Pixar recently extended an invitation to Bay Area film critics to come onto the Pixar lot. Why? To have a look-see and interview Andrew Stanton, director of Wall•E and Pixar's Vice President, Creative. Back in the day, Stanton wrote for Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, but it was joining Pixar as an animator that set Stanton on a nonstop path to animation posterity. Stanton directed and co-wrote Finding Nemo, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film of 2003. He was also one of four screenwriters to receive an Oscar nomination in 1996 for Toy Story, and received screenplay credit on A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. Now, in his capacity as Vice President, Creative, he oversees the development of Pixar's features and shorts. In a quick chat squeezed into his global press duties, the hardest working man in animation illuminated the Pixar ethic and the ideas behind Wall•E.
Groucho: So obviously there’s a bit of a leap of faith here with a robot that sifts out knick-knacks and develops emotions.
Andrew Stanton: Mm-hm.
G: Kids are gonna want to go there regardless. But did you have a neurosis in the story development about dealing with that?
AS: No. No, it’s funny. It’s one of those things where maybe it’s just because all animators sort of [are] cut from the same cloth. We all—we’re just attracted to the idea of life being given to an inanimate object. I think it’s something you naturally want to do as a kid. We all sort of compared notes. We all thought our bikes were cold in the rain. We all thought our fish were lonely in their fish bowls. It’s just the way we look at the world. So it just seemed like a logical thing when we saw something like the "Luxo Jr." short that John Lasseter did and just the power that it had when something’s designed just right—that you want to throw a character on it. You’re almost compelled to. We thought, "God, I could watch a feature length of something that powerful if it was designed just right—with the right kind of machine." And so I think that we knew that that’s really where the crux of the problem was—is designing characters that you wanted to see come to life, you know? So no, actually it wasn’t.
G: I presume that you test the movie--on Pixar kids at minimum.
AS: Nope. The big myth—I’ve been asked this for fifteen years. And we’ll give it the same answer fifteen years from now. We never think of who our audience is. We always just made the movies we want to see. And I’m just immature enough. And everybody else here is just immature enough that we figure that anything silly and juvenile, you know, is probably gonna cover for the kids. But the only time I give a consideration is that I make sure nothing we’re doing is going to exclude a demographic—because we hope everybody can go to it. But frankly, if I started to try and guess what other people want, I would make a bad movie. One of the things that was a revelation to us in Toy Story is that we hit a real wall with Toy Story because we were constantly trying to second-guess or give what the executives wanted at Disney. And when we found a rock in a hard place and we almost were threatened to lose the whole job, we spent a couple weeks alone and just said, "Screw it. We have nothing to lose. Just go with what we want to see." And that became what you know as Toy Story now. So we’ve learned ever since then: "I’m just gonna go with my gut. I’m gonna go with my gut. I’m going to trust it." That’s why I go see other filmmaker’s movies. I don’t go to see them to try and guess what my demographic is and what I want. I’m not a pollster. I’m not someone—I’m not a number. I’m a person. And I want to go see what an artist has to say. So that’s what we’re trying to do backwards.
G: In the development of the movie, you had some consultants from the film world—
G: Who came in and looked at the film, like Roger Deakins, right?
AS: Yeah. And that was to give a more realistic feel with a camera because my whole thing was how much can I make you believe that box is really sitting there in the sand in the dusty air. Because the more real you think it is, the more charming it’s going to be when it comes to life. So I knew how the camera worked, how the lenses worked, how the things were lit—every other aspect of the filmmaking had to support trying to put you in that space. And that’s why we made any of the choices that we did...
G: What did David Fincher contribute to get his "special thanks"?
AS: Well, it was his DP Harry Savides who did a lot of Gus van Sant movies that I was looking at at the time. And I loved how he used the camera for shallow focus on the stuff. And then he made this sort of intimacy with the camera—even in these sort of urban blight settings. And I thought, "That’s perfect, ‘cause I’m in a world where it’s dystopian, and you’ve got these two metal boxes fall in love. Where am I going to get the intimacy? I’ll do it with the camera." So I wanted to sort of talk to Harry Savides about that...
G: There’s also that social satire element of the Buy N Large—
G: About the way that we live.
AS: Right. Well, again. That was all reverse engineering. I knew right away that I wanted the last robot on earth. So I wanted the lowly janitor picking up our refuse because that would give us clues—that would give us things for him to be curious about and ask what’s life about. So then I went backwards from that. I said, "Well, what makes a lot of trash?" Buying too much stuff. And then it was perfect for the theme because buying stuff and doing all that kind of stuff is one of the things in life we do to distract ourselves from truly living.
G: And that clutter.
AS: It’s an instant gratification that makes us feel better.
Q: That cluttered landscape seems so empty too.
G: There’s an irony in that.
AS: All this stuff that, in a weird way, is all these elements of living—but it’s not really what living’s about.
G: Have you been expensing a lot of lunches in the creative division since 1994?
AS: Well we have lunch every day. That’s a lot of lunches. So there’s been lots of ideas. Yeah.
G: Now that the technology has developed so far from where you started with—with the lamps and the toys, and we have, obviously, robots in this movie—will there be a shift toward seeing more human characters now in Pixar films?
AS: We don’t look at it that way. I mean, it’s in hindsight that we go, "Oh, we did fish, we did—." We just kind of take it as we go. It’s not species based. We don’t sit there and go, "Okay, check off fish, check off" whatever. It’s completely idea-based. If we came up with another great fish story, or another great toy idea, we’d do it. I mean it’s whatever’s the great idea.
G: What would Wall•E and Eve look like if they were human?
AS: I have no idea. That would be creepy. (Laughs.)