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Nordling Goes To Pixar Part 2! The Interview With John Lasseter! Skywalker Ranch! CARS 2, BRAVE, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY!

Nordling here.

So I'll just jump right into it.  After the remarkable first day at Pixar, I went back to the hotel, ordered in, and started writing in my journal about the day's events, and wondering what questions I would ask John Lasseter the next day.  I've done interviews before with AICN - Bruce Campbell and Tim Burton come to mind - but this was a particularly big one for me considering how much I've enjoyed his films and the films of Pixar.  Plus it would be done at Skywalker Ranch, and the surroundings alone would make me nervous beyond all rational thought.

That morning, the cars arrived to pick the journalists up to go back to Pixar Studios.  The day would be made up mostly of CARS 2 presentations - how they came up with the characters, the design, the locations, and also a brief look at the Pixar Archives, where more than a million pieces of art lay in storage.

One of the most interesting pieces of information to me was the origin of Finn McMissile, the character Michael Caine plays in the new film.  In the original CARS, there was to be a sequence featuring Finn.  The sequence was to be a scene from an action film that the original characters would be watching, which Finn McMissile was to be a main character, and the original design came from Joe Ranft.  One of the designs was McMissile loaded to bear with every single weapon you could think of coming from every square inch of his body.  I love how Pixar continues to keep Joe Ranft alive in their films - not one film so far hasn't been touched by Ranft in some way, whether it's a piece of plot or a character design, or even a voice, like Lenny the Binoculars in the original TOY STORY, or Heimlich in A BUG'S LIFE, or Wheezy in TOY STORY 2.  His loss continues to be felt by Pixar, and he was a tremendous talent gone far too early.

Considering the vast amount of art that Pixar produces, practically on a daily basis, one of the questions I asked the head of Archives was "Does anyone throw anything away here?"  She laughed and said that many of the pieces that have been in exhibits have doodles or phone numbers scrawled in the margin.  One time they called one of the phone numbers of a particular piece of art and it went to the animator's bank branch, where apparently they were checking their balance.  But every piece of art that Pixar Archives can keep, they do.

Jay Ward is considered the guardian of the CARS franchise at Pixar, due to his deep knowledge of cars and his love of the characters.  The character design is interesting because on the surface it would seem easy to make these characters come to life, but accoding to Ward and Jay Shuster, the character design artist, it's actually quite difficult.  We identify so much with characters, even animated ones, through the facial expressions, and the animators struggled for a long time to make the characters relatable.  Shuster also said that it was difficult to create a girl car due to the fact that the front grille of a car always came across as a moustache.  But the many new characters of CARS 2 have their own distinct look and voice, and Jay Shuster and Jay Ward helped the animators make those characters alive.

Next, we were taken on a tour of Pixar's new building, called the Brooklyn.  Much of the layout at Pixar is named after New York City, and the Brooklyn is where the pre-production will take place.  The storyboard artists and the creative team will work out of that building while the animators will work in the main building.  It was impressive, much of it designed by John Lasseter himself, with a giant fireplace in the middle of the lobby and many glass rooms.  Behind the fireplace, and in various secret locations of the building, were quiet lounges where the creative staff could get away for a bit and recharge.  Right inside the doorway, a giant picture of BRAVE, with the main character entering a cave, greeted us.  It was a beautiful piece of art, and the building was full of them, paintings from the various films in all their splendor.  Another theater was in this building, called the Presto Theater, where works in progress would be screened for the staff to see if something worked in a particular scene.  It wasn't as big as the main theater but still just as plush and inviting.  One of the rooms had a 102" Panasonic 3D television on display, and I joked if that could be part of the press package. 

After the presentation, I went to the Pixar Gift Shop.  There was no way I could avoid it, as I'd promised my wife and daughter to load them up with goodies.  There's shirts and items there not available anywhere else, so I bought a few T-shirts and a Pixar journal book a for a friend, and then hit the lunch spread.

I know I write for AICN, but I don't really consider myself a journalist.  Just a fan, who can write (depending on who you ask).  I felt way out of my league when talking to the other people there covering the junket - one gentleman I talked to had been all over the world, and covered many events both political as well as entertainment, and I felt extremely lucky to even be there.  I hope to be able to do more of these in the future, but I'm not sure I could ever get used to it, which may be a good thing.  I don't want to be a cynic.  We here at AICN are not cynics, and we try not to write from that point of view.  Harry himself is probably the least cynical guy on the planet - spend a few minutes with him and you know right away that his world is full of joy and wonder and there's no place in it for the downward spiral of pessimism.  I want to live like that.

