Movies

The Story Behind Luca’s Whale Carcass–Loving Breakout Character

Uncle Ugo owes a debt to both David Attenborough and Sacha Baron Cohen.

an anglerfish sea monster elbows a sea monster boy
Heeeeere’s Ugo! Disney/Pixar

Pixar’s Luca is full of memorable moments, but the most memorable tend to involve Ugo, the hideous, humanoid, anglerfish-esque sea creature who’s Luca’s uncle. Voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, Ugo is genuinely creepy, even alarming, with translucent, sun-starved skin that leaves all of his internal organs visible and a heart that occasionally has to be punched to be restarted.

We spoke to Luca writers Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones to find out how this lovable monstrosity came together, how much he owed to Baron Cohen’s improvisations, and how they balanced making him scary with saving children from any actual trauma. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Karen Han: Sending Luca to the deep feels a lot like the fish equivalent of being sent to boarding school—were there ever any alternate versions? 

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Mike Jones: We initially thought of Uncle Ugo as the uncle who actually did go to the surface, and enjoyed the surface life way too much, and then got in a bunch of trouble. For a while, Uncle Ugo was the cautionary tale.

Jesse Andrews: Mike wrote a really funny scene, which was backstory when Ugo had a little more screentime, and showed up earlier in the movie. Luca’s parents summon him to tell Luca this cautionary tale. It was kind of a breakthrough of having Ugo come from the deepest part of the ocean, because that really felt like the antithesis of everything that Luca would want. There’s nothing there to satisfy his curiosity, which is such an important part of Luca’s character.

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Then we realized, “Oh, if Ugo went down there, maybe his body adapted.” It becomes transparent, and you can see all of his organs. The story artists and animators got really excited about that possibility. That ushered in this era of working on the film where there was just a lot of Ugo fan art. But yeah, there’s too much oxygen near the surface and his heart seizes up, and Luca has to punch him, which also felt like this typical thing that your weird older relative comes over when you’re a kid, you have to interact with them in some way that you really don’t want to, like getting rid of the corns on their feet or something like that. I think the “punch the heart” was the “pull my finger,” right? Every time Ugo comes over, you gotta punch the heart.

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Jones: Except it’s serious. “Pull my finger” is a practical joke, this is an actual thing you have to do.

The story artists would draw Ugo, and they would draw fish swimming behind him. You could see straight through his body. And there were also a lot of versions of Ugo that were frightening. Sacha Baron Cohen gave Ugo exactly what Ugo needed, which is that wonderful, loopy, almost drunk from oxygen nature. But before that, he was this horrifying uncle with these long, glassy teeth. It was terrifying.

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Was there ever a limit to how creepy or dark Ugo was going to be?

Andrews: For us, there’s no limit, and we were really interested in exploring the most extreme dimensions of this character. But after a certain point, if you give him really sharp teeth and you make him almost like a horror-film character, it’s not super compatible with [director] Enrico [Casarosa]’s vision, which is about childhood and innocence. There’s this sweetness to it. After a certain point, it was clear we were pushing him in a direction that he didn’t really wanna go. He kept saying, “Guys, this is really funny and gross, but this isn’t really the character in the movie that I wanna do.” And we were like, “OK, but lemme just pitch you one more thing, it’s Ugo from Saw, and he forces people to do things …” And Enrico’s like, “Guys, no.”

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Jones: When we had Ugo as the cautionary tale, one thing we also liked to do was that Ugo could describe exactly how horrific the surface was, but what he was saying kind of sounded fun. He could put as much horror on it as he could, but it’s like, “I dunno … pot sounds pretty good!” So we played around with Luca only hearing selectively what he wanted to hear from Uncle Ugo, and kind of dismissing all of the rest.

Andrews: We wanted it to be like a failed “scared straight” lecture, where it’s your uncle telling you, “Oh man, motorcycles are the worst. You go so fast, and you just feel the wind on your face, and you’ve never felt so alive, but guess what, that’s actually bad. So don’t do it.” We wanted Luca’s takeaway to be like, “Oh my god, that sounds like the best thing ever, and now I have to do that.” He kind of gets that from Alberto, too. We didn’t want that energy to overlap between Ugo and Alberto, when Alberto should really be the friend who introduces him to this exciting and risky—but totally worth it—world.

