With the releases of The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Wall-E, Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton may have opened the gates for directors of computer-animated features to be taken seriously as capital-f filmmakers, but it was Pete Docter who served as the medium's first great shepherd. After writing both Toy Story and Toy Story 2, Docter wrote and directed 2001's Monsters, Inc., a film that was not only a watershed moment in computer animation's history, but the real proof that Pixar – not to mention the studio's contemporaries – was a creative force that could transcend franchises and familiar characters to create something unique and memorable.
Docter returns to the director's chair this month for the release of Up, an epic new tale from Pixar that follows the adventures of a 78-year old widow named Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and the wilderness scout who inadvertently tags along after the crusty septuagenarian ties thousands of balloons to his lifelong home and literally sails off into the sky. Cinematical recently spoke to Docter via telephone to discuss the process of mounting his second directorial effort. In addition to talking about the challenge of constructing a compelling story, Docter explained how he managed to tie so many disparate ideas together so well in Up, and discussed some of the quintessential summer movies that inspired him as a filmmaker.
This movie does a wonderful job putting together scenes which build from and pay off details from earlier ones. How difficult was it to accomplish that?
Docter: Well, that's part of the fun of it. You start with ideas that appeal to you, and then as you work back and forth through the film, you find ways to set them up and pay them off and hopefully do it in a subtle enough way that as an audience member you're not aware of that. But when you succeed, it's really satisfying – it feels like good craftsmanship.
What was the original story idea or theme that you particularly wanted to explore in this film?
Docter: The initial kernel was based on that desire that I feel a lot to escape the world. There are plenty of days when you hate humanity, you're so sick to death of everybody and you want to get away – and then at the end, you realize well, that's what really makes the world go 'round, is human connection. So just kind of exploring that theme, and the idea of floating away, was kind of the genesis of the whole discovery of the movie.
How difficult is it to create that kind of curmudgeon in the main character, and then construct a more sophisticated kind of adventure given how exciting the story would ending up being?
Docter: It was fun playing with this sort of misanthropic character, but then trying to ask yourself the question how did he get that way and what's leading him to do what he's doing, I think to me that was the most fun of the film and in a way a really powerful and hopeful kind of theme. Similar to Rick in Casablanca or Scrooge in A Christmas Carol for that matter, it's finding characters that have lost their sense of purpose and really coming back to life. There's something really powerful about that, and we hoped that early on, once he starts caring about this kid that he becomes kind of an action hero and then we got to play with all of the conventions of what comes with those type of films but with the twist of the fact that he was 78 years old. So all of these fun opportunities for doing something that we'd never explored before.
Did the story come together easily? One of the things I was most stricken by in the film is how I was always entertained but never knew what was going to happen next.
Docter: Well, first of all, thank you – that's like the greatest compliment to me and that's something that we really strove to try to achieve, that sense of "where is this going?" and yet it's still hopefully engaging. I think in part that was accomplished by our faulted way of approaching the film. We started kind of with a list of things that we wanted to do and wanted to play with, and it was really a struggle to get them to all fit together thematically. Hopefully you don't even think about that now that it's done – that it feels kind of all of one piece – but it was a real struggle just to find out, "now why is there a talking dog and how does that relate to a floating house?" All of these elements that we wanted to play with, a giant bird and things, were initially not all very well integrated. As is typical, the story was really difficult.
Narratively or directorially, what was the most difficult sequence to bring to life?
Docter: That's easy. There was one [sequence] called "Muntz's Lair," which is where Carl has dinner with the Charles Muntz character. We must have rewritten or re-storyboarded that thing at least 50 times from scratch with numerous variations in the middle, and it's nuts. I think it was really difficult because there were so many collisions of themes and threads and characters and even to some degree worlds that all needed to land in this one place and not just be a bunch of exposition but also be entertaining. The character of Muntz doesn't actually have a whole lot of screen time, at least as a character – you know, he shows up at the beginning, and then there's that big chunk in the middle and at the end he's mostly running around chasing. So that was our chance to really in a very short amount of time explain all of this back story and what he's been doing and why it's important to Carl and how it relates and all of that. So it was tricky, very tricky.
How difficult or easy is it to maintain a sense of authority over a production like this? Pixar is obviously driven by strong filmmakers but animation is a necessarily collaborative medium, even moreso than live action filmmaking.
Docter: Well, I kind of look at it as everybody at the studio has a really unique set of skills. Like, if I was building a house, for example, I could probably do it myself to some degree, or at least teach myself, but why not get the greatest craftsmanship that I possibly could for every part of that house? So you have these amazing animators, as opposed to me coming in and saying, "okay, now on frame 14 I want his hand on the glass, and 12 frames later I want him to lift it." I'll talk more generally about "he's really thirsty – he hasn't had a drink in three days," and other information they need to know about the scene, and let the animator bring his own acting choices to it and really make the picture much more rich because of it. So at every stage, whether it be lighting or special effects or design, whatever, you have these amazing artists who are bringing their own ideas to the picture and plussing it – just making it better. I look at my job as giving them the information they need almost emotionally to do the job that they are doing.
Do you have a sort of consummate or essential summer movie experience that you were obsessed by, or was perhaps influential to you?
Docter: Well, there's a couple. Of course Indiana Jones, the first one, was pretty amazing, but it does seem like the quintessential summer movie. It's got everything you want, and to me what works so well about it is you also, beyond all of the great action, which is of course what I was attracted to, it had a really cool thread for that character. He grows and changes and becomes a richer person in a very simple way; it doesn't take a whole lot of screen time but it adds this richness to the thing. E.T. was another one, that's such a great film. This seems to be all Spielberg movies (laughs).
Well, they're great choices. Is it meaningful to you, or is it intimidating, to have your film released during the summer?
Docter: I guess it doesn't really affect the way I was thinking about the film, because the film at some point kind of find themselves and start to inform you what they need, but at the beginning you're kind of shaping them and at some point you kind of step back and they tell you where they need to go. But I didn't do anything intentionally more or less because of the time at which it was being released.
Of course, but in terms of its commercial potential, is it exciting or intimidating to think about the competition you might face?
Docter: Well, there's certainly a lot of stiff competition this summer; there's a lot of movies, and a lot of movies that people will want to go out and see. But I think this one has a unique balance of things that you probably won't see anywhere else. I hope people check it out. I don't know if this is so much a summer thing or it happens to be this year, but there's a lot of movies out there.
Is there anything that you're particularly looking forward to seeing this summer?
Docter: Let's see – well, I mean, working with Michael Giacchino, I saw Star Trek and I'm looking forward to Land of the Lost. He's chosen such different movies that he's worked on, one right after the other, and it's great to hear his influence having had first hand experience working with him. That's really fun.
Is there anything that got cut from the film that you're excited might get seen on the Blu-ray when it comes out?
Docter: Yeah, I mean, we've been able to – and we've do this throughout the whole filmmaking process – whenever something has to get cut from the movie, we save it and tag it for the making-of stuff. We had this amazing opportunity of going down to South America on this film to research the mountains, and we put together a pretty cool documentary which is going to be on there. We have this [feature] they call Cine-Explore where it kind of goes along with Bob Peterson and my commentary, and there's all sorts of tons of art, amazing artwork, as well as animation tests and things that you can poke at and look at in terms of if you're really into how these things get made. It's a glimpse of that, so that's pretty fun.