This weekend "Monsters University," the newest Pixar marvel, is unleashed in theaters nationwide. It's an unlikely follow-up to "Monsters Inc." that might as well be called "Mike and Sulley: The College Years." The fun, inventive, often laugh-out-loud prequel is set during a time when Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) weren't best pals but in fact mortal enemies.
We got to chat with the film's director, Dan Scanlon, who previously co-directed the wonderful "Cars" short "Mater and the Ghost Light" and worked in the story department on "Cars" and "Toy Story 3." Scanlon got to Pixar in 2001, right when "Monsters Inc." came out, so this project is a culmination of everything he's accomplished at the animation studio.
Here, Scanlon discusses his history with "Monsters," the experience he's had at Pixar, and whether or not he'd direct a scary movie for the studio.You got to Pixar there in 2001 when the first "Monsters Inc." was coming out. Can you talk about what it was like going from the story department to co-directing a short film to helming this feature?
Right when I got there I got to go to the wrap party for "Monsters Inc.," which was so amazing, being with all the people who worked on the original film. I think "Monsters," right off the bat, had a special place in my heart for that reason. I worked in the story [department] on "Cars" for about four or five years and on story for "Toy Story 3." In between that, I co-directed "Mater and the Ghost Light," which was a short on the "Cars" DVD, with John [Lasseter]. That was a really great learning experience and John is a great teacher. And then I made my own live-action feature called "Tracy" pretty much on the weekends during "Cars" and "Toy Story 3," just to see what it was like to write and direct something on my own scale. I think that that was a big part of what made John and everyone else think that I could take this on. It was like, "Well this is a very low budget thing but at least he can kind of do the job."
Was there any trepidation on your part doing a sequel to this beloved movie?
Not really. I was there in the meeting when we talked about whether or not there was an idea that we wanted to do. And honestly had we not come up with something that we were truly excited about we wouldn't have done it. I loved the basic concept of ["Monsters University"] right away. The concept I was the most excited about exploring was the story of Mike. The idea of us telling a story where a character doesn't get everything he wants at the end is one of the relatable things -- dealing with failures and missteps in life -- and it's something that's so rarely dealt with in movies, especially kids' movies. We always say if you work hard and never give up, everything will work out great, which is a great message, but that's not always the case. I love the idea that we made a movie for people who had just had a failure, and reminding people that sometimes your path has a circuitous route and those failures can sometimes lead to better things. I felt like all of that really excited me because it was something we hadn't done before.
So that was always there from the very beginning?
Yeah. That was the heart and the thing we were most excited about in the movie. Even though it could be misconstrued as a negative thing, we felt strongly that even some of us at Pixar had experienced -- people who had desperately wanted to be professional athletes and that was their whole dream. Then that didn't happen and they got into drawing and the next thing you knew you ended up here.
Did you bring original "Monsters Inc." directors Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich into the process?
Yeah they were very involved from the beginning. Pete in particular was an executive producer so he was checking in with us once a week on everything -- on story, on character design, animation. Pete also individually met with me on a weekly basis and we would talk about anything we needed to talk about in terms of being a director. He was really a mentor for me which was really great. It can be a little bit odd to step into somebody else's world and start messing with stuff. To have Pete there to give me full range all the time was great. He really encouraged me to make big changes and not be too precious with the world. So it was really great having him around.
Both the climax of "Monsters University," set inside the human world, and "Mater and the Ghost Light," have this fantastically spooky mood. Would you ever want to do a full on scary Pixar movie?
That's hilarious. I've never really thought of those two -- they have the similarities! You know what's funny? I'm not really a horror movie fan. But I do love being able to add that tension. We always think of our movies as for everyone, and we have to be a little careful, but we still like to push stuff. I don't think at Pixar we'd ever make something that was too scary for general audiences.
Can you talk about the design of the new characters? The Art character in particular has an amazing look.
Art is kind of a funny example of how not to design a character or direct someone to design a character, but in the best possible way. Normally I talk to the art department at length about who these characters are and who they need to be and give them as much information about them, because they're going to need those to design. But Art was a character born out of neglect, again, in the best possible way. We didn't know anything about him as a character. So I was telling the art department, "Oh he's a guy who's got a weird voice... Good luck!" And the guy who designed him, out of frustration, drew an A with eyes and a mouth and we kind of went with that. The same thing happened at the story department at the same time. Our story artists didn't really know who he was, and they were making jokes about his past, which is where the line, "I can't go back to jail" came from. Then we realized -- oh this is the weird guy in college who you know nothing about who has this weird background. I feel so happy that he came out of that, but I can take no credit for it. It's important to find a little mistake or chaos, because an opportunity like that wouldn't come along any other way.
What's your next project at Pixar?
I actually don't know yet. I think we're just still wrapping up this one and haven't given it any thought.