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Q&A: PETE DOCTER, director of Up

An online exclusive interview

(Pixar/Disney)

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Friday, May 29, 2009

By Robert K. Elder


It’s been eight years since writer/director Pete Docter released Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. His latest outing, Up, has fewer monsters, but plenty of exotic beasts, complicated chases scenes and an old man tethered to a floating house for pretty much the entire film.

Up follows 78-year-old widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) on an adventure with 8-year-old stowaway Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai) as they encounter an endangered bird, talking dogs and foul-tempered elderly explorer (voiced by Christopher Plummer).

Here, Docter talks about researching Up, catching hell from conservatives and the upcoming Toy Story 3.

Stop Smiling: In researching Up, you and your team went to South America.

Pete Docter
: Venezuela. For a long time, we had Toy Story — we got to go to the toy store. Monster’s, we didn’t really get to do much. For Bug’s Life we got to crawl on the ground and look through the grass. Still fun, but now we’re talking. The most dangerous thing was just the political stuff. You know, it’s not…

SS: There’s not a lot of stability there.

PD: Yeah, they’re not exactly friendly, especially when George W. was in office. There was a lot of hate there between those guys. But luckily, we went and I think it was pretty invaluable for the film to be able to do that. I know people are going to watch the film and go, “Boy, you guys have a good imagination.” But that was all real. There were really weird rock shapes and strange plants and things found nowhere else. I don’t think we would have been able to capture it if we hadn’t gone there. It’s pretty cool.

SS: You share a co-story credit on WALL-E. I’m wondering, given the right-wing reaction to WALL-E and the conservation message that’s embedded in the Boy Scout ethos in Up, if you’re prepared to be on Bill O’Reilly’s rant list?

PD: No. It’s funny, I’ve never thought of that until you brought it up. It’s not as though I have some message. It’s just that I’m trying to make the Indian Scouts and the Boy Scouts and all those things that the real organizations were doing their own version of that.

SS: You have to be aware that there’s a certain segment of society that’s going to label the film "anti-hunting," "tree-hugging," "bird-loving."

PD: We’ve thought about the hunting part. But you have to play both sides of that because there were a lot of people who were just adamant about not having a gun in the movie. So we thought, “What if he just had a crossbow or something?” And it’s just kind of ineffectual. You want to have real danger that these guys are going to be in, like they’re going to die if they don’t succeed. So you kind of need it, even though I’m no personal fan of guns.

SS: You also jettisoned a fountain of youth subplot, correct?

PD: We abandoned that. Besides, thematically it didn’t really seem like it resonated with Carl. Because even though we were sort of seduced by it, we realized that this isn’t a movie about an old man. It’s not that he’s old that’s important, it’s the loss and the failed ambition, the worry of that, the guilt that it’s more about. It’s not that he’s 78.

SS: This may be the biggest tearjerker since the double feature of Bambi and Toy Story 2. So what sort of conversations arose out of the heavy, tearful exposition at the front of the film?

PD: We knew we had a lot of wacky, silly stuff through the middle of the film and then all this action/adventure at the end, and my worry was that without some sort of emotional truth that acts as sort of a bedrock for that that it would all be light and fluffy and you wouldn’t really take it home with you. So it was important to me. As we found the theme of the film, which is that Carl worries he missed out on adventure and finds that he had the greatest adventure, which is the relationship with this wonderful woman…

SS: Which is also the thematic through-line of The Incredibles

PD: Yeah. We then needed to go back and show what that adventure was. The ups and downs are a part of it.

SS: Is there an infertility subplot in any other Disney/Pixar film?

PD: It’s a Pixar first.

SS: But any other Disney films?

PD: Not that I can think of. There again, it wasn’t any agenda. It was just that we knew Carl needed to be childless and alone by the end. We actually tried working in a thing where his son was too busy off on business trips or something. It seemed easier just to deal with it up front, and then he’s alone when she’s gone.

SS: Are there any other Disney/Pixar films that have a direct allusion to divorce? Because Russell obviously talks about his second mom — but you don’t go right at it.

PD: We tried to be a little oblique there. I can’t think of anything. Most of them have a loss of a parent — mom’s dead or dad’s dead. There again, we just design from the characters outward. We wanted the characters to each have some sort of hole that the other character can plug. Russell doesn’t have a father figure, so Carl is that for Russell. Carl’s never had kids, and Russell becomes like a kid. That gives him an opportunity to become a dad.

SS: Toy Story 3 is a going concern again, is that right?

PD: It’s being made right now and it’s turning out really well.

SS: Because of the whole political structure of Disney and Pixar deciding to love one another again, how did that work? Was the film already down the pipeline at Disney Animation Studio, or was it pulled back and repurposed through the Pixar system?

PD: I think it was being used as a pawn in the negotiations. Knowing that, we all had really strong feelings about it. It's my perception that it was being made at Disney as a way of saying, "Hahaha…"

SS: “We don’t need you.”

PD: Right. So as soon as the deal went through, that was one of the first things that John Lasseter did — to stop production down there. Because he’s a big believer in “The people who made the original one should be intimately involved in whatever sequels, if there are any.” Because it’s all about people.

So that was a bit of a drama. In fact, during that whole time, we were under strict instructions to not talk to anybody at Disney about what we were doing. But I couldn’t help myself. You’ve probably heard me mention Joe Grant (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo). I think he was 95 at that time, and he was still working there at Disney. I just closed the door and said, "Hey, I want to tell you about this movie I’m working on." So I got to pitch this one to him and get his advice and brainstorm a little bit. It was really great because he was one of the central figures in my life in terms of mentors — people who show you the way things are going.

SS: Did anything survive from the Disney version of Toy Story 3?

PD: We didn’t even look at it. We just went back to a cabin up in northern California. With Toy Story, there were five of us who went up there and beat out the story. When we started on Toy Story 2, we went back to that same place and lived there for two days and worked on the story. And we did the same thing on 3.

We tried to get back to the roots of what was behind the first two and try to make as much as we can a part of those. In fact, after seeing the reels on Toy Story 3, a friend said, "It just seems like it was conceived at the same time as the first two and put in a box and not brought out until now" — which is a great compliment.

 

 

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