I had the pleasure of sitting down with Director Dan Scanlon and Producer Kori Rae from Monsters University, the latest feature from Pixar. This studio is responsible not only for visually stunning films, but also features that tell great stories, and their latest effort is no exception.
Here’s the interview:
Pixar is master incorporating complex situations in family films. In M.U. you deal with self discovery and how hard you really need to work in life to go places. What is the most difficult part of handling with such subject matters in a kids film?
Dan: “I think we should lend the message correctly, and in this film is a though message, we really wanted to make a movie for people who have had a dream dashed, something that have happened to all of us at one point of our lives. A lot of times in films we say “as long as you work hard everything will work out great” and that is a great message, but is just not always the case so we just wanted to make a movie about that. We had to be careful that we communicated that well. I could see people saying “wait is this movie telling you to give upon your dreams?” and it’s not. So luckily people we’ve been talking to really understood the message and really loved the message. I’m really happy about that because I do remember thinking is gonna be a fine line and some people might misconstrue it, and so far it hasn’t been the case.”
I love a film where both parents and kids can learn something. And I think this is the case.
Kori: “It is!”
In the film we follow the journey of Mike trying to “fit in”. The great Ray Harryhausen said that to him monsters were not evil, just misunderstood outcasts. What do you think of this?
Dan: “You summed it up beautifully. Yes we think of our monsters as characters, as people, we try to make them as human as we can so we can all relate to them”.
Kori: “Is really important that audiences can relate to them so they have human characteristics, they have to be sincere, you can’t just be joking with them because then you won’t get behind them and you won’t be with them in their journey.”
Talking about characters, their design on this film is a visual delight. Was there a particular one that was more challenging (or fun) to bring to life?
Kori: “Dean Hardscrabble, she’s so complex, on the page even, her design kinda had to match that. She had to be terrifying, one of the best scarers of all time, she is the dean of this very prestigious school, so she had to have that regal kind of nature to her, but at the same time she had to be creepy, so we went down to the “creepy bug” route, and found this crazy huge centipede that exists in the real world and we studied it and designed her after it”.
Dan: “She’s tough to animate too, all those legs! (laughs)”.
And to me Helen Mirren was pitch perfect for it.
Kori: “she was!” (laughs)
What is the best part and the most challenging part of working on a Pixar film?
Kori: (Looking at Dan) “One, Two, Three…”
Both:” Story!” (Laughs)
Dan: “Is always tough, we work really hard on it, and we work the entirety of those years on it, and it was very hard in this movie because we were doing a prequel, we haven’t done that before, and they are tricky because presumably you know how the story is going to end, you have to come at it from a different way.”
I think is even trickier to find an element of surprise in a film that you know how is going to end.
Kori:” Exactly, dealing with the predictability was hard, and we worked probably all four years on that, making sure that we were adding twists and turns to the story”.
Dan: “We were adding background to the story, to the characters, that you are learning something about those characters, that’s the way prequels seem to work”.
I also know that the way Pixar works, sometimes the story starts one way and ends up becoming something completely different. Was it the case on this film?
Kori: “I think we knew at the beginning that we wanted to tell Mike’s story, but then you go down that path and think “okay, maybe this should be Sully’s story since he was the main character in the first one, so we tried versions of the film where Sully was the main character. But it didn’t have the right amount of heart, it wouldn’t be the story we really needed to tell, so after trying a bunch of stuff we came back to Mike’s story and knew that it was right. There were many versions of the film in the cutting room floor, but that’s part of the process, and hope what makes our films good, that diligence”.
I love how you made a character that could be so “unrelatable” the total opposite, and its story so relevant to anyone.
Dan, Kory: “Thank you!”
Was there any particularly funny or unusual request you received from fans of the first film to incorporate in M.U.?
Kori: “We knew that making a film that was a prequel that wouldn’t have Boo in it was going to be an issue from the beginning, we knew that one was a given. Once we decided to go backwards we knew that there was nothing we could do about it. But I think that’s it, it’s a pretty internal process, so we don’t get a lot of information from fans or anything”.
Do you think Pixar is going to continue the prequel approach in the future?
Kori: “I don’t know, it’ll depend if there’s a story that needs to be. This film was really a case were we decided to go back and learn more about Mike and Sully, we needed to go backwards. I think it just depends of what the story needs”.
Growing up, was there any particular monster you were scared of?
Kori: “Yes, I had this recurring nightmare of the Abominable Snow Man from this kid’s TV show “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. I had a dream were he was chasing me, had it for a few years, so it definitively left an impression”.
Dan: “I don’t know if there’s any particular monster I was scared of, I didn’t like clowns, those are terrifying. Which I think is funny, I think sometimes the things kids like also scare them, when you see Chucky Cheese and he’s walking around, shaking your hand, and you think “this is exciting” and then it’s like “this is scary!” all of the sudden it’s too much! (laughs)”
If you could be any fictional monster for a day, who or what would you be and why?
Dan: “I don’t know, I would be King Kong maybe? Because at least I get to live in New York” (laughs)
Kori: “I think I would be Art from this movie, because he’s just crazy and gets to do anything he wants , can say anything he wants, and he can dance like crazy as well” (laughs).
Thank you so much, and best of lucks with the film.
Kori, Dan: “Thank you!”
I originally wrote this interview for Screnninvasion.com. You can find it here: http://screeninvasion.com/2013/06/monsters-university-interview-with-director-dan-scanlon-and-producer-kori-rae/