Toy Story 3 Interview with director Lee Unkrich


In Hollywood, three is rarely the magic number.

As much as sequels are rarely equals, there are, of course, some rare exceptions to the rule – ‘The Godfather 2′, ‘Spider-Man 2′, ‘The Dark Knight’, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and, of course, ‘Toy Story 2′. But when it comes to the third instalment, the thrill is often gone, the problem being that, in most cases, just about everyone involved is only in it for the money.

A company that has long lived by the battle-cry of truly original storytelling, Pixar had initially planned on ‘Toy Story 2′ going straight to DVD, but the San Francisco computer animation pioneers quickly realised that their second outing with Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy’s toys deserved a bigger platform than a Tesco shelf.

It was the release of that 1999 box-office-conquering sequel that introduced Pixar to the first threat of rain on their parade, their distribution through Disney called into question when the Mouse House decided that sequels weren’t part of their original three-picture deal. Pixar chief executive Steve Jobs expressed a strong desire to break away from Disney. Disney made contingency plans for just such a break-up, setting up Circle 7 Animation purely to produce their own sequels to Pixar releases.

The departure of Jobs’ nemesis, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, in 2005 paved the way for a reconciliation though, Disney buying Pixar on January 24th, 2006 for $7.4billion, with Pixar co-founder – and unofficial figurehead – John Lasseter being given the role of Chief Creative Officer of both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar.

As the dust settled on one of Hollywood’s most compelling dramas, Lasseter called Lee Unkrich into his office. Unkrich had co-directed ‘Toy Story 2′ (alongside Ash Brannon), and now Lasseter wanted him to take the reigns on ‘Toy Story 3′. Naturally, he was flattered. Then terrified. And today, four years later, at Pixar’s HQ in Emeryville, San Francisco, Lee Unkrich is finally beginning to relax once again.

Last night, we got to see ‘Toy Story 3′, here in Pixar’s in-house cinema. And it works. Wonderfully. Despite the fact that Lee and his co-writers had to work once again within the confines of Andy struggling with the letting go of his childhood toys, ‘Toy Story 3′ still manages to tickle the funny bone and tug at the heart strings without feeling too much like we’ve been here before. Twice.

PAUL BYRNE: In many ways, Woody and Buzz are like the Mickey and Donald of Pixar, which meant you were pretty much carrying the flame for Pixar’s mascots. Did you have a little voice in the back of your head constantly saying, ‘Do not mess this up’?

LEE UNKRICH: [Laughs] That exact sentence rang in my head, every morning when I woke up. No, it did. I remember the day that John and Ed [Catmull, co-founder, now President, of Pixar] told the directors that Disney was buying the studio, John immediately ask me if I wanted to direct the film, and my initial reaction was that I was flattered, and honoured, that he would ask me to do this. But then I wanted to vomit. For exactly the reason you said. It was just a huge responsibility to be tasked with making a sequel to two of the most beloved and critically acclaimed films of all time, right? No pressure.

How did you feel when you heard about Disney’s earlier plans to make ‘Toy Story 3′ in-house?

Honestly, it felt as though our kids had been taken away from us, and were being raised by somebody else. I mean, you can imagine, if you have children, the idea of that happening is unthinkable. And that’s honestly how we felt. When Disney bought us, the first order of business was shutting that production down, and bringing the story back into our fold.

Technology at Pixar continues to take giant leaps forward, as witnessed by ‘WALL-E’ and ‘Up’. As much as it’s always about the story not the toys, did you feel restricted by the almost now-primitive look of the original ‘Toy Story’, made 15 years ago?

The main thing for me was the humans. Compared to the humans in the first film, in ‘Toy Story 3′, they are so much more appealing. It was one of the weakest things in that first film. When we made ‘Toy Story’, we used to say, ‘This is going to be the ugliest film we ever make’. And it was. There were things we knew were not good. You look at the humans in that film, and they are just awful-looking. But it was the best we could do at the time, right? Nobody had done humans like that before.

You guys have a log cabin here in San Francisco that you lock yourselves away in for brainstorming sessions, and you, along with fellow Pixarians Andrew Stanton, Pete Doctor and John Lasseter, spent a weekend there, trying to come up with the story here…

Yeah, it’s called The Poet’s Loft in Tomales Bay, and upon arriving, since John always gives away wine every year, Andrew brought his ‘Toy Story’ wine. And we poured it out and did a toast to Joe Ranft [Pixar veteran who died in a car crash on August 16th, 2005]. So, we invoked the spirit of Joe that very first morning, and set about an idea that had been floating out there for many years. And within about 20 minutes, that idea was knocked down.

So, then we had nothing. After we had taken this big shot, we honestly had nothing. And it was a scary place to be, because we always said that we would never make a movie – especially a sequel – just to make money. So, we spent the rest of the day watching ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Toy Story 2′, again. We had no TV out there, so, we had to huddle around a laptop, and we watched the movies, and at the end of watching the movies, we were really depressed. Because they’re good movies, they came out really well. But then we thought, well, we made those two films. We pulled off the impossible, making a sequel that was as good as the first movie, if not better. So, if anyone was going to do it, why not us?

So, given that three out of the next four Pixar movies are going to be sequels – is there going to be a ‘Toy Story 4′?

You know what, don’t ask me! [Laughs]

Words – Paul Byrne

Toy Story 3 is now showing in Irish cinemas