After lunch, we boarded the SUVs that would take us to Marin County and Skywalker Ranch.  The drive was going to be about an hour or so, and as we pulled out of Emeryville, and into the mountains, the road wound through the various valleys and around the lush green hills.  I've never been to California, so the scenery was a revelation - streams, mountains, hills, valleys, and everything as green as Middle-Earth, or maybe more approprately, Naboo.  I should have taken pictures of the trip up, but I was too nervous.

Suddenly, we pull up to a gate with a guard booth.  There's nothing on the front indicating that we were at Skywalker Ranch, and of course, I should have realized there wouldn't be.  Otherwise there would be tents of geeks out front making their annual pilgrimage to the place, and first and foremost, Skywalker Ranch is a working studio, as well as a ranch and a vineyard, and I'd imagine they don't want cadres of STAR WARS fans trying to jump the fence and what not.  The cars pulled into the Ranch, drove up a road, and stopped in front of the Tech Building, where many of the films you know and love have their soundwork done.  We left the vehicles and walked into the lobby, where John Lasseter, in a CARS shirt, was sitting at a table, taknig a break from sound mixing and enjoying an iced tea.  He looked tired, at the end of a long push to finish CARS 2, but his eye still had that sparkle that you only see in truly creative people - as Orson Welles once said, filmmaking is the best set of electric trains a boy ever had.

My interview with Mr. Lasseter wasn't up yet, so Lucasfilm publicist Steve Kenneally offered to take me to the Skywalker Ranch git shop, in a building across the way.  I looked out over Lake Ewok, and we talked movies as we walked.  Skywalker Ranch has some of the most beautiful scenery I could imagine.  I'm sorry I didn't get pictures, but there was a strict no pictures policy, or I would have been snapping away.  Once I got to the gift shop, my inner geek child took over and I spent way too much money, buying an EMPIRE STRIKES BACK shirt, a pen, and two Ranch shirts.  Hey, when am I going to get back to the Ranch?  It's a wonder I didn't drop a house payment.  One of the other journalists, who hadn't been there before, said he simply couldn't leave without buying his nephew a lightsaber.

You'd think that Skywalker Ranch would have STAR WARS memorabilia everywhere, but it's not like that.  It's a working sound studio, and other than the gift shop I didn't see anything else STAR WARS.  Many beautiful vintage film posters were hung on the walls, and the whole place felt very warm and inviting.

As I waited for my turn, I heard a very familiar voice call out, "Hey, everyone!  Nice to see you."  I turned, and it was none other than Ben Burtt, on his way back to a sound booth, working on COWBOYS AND ALIENS.  Ben Burtt and John Williams were basically the iconic soundtrack of my childhood - Williams with the music and Burtt with his variety of sound effects.  This is the guy who created the lightsaber hum, the hissing of Vader's mask, the ringing out of the blaster.  I would have happily sat down with him then and there and talked sound effects.  Both COWBOYS AND ALIENS and SUPER 8 were finishing post-production there at the Ranch, and I would have had half my summer moviegoing experience had I been able to stay for another 3 hours.  But then the publicist said, "Alan, you're up," and I made my way to the back to sit down with Mr. Lasseter himself.

I was fairly awestruck throughout the interview, but I think it went well.  It was a good conversation. Here it is:

Nordling:  This is my first time here, and it’s a wonderful experience.

John Lasseter:  Well, good!

Nordling:  I’m having an amazing time.

John Lasseter:  That’s great!

Nordling:  We watched a bit of the CARS 2 scenes-

John Lasseter:  Yeah, I’m sorry we couldn’t show you the whole thing, because it’s not done yet.  Those sequences were the first ones we had finished.  Also it was exciting to show the sequences that are the most different than the original, you know.

Nordling:  Oh yes.  Right out the gate I was saying, this is not the original film, this is entirely different, like an action film.

John Lasseter:  It is, it’s a spy movie, yeah.

Nordling:  And I loved that, because we get Michael Caine, and right out the gate he’s playing Bond.

