This summer saw the release of the anticipated follow up to the Pixar classic, Monsters Inc. Film Editor Robbie Davidson sat down and talked with director, Dan Scanlon and producer, Kori Rae to discuss how they justified a second outing for Mike and Sully in Monsters University, amongst other things.
Robbie: At what point in the creation process did you decide to make a prequel rather than a sequel to Monsters Inc, as far as I know this is Pixar’s first prequel?
Dan Scanlon: I think really early on we just talked about ideas we wanted to do, as we wanted to make sure we had a great idea. And during the discussions we talked about the relationship between Mike and Sully which was something we loved from the first film, and in talking about that we decided that in order to explore that relationship further we would have to go back in time and watch how the relationship happened and that’s what really got us on the idea of a prequel. That, and then I think we got really excited about the idea of doing a college movie and having great big monster fun. That then really led to the story of Mike, a character who doesn’t get everything that he wants, which is something we haven’t seen in films very often and that’s what really got us excited about a movie prequel.
It’s funny you mention the university setting because when you think of films set at university there’s a certain level of sordid and raunchy behaviour which you wouldn’t see in a kids’ film. How do you reconcile the university setting with Pixar’s code of ethics?
Dan: What you talking about man (laughs) that’s not what my college experience was like. But you know we wanted that too and we realised as long as the characters are ruckus or wild or knocking things over and eating garbage that would sort of sub for any specifics.
You mentioned Mike, and I think that Mike is a more sympathetic character in this movie than he is in Monsters Inc. Was that a decision you made early on because he’s a younger character or because the movie is more focused on Mike, so you want to make him more likeable?
Dan: It really came out of his story and we knew if we we’re really going to believe in his dream he couldn’t just be the wisecracking guy. He had to have a sincerity to him if we we’re going to believe in his dream. So we changed his character ever so slightly as he was the main character. But we’re all different fifteen years ago so it worked in that way.
Billy Crystal is a brilliant comedian and known for his improv. Does he improv when he’s doing his recording, and if he does, how much of that do you incorporate into the animation?
Kori Rae: He definitely does and the hard part is that a lot of stuff is improved in sections we can’t really change. But we definitely use some of it in the film for sure. He’s such a great energy and he brought so much of that to his character and he did a great job of making Mike feel younger just by the energy that he has.
Kori, what was the process of finding a new director after Pete Docter’s great work in the first film?
Kori: Well we knew Dan had been an integral part of the story team on both Cars and Toy Story 3, and we knew he had the right sensibility to tell this story. Pete Docter was still pretty involved in the film as executive producer and we’d meet with him every week and he was a really great support for Dan. It was really important that we had a director who had a really solid footing in story as we knew this was going to be a difficult story and it came with its own unique set of problems so Dan was an obvious choice knowing his background and sensibility.
You mentioned the story and I wondered, after the revelations in Monsters Inc about the nature of ‘scarring’ and the fact that children’s’ laughter could power the city just as well, was there a risk that the premise of the new movie was undermined by the fact that they’re still trying to be ‘scarers’?
Dan: I think again, because it’s a prequel, we understand that concept and in the film we never show them really scare a child. We only see them scare the simulated children, so our hope was that since it was about his pursuit of this education that hopefully it would work.
I think it does work well. I have to ask about Helen Mirren’s casting. At what point did she come across as the ideal person to voice Dean Hardscrabble?
Dan: Actually originally the character was male and we just kind of defaulted to that and then at some point we realised we had a really great opportunity to open up the Monsters world a little bit and have a really great female ‘scareer’. We knew we wanted her to be someone who was very well respected, she was someone who was very talented, and someone with a somewhat scary dry wit and the whole thing started coming to Helen, and how much we thought she embodied all those things. We thought she could add so much to the character and she absolutely did. The first session I spent the first two hours with her just trying different takes with her on the character and she showed up with ideas on the character and she was excited to try all sorts of stuff. It was really amazing. I’ll be honest, I was intimidated at first about working with somebody so talented, but boy within a few minutes of talking to her and working with her- she was just a joy and it was a great time.
