The writer behind WALL-E and Toy Story and the director/writer behind Monsters Inc., Pete Docter, has finished work on Pixar Studio’s upcoming and much-anticipated 3-D epic, Up!, to be released this Friday. Up! is the tale of the of an old man’s quest to South America -– via a helium balloon-laden house. North by Northwestern met with Docter in downtown Chicago to discuss the upcoming movie.
Up! is a hilarious movie, but it also has some really emotional, heavy themes. Where did those come from?
We knew we had enough comedy and goofy, wacky stuff in the middle, and a lot of action at the end. It was important for me to base that on something that felt like an emotional foundation so that you really care about this guy. You want to feel that it’s desperate for [the old man] Carl to get that house to the falls –- which is such a bizarre idea to begin with. To have as much emotion behind it as we could was really important. It was only in the closeness of that relationship and that loss, that promise that he made that he never got to fulfill, that really carries the story.
Some of these themes are really complex, “adult” even, in that they deal with death and loss. Do you risk losing younger audiences by having such strong focus on these issues?
We’ve always said that we’re trying to make films for everybody. If you psychoanalyzed most animators, we are probably like at junior high school age. We’re the first audience for these. We kind of test them out on ourselves. We’re not trying to second guess, like from a marketing standpoint, we’re just trying to react in the same way an audience would, and we want to make sure that whatever we do, that it’s effective to an audience member –- that it reaches them.
This movie has blood in it –- as far as I can remember, a first for a Pixar movie. Did someone have to give the go ahead for that?
It’s funny, I don’t remember having a conversation with anybody about that. It’s animation right? So any time somebody hits somebody else, you’re used to laughing –- that’s what Bugs Bunny does. Watching this with an audience, it really works well because Carl’s getting all mad, and he hits the guy, and a couple people in the audience laugh, and as soon as you see blood everybody shuts up and goes “Oh jeez, he crossed the line.” Which is exactly the story point –- that Carl went too far. We kind of needed it. We weren’t able to think of any other way to make that same point.
You have been involved in all stages of the animated movie creation process. What part of the process is your favorite?
The most fun is probably the hardest: developing the new characters. It’s where you find yourself staring at the blank page going “Wha … where … wha?” But by the end, hopefully, you have some interesting new characters that nobody’s ever seen before. There’s no right answers, it’s not like it’s a science question where there’s one way to go … Its just kind of a big blank slate. Every time it’s new. Every time we start again I think, “Okay, now I’ve got it figured out, now this next time it’s going to be easier,” and it never is.
You’ve done a whole bunch of animated movies: Wall-E, Monsters Inc., Toy Story. What is it about the medium that keeps you coming back?
I think the thing that animation does the best is … it’s like a reduction sauce, you take real life and you distill it down to something more potent than real life. If you’re looking for a super cute little kid, you get rid of anything that’s not super cute, and you make it the strongest statement of that as you possibly can. For Carl, we were looking for this grouchy, curmudgeon-y guy, and it just felt right to make him as a square. You get his head, and it’s really square, and his body’s square, and he lives in this square house, and he’s constantly framed in these squares. I guess you could do that in live action, but, there’s kind of this sense of caricature that you can push in animation that I really love.
You’ve described this movie as one about escaping the world. Considering that some people are experiencing hard times right now, what sort of impact do you hope the movie has on them?
If I had to synopsize the theme of the movie, it really comes down to the adventure book. Carl looks through it, and gets to “Stuff I Am Going to Do,” which he assumes will be blank. But he looks at those pages and they’re not blank, they’re actually full of things that he and his wife did. But they’re small things, like having a cup of coffee on the front porch, or a picnic or changing the tire. If the film can make people appreciate things that they have already, especially friends and family -– I think that’s the central lesson of life that I always forget –- that the stuff you really remember fondly are these goofy times playing cards with your friends -– small moments that don’t really sound like much, but end up really sitting with you.