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And as for the way he talks, was that kind of fragmented dialogue in there from the get-go, or more down to Baron Cohen’s improvisation?

Andrews: It ended up very improvised. We wrote some dialogue, of course, but Sacha being Sacha, the idea is always you’re going to give him the general idea and then he’s going to riff on it in this fantastic way. I was in the recording session, and that was the hardest I laughed during COVID. It was what I needed. He did a few different things. He did this Australian guy, which was really sinister and also felt very specific. The thing with the riffs is that they can go long. In the recording session, you’re rooting for it to go long, because you’re going, “This is funny and I don’t want it to stop.” But then you listen back to the recording, like, “Oh, this scene is going to be 15 minutes long. I don’t think we can afford that.”

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The editorial team did an amazing job of cobbling together a take that includes that kind of shagginess, where he sort of interrupts himself, and sounds really specific, but also has clarity. I helped out with that a little bit, too, I listened to all of the takes. Which was honestly also sort of for fun, I kind of pleaded with them to send me the audio so I could listen to it over and over for a weekend. We ended up cobbling a few ones together. I made a strong pitch for the—you know how he interrupts himself and he’s like, “You open your mouth. The whale carcass go in—good—I recommend it.” He does that for another 30 seconds. Some day I hope the tapes are released to the world, because that was a magical recording session.

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Was the whale carcass thing in the script?

Jones: I remember watching some David Attenborough series about a whale that had died and then just slowly decomposed on the bottom of the ocean, and how much it fed all of these weird, bizarre, horrific creatures, and my sons loved it. It’s one of those times where, when you have a kid and they latch onto something, and they just keep rewatching it. They had Star Wars to rewatch, they had a number of kids’ movies to rewatch … they wanted to rewatch the decomposing whale carcass at the bottom of the ocean. I don’t know who wrote that in, but I remember going, “This has to stay in the film.”

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Andrews: I gotta be honest. I’m gonna take credit for that one. I was pushing whale carcass from the very beginning. When we figured out that we were gonna do the deep, I was like, “OK, what’s life like in the deep?” I was watching David Attenborough documentaries about it, and found this idea of “marine snow,” which is the term that I then started using in every single meeting. I really wanted it to catch on. Marine snow is essentially just floating bits of whale carcass, and the carcasses of other decomposing animals, and it’s so soft and feathery and rotten that it’s like snow. I was like, “This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard of in my life, and I really want it to go in the movie.” We didn’t get the term “marine snow” in there, but I was hellbent on Uncle Ugo talking about whale carcass, and I’m actually kind of amazed that phrase got in the movie, because it’s pretty disgusting.

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Was the mid-credits scene always going to be Ugo?

Andrews: It was not, no. It was just because Sacha’s recording sessions were so good, the editors had it circled, like, “We have to use more of this somehow.”

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So it was originally part of that first Ugo scene?

Andrews: Yeah, it was one of the riffs that he had, telling Luca how much he was going to enjoy the deep, because the great thing about the deep is you can just talk and talk and talk, and usually there’s no one to listen to him, but now there is, which is great. Sacha did this for like four minutes. It was just epic, a tour de force. It was impossible to cut it down to put it into the scene, so then editorial was like, “We have to find a place for this,” and they found it in that little button.

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I wanted to ask about how Ugo is the only anglerfish in the seafolk community. Did you guys ever discuss have more fish-people in the world of Luca?

Jones: The only reason Ugo looks like that, we thought no one else looks like that, is because he’s absent of all light, there, and the pressure that deep forces his skin to be permeable and colorless.

Andrews: Originally, we made more of Ugo and Lorenzo [Luca’s father] being related. We put it forward that Ugo was Lorenzo’s twin brother, and they used to look exactly the same. “The deep is great! My twin brother lives there! We look exactly the same!” We couldn’t really figure out how to set up that joke very well, and it got kind of noisy and brought in too much extra stuff, but especially we wanted Luca to envision whatever had happened to Ugo happening to himself, poor little Luca also becoming just weird and milky-eyed and translucent.

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