EXCLUSIVE: Lee Unkrich Talks Cars 2, Monsters, Inc. 2, and Brave!
The director of Toy Story 3 takes us through Pixar's upcoming production slate while reflecting on his summer success story
This past weekend, the mega-blockbuster summer sequel Toy Story 3 became the first animated film to pass the billion dollar mark at the box office. This milestone came right before Pixar announced they were putting their latest original project Newt on indefinite hold to make way for two more sequels, Cars 2 and Monsters, Inc. 2, as well as the original animated movie Brave. To help celebrate Toy Story 3's success, and to find out more about what Pixar has planned for the near future, we caught up with Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich for a quick update.
Here is our conversation:
Congradulations on this milestone for Disney/Pixar and the Toy Story franchise. Does crossing the billion-dollar mark at the box office change how you feel about the movie? Or do you feel art is not affected by commerce?
Lee Unkrich: For me, the box office is just a reflection of how much people like the movie. The only way you can get these kinds of numbers these days is if people want to see a movie multiple times. The only way people are going to want to see a movie multiple times is if they have a really good time at it. I look at this really big number, and I think, "Wow! We managed to make a movie that people really enjoy. And they want to see it again and again." That is ultimately the reward for me.
When you look at that big of a number, you must realize how many people this movie has truly touched on an emotional level, and how beloved these characters are.
Lee Unkrich: Absolutely. And this is true the world over. I spent most of the summer traveling around Europe and Asia, promoting the movie. From country to country, there was such an outpouring of enthusiasm. And love for the film. It was very, very cool to see this little movie we made in Emeryville, California be embraced by so many different cultures around the world.
When the film came out earlier this summer, you all said that this was the final one. Don't talk about a sequel. This is it. We're done. Now that you've crossed the billion-dollar mark, are we going to see a Toy Story 4
Lee Unkrich: We will definitely see these characters return. But we are in no way thinking about doing another movie. We are planning on a series of short films that will use the Toy Story characters. The first of these shorts you will see at the beginning of Cars 2 next year. We know the world loves Woody and Buzz, and all of the new characters as well. We don't want them to just vanish. No. We love working with them as well. In terms of another full-length movie? We tried to end the story of the toys and Andy in a really nice way.
Are you envisioning a lot of these Toy Story shorts? Where we might see one every other year? And are they each going to focus on individual characters?
Lee Unkrich: We don't have specific plans to center any of these shorts around a specific character, per say. The great thing about the short form is that you can tell these little stories that are very funny, and completely entertaining. But they don't have to sit within the confines of a feature. While we were coming up with the story for Toy Story 3, we had a lot of funny scenes. We had gags and moments that made us laugh, and they were completely entertaining. But they didn't fit in the movie. We file a lot of these ideas away. A lot of them rear their heads, and they become fodder for these short film ideas. We have been having a lot of fun on this first Toy Story short. It is going to be very funny.
Toy Story 3 is still in theaters. Its had such a great run throughout the summer, and even at this late date, if you go in and watch the movie, you can still feel the emotional weight in the air when the end of the film comes. Do you still find yourself compelled to go in and experience the film with an audience that may have seen it two or three times? And are you still able to get swept up in the emotional arc of the story?
Lee Unkrich: Yes. I have seen the film in a lot of places. The weekend that it opened in the US, I just went to see it at a theater near my house with the general public. Its fun to see it with people who don't know I am in the audience, nor do they care. They are just having a good time at the movie. I continued to do that as we traveled around Europe. I was at a lot of premieres, where people knew I was there. But I would duck out occasionally. I actually went to see a double feature of Toy Story 3 and Inception when I was in London. Its crazy. The theater was packed. Which was awesome. We still didn't know that Toy Story 3 was going to become the huge hit it was in London. I don't know where the numbers are now, but we are approaching becoming the second biggest hit of all time, which is just incredible. I was there right at the beginning. I was alone. There were guys to the left and right of me, and I remember thinking, these guys have no idea I am the director of this film. I just hope they have a good time. It would kill me to have people sitting there, gripping about the movie. That has never happened, luckily. Everyone has a blast. And it's a lot of fun to hear the chatter after the movie. I like to hear about the parts that they liked. It's very cool to be a fly on the wall and experience everyone's reaction.
Are you so sick of seeing the movie at this point that you're no longer able to have that emotional reaction to it? Or do you start to hear these grown men cry, and you can't help but get swept up in it all?
