NYCC2009: A Roundtable Discussion with "Up"'s Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera
Pete Docter’s long career with Pixar Animation Studios has meant he’s worked on many of the studio’s most beloved films, including both Toy Story movies, WALL-E, and his directorial debut Monsters, Inc. Jonas Rivera has also been with the studio for quite some time, starting off as an assistant on Toy Story and working his way up the ladder to managing the art department for Monsters, Inc.
Now, after almost five years of work, Pixar is only a few months away from the debut of Up, their feature film which will give Docter his second director’s credit and Rivera his first producer credit. The movie is about 78-year old Carl Frederickson: Action Hero, his escape from the city by tying thousands of helium balloons to his house, and the misadventures that ensue when a young stowaway named Russell accompanies him to South America. At the 2009 New York Comic Con, Toon Zone News was lucky enough to sit in with Docter and Rivera at a journalists’ roundtable with two other members of the press, shortly after the Up panel and before the screening of the first 45 minutes of the movie.
REPORTER 2: Can you guys talk about the genesis of the project, and where it came from?
PETE DOCTER: Well, the film started just kind of with the idea of escaping. I’m not very extroverted, so it takes a lot out of me to be a director all day, and by the end of the day I want to go into a nice little corner and sit by myself. And so, this fantasy of being able to float up into the sky in a house just seemed to resonate, and Bob Peterson the co-director and writer, we just sat and thought, “Well, gee, what else have we always wanted to do a film about?” Old people! There’s something really funny about old guys, and especially grouchy ones, and they have some sort of license to be grouchy, where a lot of people, if they were grouchy, they just become unlikeable. But old people, you kind of cut them some slack, and looking at Walter Matthau and Lou Grant and all those great characters, we thought, “This is our chance to do something that certainly hasn’t been done in animation.” So we put them together and ran some tests in terms of storytelling, and came up with this.
REPORTER 2: At what point did the idea of doing the film in 3-D come into play?
DOCTER: The 3-D thing wasn’t really part of the original genesis of the film, and really doesn’t affect the way we’re approaching the film as filmmakers. We’re just trying to make the best story we can. We talked to the guys early on about “What makes a truly great 3-D film?” and what are some rules when it breaks the illusion, and we tried to avoid those. Other than that, it’s just telling a great story. Or trying to.
JONAS RIVERA: We found that a strongly composed shot in 2-D will more often than not translate into a strongly composed shot in 3-D, and just making sure that that holds up, which so far it has.
DOCTER: (click here to listen) Well, it’s definitely something we are concerned about because as soon as you’re aware of “booga-booga” 3-D, you’re aware that you’re watching a movie and you’re taken out of the story. So we’ve been very subtle with it, and we’ve set up some sort of rules, like…the screen is a proscenium and we’re looking in. Only seldom do things come out at you. We’ve used it, hopefully, just in places where the story needs that effect, you know, when in the middle of action or when you need dunes and vistas. And the jungle, too, you have all these layers of plants and things, so you can feel that it goes way back there. It’s really cool.
RIVERA: I think when he’s saying “looking in” was really important because it really looks like you’re looking into this world, almost like theater, and it has that depth to it. Seeing the flying and the clouds and so forth, it felt like the right way to do it.
DOCTER: The 3-D is the same as the computer graphics, same as everything else. It’s in the service of the story. It shouldn’t become the star.
REPORTER 1: In the distribution, are there going to be places where it is in 2-D?
DOCTER: I think it’s still the majority in 2-D.
RIVERA: We’re all catching up and trying to figure it all out in the distribution channels, so major cities will have it in 3-D.
REPORTER 2: What’s left now to finish?
RIVERA: We’re actually flying down to score the movie starting next week.
DOCTER: That’s the coolest, though, going to these sessions with 100 musicians at Warner Brothers at the same place they recorded Casablanca and all these great movies. It’s so cool. It’s the one part of the film that actually happens quickly. (Laughs). You walk in with nothing and you walk out with a score at the end of the day. Everything else is so slow.
TOON ZONE NEWS: The last couple of Pixar movies gave us a French chef rat, a robot that doesn’t talk and goes into space, and now you’ve got an old guy and a Wilderness Explorer flying to South America in a house powered by balloons. Did somebody in marketing lose a bet or something? (laughter) Because, it’s almost like you’re trying to just make these really way out there movies.
DOCTER: (laughs) Yeah, “Market THIS one, guys!”
TZN: Yeah, exactly. The serious question behind this is how much do you think about marketability and about saleability? Do you ever have to dial anything back and say, “We love that idea, but man, that’s never going to play.”
