Just in time for the June 27 opening of WALL-E, Richard von Busack caught up with director Andrew Stanton and talked to him about his newest cinematic baby.
PIXAR’S Emeryville campus is inviting from the first look. In the parking lot, workers were emerging from their Priuses, carrying acoustic musical instruments in cases. The path to the front door follows a trail of heirloom roses and a xeriscaped lawn that widens into a small amphitheater. Nearby is a 15-foot-tall replica of Luxo Jr., as well as the spangled rubber ball he played with in the famous 1986 short.
The lobby of Pixar’s headquarters was apparently designed by cartoonist Bruce McCall. The scale looks amusing instead of intimidating; if you’re sitting in the middle of the vast room, the size reduces a 5-foot tall standup of Sully from Monsters, Inc. to toy dimensions.
Above the vast wooden-planked lobby is a high curved footbridge, overlooking a small cafe and souvenir shop. Banners hang from the second floor, resembling the pennants that used to hang in Disneyland. These were promoting the characters and paraphernalia in WALL-E, in 1950s retro-future-style.
When I met WALL-E’s ebullient director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), in a second-floor conference room, I noted the cheery optimism in the posters, contrasted to the soulful loneliness and forlornness of the dingy, battered robot hero. There was a joke people used to make about Tomorrowland and the future it trumpeted: “A broken promise of things to come.”
Whether WALL-E will be just a critic’s favorite or a world favorite isn’t known yet. But this affecting and sharply funny Pixar cartoon is perhaps an all-time high for the studio.
METRO: I’ve read that Pixar’s stated aim is to push animation out of the comfort zone. WALL-E does seems like Pixar’s most mature film.
STANTON: Well, this wasn’t the agenda here, though we were cinematically as mature as we could be. We go to movies as much as anyone if not more. And we’re just as dissatisfied or excited by the same things as any audience. I don’t want to see the same thing twice. We were just trying to make the kind of film we wanted to see.
METRO: Reading David Price’s book on the history of Pixar, it seems that there’s a history of studio opposition to films that seem like natural hits. What kind of reasons did you hear about why WALL-E couldn’t be made?
STANTON: The only real question for us was whether we could make the film in time. We were very confident we could make a movie like this, that you could have a character like Luxo Jr. or R2D2 for an entire movie. We knew it was cool idea back in ’94—that it was so cool, we were saying, “I dunno if we’ll be the first to do it, or the first to do it successfully.” It was obvious to us from the conception that we could do it and do it entertainingly. How to do it wasn’t obvious, though. Nothing’s ever felt surefire … except, maybe the plot of Toy Story 2, but then we had to redo that.
A long time ago, I realized that we’ll never have a great idea at the beginning. What we’re going to have is something that has the potential for a great idea. The job will be turning it from potentially great to actually great. If something excites you as a filmmaker, it doesn’t matter where the excitement comes from: could be the subject matter, the setting, whatever. If it excites you as a filmmaker, then you go, “Yes, I would like to beat my head against a wall for four years, and have it not work two thirds of the time and still get out of bed and work at it.”
That kind of feeling usually means there’s something there. That’s usually the requirement for us. It’s not so much “What if the rest of the world won’t like it?” It’s more like, “Do I want to spend an intimate four years alone in a building with it not working?” So in that sense, our standards are high about whether there’s gold in the hills.
METRO: What was the script-writing process like?
STANTON: In an odd way, exactly the same as writing all of them. Except … I’d read Dan O’Bannon’s script for Alien. I was fascinated by how well it paced my rhythm of reading. Basically, O’Bannon didn’t do it like it’s usually done. He didn’t write those big blocks of description that look like a typical paragraphs, and then you have dialogue in the center of the page.
He actually broke the writing into four-to-eight-word phrases that were all left-justified, four or five lines … then another four or five lines. They were like haikus, or visual sound bites, and they set this visual tone and pace that feels exactly like watching the movie Alien.
I was so captivated by that style that I adopted it for writing the WALL-E script. I knew so much of it was going to be visually engaging, and I wanted to be that visually engaged on the page. Most people read scripts and they skip to the dialogue. I didn’t want you to do that. I also wrote the dialogue as WALL-E’s sound effects. Every time there’s a beep, I would bracket it, knowing I would replace it with a actual sound effect.
