Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you know all about the biggest (and arguably best) film of the year – Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 3. Not only has the movie become the highest grossing animated feature of all time with over $1 billion in global gross, it’s also Pixar’s personal best and the most critically acclaimed release of 2010. Much of that success can be attributed to director Lee Unkrich, who tirelessly worked on the story of the film with fellow Pixar originators John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton for more than two years before moving into production.
Mr. Unkrich is no stranger to animation, as he’s been with Pixar longer than many of the children who saw his film have been alive. He worked as an editor on the 1995 original and as a co-director on the 1999 sequel but also had his hand in many of the company’s hits, so you can imagine how excited I was to get the chance to speak with him. Read on for the complete Q&A with Lee Unkrich and if you haven’t already seen Toy Story 3, kick yourself in the butt and get to your local movie theater pronto!
D: So, you co-directed a handful of the Pixar films but this was actually your first solo directorial effort. If any, what were some of the pressures of making such an expensive and highly anticipated film?
Lee Unkrich: Well, any of us directing at Pixar, whether it’s our first time or not, feel a lot of pressure to not make a bad Pixar film. We’ve been very lucky that we are, kind of, 11 of 11 right now with films that have done well and films that people have really seemed to like. So that was an enormous amount of pressure, but then on top of it, making another Toy Story movie was a huge amount of pressure. People loved the first two Toy Story films so much, and the last thing I wanted to do was make a disappointing third film. So many times, when you have a “3” behind your title, it usually means that you’re coming to the end. Like people have run out of ideas and they’re just trying to hustle out one last sequel. But we wanted to change that. We wanted to show that a sequel can be just as good as an original film. We really tried to do that with Toy Story 2 and I feel a lot of people think we succeeded. And we very much tried to do the same thing with the third film.
D: Absolutely, and we all hope it’s not the last time we see Woody and the boys. I noticed that, unlike the first two films, the writing process seemed to be a little more streamlined. With the first two, there were credits to about 7 or 8 screenwriters and this time around, there was only about three. It was you, Michael Arndt, and Andrew Stanton.
L: And John L.
D: Right. Did that make the writing process easier at all? Was it streamlined? Could you describe it?
L: Sure. With the first Toy Story we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We’d never made a movie before, so we went down a lot of blind alleys along the way. We went through seven different writers before we finally settled into our groove. And Toy Story 2 had its own drama. It started out as a direct-to-video film, but once we realized that the story was working out in theaters, we revamped everything on that film as well. That’s why you see a lot of writers on that film. This time out, it did go very smoothly. John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and I and a handful of others went off on a retreat once we decided to make this film. And in two days, we came up with the skeleton of the story, and then I worked with Michael Arndt, the screenwriter, and my story crew for the next two and a half years working out a story. Now that sounds like a long time, but that’s pretty typical for our films. We’re constantly writing them, rewriting them, and trying to make them the best stories that we can possibly tell.
D: Now as you’re talking about the collaborative process at Pixar, which is unlike any other studio I know, can you talk at all about the advice fellow Pixar guys — like Pete Doctor and Andrew Stanton — had given you or not given you on this film?
L: We’ve all been making movies together for a long time. I’ve been at Pixar for 16 years. And Pete and Andrew have been there a few years longer than that. So we’ve all been in the trenches together and learned a lot from one another over the years. The big difference for me on this film was that I was directing solo for the first time, which meant that I had to handle a lot of the aspects of the production that I hadn’t been in charge of in the past. So I did talk to Andrew about that — he was in the middle of Wall-E at the time — and I did ask for his advice and he said, “Look, you know how to make movies. You need to just trust your instincts. You’re already surrounded by some of the most amazing people on the planet. What could go wrong?”
D: Right. And I want to talk briefly about the film. Were you at all nervous about some of the adult-oriented themes and whether or not they would be too heavy for children? Or do you feel that with Pixar’s recent work, specifically Up, that youngsters can really handle a narrative with some real emotional depth?
L: Well, we have always made our films for everybody. We have never targeted children, specifically. We know that kids are going to be part of our audience, so we need to make sure everything is always appropriate for them, but we never want to dumb down the movies to make sure the kids like them. We believe that kids are very smart and can handle a lot of things that maybe we think they can’t. I mean, there’s obviously some things that children shouldn’t be exposed to, but in terms of strong emotion and real, honest character behavior, I think that kids can handle. And it’s good for them. Films can teach them about life. If you look at the beginning of children’s entertainment in literature, the first books that were written for kids were cautionary tales. They were books that were there to teach kids about growing up and how to live life. And I think somehow this idea got lost over the years, especially in movies for kids. So we just try to explore ideas, themes, and emotions that are meaningful to us and we just trust that people, no matter what stage they are in life, will find something to relate to in the film.
D: Great, great. Having seen the film, there was a real sense of danger in parts, specifically in the final act in the fire pit scene. Can you talk a little at all about how that was constructed and how that came about?
L: Sure. I spent a lot of time thinking about what toys are worried about. We’ve always know that toys are worried about not getting played with, because that’s what they’re on earth to do — to be played with by kids. And anything that prevents kids from playing with them gives them anxiety and stress. So that’s pretty much what all of the Toy Story films have been about — that stress of not getting played with. And on top of that, what’s the worst thing that can happen to a toy? Not only lose his owner, but to be thrown away. And we spent a lot of time in the films talking about that anxiety of being thrown away. And I thought, if we’re going to end this story properly — the story of Andy and his relationship with the toys — we really need to take the toys to their end game. They need to get thrown away. They need to face their greatest fear. And as we worked that out and realized they needed to go to the dump, I wanted to them to be on the brink of existence. It’s kind of a strange question of toys — when they’re alive and when they’re not alive, since they’re basically inanimate objects — so I thought, if they’re heading into a furnace, that’s basically the end. You can’t really say there’s any existence beyond that point.
D: Right. It doesn’t get any more dire than that.
L: Right, so we decided to put them in that situation, and once we did, I just wanted to stay true to it. I didn’t want characters cracking jokes or making light of the situation. I wanted to treat it as realistically and honestly as possible. I always thought of it as a family in a plane that’s going down. What are you going to do? Are you going to shriek and scream or are you going to become quiet and take your family’s hands and hold them close, and go down together? I think that’s what would happen. So I tried to stay truthful to that idea — these toys facing their end with dignity. Quiet dignity. And I think it’s that idea that became a very powerful idea and thing for the audience to experience.
D: It was so beautiful. The sense of urgency is so prevalent in it and I know you heard a lot of people talking about tears rolling down, for me, as well, it brings you back to moments in your own life when you feel that way. And again, I just want to congratulate you on the success. Not just the financial success, but it worked on so many levels, I really believe it will be an instant classic.
L: Well, thank you.
D: One last question. What’s next for you? Directing? Is Pixar is moving forward with live-action work? Will we have to wait very long for the next Lee Unkrich film?
L: My plan is to make another film with Pixar so it will be a few years before we see anything again because it takes us about four years to make a movie. No live action for me. Pixar actually isn’t doing live-action. Andrew’s doing his John Carter film with Disney.
D: Oh okay.
L: Yeah, Pixar isn’t branching into live action, we just have a few directors who are.
D: Good to know. Well thank you for your time. Congrats again!
L: Thank you so much!