DOCTER: Thankfully, no, we don’t. Early on, it’s just about, “Does it work or not?” Is it emotional, is it funny, is it relevant? We just show each other and we work at a great place. It’s the merit of the idea. Later on, we think about that, of course, as about when we get to this time in the production, we want to make sure to be able to tell people about it in a way that makes it interesting.
RIVERA: And we work with them in marketing and so forth. Yeah, it’s a movie where an old man ties balloons to his house and flies away, but really what is it about? It’s an emotional story. We call it a “Coming of Old Age” story. We try to work with them and give them things that they might be able to bring outside to the way they sell it and position it. We really kind of try to channel an audience and do all these screenings.
DOCTER: And, in a sense, that’s why we’re here, right? It’s been proven so far that when people see it, they really like it, so once we get the word out that people are enjoying it, then hopefully it will click.
REPORTER 2: Did doing Up cause any new challenges in terms of technology, or have things gotten easier over the years in making a movie?
DOCTER: Every movie, we think, “OK, now we’ve got it figured out. Now this time, we’re going to hook through it.” And every movie, it’s HARD. (laughs) I’m most involved in the storytelling aspect of it, and that’s always hard. We have yet to make one where we didn’t hit some wall at some point where either I’m going to jump off a bridge, or the movie’s going to explode or something.
REPORTER 2: What were the challenges with this one?
REPORTER 2: Like hitting that wall you were talking about.
DOCTER: Well, there was one sequence in particular that we’re not showing here. It’s finished now, and it turned out really well, but it took…I don’t know, we must have reboarded the thing 40 or 50 times. It was crazy. And it’s a real pivotal scene. Everything kind of leads up to this pivotal point, so there were a lot of elements involved that needed to be clear and entertaining and giving away just the right amount of information, so that was tricky.
RIVERA: It became such a house of cards, you’d get it working, and then something would…
DOCTER: …break on screen…
RIVERA: We’d resequence so we could set things up appropriately, so we’d have to go in and re-engineer the film, so to speak.
DOCTER: Well, I think so. Most great films that you read about, like Casablanca and stuff, they had reshoots and inserts and all sorts of stuff to kind of edit around to create the story that they found. (click to listen) There is this illusion, I think, of…for example, I always felt as a kid that Walt Disney just sat up in bed one day and said, (snap) “Dumbo!” and they made it. And it somehow, it fully formed, came springing from his brain. And that’s totally an illusion. The whole thing is a painful process of a non-linear mess that eventually gets ironed out into something that looks like it was planned all along. But it’s a painful, painful process. (laughs)
REPORTER 1: Do you have any interest in working live action? Because it takes you about five years to make a movie, so to bang out a movie in a year would be like a holiday practically.
RIVERA: Yeah, we could goof off for 3 years! What have we been thinking? (laughs)
DOCTER: (click to listen) For me, personally..it could be. So far, I haven’t really hit on an idea that I felt like, “Oh, this needs to be live-action.” To me, part of the joy of it is the fakery of it, that you know these things are not real. They don’t exist. The actors weren’t even in the same room when they were talking, supposedly, to each other. It’s all an illusion. It’s like a magic trick. There’s something that’s really intriguing to me about that. That it comes to life in such a way that…if there’s people crying in the movie, that’s like, “But, none of these people…they’re not even PEOPLE! It’s a bunch of pixels on a screen!” And yet, hopefully, we can make people laugh and cry and that’s pretty cool. So I like that.
TZN: How did you cast Ed Asner and the new boy actor who’s doing Russell?
DOCTER: For Ed, we pitched it to him and he said yes.
RIVERA: (click to listen) We brought a maquette of the character Carl and went down and met him, and he walked in and said, “That doesn’t even LOOK like me!” (laugh) So we said, “That’s all right, let’s try this anyway.” And he was great of course.
Russell was a needle in a haystack. We found a kid eventually named Jordan Nagai down in southern California, to play the character. We must have read 450 kids, in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles…all the casting directors we could find. We even went to churches and malls and handed out fliers at one point. And what we found was that we were getting a lot of really good actors that could perform and read, but it didn’t sound authentic. It almost sounded…to actor-ly, I guess. And when we heard this kid speak, he was just telling us about soccer practice one day on the mike, and (laughed) never stopped. We were like, “This is HIM.” This is …
DOCTER: He just made you laugh, saying nothing important.
RIVERA: It sounded charming.
