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Exclusive ‘Up’ Writer/Director Pete Docter and Producer Jonas Rivera Interview

UpKevin, Russell, Dug and Carl in ‘Up.’

© Disney/Pixar

Disney/Pixar’s Up, the story of a lonely old guy named Carl Fredericksen who wants to go on a big adventure before it’s too late, was selected to open the Cannes International Film Festival, marking the first time an animated 3-D movie ever received that honor. Up, Pixar’s 10th film, was also the first Disney film ever to be given the Cannes opening night spot. And in San Diego as part of the promotional tour for Up, writer/director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc) and first-time producer Jonas Rivera admitted that when they first heard the news, they thought someone was playing a joke.

“We were scoring when the call came,” said Rivera. “We’re just so honored because to us, we love animation – it’s all we do, it’s all we talk about. We work on it all day and then we go home and we talk about animation and we watch animated movies with our families, but we don’t think of them as animated movies. I mean they’re films that happen to be animated. It’s our medium; it’s not so much a genre with conventions. And so to be honored with opening that festival, it feels a little bit like being acknowledged by the industry. Like this isn’t just a kids’ movie. We certainly want it to be for kids, but ultimately it’s for everybody. And this feels a little bit like, ‘Hey, come sit at the big kids’ table.’ So we’re proud of that.”

Docter and Rivera have every reason to be proud as Up continues the tradition of Pixar by putting forth yet another quality film that entertains every age group. There’s a little something for everyone in Up, from the senior citizen central character to his 7 year old tag-along companion to a gorgeous gigantic bird to Dug, the best dog character to be seen in an animated feature film in a decade.

Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera Exclusive Interview

How tough was it to decide to go with an old guy as the main character?

Pete Docter: “It just seemed like something really unique we hadn’t done before and allowed for a lot of humor. Early on as we were exploring it, it was like, ‘Oh yes, this will be great. We can do a super slow old man fight at the end of it’ – the action adventure thing. And then as we got into it, it became a very emotional thing, a very unique perspective on the world that we hadn’t explored before, so it was just fun. I think the central core of the story doesn’t mandate an old man. You know what I mean? The sort of central theme that is that worry that he missed some opportunity and whatnot, that’s something that all of us can relate to no matter our age. You don’t have to be old to relate to him.”

Jonas Rivera: “It was fun. And the other thing I think with old-timers is that – and we talked about this a lot – we’re always looking for stories and their stories are about history, if you meet an old person. I mean we talked to my grandpa and it’s just solid stories. The minute you sit down, you’re going to sit there for two hours and you’re going to hear the best stories that you’ve ever imagined. He just has history and it’s kind of fun, like all the things he’s done or wanted to do. You know, he’s just got a lot of miles on him. And so it just seemed to feed what we were after.”

Pixar doesn’t necessarily target kids with your films – they’re for everyone. How do you develop them and not make a ‘kids’ movie?

Pete Docter: “We make these for ourselves. We try to entertain ourselves, and by that I don’t mean that we ignore the audience at all. It’s just that we happen to be sort of the emotional target age of… I don’t know, it’s like we’re adults but we’re kids at the same time. And so by entertaining Brad Bird and John Lasseter, I think I have a pretty good chance of entertaining my kids and my mom and everybody in between.”

Jonas Rivera: “Yes. We say we don’t make these for kids, but we act like eight year olds. So it’s really different.”

Does that just come with the territory of working at Pixar?

Pete Docter: “It sort of does. Almost everybody has toys all over their office.”

Jonas Rivera: “I mean we’re not this way because we work at Pixar, we work at Pixar because we’re this way. Glenn McQueen our dear friend, the late Glenn McQueen who did a lot of the great animation in the earlier films had said that Toy Story felt like lightning in a bottle to him, like the right people colliding at the right time, from computer science to art to animation, just colliding there. And we’ve tried to retain that and we attract those kinds of people that just kind of get that and love it. It’s all about passion and what we do.”

Is it difficult to attract that and keep up that level of enthusiasm and passion in a corporate environment?

Pete Docter: “No, not really.”

Jonas Rivera: “No, not so far. I mean it’s an interesting dynamic there. As producer I have to watch out for all these things, how to get these things on the screen, and one of the things I find myself doing every day is telling people to stop. The work ethic is so intense, everyone is so committed to these films they will literally not stop animating and not charge me for the overtime. I have to go in at night and send them home. I mean I can’t turn it off, and that’s a good problem to have in a corporate environment, which it is. It’s a business and so forth, but everyone feels invested. Everyone feels that our names are going to be out there forever and we want this to be Snow White to us and to our kids and so we won’t stop. We would work on it for a hundred years if we could. Of course we can’t – we have to get it out.”