Kori Rae and Dan Scanlon
As a student paper we’re interested to hear about your student experiences, how they informed your animation and whether you knew you wanted to be an animator and work at Pixar, or whether you had other ambitions?
Dan: I’d always liked drawing and film making and I went to college to study illustration and fine arts but animation was a part of it and was always an interest of mine.
I’ve got a cousin who’s an animator and he’s up in Scotland, and I wonder how does an animator in Scotland get the attention of a big animation company in California? Is it quite an international base you recruit from?
Dan: You know it’s about talent and no matter where it’s from and it’s all about practising your craft and getting as good as you can.
Kori: We recruit from all over the world so it is pretty international.
2014 will be a significant year as it will be the first year since 2005, I believe, that Pixar hasn’t released a film. Do you see it as a positive thing that you’ve stepped in to ensure the high quality of your movies continue?
Kori: For sure it was the right decision for the film. It just needed a little bit more time, a little bit more focus and bumping it a little bit is allowing us to do that. We know it has the potential to be an amazing film and it’s great that the extra time that will help us a little bit.
How long to these films take from the point of having the idea to the film being released? What is the time frame?
Kori: Around five years. Anywhere between four and six years. This one was just about five.
And at what point do start casting characters. Obviously you’ve got the main characters already, but what about the secondary characters?
Kori: It kind of depends when in the process the characters get fleshed out, and the story is solid enough on the page that we know who they need to be and then we can start thinking about who might be appropriate for that role. It’s usually a year/year and a half years into production that you start thinking about that. You might have an idea sooner than that if there’s a substantial character.
Dan, at what point the the creation process did you decide that you needed a bit more Steve Buscemi in this movie as we’re obviously very happy to hear his voice again?
Dan: We loved him in the first film and the fun of a prequel is seeing how people were different and we loved the idea he would be this sort of sweet, naive guy, or seemingly so, and we knew we wanted to fit him into the story and he had to have a reason to be in the story. He worked as a nice mirror of what Mike could have become if Mike really was obsessed with fitting, in the way both of them are at the beginning of the movie, and could have gone down the wrong road.
What have you guys got lined up? Will there be a return for Mike and Sully in the future?
Kori: There’s no plan for that. Dan and I are going to go back this week and wrap up Monsters University and go into development and think of an original film idea.
And take a holiday?
Dan: Yeah exactly.
Dan, what have you got planned ahead. Are you going to go the route of other Pixar directors who have gone onto live action?
Dan: I’m very happy at Pixar and it’s a real privilege to carry on exploring things here. Animation is where I come from and I’m very happy with that.
Why is it do you think that directors from Pixar have gone on to do live action work? Do you think it’s a style of direction at Pixar which lends itself to live action direction?
Kori: Both are about telling great stories so there is an element of that but the medium has less to do with it than just the story. Folk learn how to tell great stories whilst working at Pixar.
In terms of sequels and prequels, there’s been more of them from Pixar in the last few years. How do you make the creative decision, or how is it made, that this film warrants a new story and this one works better as a stand alone film?
Dan: There’s no real formula to it, it’s about when a good idea shows up. If a good idea doesn’t show up we really wouldn’t go down that path.
Kori: We have the luxury of having these films that have fantastic characters that we develop in the first of the films. So it’s truly a luxury to go back and re enter those worlds and go back to say Toy Story or Monsters or Nemo and get to tell these stories with these characters. We love that we do have these films that we can go back to if there’s a great idea.
And finally, on that subject, what can you tell us about Finding Dory? How much of that is it borrowing from it’s past films or is it going in a very different direction?
Kori: The truth is we don’t know. We’ve been away so long we’ve missed all the screenings and everything. We’re quite eager to find out what it’s about (laughs). I know it has Dory. Other than that we don’t know.