DOCTER: It just made me smile and laugh.
REPORTER 1: Did you have already what the visual of what Russell was supposed to look like?
DOCTER: Yeah we did.
REPORTER 1: The name Russell is terrific also. Did you agonize over the right name? Because I know a Russell in my life, and he’s just like that kid. It was perfect.
DOCTER: Yeah. The Russell in the film is based off of two people. He’s named after a friend of my son’s, who’s in his Boy Scout troop. There’s also one story artist named Pete Sohn, who we work with at Pixar and who did the voice of Emile in Ratatouille, and he’s such an amazing character, so we kind of combined him and this kid Russell in real life. I don’t think if we filmed this kid in real life that you’d believe him. He is a trip.
TZN: Something I hear a lot of animation directors say is that they’ll change a role based on what the actor gives you. Did that happen with Ed Asner or with Jordan Nagai?
DOCTER: Yeah. I think Pete Sohn has this high level of energy. He did the scratch track — the temporary dialogue — so he was very entertaining, funny, and hilarious. And then we went to the real kid and he wasn’t giving us that. And for a while, we struggled and we thought, “Maybe the casting is wrong, and this isn’t working out.” And when we finally embraced it, and asked, “What’s so entertaining about this kid?” then you rewrite the part for him. It was the same thing we did for Buzz Lightyear after casting Tim Allen. We initially had something preconceived in our head that was very different, and when we cast, then, you start to tailor the role for the actor, and hopefully it all seamlessly gets put together.
TZN: Monsters Inc., came out right after 9/11 and the big anthrax scare, and was sort of accidentally timely. The same thing happened apparently with WALL-E, tapping green themes right when they became popular. Do you think about things like that when you make the movies? How much do you think about that? Do you avoid it if you think it’s happening too much?
DOCTER: Well, it’s a tricky thing because you want to capture real life and put it up on the screen somehow, but at least for me, I like the idea of escaping the nasty stuff of the world, so the anthrax scare was a concern. We used to have this scene where they blew up Harryhausen’s — the sushi restaurant that they saw the kid in. And Mike and Sully are running out and you have this big, huge explosion, and 9/11 had just happened. And we thought, “This isn’t funny.” So we changed it to be more of a big force field, and it was all with that kind of idea in mind…that you don’t want people to go, “Yeek!” and remember all the painful things in a bad way. Sometimes, we’re sort of taking little bits of that in Up. Everybody’s had loss and death and so on, and we’re sort of parlaying on that a little bit in this film just for emotional effect. But like you say, there are certain things that you don’t want to do and kind of protect people from, and this is our way of getting away from all that.
RIVERA: That shot of Harryhausen’s blowing up happened to be one of the most amazing shots that we had ever seen…
DOCTER: Yeah! The effects on it were GREAT!
REPORTER 1: Does it exist, maybe for the 10th anniversary DVD?
TZN: Or the Blu-ray.
RIVERA: It might somewhere. It got buried pretty deep. It was cool, but we all went, “Oh, no, we can’t do that.” They’re running away, you know, and it just echoed too many horrible things. You proceed with caution. The world’s going to move and change, and you hope that your films help people escape, and not bring them to those things.
REPORTER 1: Is there anything special that you guys are putting on the Blu-ray?
DOCTER: Well, we’ve been putting our heads together on cool stuff and trying to find even more. The trouble is that the DVD had so much stuff on it. It was kind of like at the peak of pouring everything onto those, but we found a couple of things.
REPORTER 1: So what’s next?
DOCTER: Well, we gotta finish this movie first (laughs). We got seven weeks left.
REPORTER 1: Are you working on Toy Story 3?
DOCTER: Lee Unkrich is directing that, who, of course, worked on Toy Story 1 and 2.
REPORTER 1: And the script for that is finished already?
DOCTER: Yeah, they’re in great shape. It’s looking really great.
REPORTER 1: Any word on a Monsters, Inc. 2?
DOCTER: No word yet.
REPORTER 1: Did a script ever exist for that, or was that all Internet fakery?
RIVERA: Yeah, it was all Internet fakery.
DOCTER: Oh, was there a rumor about that?
REPORTER 1: Yeah, a long time ago.
DOCTER: Oh. Yeah, no, there was never anything to my knowledge. But, we’re keeping it open.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera for taking the time to talk with us, and Andrew Runyon and the team at Disney PR for arranging the roundtables and getting us into the screening. Check out our review of the screening and panel report, or our New York Comic Con 2009 news roundup. Up opens on May 29, 2009.