A summer without a new DisneyPixar movie is like a summer without the sun… or the beach… or barbeques. This summer though, everyone is looking to Pixar’s new movie Toy Story 3 to possibly save the summer from itself. True, it falls into the sequel category so many moviegoers and critics rail against every summer, but this is Pixar after all and the movie is on par not only with the first two “Toy Story” movies, as well as their Oscar-winning output in recent years.
Taking on the difficult task of helming Pixar’s very first threequel is Lee Unkrich, who co-directed Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. and has been part of Pixar’s creative team and editorial department from the beginning. Fortunately, Unkrich had almost all the original voice cast back reprising their characters from the popular Oscar-nominated earlier films and a strong story involving the toys’ owner Andy going off to college and having to decide what to do with his toys from when he was younger. It’s a premise that every single kid or adult will be able to relate to, even moreso when it applies to our long-time friends Woody and Buzz Lightyear, voiced once again by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, respectively.
At Wonder-Con a few months back, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Unkrich and the film’s producer Darla Anderson. Fortunately, we had already seen (and loved) the movie at ShoWest a few weeks earlier, but as tends to be the case, we didn’t have nearly as much time as we needed to have a proper unrushed interview, and we felt kinda bad for Anderson, who had to jump in whenever she could.
ComingSoon.net: What’s interesting is that this movie has been on and off for a long time. I remember when John Lasseter did the junket for “Cars,” and everyone was asking him about “Toy Story 3” and even at that point four years ago…
Lee Unkrich: There was no “Toy Story 3” yet…
CS: Right, so what was the factor that finally got him to say, “Okay, let’s just do this” and got this going?
Unkrich: We had an idea for “Toy Story 3” right after “Toy Story 2.” John was really gung-ho and we were ready to go right way. He wanted to just jump into it, especially because when you’ve been in the middle of a movie for so long, you get intoxicated by working with characters and it’s hard to say goodbye to it. It’s like you’ve been in a play for years, and you don’t want the cast to break up. So John was ready to go with 3 and we had an idea, but there were all these crazy contractual problems with Disney at the time, because we were two separate companies. Without going into any details, we just found ourselves in a position that we couldn’t make something else, it just wasn’t going to happen. Luckily, when Disney ended up buying Pixar four years ago, all those problems went away instantly overnight…
Darla Anderson: Literally overnight.
Unkrich: It was that very next day that John said, “We’re going to make ‘Toy Story 3’ now and you’re going to direct it” and off we went.
CS: Did you still want to use the idea that you had back then? Was it the same thing of Andy going to college?
Unkrich: That wasn’t the idea. The way we started this process was that Darla and I and Andrew (Stanton) and John–all the key creative people at the company–got together at this little cabin up in Northern California. We all got together at the same place where they came up with the first “Toy Story” idea. We thought it would just be this fun kismet to get everybody together and within about twenty minutes of that first day, we completely shut down the whole idea that we had been carrying with us for six years. We thought we’d be cocky about it, “Well, we got this great idea but we can’t make the movie” but the idea went away within twenty minutes.
Anderson: Which was shocking actually for me. (laughs)
Unkrich: It was mostly because it was a clever concept but it wasn’t a movie. We just couldn’t see the potential for an entire film, so we shot that down, and we were back to the drawing board. And it was a very awkward position to be in, because at Pixar, we’ve never made a movie just because we want to make a movie. We get an idea and we nurture that idea and at a certain point, we realize, “This is a good solid film, let’s continue to develop it and make it.” Especially with the sequel, we had only done one sequel…
CS: I was going to say, because since “Toy Story 2,” Pixar hasn’t made any sequels.
Unkrich: Even with “Toy Story 2,” we didn’t make that because we wanted to make a sequel to “Toy Story.” We made it because John and Pete (Docter) were out to lunch one day and they had an epiphany, an idea about this toy collector kidnapping Woody and they started talking about it and all of a sudden, “Oh, this would make a really good movie,” so the idea came first. In this case, we didn’t have an idea. We were left with nothing and it was not a comfortable position to be in.
Anderson: I think it’s one of the hallmarks of Pixar and our creative process that we are willing… Okay, we carried this idea for nine years, we all talked about it, we all knew what the germ of it was, and just sitting around and seriously breaking it down for a few minutes, realizing that it’s not that strong. We’re facile enough as a team that we were willing to throw that away, even though we were quite invested in it to some degree.
Unkrich: It says a lot about the level of trust we have as a group artistically, because some of the people in the group felt more strongly about that idea than others and it’s hard to say the truth, say the hard thing, that it just isn’t good enough.
CS: It’s funny because Pixar’s changed a lot since the first two “Toy Story” movies and this movie seems more like the Pixar of today than that of the ’90s.
Unkrich: Well, I wanted it to be the same in terms of the feeling of the world and the characters obviously, I didn’t want it to feel like a completely different movie, but we’ve all grown up a lot. Many of us were in our mid-20s when we made “Toy Story.” We’re older now, we have kids that are growing up, and you live life more and you have life experiences, and I think it’s inevitable that we think about things more deeply and we want to explore issues more deeply, and that’s why I think you’re starting to see this more enhanced sense of emotion in the films.
CS: How did Michael Arndt end up writing this? He’d been at Pixar for a long time but he never really wrote a full screenplay before, had he?
