There's a common theme amongst Pixar employees: Whenever they're talking about a Pixar film, they seem to be in a really good mood.
Director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae certainly aren't exceptions to this theme. Or at least they weren't when we spoke with them recently about their new film, “Monsters University,” a prequel to the hugely popular "Monsters, Inc." (2001), which scares up memories of the best classic college comedies, only with a whole lot more monsters and whole lot less depravity.
In the Q&A below, Scanlon and Rae educate us on the four-year process of getting the film made, why you'll see some monstery mullets and popped collars, and what are their favorite classic college comedy tropes. And, of course, in typical Pixar style, they do so with a smile.
So, talk me through the whole thing; how did you get on board and where are we now?
Kori Rae: It all started probably a little over four years ago and the brain trust and Dan and a bunch of people got together to see if there was an idea there, just to talk about the monster world and to see if there was an idea there to make another film. That’s kind of where the idea of going backwards came from.
Dan Scanlon: Yeah, we wanted to make a movie just to turn that focus more on Mike and Sulley's relationship. That’s where we thought that going back and seeing how they met would be the best way to do that, which led to, "My god, we could have it in college!" And that would be so much fun with different gags and stuff.
I imagine you guys had to watch about a thousand college comedies. This has every college comedy set piece, but just spun completely around – I mean without any of the gratuitous nudity and drinking, and stuff. What were some of the films that you guys watched to get the structure and the set pieces that you guys played around with?
DS: Yes, it’s funny, in every Pixar movie we watch a lot of films in the genre of the film that we’re going to make and also films with similar themes. This was certainly no exception. We watched just a ton of college movies. For some reason, we noticed all of them seemed to take place in the 80s, I don’t know why that was such a big time but for college movies. As a result, even though we like "Monsters Inc." and "University" to be in no specific time period, we gave a little touch of 80s to the movie, just a few kind of monstery mullets and popped collars, just to kind of give it that feel.
Out of all the new characters, who is your favorite?
KR: Well, I really love Dean Hardscrabble [voiced by Helen Mirren, shown below]. I think she’s an amazing character just in terms of the story. She’s super tough but she’s also honest. She’s not like a straight villain. She’s complicated and she’s one of the greatest Scarers ever in the monster world, so she’s got that kind of legacy. I just love her and I love her character design. It’s totally creepy. We based her in part off of a centipede obviously, and with bat wings and the rest of her, she’s just super cool.
DS: I kind of like Art [voiced by Charlie Day, shown above]. Art is the sort of purple worm guy, mainly because he’s just this bizarre guy that you know nothing about. I feel like I knew a lot of those guys in college – sort of strange drifter types with unclear backgrounds. And Art was just fun to write for because he can kind of say anything after awhile and you’d buy it.
KR: Yeah, the weirder the better.
DS: And his design is unlike anything we’ve seen before. He was just a lot of fun for the animators to design and I felt like when he came out on the screen we never knew quite what he was going to say or how he was going to move when he said it.
At what point did you know Charlie Day was going to play Art?
DS: We’ve got great casting directors at Pixar and we knew we were looking for this very specific kind of like truck driver/philosopher type. And that’s a weird unusual voice to find and Charlie was really the only option. He just has this unique sweetness to his voice, but also this gruff quality to it that’s unlike anything we ever heard before. Plus, he’s just very funny.
How many of the lines are set in stone and then how much play do the voice actors have in the studio?
DS: We write a pretty tight script because we really want the story to really make sense and work, but that said, within those boundaries, I like actors to ad-lib. I think it’s hard to find spontaneity in animation and anything we can do to add a little, is great. And we have a great cast for it. Billy Crystal and John Goodman would ad-lib together when they would record together. And Sean Hayes and Dave Foley who played Terri and Terri ad-libbed a lot together. Their whole first introduction in the movie was completely ad-libbed.
This is pretty much your big directing coming out party. You’ve directed some other stuff but this is a biggie. What was the most challenging aspect that you were surprised by and what was the most exciting aspect that you were surprised by?
DS: Not that this was a big surprise but certainly the most challenging aspect was, and is on a lot of these movies, the story. And I worked in story on all the other movies before this, so I knew it was going to be difficult. But being in the director’s seat, it’s just another level of difficulty to the story. You’re really realizing that your job is not so much to try to solve every problem so much as it is to inspire other people to solve it in a brilliant way. You’re trying to sort of tell people more why to do something than how to do something.
That was also probably my biggest kind of happy surprise was realizing that you don’t have to know how to do everything. I don’t really even fully understand still how computer animation works, but I don’t really need to. I need to know how the emotions of the story need to work, and there’s a team of brilliant computer animators who will make choices based on that – things I would never have thought of. And that was really the biggest discovery was how a team like this can kind of come together and make something really great if you give them the right leeway, I guess.
Okay, I’m going to do a quick rundown with both of you. Since you guys watched so many college comedies, I want you guys to chime in with your favorite in each of these categories, and why. Ready. Okay. What is your favorite pair of college roommates in the past?
DS: Well, I don't remember if they were roommates, but in "Back to School," Rodney Dangerfield and his weird son, I don’t remember his name. Because it was just so bizarre. Rodney Dangerfield was so much older than that kid. Now, that was weird and it was weird that of the two of them, Rodney Dangerfield was so much cooler than the guy that played his son, who seemed like an older man in some ways.
Robert Downey, Jr. was in that too, wasn’t he?
DS: He was! He was the other roommate of the son.
Who is the most difficult college dean?
KR: The one from "Animal House."
DS: Dean Wormer?
Okay. Who was the biggest frat-guy jerk?
KR: That’s got to be James Spader in anything.
DS: I don’t even know if he’s every played a frat-guy, but he is the biggest jerk in every 80s sort of college age movie. He’s the villain in every Molly Ringwald movie and I think that justifies him as the biggest jerk.
So he’s the biggest jerk in high school and then he went on to be a jerk in college?
DS: But he looked like he was out of college in those movies!
Okay. Who was the best college professor?
DS: Was it Kirk Douglas in "Animal House"?
KR: Donald Sutherland.
DS: Right, I knew it was one of the father/ son teams. Right, he’s the only other teacher other than those in "Monsters University" who can walk around with just a suit jacket on and no pants.
Okay, last one: What is the best getting-our-act-together college montage?
DS: I don’t even remember if this is in the movie but it seems like it would have been in "Revenge of the Nerds." There’s got to be a moment of getting their act together. Can you tell we watched these movies five years ago?
KR: We watched them and promptly forgot them.
DS: Yeah, it’s so funny. Often times we say, yeah, I think this scene is in this movie that we’ve never seen, but inevitably we’re probably right, because it’s in every movie.
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