Lee Unkrich: There has been a lot of talk about people crying in the movie. I know that it happens. I have had a lot of people talk to me about it. But I have never witnessed it myself. Whenever I see the movie, I end up becoming so riveted by the film, that I forget to look around. Or I am uncomfortable looking around. I think that would be kind of weird. If you were in a movie, and their was one person not watching the screen, but looking around at all the other people. I think that would be kind of creepy. I've never done that. I watch along with everyone else, and I feel the general vibe coming from the theater. But I have never had the experience of seeing people wipe their eyes behind their 3D glasses. But I have friends who have seen that happened. I have never experienced it myself. I have just heard about it second hand.
Crying with 3D glasses is like having rain on the inside of a car at the Drive-In. It's hard to see, the lens get all smeared and fogged up. Is Pixar working on something to rectify this? Up had these scenes in its first five minutes that are devastating. And it ruins the glasses for the rest of the movie.
Lee Unkrich: (Laughs) Yes, some people have said that their glasses get fogged up. But I have had more people thank me for letting the 3D glasses hide their tears from their girlfriends and their wives. I think people are actually happy that they get to be emotional while they hide behind these glasses.
How is 3D changing what Pixar is doing in the future?
Lee Unkrich: To be perfectly honest, it is not changing anything. We do release our films in 3D. We know they are going to be in 3D. We try to make them look really great. But the film comes first and foremost. Not the 3D. If you look at any of the work we've done so far, and what we are doing in moving ahead, we never try to call attention to the 3D. We just try to make good movies. We want them to be fun to watch whether you see them in 3D or not. We think the 3D is a really fun way to watch the movie. But we know a lot of people, especially when it comes out on video, aren't going to be watching it in 3D. So it has to hold up just as well. It can seem like some Mickey Mouse movie that is lacking some how, just because you're not watching it in 3D.
What is going on over at Pixar right now? I know you have quite a few projects going on. Newt has been put on hold, and Monsters, Inc. 2 seem to be moving ahead instead...
Lee Unkrich: We have a whole bunch of films in the pipeline. In terms of what has been announced, of course you know we have Cars 2 coming out next summer. The film after that is called Brave. Which is being directed by our first female director, Brenda Chapman. The next film after that is going to be Monsters, Inc. 2. Beyond that, we have other films in the pipeline that we haven't announced. There are some really fantastic, original ideas. That is about all I can say.
What is Brave, and how do you feel having your first female director attached will change what we've seen from Pixar in the past?
Lee Unkrich: I don't know exactly what has been announced about it. I think we've revealed that the film takes place in Scotland. It's a princess movie, but it's a very different kind of princess movie from what you'd see coming out from Disney feature animation. It is a very gritty adventure. As I've said, Brenda Chapman is at the helm of it. Pixar has always been very male-heavy. In terms of the lead creatives on these movies. We've been wanting to change that for a long time. We've been wanting to get more female voices higher up. We've been working with Brenda Chapman for quite a while. She is super talented. She was one of the directors of The Prince of Egypt, and she worked on the story for The Lion King. She has been with us for a number of years now. She worked on Cars with John Lasseter. She has been working on Brave for many years now. It's looking really great. It has a couple of really great female leads. It brings a different energy to our movies. It's the same great storytelling and characters. But it's a new flavor, and it gets everything in there in a different way than we've seen before.
What about the story for Monsters, Inc. 2? The first story was really important to a lot of people, in terms of single parenting and adoption, especially with single males. Are you going to continue to play with those themes?
Lee Unkrich: I don't know. We haven't announced anything about the storyline for Monsters, Inc. 2, so I can't really speak to anything. I know this sounds corny, but people love Monsters, and if they do, they are going to certainly enjoy this film. I just can't talk to you about the story yet.
One final question...In Toy Story 2 you got to voice the Red Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot, and here in Toy Story 3, you are playing the Jack in the Box. How much fun is that for you to come in and work as an actor on your own films?
Lee Unkrich: Yeah, its fun. I think my kids enjoy it more than I do. They are always most proud of me at that moment. When the Jack in the Box pops open. What it comes down to is that when we are making the movies, before we cast the real actors to come in, we do all the voices for all the characters ourselves, as we are writing the movie and figuring it all out. Slowly we replace them with Tom Hanks, and Tim Allen, and everyone else. But there are some characters like Jack...We wouldn't want to hire Ashton Kutcher to come in and do that one line in the movie. A lot of times, we end up getting ourselves for those one-off lines. Or sometimes we really fall in love with someone's voice. Like Teddy Newton, who directed the short Day & Night. I had him doing a temporary voice for that chatter telephone that Woody talks to. That little Fisher Price telephone. We ended up falling in love with Teddy's voice, so he ended up doing the movie. It's kind of nice for us. Not only do we have these A list movie stars in the film, but we have our own friends and colleagues be a part of the film as well.