On Friday, April 16, the Dallas Film Society presented Up writer-director Pete Docter with the Tex Avery Animation Award for his accomplishments with Up and his contributions to the medium of animation. Prior to the ceremony, Cinematical sat down with Docter to discuss the award, and what it means to him to share company with the creator of Red Hot Riding Hood, whose howlin' protagonist is no less than the model for the award Docter received. Additionally, the Pixar luminary offered a few new insights into his creative process going forward, and hinted at the status of Monsters Inc. 2, as well as another upcoming project he's planning.
Cinematical: What does this sort of recognition at the Dallas Film Festival mean to you after all the other success with the Oscars and such that you've already been able to enjoy?
Pete Docter: Well in this particular case, Tex Avery was a filmmaker I loved growing up and still love -- we were just watching Bad Luck Blackie at home two nights ago, cracking up. So, you know, put me on the same piece of paper as Tex Avery and I'm a happy man.
Cinematical: Do you have a favorite cartoon or character of his?
Docter: I'm a sucker for Droopy. He's great. Most of those cartoons, the Droopy cartoons, are pretty cool.
Cinematical: One of the things that impressed me most about Up's Blu-ray release, that also seems to run through all of the Pixar releases, is the discussion of the level of connectivity and depth of the thought process -- visual cues on the wallpaper that refer to something else in the story, for example. Now Andrew Stanton is doing a live-action film, and Brad Bird is possibly doing live-action; do you feel like it's possible to be able to have that same level of in-depth, meticulous detail and development as you can with animation?
Docter: Absolutely. The particulars of any production have limitations, no matter what you do, so you may have to make different choices or adjust depending on the circumstances. But I think that the general philosophy is that story drives your choices -- you don't just pick a lamp because you like it, you pick a lamp because it reflects something about the character, or a statement you're trying to make about the world. And so, that kind of thinking, I think, translates into live-action films, to theme parks, probably interior design for that matter.
Cinematical: Pixar's filmmakers have been so successful that in many ways, you've legitimized the idea of the animation auteur, filmmakers working in that medium not as a platform or stepping stone to move into live-action. Is potentially moving to live-action something that, if you wanted to do, it would be a natural creative evolution?
Docter: For me, I'm doing what I want to do. It doesn't mean I would say no to live-action at some point, possibly, because it's all kind of the same type of thought process. There are things that are intriguing about it that would be fun to experiment with -- the same with live theater or puppetry, for that matter -- but for right now I'm happy with where things are going at Pixar. I think there's a lot of territory to be explored yet, so I'm sticking with that for now.
Cinematical: We talked about the idea of Pixar being an auteur-driven studio, but obviously there's an amazingly collaborative environment. How do you reconcile the two aspects of that, where you are authoring and shepherding this idea to the screen, and at the same time you have so many other people participating in that process? Are you vindicated by the success of Up, whether it speaks to either aspect of that?
Docter: It's a really good question. I'll answer it kind of in phases. At the beginning and at various times during production, the director is really shaping and molding the thing -- and of course, it's always a collaboration. You have anywhere from, at its smallest, one or two people, so you're never really working completely alone. At its biggest, three or four hundred people. So it's very much a collaboration. But in terms of where the film is headed, the direction of it, the director is driving that. Really, you can look at any of the Pixar films and really see the sensibilities of the individuals behind those films. Brad Bird's films really reflect who he is and what he finds important about life and so on and so on. But, I think when it becomes collaborative is where ultimately at some point, the film almost takes on a mind of its own, and you realize I'm not leading this, I'm following it. It's my job to shape it and move it along, but everybody's in service of the film, even the director.
We have these meetings where other directors will come in -- we sort of pompously call ourselves 'The Brain Trust' -- where you have John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, heads of story and various departments from other films, and everybody watches the movie at the same time. You have a sense for whether it's playing in the room, what parts are dull, which are confusing. At that moment, like I say, everyone's in service of the film. It's not me saying, 'I'm making a statement as an artist,' it's about entertaining the audience. And if it's not entertaining, whatever high horse I'm on, out it goes. It's all about making a story that connects to people. That's where it's probably at its most socialist, where everybody's kicking in ideas and everyone's right, but nobody is -- because in the end, the director takes all that.
In the case of Up, I get to decide, along with Bob Peterson as co-director and writer; we would sort through these notes and go, this one I just don't understand, this note goes contrary to the feeling of what we're going for, this note is great, let's make this slight adjustment to it. In that sense, the director ultimately shapes the film with the help of this great community.
Cinematical: In the case of Up, you had Tom McCarthy also working on a version of the script; Joss Whedon also co-wrote Toy Story. Does it help to bring in someone who's maybe not as familiar with that in-house process in terms of animated filmmaking?
Docter: Sometimes. Sometimes writers just key into the sensibility and the director and the medium and the Pixar sensibility, whatever that is, and other times they don't. Undoubtedly, with any creative person you're going to get some interesting things, but sometimes it ends up steering off a little bit differently. I find that the films are really a reflection of the people working on them, so if you cast a new writer, the film's inherently going to bend. It's going to change a little bit because now this person is starting to influence what it is. In the case of Joss Whedon, he came on and the story was already pretty solid. He was just giving us extra juice -- funnier lines, more biting sarcasm in places that needed it, and a kind of a focus to the scenes. In the case of Tom McCarthy, the film was very ethereal and not nailed down at that point so he was bringing in elements that became fairly foundational, like Russell the Cub Scout. That was not an element we had in the story at that point. So really it depends on the specifics.
Cinematical: Up didn't have the most obvious marketing potential, and Disney recently announced their focus on incorporating a marketing or cross-promotional component to their projects going forward. Is that something that has trickled down to Pixar, or something you maybe have to be aware of when you're pitching ideas now?
Docter: It's nothing that we think about. We never have, and I hope we never will. My thought at the very beginning is, 'Does this character and this story connect with me? Does it make me think and make me feel something?' Our thinking is that there might be things you could make toys of 'til the cows come home, but unless you care about that character, nobody's going to buy those toys. The toys and everything else are almost like getting a souvenir when you go on vacation; if you had a lousy time at the Grand Canyon, you're not going to buy the Grand Canyon souvenirs! So our job, first and foremost, which is the cornerstone of everything, is to make a great experience for the audience. From there, and this is kind of the way things are set up which is nice, I as a filmmaker don't have to really worry about that. I'm involved when I can be, to make sure that the characters are on model and appropriate to the feel of the film, but it's certainly nothing that I have to worry about as part of my job.
Cinematical: How far are you into your next project?
Docter: I'm on a couple of different things that are pretty early on; one's being storyboarded and put up on reels, which is where the rubber meets the road. That's the hard part of it. The early days, usually you can think of all these great ideas, and they sound interesting and intriguing, and then you get in there and you have to storyboard it to make each beat work. Make you care about the character, yet have him flawed so he can have growth throughout the film. Those are hard things to do! And just when you think you understand now how you're going to do it, the next film comes up and hits you from the side and you didn't see it coming. It's not easy!
Cinematical: Which project is it that you're working on?
Docter: Can't say, sorry.
Cinematical: I know one of the things potentially on the slate for you is Monsters, Inc. 2. Is that something that you are or were eager to revisit and follow up?
Docter: Well, it's like anything else at Pixar; we try to only attack something or take it on if there's something intriguing about it. So if we don't find a story and a wrinkle to these characters that makes us feel compelled to do it, then we won't. For me, the most interesting part is usually taking something new on, so the film I'm developing now is an original project. That's the hard part, but it's also the exciting part. It's the part where you start to lose your hair and you wake up at three in the morning, but looking back, it's the part that's most rewarding.