John Lasseter:  Well, he’s playing himself, in a sense, when you look back, at THE IPCRESS FILES and the early, early spy films.  So much of this film was inspired by – I grew up, I don’t know if you remember THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E but it was absolutely, absolutely my favorite TV show. I was just crazy for that growing up.  I WAS Illya Kuryakin growing up, and most recently, I have five sons, and we are HUGE Bourne Fans, the three BOURNE films – BOURNE IDENTITY, BOURNE SUPREMACY, BOURNE ULTIMATUM – I’ve probably watched them 25 times.  I probably watched them again and again and again – it elevated the genre to another level, and I just love when a film comes into a genre that’s been done over and over again and just takes it to another place – it’s so exciting and it’s been very inspiring to me, and in approaching this, well we know that it was an animated film with cars as characters, but the way I look at it, it’s not a parody of a spy movie.

Nordling:  No, not at all.

John Lasseter:  It IS a spy movie, just with cars as characters.

Nordling:  Exactly, that was one of the things I really loved about it.  When we got to the Tokyo sequence, and we have the intercuts between the actual race and what’s going on with Mater, I loved how you intercut that.  I thought it was very kinetic.  Watching it, I was reminded of SPEED RACER.  I loved the colors of the race and how they jumped off the screen; the way I was thinking of it in my mind, it was almost like Jolly Rancher candies for the eyes.

John Lasseter: (laughs) That’s really funny.

Nordling:  Now that Pixar is 25, does it feel the same to you-

John Lasseter:  The same.  Absolutely, yeah.  It’s all the same people, I mean, we don’t think of ourselves as really any older.  We have – you know, the continuing success of our films has made it so that one of the real benefits of that is we’ve been able to attract such incredible talent coming to the studio.  One of the exciting things for me is having worked on CARS , and this is five years later, CARS 2 – I’ve been working on it in between, but at Pixar four movies have been produced in between the two and a lot of new talent has come into the studio.  So as the chief creative officer and the executive when I’m working on the other films, I typically work with the directors, the writers, the heads of story, the production designers and producers at that kind of level, but as the director I get down and I get to work with all the artists, the animators, the art department, the individual artists, and that’s one of the exciting things about coming back to the director’s chair is to get to know all those people again – to get reacquainted with the people I’ve worked with since TOY STORY at that level, but then meet all the new people. 

Because I’m kind of the opposite of an auteur – I tend to really encourage everybody to put their own creative souls into each of the scenes that they’re working on, and come up with ideas, and it’s fun.  I just love the collaboration.  Animation is the most collaborative art form there is, and that’s one of the things that I just love. I don’t think I could ever do anything where I’d be all by myself – I’d procrastinate and whatever, but I love the collaboration, so…

Nordling:  One of my favorite things about Pixar and why I’m a huge Pixar fan – I’m a huge Pixar geek, I’ve followed every film, and I love them so much – but the key ingredient is always story, story, story-

John Lasseter:  Amen.

Nordling:  And that’s why the films work so well.  Has it become more difficult as it progresses-?

John Lasseter:  No, no, no, you have to understand – it’s always difficult.  It’s REALLY hard.  We know it’s hard.  But we just recognize that, and that’s how we structure the studio, we structure it where the story drives everything, and I have pounded it into everybody’s head.  I’m the chief creative officer, I greenlight things, I greenlight sequences that go into production and I will not let something go into production unless it’s working phenomenally storywise, in the storyboards and the story reel.  It has to.  And that’s where we will work and rework and rework and rework and rework the story reels and the storyboards again and again and again. 

Even with the pressures of production, where the schedule and so on, we have to get things going in production and we look at it and we go, “It’s not ready.”  Every movie has one or two sequences that you will work, and rework, and rework, and rework, and rework.  I remember MONSTERS INC. – the scene that’s in the yeti’s cave in the real world; they’re banished to the real world.  35 times we must have redid that scene.  In TO STORY it was the scene at the beginning that sets up the story – the staff meeting.  We must have redid that a ton of times.  And there’s a scene in CARS 2 that we’ve done so many times that’s when – just after the sequence you saw, the spy opening, and right at the end of that the bad guy goes “With Finn McMissile gone who can stop us now?” And then the smash cut back to Radiator Springs and Mater goes “Mater!  Tow Mater that’s who, that’s who’s here to help you!” and he’s going to tow this car.  We knew we wanted to cut straight to Mater, because that’s kind of the promise of the movie.  Okay, this opening has nothing to do with the first CARS, at all, other than cars are characters.  It’s about as opposite as you can possibly get.  And all of a sudden, boom!  “Who can stop us now?” And Mater’s right there. 