Pete Docter: “Yes, that’s what John Lasseter always says. He says, ‘We don’t finish the movies, we just release them.’ So anyway, that’s kind of all due to the people that we attract and look for and so forth.”

And this is the first Pixar film to be released in 3-D. Does that add a different dynamic to when you’re directing?

UpDug, Kevin, Russell and Carl in ‘Up.’

© Disney/Pixar

Pete Docter: “Not really. I mean in a way all of the movies we’ve done have been in 3-D, it’s just we’ve never shown them that way. You know, the medium in which we work is almost like try to imagine the doll’s house with the furniture and the dolls and you set up your camera and it’s very three-dimensional, physical, all that’s all virtual space, and the things that we were trying to do to get depth, to get interesting composition and things like that turned out the very same things that make for good 3-D. So we’ve worked really hard on this film to make sure that it was a great story with interesting characters first, and that the 3-D is in support of that, as opposed to selling 3-D with kind of a mediocre story.”

Jonas Rivera: “We sort of did the inverse of it. Like instead of breaking the screen and coming out here, we made it with a window so you look in as opposed to having something come out at you. We always think it’s like our job is to help an audience forget they’re watching a movie by immersing them in this. And if anything comes out, you almost feel too much of that would remind you you’re watching a studio movie. We wanted you to come in, so that it’s depth as opposed to breaking out of it.”

That makes perfect sense. What took so long for Pixar to do a 3-D film?

Jonas Rivera: “I don’t know. The industry and digital projection and theaters and so forth, you know?”

Pete Docter: “I think Pixar’s been interested in 3-D for a long time. There was a short film that they did in ‘89 I think that it was done in 3-D, but the challenge of it was there were very few theaters that could show it in 3-D and the projection system, especially in a mass market like that is, was only recently capable of doing that.”

Jonas Rivera: “John Lasseter’s always loved 3-D and we used to do our artwork books even with lenticular 3-D cards. He always talked about how he shot his wedding photos in 3-D, which I’m sure his wife loved, but nonetheless.”

We’ve seen dogs and cats and other animals, particularly in the Disney world, that talk like humans. Why did you decide not to have these dogs talk, but to instead have something talk for them?

Pete Docter: “Well there again it was kind of like, ‘How can we shake this up and do it a little differently?’ And also is was about trying to find the boundaries of what this world is. Like, if you just broke out and started moving his lips, then you’re kind of a little more in a dream world, I think, than where we were trying to be. So when we hit on this idea of the collars, it just seemed like a way of staying true to what real dogs think about, at least what you imagine they think about – food and things like that.”

Jonas Rivera: “Squirrels. But even just the idea that he is an inventor and a great adventurer and that he would [invent a dog collar], it’s just justified by some sort of weird technology. And, of course, it doesn’t even work right so it just kind of felt like a fun kind of quirk to the world.”

Pete Docter: “Well that’s kind of like what we did on Monsters Inc, you know? There’s basically the portal between human world and monster world is this magic, right? It’s just magic, but we explained it away in technology so you can kind of get it.”

Jonas Rivera: “Yes, the schematics and everything.”

Pete Docter: “For some reason technology is the 21st century version of magic.”

How long has the idea been floating around in your head to do this particular story?

Pete Docter: “This one…so Bob Peterson, who is the head writer and co-director, he and I started playing with it in early ’04 and it was just now being done, so it was about five years for it getting done.”

Is that usually what it is with Pixar, about a five-year window?

Jonas Rivera: “About, yes. They’re all between four/five years from idea to screen. But the production’s about two years of people and animation and lighting, these are huge chunks of your life.”

Pete Docter: “Most of that is a pretty small crew of story guys just kind of making the reels work, coming up with characters and all that.”

Jonas Rivera: “Yes, I mean I had a daughter on this film. I mean you just feel like your whole life kind of…it’s like high school or college or something. Every film feels like that, you know?”

How close was that original idea to what ended up on the screen?

Pete Docter: “Pretty close. The very first version of it we didn’t have Russell in, but Carl floating his house, the loss of his wife, the bird, the dog, those are all in.”

How did the kid, Russell, get added in?

Pete Docter: “We had talked about it early on and I was really kind of allergic to doing it just because I’d just finished Monsters Inc which had the older guy and the young kid. It was kind of that dynamic and I wanted to stay away from that. And it was during a time when Bob Peterson was on Ratatouille and I got to work with Tom McCarthy who wrote and directed The Station Agent and The Visitor. And so we were talking about it and he just really felt like we needed a kid, and he ended up talking me into it by doing something different and unique from what we had done before. But a kid was a really good way of extracting this guy. He’s not going to come out of his little box easily, Carl, so he’s going to need some really powerful, relentless optimism to get him out of there, and the kid seemed like the way to do that.”

love the look of this film, the style of the characters. It looks like caricatures rather than photo-realistic. Why did you decide to go that way?

