Retrospective Interview: Pixar Animator Pete Docter (TOY STORY, UP)

GATW Guest Writer

by: GATW Guest Writer
April 26th, 2010

Pete Docter UP

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by our friend, Adam Conway.

When someone says you will be interviewing an Academy Award winning director it can be a little intimidating, to say the least.  The director in question was Pete Docter who wrote and directed such great films as MONSTERS, INC. and last year's UP, for which he won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  Well all my apprehension was eased the moment I met him because he is truly one of the nicest guys I have ever met.

So naturally we talked about his love of animation and how he always knew from a young age that animation is what he wanted to do.  The passion he has for animation is so refreshing and really helped me to gain some insight into his world, and the special process with which they do things at Pixar. Even though I tried to coax him into revealing details about his upcoming projects (which he was tight lipped about), we now know that Pixar has set a release date for MONSTERS, INC. 2 (November 16 2012), but has yet to say if Pete Docter will come back to direct. I do know this, if he is not at the helm I am sure he will have his hand in it in some shape or form.  So please take a moment to watch my interview with Pete Doctor, the Tex Avery Award winner at this year's Dallas International Film Festival.

UP and MONSTER'S, INC. are hands down two of my favorite animation movies.  What are some of your favorite animated and live-action films?

That kind of depends on the day you catch me on because there's a ton of them that sort of cycle around. My daughter is big into Broadway musicals so we were watching a bunch of those. SINGING IN THE RAIN is really pretty classic.  Oh, we watched NORTH BY NORTHWEST the other day which is awesome. DUMBO is a favorite, my son was sort of fixated on that when he was two and he watched it every day for like a year and I never got sick of it.Once in a while films like THE STATION AGENT come along that sort of grab me...I love that movie.

Do you ever watch movies before you're doing a movie of your own for inspiration or for something you maybe want to instill in your movies?

Yeah for sure - almost every film that we work on you end up with usually around four or five films that become kind of inspiration films for that film, they sort of water and fertilize your film.  On UP it was THE STATION AGENT [and] we watched a film called GOING IN STYLE with George Burns...that really inspired a lot of the cinematography of the film.

Did you always want to be animator and how did you gravitate towards animation?

Yeah I did. I remember I got to school and the teachers were like "We're all great film lovers here" and I was like, "Really we are?  I just like cartoons you know." [smiles] So film kind of came to me later...I grew up on animation and there was something specifically about the fact that you knew it was fake, they were just drawings and yet they're moving and they're alive and they look like they're thinking - that's what got me into it.  In the same way that's what I love about the Muppets, [they] were a big inspiration.  You know they were made out of Jim Henson's mom's old coat with ping pong balls but it looks like Kermit the Frog and you believe in him as a character you know.

Now your movies are aimed at children but there is a lot of adult humor and themes.  What kind of fine line are you walking in the writing process?

The simple answer is we try to make them for ourselves... I figure if I can make John Lasseter cry or laugh then that's the goal, right?  So far the people we've attracted are the filmmakers [working on Docter's films] whose tastes kind of jive with the public.  But a part in your head you're always going "My kids are going to see this.  Teenagers are going to see this."  You can't think too much about that, otherwise it pollutes what it is you're trying to do.  But we try to instill these various levels to the films, you have something that adults can connect with and feel for, but then there's other fun stuff that kids will go for - slapstick humor, bright colors or whatever. It's kind of a multilayer thing.

Yeah, the opening to UP is one of my favorite montage scenes ever.  It [gets] a little more serious and then goes into the fun stuff.  You're doing all of these different themes and it works out beautifully.  I really enjoyed that.

Aww, thanks.  I'm very proud of that section.  It's funny because there's no rules in that stuff. Every film is different, but we realized we were heading towards something that was so fantastic - this floating house and what was going to follow. It was even more bizarre with talking dogs and [a] giant bird and all of this, so we wanted to have something that grounded the film, that made you care about this guy and be with him in his journey, so that's where we came up with that sequence of their life together.

For you guys at Pixar, story is your number one priority so you're always helping each other out and it's a really great dynamic y'all have and making sure every aspect of your movie works. You don't see that in a lot of [animated] movies these days but Pixar seems to get it right.

Yeah and I think almost any filmmaker you talk to will agree that story is king - that's gotta be the most important thing.  The thing I think we have at Pixar [is] this very unique system which allows us to draw on these other filmmakers who have maybe only seen the film I'm working on once.  I've seen it every day for the last three years, right, so I'll bring Brad Bird [RATATOUILLE] in or Andrew Stanton [WALL-E] and John Lasseter [TOY STORY]  - everybody sits down and watches the movie and then we have a talk about it. [We talk about] what didn't work and why, and they all have very clever and fun ideas on how to fix the story, how to get you to connect more with the characters and it's a really ego-less time.  Even though I've invested all of myself in this movie, you have to leave that at the door and say, "OK anything's fair game, how do we make this better?"

Now that UP won the Academy Award, do you feel any pressure to up the ante for your next movie?

[Laughs] I sort of feel relieved "OK good, now I don't have to worry about that, I can just make movies," which is the attitude we have as we're making them. Certainly through making all of UP, I never thought about awards or even frankly, box office, I just wanted to make this a good movie and connect with people. And, that's something you start to worry about after it's done. What we're trying to do is make each film different than the last one, if they're too close then you start to compare.  I mean that's sort of inevitable anyway and really kind of flattering. We're one of the few studios I think [where] people will rank their favorites, it's kind of flattering that way.

Last question - would you ever consider doing a live-action movie?  I know Brad Bird is considering making 1906 through Pixar.  Are you looking at doing a live-action in the future?

Well right now I'm not. I'd considerate it if the right story came along or something occured to me, but for right now there's something about animation that is a particular draw for me and I love the people that I get to work with so I'm going to stick to Pixar for now.

Commenting Rules: Comments are intended to open up the discussion to our readers about the topics at hand, and as such should be offered with a positive and constructive attitude. If your comment is not relative to the above post or is disrespectful to the authors and readers, we reserve the right to delete it. Continued abuse of our good nature will result in banishment of the offender. Additionally, if you have any burning issues to point out to the GATW crew - typos, corrections, suggestions, or straight-up criticism - please email us instead of commenting here.

  • Recent Post