For our final Wall-e interview, we pull out the big guns and talk to writer/director and all round genius Andrew Stanton.
Having worked at Pixar for nearly 20 years, Andrew Stanton was the obvious choice to direct the studio’s most inventive (not to mention cutest) film to date. Originally one of Pixar’s key story leads and screenwriters (earning a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Toy Story), Stanton branched out to directing with equally impressive results with 2003’s Finding Nemo, earning an Oscar for Best Animated Film for his efforts. We got a chance to speak to the director about Wall-e – a film dreamed up while procrastinating on ‘Finding Nemo’ – who said laziness was a bad thing!
Q: HOW NERVOUS DO YOU GET BEFORE ONE OF YOUR MOVIES OPENING?
All I’ve ever known, working at Pixar – I’m on year 18 now – and all I’ve ever known is tremendous pressure, all I’ve ever known is butterflies. It’s always been that way. Toy Story was the biggest leap we’ll ever do – there was nothing like it – so, that kinda trained me for this. I’ve got to admit though, I haven’t been this excited to make a film. I’ve been excited on all of them, but this kinda has that extra special feeling, the feeling I got on Toy Story, where I felt like this was something unique. Touching new ground again – not as much as Toy Story, but a little bit, and it was really fun to go there.
Because I’ve always felt like the world keeps trying to box in animation, as though it should only be about one thing. All these rules – the movie has to have this, this and this. And I feel, it’s just a movie; it can be whatever it wants to be, to open up the palette a little bit.
Q: CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE CREATION OF WALL-E?
I apologise, it’s always a long answer, because this didn’t come quickly. In ’94 – which, I think if you see the teaser for this movie, I say this – we felt that maybe Toy Story would work, and we should start thinking about our next movie. So, myself, John Lasseter, Pete Doctor and Joe Ranft had lunch, and we threw out a million ideas. And out of them, several of them became movies. A Bug’s Life happened, and Pete mentioned something about confronting your fears, and that became Monsters, Inc, and I said it would be cool to do something underwater, and that turned out to be Finding Nemo. And another thing that came out of there was sci-fi. No one had ever done sci-fi animation really, and we just loved the idea of robots too. And we wondered, what if humanity had to leave the earth, and someone forgot to turn off the last robot, and he just kept on doing the same job forever and ever. We just loved that character, that poor, poor character who didn’t know he could stop doing what he was doing. That was just gold, and I could never stop thinking about it. And Pete and I would be talking about it, and we’d realise, wow, he doesn’t even have to speak conventionally. He could be like R2D2, where he just speaks with sounds. Toy Story wasn’t even out yet, and we just didn’t imagine anyone would give us money for that, so it got put on the shelf.
It was years ago, when I was working on this deadline for Finding Nemo – and you guys can all relate to this – I just wanted to do anything other than finish that script. What does my hair look like parted in the middle? What colour is the sky today? And I always put on soundtrack music when I’m working, to inspire me, and this really heroic theme came on, and I just started thinking about that little robot again. And then I just started writing that, instead of finishing Nemo – my producers would be mad with me if they found out that – but a lot of what you saw in the first half hour or so was pretty much what came out. Then I was hooked. It took for Nemo to be an 800Ib gorilla, it took for it to be so huge, before I really got to make this. No one could say no to me anymore.
Q: THIS SEEMS TO ME TO BE THE MOST CINEMATIC ANIMATED MOVIE SO FAR…
I would say a lot of the films are cinematic. I’m blown away by Ratatouille when I see it, but with this film, I definitely wanted it to feel like it was a real camera shooting stuff. And it was two-fold. One, I felt we never had had a story that demanded that. And two, I felt our technology wasn’t doing it correctly. The tech guys would tell you that it was all accurate, that the maths were right, and that just frustrated me. Being a huge movie fan – not just an animation fan – we hired a cinematographer, and made a scale model of Wall-E and Eve out of Styrofoam, and did all kinds of shots with different lenses – different distances, different lighting, the works – and then we made a virtual set that was the same size, and matched it with the same cameras, and it didn’t look the same. And then we showed it to them. And then it was their pride; they had to fix it. So, we solved an awful lot of things that weren’t right. My whole goal was authenticity. I didn’t care about making it photo-realistic. I just wanted you to believe that that rusty box was really sitting on the ground. Because, the more you believed that rusty box was really sitting on the ground, the more you’re going to care about it. And the more than you believe that it’s thinking on its own, the more charmed you’re going to be. That was the whole goal. It wasn’t to show off, it wasn’t to be sexier, it wasn’t about blowing people away. It was about, how much can I make you invest in this box, this little metal guy.
Q: There was some concern initially about the fact that there’s hardly any dialogue in this movie, but, silent cinema has never fully gone away. Bean, Gromit, Shaun The Sheep…
That’s the only way films were told for a long time – there was no sound. And this has got plenty of dialogue. There’s dialogue from the first scene; it’s just not words you understand. It’s how he speaks. So, you know, we’re all used to watching foreign films with the subtitles.
Q: Are you pretty much satisfied now with the movie you’ve made?
Oh, I’m always slightly restless. John has always said it best, ‘Our films aren’t finished, they’re just released’. And the one thing about the computer medium for making film is that you can always go back into the file and tweak. So someone has to tell you to stop. You’re always trying to look for perfection, and you’ll never get that. If you stare at yourself long enough in the mirror, you’ll always find something wrong.
Q: Pixar are seen as the pioneers of computer animation – do you feel a pressure to push the envelope every time?
There was definitely discussion with Toy Story about how much human activity we had to have, because we just didn’t know if we could do it. Just physically render it, make it happen, but that was the only time we’ve had that kind of discussion. When I first came here, in 1990, we were just making commercials for several years. There was only about 12, 15 people, and when we took a bid for a commercial, we’d always come up with something we couldn’t do. We knew that was the best idea, but we’d have to sit down then and try and work out how to actually do it. And we solved it because we wanted so badly to see that idea made. And that’s always been the way for us. The ideas drive the technology.
So, we never went into Monsters saying, ‘Oh, let’s come up with fur, and make a movie about it’, or ‘Hey, let’s come up with water, and then make a movie about it’. Not even when we were small. It’s always been reaching out further than before because of the idea. It’s often after the movie that we realise what we’ve done.
Q: The idea that you’ve gone from 12, 15 people making commercials to the most successful studio in cinema history – not one flop – employing hundreds of people, has that taken away the thrill of making movies at all? It’s a big operation now…
You get tired a little quicker, but that’s the only real difference, to be honest with you. We learnt long ago that it’s all about the idea. If the idea is good enough, you’ll get up out of bed, no matter how hard or how much pressure or how much stress there is that day. So, let’s put all our investment in an idea that is that inspiring. Because it will trickle down and effect everybody. So, that’s where we put all our… if I feel any stress, it’s there, making sure that this is a good enough idea to sustain us through to the end.
Q: You wrote Wall-E when you were supposed to be working on Nemo. Have you done the same thing whilst working on Wall-E?
Q: Andrew, stop doing that! You’re delaying the film release dates…
It doesn’t delay a damn thing. If I hadn’t done that on Wall-E and Nemo, I’d be two years out. I didn’t want to be 50, and not have another film out.