John Lasseter on ‘Cars 2,’ story, and the future of shorts at Pixar

06.21.11 7 years ago

John Lasseter’s name has been synonymous with “Pixar” since it’s inception. Although he directed the first three Pixar films “Toy Story,” “A bugs life” and “Toy Story 2,” “Cars 2” marks his return to directing a feature at Pixar since the original “Cars” released in 2006.

Lasseter sat down with us during a press day the company held in March after we had screened about half an hour of footage of the film and seen a presentation on the set design and lighting. The man loves to talk about his work and his company and his characters. I found it comical that he uses the term “I” and “we” somewhat interchangeably when talking about Pixar, given who he is this is completely understandable and expected. It was obvious that he holds the “Cars” characters very dear to his heart. The man is enthusiastic. Did I mention he likes to talk?

Read the interview after the jump

I do have to wonder after seeing the film last night and reading Drew’s review, if perhaps Mr. Lasseter is too powerful in Pixar and Disney to be a director anymore. Did he get honest criticism from the rest of the folks at Pixar, or was there a “yes man” factor that may have ultimately weakened the story. Would you say “no” or get in an argument with a man who held the ultimate power to make or break your career at Pixar and at Disney? It’s impossible to say.

The film is gorgeous and it was interesting to hear about the process and the detail intensive work that goes into the making of a Pixar film, especially when it’s coming from the man that came up with all of it in the first place. 

So what made you decide to do something that was on this larger canvas and more of a spy movie?

Lasseter: At Pixar whenever we do sequels the number one thing that is important for us is to come up with a great story, right? We just don”t make sequels. And we always try to do something that is different. With “Cars 2” I always felt like the world of Cars was as big as our world. Wherever we could go, you known, the cars can go as well because the world of cars is there”s no humans. I always had fun thinking about different kind of film genres. The films that I love. And I love espionage and spy movies. My favorite shows as a kid was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” you know? I just lived for that. And now with my five sons, the “Bourne” movies are our favorites, so I always kind of was excited about this. The spy angle of this movie actually was an idea that we”d come up with while we were developing the first “Cars”. There was a scene where Lightning McQueen took Sally on a first date and originally it was in the drive-in movie theatre. And we said, well what”s playing up on the screen? And we kind of wasted a lot of time… instead of solving the necessary story problems we were having on “Cars” we had a lot of fun developing the movie within the movie and that”s when we came up with Finn McMissle the idea for this kind of spy car. That fell by the wayside but I never forgot it. And as I was traveling around the world doing publicity for the first “Cars”, I had cars for characters on the brain and I kept looking out the windows as I was being driven from place to place and finding myself laughing thinking about what would Mater or Lightening McQueen do in these situations? So when the time came we kind of started thinking about taking the characters around the world. Spy movies have those kind of cool exotic locations and it all kind of came together.

What made you decide to come back to directing to do this film?

Lasseter: Five years ago when Disney bought Pixar right as I was finishing “Cars.” I became Chief Creative Officer of Disney animation as well as Pixar, so we had a lot of movies lined up and I was taking a lot of time in helping all the other directors, and helping build Disney back up. When we started working on “Cars 2” I started working with Brad Lewis, the co-director, and brought him to help me do the early stages of the research that”s necessary in all of our films. Research is absolutely vital. Unfortunately for me the research was going to Italy and to Japan and France and go to all these great races and stuff like that which was really kind of very difficult work and someone had to do it and it wasn”t me. Brad had quite a bit of experience with racing so he was a really logical choice for that. He helped tremendously in that early stages. When we really started developing the story and getting into production, that”s when I started working on it more and more. So it was really kind of a way to balance all the things that I want to do. At heart I”m a film director and in fact as Chief Creative Officer I kind of lead the way I think of these studios is they”re all film maker led studios because I want to make a place for other film makers to experience the same kind of film making environment that I”ve had.

Is “Cars” a particular favorite of yours?

Lasseter: Oh I love the “Cars… the “Cars” characters are like kids of mine. The first movie was very personal because I grew up in Los Angeles. My mother was an art teacher but my father was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership all my life. So I grew up in a car dealership kind of. I worked there on weekends and summers and stuff like that all through the heyday of the great Chevrolet muscle cars. So I just, you know, have motor oil running through my veins.


At what point in the process did you decide that Mater was going to be the one you focus on for the story?


Lasseter:  Going back to creating a sequel, you want to find where”s the emotion going to come from. You just don”t want to revisit the same emotion. So we started looking at the friendship between Mater and McQueen as the core of this story. And it”s like those 2 characters become the main focus. It’s from McQueen”s point of view of having a best friend but then heading off and into your professional world… in his case it”s a world of racing that gets very kind of glitzy and then you bring your best friend from home but he doesn”t change. And he doesn”t kind of grow up or have manners. It”s like the hillbilly friend from getting out in the world [and it] is sort of embarrassing. And then from Mater”s point of view… at a certain point he discovers that people are laughing at him, not with him. So it”s kind of that innocent growing up a little bit. That”s what kind of splits them apart and then what brings them together is the realization that you should be yourself, you know, no matter what. Against all odds, you know?


There was phrase that [DP of lighting] Sharon Callahan used after the screening this morning: “Nothing comes for free.” And I was wondering if you could explain what that means?

Lasseter: You guys, being entertainment journalists, you guys cover live-action films and most live-action films can go on location, you know? Andrew Stanton is doing “John Carter of Mars” and he went down to southern Utah and filmed a lot of stuff down there because the setting is so spectacular. We don”t have that luxury. “Cars 2” is a spy movie that besides Radiator Springs, they go to Tokyo. They go to Paris. They go to two places in Italy. They go to London. And we don”t have the luxury of going to those locations and filming them. So therefore what we have to do is to design it. Everything has to be modeled within the computer. Everything that”s modeled has to be shaded, then it has to be placed-we call it the set dressing. And then once you get that you light it, you shoot it, you do angle and it has to be rendered. So everything that you see in the film has gone through many, many people here at the studio. And it”s labored over.  So if there”s a pebble on the ground, someone”s thought about it, designed it, modeled it, shaded it, placed it there and lit it. You get nothing for free in Pixar films. 


The spy genre, was that chosen to help the sequel kind of stand out from the first one in contrast? 


Lasseter: The choice of a spy genre I”m sorry to say was just because we knew it would be really fun. I mean honestly we set out to make movies we really love to watch. And you know, I thought it”d be really fun to take the characters around the world and really fun to have the spy cars and stuff. And we set out…because I believe if you”re having fun while you”re making the movie, it”s going to appear fun.

You guys have always made such great original one-off shorts, are there more in the pipeline?

Lasseter: Oh yeah. We”ve got a beautiful one that”s being finished up right now that will come out with Brave. I love short films. We”ve always made short films at the studio and it”s…you know whether it”s an original or whether it”s based on a set of characters, it”s fun to come up with these ideas that aren”t meant to be a feature film. And we use shorts at the studio extensively to develop talent. I always love to give opportunities for young story people, animators, layout people something like that to take the next step up in their career and try things out. We develop new technologies for these and we get to use them. I”ve vowed always to have a Pixar short be released with every Pixar feature.

“Cars 2” Opens everywhere Friday June 24th, 2011.

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