UpDug, Kevin, Russell and Carl in ‘Up.’

© Disney/Pixar

Pete Docter: “That just seemed like what the story demanded. We came up with this idea of a floating house and we knew that, okay, if you tried to shoot that in real life, I don’t know that you’d ever believe it. It needs a certain level of caricature on stylization. Plus, I don’t know, there was just something sort of poetic about the idea to begin with that felt more animation-y to me than real. And Rick Nierva, who did the production design, he and I are sort of on the same page in terms of our general approach to what animation can do. I think that the more you can stylize and kind of distill down the essence of whatever it is you’re trying to do, that’s what animations all about, you know? It’s like taking something that is really complex and dangling in with a lot of details and then making it feel really simple and pure, whether that be movement or the design or story, whatever it is.”

Jonas Rivera: “Like a photograph of Lucille Ball next to a caricature. The caricature looks more like her than the photo, you know? It’s like why that’s such a cool challenge, especially for a medium where things can look very real or precise. It was fun. It was what the film needed.”

Was this film more difficult to do than Monsters, Inc?

Pete Docter: “I guess it depends on how you approach the answer to that question. I think emotionally for me it was a little easier just because Monsters was the first one for me as a director so that was…I felt like I was putting myself out there at every turn. Technically, since this is number 10 for us, there were a lot of things that we had handled already. The material which would have made your brain explode on Monsters, had been done on say Incredibles and Ratatouille and so on, so there were a lot of the technical challenges that we’d handled before.”

Jonas Rivera: “This one was harder to design, for sure.”

Pete Docter: “Right. And the story is always hard. Every time you come in and think, ‘Okay, how many of these have I done now? I know what I’m doing,’ and then you come in and then it fools you again. It’s never easy.”

And the crew actually went to South America to do the design?

Pete Docter: “Yes.”

What did you take away from that that you could bring to the film? Was it the entire landscape?

Pete Docter: “I really love tropical islands, so I was thinking maybe if they got stuck…we knew we needed something physically limited so that they would get stuck together. But then there had been so many movies about that, so when we found these South American mountains – I knew nothing about them – we looked up as much research as we could and it was all kind of very mysterious and weird, and we just thought the only way to really capture the feel of it is to go there. And because it is so otherworldly, we figured the more grounded it is, the more based on real life that it is, we could always caricature that. But actually Ricky Nierva, the production designer, he had studied under Maurice Noble who was a great stylist, who did a lot of the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner, especially the roadrunners. And he said he could never design the American Southwest until he went there himself. And there was something about being an artist and experiencing it that allows you to conjure up these sort of feelings. I mean those guys who did the stylization on this, I think it was really crucial for them to be down there and smell it and taste it and all that stuff so you really get a feel for it.”

* * * * …Semi-Spoilerish…* * * *

I was a little taken aback that you actually had a character in there who passed away early on in the movie. Was that a hard choice for you to make?

Pete Docter: “No. Well we started basically with the old man in the floating house, and then in answering the question about where’s he going and why and all that, we were trying to kind of create a backstory. We were trying to come up with motivation for why he would be doing this preposterous thing, floating his house, and it seemed like the most emotional gettable thing was he’s grouchy and wants to be alone because of some pain and loss. And that led to the whole story which was basically kind of redefining what adventure is and the sort of story of flipping on its head and realizing how great his life was, as opposed to a missed opportunity and all this. So it was pretty early on and became integral to the story.”

But it’s a little risky putting that in there given that the audience is younger… Are they reacting fine to that part of the story at advanced screenings?

Pete Docter: “Yes. I mean it’s interesting watching the audience because I think the adults are more kind of like touched and the kids are like, ‘Oh, okay,’ you know?”

Jonas Rivera: “Yes, totally accepting, from all the experience so far. I mean we did a few audience screenings and the kids talked more about Russell and the dogs and things like that, and the parents talked about these themes. And so, yes, so far so good. It is emotional and it is heavy, but we never really sat there and worried about it. It just is what the film is. We thought a lot about like Bambi or something, or Dumbo where it’s like you watch that as a kid. Well in that one it’s the mother/child relationship which is probably more potent for a kid than the wife/husband. And also Bambi, they did a good job of balancing it and we tried to do that. We want to have like there’s the sad scene in Bambi but then you see them on the ice, and so there’s a quick wink after that stuff, not to alleviate it, it still sticks with you but it’s not all down.”

Pete Docter: “Yes, it’s a balance.”

Jonas Rivera: “Those emotional stakes were what we needed to have you care about this guy.”

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September 21, 2009 - Posted by | 1

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