METRO: What about the use of music from Hello, Dolly! for the film? It’s not quite a canonical musical, as readily identifiable as a lot of the classics.
STANTON: I know I wanted the first frame of the film to be different and not what anyone would expect. I loved the idea of the old-fashioned song contrasted against the future and the vastness of space. And I couldn’t find anything that fit just right.
I’d done some musical theater in high school: Godspell and Hello, Dolly!, and I was sort of bopping through the tracks on Hello, Dolly!, looking for something that fit, some visceral response. I was looking for the sense of naïve joy against the dystopian background. I loved the tune “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” which seemed like the perfect counterpoint. It’s about these two guys sick of the small town and want to go out and kiss a girl.
With this song, you’re meeting WALL-E’s character before you’re meeting WALL-E … you’re meeting his dreams. I looked at other songs, and heard “It Only Takes a Moment.” I saw the footage in Hello, Dolly! of the two lovers holding hands. I thought this was a way of conveying “I love you” without saying it. Finding the music was fate, but I’ll be explaining or defending the choice for every interview for the rest of my life.
METRO: WALL-E doesn’t drown you with references.
STANTON: We don’t like to do that, because it throws the audience out of the picture … if it’s organically in place, we’ll do it.
METRO: But I did note a few. Seeing the angle of WALL-E’s binocular eyes and the myopic quality of the gaze, I wondered if you modeled him on Woody Allen, particularly when Allen is posing as a robot in Sleeper.
STANTON: Funny, I definitely picked that scale—I mean, why the robot Eva is that tall and why WALL-E is that short, is because of the size difference between Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.
METRO: And the films you’ve mentioned previously are Alien and 2001, but not the eco-science fiction film Silent Running.
STANTON: I saw it as a small child, and I was enamored with the robots Huey, Dewey and Louie. They were all the forefathers of R2D2.
METRO: Joel Hodgson says they were also the inspiration for the robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. When Earth’s president, played by Fred Willard, is about to evacuate the planet, he advises his fellow earthlings to keep calm AND “stay the course.” Was that seeming Bush reference Willard’s idea?
STANTON: Ah, that line is what we toned everything down into. It wasn’t Willard, it was me and Jim Reardon. Jim has been a director for The Simpsons for more than 10 years, and he’s so used to being neck deep in satirical topical stuff. When you’re trying to forecast the future of mankind and society, it’s hard not to be satirical.
METRO: There is a sense of anxiety and future shock in this.
STANTON: That’s what good sci-fi does. It tries to make a not too overt commentary on one faulty direction mankind could go into. I don’t have so much of a political slant in life, let alone on film. I honestly went with everything here as a reinforcement of theme of the movie, the love story.
They were two programmed characters who shouldn’t logically have feelings. How are they going to sort of break through that programming? That made me realize it’s not too far to take this film as a metaphor of life: I was thinking, “irrational love defeats life’s programming.”
We’re completely distracted and seduced by technology and consumerism. We make ourselves cocooned from really having a direct relationship with somebody else. And that relationship is really the point of living. That’s why I picked society to go in that direction, because it amplified the theme that was going on with the lovers.
METRO: One last question. The short One Man Band, which played theatrically before Cars, came out on something like the 20th anniversary of the short Tin Toy. Tin Toy (1988) is about an entertainer running from a gargantuan baby. Twenty years later, or so, One Man Band is about a pair of desperate entertainers who are fighting for the attention of a skeptical child. My question: Does it seem like One Man Band around here? Pixar makes the first full-length animated cartoon—and then, jeez, 10 short years later, there’s 20 digitally animated films coming out a year.
STANTON: To be honest, it was an accident during Toy Story that we were kind of secluded up here in the Bay Area without anybody truly over our shoulders to tell us what to do. We could easily trick ourselves that we were just making a film for ourselves. This somehow had a direct correlation for why the film was as good as it was.
Everything since Toy Story has just been an exercise in blocking out the outside world … and just trying to find the filmmaker—or rather filmgoer—geek in ourselves and make something we’d like to see.
That’s honestly been the secret ingredient for us, not to be distracted by going on the outside. I can’t control how many films are going to be made, or what the atmosphere is going to be like at the time a movie comes out. Why even worry about it? You can’t control it. What you can control is if you make the best movie possible, hopefully it’ll still cut through and people will want to see it.