My Own Drum" is so creative and really different. I just had the really nice experience of seeing Vivo screened theatrically in New York with an audience. I didn't think I was going to get to do that since it's a Netflix release and it's during a pandemic but we all wore masks. There were moments during Gabi's song, the moment when it goes dark and goes into what Kirk calls the chalkboard world in the bridge of the song where she talks about always having flown solo and goes into an autotune moment. The audience was gasping and laughing. They were so vocally responding to that. They loved her moxy and bright vibe but there's a lot of drama happening inside to and you're relating to that.
This movie's animation has such light and vibrancy to it. What was something about this movie visually you wanted to spotlight in celebrating Caribbean culture?
One thing that was very important to me that I spoke with the animators about early on was body type, which was particularly important to me. I have a little sister, the character Gabi is based on her, and my little sister has always been large so to watch all these animated movies with her growing up that I love, but the waist to hip ratio is modeling to her a different vision of beauty and default form than she was ever going to achieve. I want to see varied body types and I don't want to see the same hip-waist ratio that's just large or small. I wanted different versions of what the silhouettes are, for Gabi and her mom Rosa. That was something I wanted to push and I thought they did a splendid job.
Now that Vivo is done, what are you most excited about in sharing the movie with the world?
One thing we didn't touch on is the truly romantic nature of the story. One of my favorite films growing and still to this day is Cinema Paradiso. I did rewatch that film as I was writing this. It's super simple and the thing with a lot of romance stories is it's [just] a simple romantic story. I love that. And I haven't seen too many contemporary romance stories in that vein and I love that. I love putting an unashamed, simple romance story out in the world. Obviously, it was complicated by distance and the things that come with adult life like careers and stuff like that separate them but I'm excited to share that especially since I think about it as a little bit of a love letter to my husband too. Every time I watch it, I'm like, "I wrote that for you!" [laughs]
Co-directed by Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords, and co-written by DeMicco and Quiara Alegría Hudes, Vivo premieres Aug. 6 on Netflix.