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Mr. Beaks Goes UP with Pixar's Pete Docter!

Put simply, Pete Docter's UP is the tale of an adventurer who travels via house to the jungles of South America. That's probably unique enough, but here's the kicker: our daring protagonist is the kind of fellow who pays half-price at the movies and eats his dinner at 3:30 in the afternoon. Pixar's never faced a greater marketing challenge than Carl Fredrickson, an eighty-two-year-old man (voiced by the once and future Lou Grant, Ed Asner) who evades the banally evil clutches of a retirement community by rigging up thousands of balloons to his soon-to-be-demolished home and - improbably, wondrously - taking flight. For Carl, a former balloon salesman, this is one last chance to make good on a promise to his (now deceased?) childhood sweetheart that they'd go exploring in the wilds of Venezuela. It's also an unexpected opportunity to get harassed nonstop by Russell, a young wilderness ranger who's racked up every merit badge imaginable save for "Assisting the Elderly". At Comic Con on Saturday, Docter unveiled two scenes: Carl's escape and a short bit that finds Carl and Russell hauling the hovering house through a thick patch of rain forest. The former is gorgeously done. Since a balloon takeoff is a little less raucous than, say, a space shuttle igniting, Docter adopts a light, whimsical tone; as the house floats by apartment building and skyscrapers, regular folk tend to react with quiet astonishment (save for a little girl, who giddily marvels as the balloons cast a vibrant, swirling reflection of colors across her bedroom wall). It's a nicely understated sequence, one that appeared to be concluding with Carl settling into his easy chair for a midday nap. But then there's a knock at the door. At 19,000 feet. Carl does eventually reach his South American destination, and that's where the action of UP really gets going. As for the "how", "what" and "why", Docter's got until May 2009 to mete out those details. For now, he's just giving us a taste. And while the character decision has me baffled, I can't wait to see how Docter and the other storytelling geniuses at Pixar are going to make it work - because if the previous nine films have taught us anything, we know they're definitely going to make it work. After the presentation, I got the opportunity to briefly chat with Docter, who's best known as the mastermind of MONSTERS, INC. He'd apparently just flown in from Tahiti, so we began by commiserating over our shared exhaustion.

Beaks: I've seen enough. Comic Con is fun, but it's also just... exhausting.

Pete: It's like Andreas Deja. Do you know him?

Beaks: Yeah.

Pete: He has this amazing collection of animation rough drawings. I went to look at them, and after a while I was just overwhelmed. "I love it! I can't get enough! And yet I'm just... (eyes rolling back into his head)."

Beaks: So, I first want to say that your presentation was fantastic even though you shattered my dream that you might be headed in a Russ Meyer direction with UP.

Pete: (Laughs) Oh, yeah.

Beaks: People see that title, and they wonder. But it has been a very mysterious project. The title is so wide open.

Pete: That is the intrigue of it, I guess.

Beaks: And now that I've seen it... let's just say I wasn't expecting an eighty-two-year-old man as a protagonist. This has got to be the toughest sell in the history of Pixar. Where did Carl Fredricksen come from?

Pete: In our culture, it seems like old people are relegated to... "Go live in your old folks home, and stay out of my life." Which is really too bad because, as I've found in the real world, when you meet what looks like a little old man... you get to talking to him, and you're like, "Shoot, this guy created Dumbo!" I'm talking about Joe Grant, who's a guy I got to work with. He had all these amazing stories. "When I was sitting with Walt and Stokowski about the music..." You're like, "Oh, my gosh!" These rich pasts that these people have, these amazing stories... let's tap into that. There's this rich texture. Even with the way people move: we have challenges in terms of "Okay, Carl needs to get from this side of the screen to that side of the screen." You don't want to sit there for twelve minutes and wait for him to cross, but that's what it takes. He moves slow. We're having to figure out what's the most entertaining way [to watch an old man walk across the screen]. Do you cut? There are certain limitations. But I love embracing those shoulders. It's like with Mike [Wazowski from MONSTERS, INC.]. He has one eye. How do you make him shrug? How does he sniff his armpit? He can't turn his head because he has no head. It's his whole body. He doesn't have a nose either. So we figured out a way to do it. Old men are a similar thing; there are certain challenges, but that's what makes Carl very specific and very fun.

Beaks: Where did you start with the script: the character of Carl or the idea of a South American adventure?

Pete: It was really more the character on this film. It's been very character driven. We also had other thoughts of where they should be. We initially had other thoughts of where they should be. We knew that we needed some place where this guy got stuck, an isolated location. I was thinking of a tropical island in the South Pacific, but that's been done so many times. So we were trying to figure out if there was some other place, some other way to fulfill our story needs that's maybe a little more unique, and that's when we settled on this.

Beaks: The South American milieu looks spectacular, but it also comes with its own cinematic history. I loved the scene with Carl and Russell hauling the house through the jungle FITZCARRALDO-style.

Pete: Yeah, exactly!

Beaks: Was that a reference?

Pete: Well, as we developed it, someone asked, "Hey, have you seen FITZCARRALDO?" So we watched it, and... yeah, there are some similar things. We also looked at THE MISSION, with this guy who feels like he has to punish himself, that he's paying penance for something he didn't fulfill. That's one of the themes in the film: dealing with unfinished business.

Beaks: Speaking of THE MISSION, do you think Michael Giacchino might incorporate elements of that great Ennio Morricone score?

Pete: (Laughs) It's going to be fun to talk to him. He hasn't started on it yet because he's still busy on STAR TREK. But there's a wide variety of story needs for this film, from comedy to real drama to pathos to action... it's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it.

Beaks: And I get the feeling that you just gave us the bare minimum with these two characters. You're holding back a great deal, right?

Pete: This is our debutante ball, so you don't want to show everything. You just want to tease a little. As we get more footage prepared, we'll talk more.

Beaks: There's one thing I've always wondered about Pixar's writing process. You addressed it a little at the panel, but I just wanted to press a little. It's about writing to theme. The films always have an unmistakable message being conveyed. It's not heavy-handed, but it's definitely there: alternative energy in MONSTERS, INC., consumerism and sloth, both intellectual and physical, in WALL-E. I know you guys say that you don't think about such things, but they're integral parts of your films.

Pete: It would be somewhat irresponsible for me to say we don't think about it. We definitely have to, but we don't set out with (playing the scold) "You know, what America needs today is to be conscious of the energy crisis!" We're an entertainment company. We think of it from a character standpoint and a story standpoint. "What do we need to tell the story?" In the case of MONSTERS, INC., that was an impetus behind why a bad guy would break the rules. We came up with the energy crisis as a way of saying, "Okay, this is what's propelling this character." We did a similar thing with WALL-E. It's really all character driven as opposed to feeling like I'm making a social statement. But hopefully they do both.

I concluded by fishing for some second-hand details on Andrew Stanton's JOHN CARTER, and got absolutely nothin'. Oh, well. As for UP, I can't for the life of me figure out where this film is going, and I love it. I imagine we'll get something a little more substantial when BOLT hits in November. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

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