And that’s the promise of the movie.  It’s like, “Okay, these two worlds – I’m in.”  There’s where I’m hoping the audience is like, “Alright, I got to see where this is going.”  Because clearly this and this are going to come together, but how?  And it’s just coming back into town, establishing how things have changed since the end of the first movie, what’s going on with each of the characters, and setting up what’s going on with Lightning McQueen and Mater.  It gets them going on this big adventure.  And it’s like two scenes in town before they head off to Japan, and it’s like the last sequence we approved to go into production and it just drove us crazy.  And we went over it again and again, and it goes back to what I was saying, in that every movie is hard.  Every movie has a crisis point too, where, and people just don’t believe it, but it’s the truth – every Pixar film at one point in time or another was the worst motion picture ever made.

Nordling:  I don’t know if that’s true.

John Lasseter:  You see, you don’t believe me!  It’s absolutely true.  There’s just stuff that’s just isn’t working.

Nordling:  But it feels effortless when we watch it.

John Lasseter:  But it’s a tremendous amount of work.  You know, it takes four years to make one of these films, and probably a good two-and-a-half to three years of it is still working on the story.  We’re working on it – we finished animation about four weeks ago on CARS 2.  We finished the story probably about eight weeks ago.  It’s that close to the end of really tweaking things, you know.

Nordling:  Speaking from a personal standpoint, the first film I took my daughter to see was TOY STORY 2.  She was only one and she totally enjoyed it, even at that age, and she wanted me to ask you-

John Lasseter:  How old is she now?

Nordling:  She’s almost 13 now.

John Lasseter:  Wow.  Going into 8th grade?

Nordling:  She’s in 6th grade going into 7th.  And she did want me to ask you about BRAVE.  And I told her I don’t know how much he can tell me, but-

John Lasseter:  I’m happy to tell her a few things, because I’m very proud of this.  It’s a real first for Pixar, in many ways.  It’s the first true period film we’ve done, it’s set in medieval Scotland.  And the big one is it’s the first female main character, and the story – it’s a fantastic story.  But it’s like – it’s not a princess movie.  She is a princess, you know, but it’s like she’s in charge of her own destiny, she’s not waiting around for her prince to come.  It’s got swordplay, bows and arrows, big vicious bears, it’s got real emotional arc to it.  There’s a tremendous relationship between her and her mother.  You know, there are two parents in this family.

Nordling:  Great!

John Lasseter:  It’s so funny, but we’re really excited about this, we’re very excited about this movie, it’s unique for Pixar.  And then we’ve got coming up the sequel to MONSTERS INC – the prequel, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, where Sully and Mike are at college, so it’s a college movie.

Nordling:  Cool, I’ll be there, with bells on.

John Lasseter:  But also tell your daughter, this is really really important, because in every film we’ve made, because in every film we’ve made, even though the characters have been male protagonists, we’ve always tried to have very very strong female characters, and in CARS 2, tell her about Holley Shiftwell.  Emily Mortimer does the voice, and it’s a phenomenal character.  She is really super smart.  She’s funny, she’s clever, and she’s learned, and she and Mater get a great relationship going, and it’s really fun.

Nordling:  Thank you for your time, and again, I’m totally geeking out here.

John Lasseter:  Well, say hi to Harry for me!

Nordling:  I will, and thanks again.

Once the interview was over, I made my way back to the cars, Ranch loot in hand, and we were driven back to the hotel, out the gates.  I looked back as we passed through.  Those past two days were amazing, and I'll never forget them,  I got to meet one of my heroes, interview him, go to probably my favorite film studio in the world, and go to the place where all my childhood dreams took shape.

This is why I do what I do.  It's these experiences that I wouldn't trade for anything, and as long as I can continue to do this, I'll always have that optimism and the boundless spirit that comes with loving film and imagination.  I never dreamed I'd ever see these places that helped create my favorite films of all time.  Hopefully someday I'll go back, but until then if I'm feeling down for whatever reason, I'll take these two days out of my memory and remember that heaven, according to every movie ever made, is where all your dreams come true.

I would like to give special thanks to Marshall Weinbaum, Megan Wasserman, Hilary Goss, Araya Diaz, Steve Kenneally, Kim Veasey, Adrienne Ranft, and of course, John Lasseter.

Nordling, out.

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