Interview: ‘Monsters University’ Director Dan Scanlon on the Making of a Monstrous Pixar Prequel

Pixar's 2001 animated hit "Monsters, Inc." introduced us to the monstrous world of best buddies James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski, top scaring team at the Monsters Incorporated power plant. (There are indeed monsters in your closet, and your screams are powering their world.)

But Mike and Sully weren't always the best of friends. This summer's Pixar prequel "Monsters University," opening June 21st, delves into the collegiate origins of their epic friendship, going back to where it all began: the hallowed halls of Monsters U.

Yahoo! Movies recently visited Pixar to participate in an in-depth "orientation" to Monsters University, and sat down with director Dan Scanlon to talk college comedies, making monsters and finding the emotional journey of a one-eyed green guy.

Philip Yu: You didn't work on "Monsters, Inc.," right?

Dan Scanlon: I started at Pixar the month "Monsters Inc." came out.

PY: As someone who wasn't involved with that production, just as a fan, what did you love most about "Monsters, Inc."?

DS: I love the world. I love that it's just such an original world, but I love that it's also very human. I think it's hilarious that they chose to basically make it monsters in a somewhat human world. You had a normal-looking factory, and a day-to-day boring job thing... with monsters. But mostly, I love the emotion of it. I love the heartfelt lengths that it goes and the feelings that it evokes. It's just the perfect combination of what I want out of any movie -- humor and emotion.

PY: One could argue that Pixar movies, on a storytelling level, are perfectly contained and don't demand sequels. What goes into the decision to reach back, revisit characters and determine that there's more story to tell?

DS: It's really that -- realizing that, hey, we have more story to tell. We don't always know. I think we make the movies, initially, with the one movie in mind. But we do love the characters, and so we kind of miss the characters when the movie is over. But I think what happens is, every now and then you realize there's more to tell, or an idea comes up. It's nice now to be making enough movies that we can fit in a sequel every now and then.

PY: "Monsters University" opens with a great sequence involving kid Mike Wazowski, setting up the movie as his story. What was it about Mike that made him the most compelling entry point for a "Monsters" prequel?

DS: You know, we tried versions that were both [Mike and Sully's] stories, which this kind of is, but we found that you can't just split it down the middle -- it ends up being neither person's story. Somebody has to take the reins. And we tried versions where it was Sully's story. But Mike's initial, basic story just kept rising to the top. It was where the emotion was.

Mike's a really funny character, and he's really funny in "Monsters, Inc.," but we don't see him getting a lot of opportunities to be sincere. So we knew in order to really get you emotionally behind this dream, we had to get behind Mike and really believe in him. The idea of going back in time to see the exact moment when Mike fell in love with scaring was really important. We had to be there ourselves. We had to see what made him realize, "I want the world to recognize me, and scaring is the vehicle to do it." That moment was important to us.

PY: The first movie had such a wonderfully clever and complete vision of the monster world and how everything worked. What were some things you wanted to expand and explore further about this world?

DS: Honestly, just getting outside the factory. That was the main thing. I always wanted to know what else was going on out there. The fact that we get to go on to the campus, be outside the factory and see more of the outside world was really exciting to me and everyone who worked on this.

PY: This movie was also an opportunity to do Pixar's take on the college campus comedy. Were there jokes or themes from the genre that you really wanted to cover in "Monsters University"?

DS: We're all big movie fans here, so we have a pretty good understanding of genres, but when we're doing a film, we always look at a lot of films just to refresh our memories of what kind of tropes are in these movies. What's fun about it is because we're doing an animated film, and because we're doing a "monster" version, we get to take them outside of just the cliche and do something fun with them. So there were certainly college-esque things we knew we wanted to hit.

[Executive Producer] John Lasseter was really good about always reminding us as we were telling the story, "This is a college film. People want to see, you know, the football game and this kind of thing." John was really good at being the audience and just saying, "I paid my money. And because you called this 'University,' there are certain fun things I want to see with a 'monster' take on them." So we definitely kept our eye on that as we were telling the story.

PY: One thing Pixar is known for is its epic, thorough process of hammering down pitch-perfect stories and characters before anything is committed to animation. There must be so many great ideas that get left out.

DS: There's always stuff. There are always jokes and things that we have to kill. But I always feel like as long as the reason for killing it makes sense, I'm fine with it. And it inevitably does -- we wouldn't do it if it didn't. If somebody comes in with a better way to tell the story, and if it means killing those jokes, they're gone. Because I always feel like, you know what, we'll come up with different jokes. If the story's working well, we'll find things that are funny to put around that.

PY: Were there any jokes or characters that you really loved but didn't make the cut while developing "Monsters University"?

DS: But there was one gag that we had for a Monster University class, which was just a class for monsters to learn how to destroy buildings. I was like, come on, that's so good! But we never had a place to put it.

PY: I guess that would be hard to explain.

DS: It really makes no sense.

PY: But we do get way more monsters in this one.

DS: A lot more varieties of monsters. We have flying monsters, bigger monsters, and all sorts of things we didn't get to see in the first film. That alone felt like a big opportunity -- and we can do it better now. It's a very big movie. We're on a campus, so it's filled with monsters. I'm not sure it's something we could have done before, but I'm so glad we're getting to do it now.

Watch the theatrical trailer for 'Monsters University':