Unkrich: What happened with Michael is that I was starting to develop an idea for what was going to be my first film as a sole director. I co-directed several of the movies but I was going to do my own movie, so I started developing this idea, and I’m not a writer. Some of us at the studio are writer/directors like Brad (Bird) and Andrew, and others like John are not and we need to really work with other people, so I started reading screenplays, writing samples, and one day the script for “Little Miss Sunshine” came across my desk. I had no idea what it was, didn’t know idea it was actually being filmed at that moment, loved the script. We called Michael and asked if he was interested in coming up. Turns out he was a big fan of Pixar and we started a really great collaborative relationship working on this other idea. Then when Pixar was bought by Disney, I asked Michael to write “Toy Story 3” because I enjoyed working with him so much and he graciously said “yes.” He absolutely wanted to be a part of it, and yeah, it was only when we were in the early stages of “Toy Story 3” that “Little Miss Sunshine” was a big hit, that Michael won an Academy award for his screenplay and he was already ensconced in Pixar.
CS: What about getting some of the actors back, especially John Morris who voiced Andy in the original movies? He’s not exactly a Pixar mainstay like John Ratzenberg or others.
Unkrich: Well, he was a kid. He was like an eight year old when we were first working with him on “Toy Story” and then he was about 14 when we finished “Toy Story 2,” so he had grown up. He went to high school, he went off to college, studied acting. I learned all of this after the fact but we completely lost track of him, because…
Anderson: Because we weren’t working with him.
Unkrich: So when we decided to have Andy grown up, we started to think about who was going to play him and it pained me, it actually pained me to think about casting somebody new. It just felt wrong, it felt dirty somehow to get somebody else to do it, but we didn’t know where John was. So I had the casting director track him down. Found him, had his phone number, and called but he wasn’t home, but I heard his voice on his answering machine, and that told me in a moment that he was going to be perfect, because he sounded young still. He wasn’t all grown and sounded like a man. He very much had a young-sounding voice.
Anderson: He had a youthful tenor.
Unkrich: Yeah, so he was thrilled of course to come back and be a part of it again and to have the kind of role he has. He brings some very special work to this film in a way that he never was able to.
CS: What about Tom Hanks and Tim Allen? Were they harder to get on board and did you have a script done before you approached them to come back?
Unkrich: We didn’t have a script but I think they were both on board very quickly.
Unkrich: They loved working with us, they loved these characters that they helped create.
Anderson: They love the characters, they love being a part of that.
Unkrich: But we did do something on this film that we’ve never done before in any of our films. Part of our story process, in addition to writing the screenplay, is to create these elaborate story reels, like a storyboard version of the movie, put temporary music and sound FX and voices. It just allows us to not just fixate on the printed page, but actually watch a rough draft of the movie. It’s part of our writing process really. In this case, when we put the movie up on reels–sometimes they’re terrible, most of the time they’re terrible–but in this case of “Toy Story 3,” they played really really well, so well that we went out on a limb and invited Tom and Tim and a bunch of the actors to come watch the story reels before we had done any recording sessions with them. We did it as a way of gathering them together and kicking off the movie.
CS: Who was doing the voices for that?
Unkrich: We just had people in the building do temporary scratch voices.
Anderson: We call them the Pixar players.
Unkrich: But you know, it was a big gamble, because you’re showing the movie in a very raw unfinished early state, but the screening went fantastic, and it really set the tone for all the recording sessions ahead. Tom and Tim trusted that we had a great story on our hands and were completely on board.
CS: What was involved with bringing in some of the new characters? A lot of the people who’ve seen the movie loved those new characters and want to see more of them. Have you already talked about doing spin-off shorts with them?
Unkrich: Like the side characters?
Anderson: Well, we’re still in the process of finishing this film–we still have a few more weeks on this one–but we’re in love with them as well.
Unkrich: There is kind of life outside the movie for them. The movie’s not done yet so we’ll see a little bit more of them in the movie, but there’s video games. We’re lucky so much of the talent wanted to be a part of the video games so you get to see a lot of characters from the movie in the video game actually talking. There’s a lot of really clever stuff written and there’s stuff in the theme parks for them to do, so the characters have a life luckily because we’re part of this great organization of Disney where characters have a life outside the actual movie.
CS: Lastly, I want to ask about the editing process. I know you have these story reels but Pixar’s movies are always these tight 80 to 90 minutes. Are all these movies longer at one point and you just cut them down to what we end up with?
Unkrich: (to Darla) Was this movie longer at one point?
Anderson: Ah, yes. (laughs)
CS: I was always wondered how Pixar managed to tell so much story in such a condensed amount of time.
Unkrich: It’s hard. It’s really hard, because the movies are always longer than you want them to be, and you have to be very, very disciplined about constantly looking for every little bit of fat to trim away, but not too much, right? You don’t want it to start feeling rushed, you don’t want to lose the emotion, and luckily in my case, I directed this movie but my background is as an editor. I edited a lot of the early movies and that’s a big part of what I brought to the Pixar movies. It was interesting for me doing both in this case. I think there were people who were worried I wouldn’t have the objectivity to direct but then also cut myself, but I very much was able to put on two different hats and kind of control the length of the movie and make sure it was all playing really well.
Anderson: And did a brilliant job at it. It’s a really cool part of the journey, just continuing to winnow it down and getting the performances and the scenes down to their essences.
Unkrich: It’s like making a (soup) stock. You got all these great ingredients and then you’ve got to boil it down to the finished film.
Toy Story 3 opens everywhere in regular, 3D and IMAX 3D theaters nationwide on June 18. Look for ComingSoon.net’s video interviews with the cast next week.